europe

HEP Travels: Greece

Nathan here.

Let me start with the admission that I was against this trip and it was Heather that convinced me that all the hype and hoopla commonly associated with Greece might just be true. I prefer to look for destinations off the beaten path, more natural and less domesticated (hence my favorite trip of ours being our excursions through Croatia). In my mind, there was no way this place was as great as every single person I spoke to made it seem.  Well, pie in my face – they were right.

Greece was such a blend of fresh & delicious cuisine, other worldly landscapes, slush-puppy blue Aegean Sea waters & a vibrant culture with endless activities. As is our tendency, we explored as many locations as possible during our trip & this provided a wide range of destinations including the most popular tourist spots: Mykonos & Santorini, the lesser visited Milos & Zakynthos and of course the cradle of Western civilization Athens (& in no way is this the Athens, GA). We have a friend who calls me “slush-puppy blue” now because of using the term to describe the Aegean Sea, but if some linguist out there has a more apt way to describe the water than that – I’d be shocked. To take in these views, we naturally spent most of our time on or alongside these waters.

And with that little taste, let us begin.


LOGISTICS + TRAVEL INFO

Dates: August 31 - September 11, 2018

Itinerary:

  • ATL - Venice, Italy for 24 hour layover (separate guide coming soon)

  • Venice - Mykonos (2 nights)

  • Mykonos - Santorini (2 nights)

  • Santorini - Milos (2 nights)

  • Milos - Zakynthos (2 nights)

  • Zakynthos - Athens for 12 hour layover

  • Athens - Barcelona, Spain (1 night)

  • Barcelona - ATL

Our planning process, without fail, always follows two steps:

  1. Heather spins the globe and points to where she wants to go.

  2. I research how and the most efficient way to get us there & back.

Step #1 is a straight forward and manageable task. Step #2 is an odyssey of travel & lodging logistics and second page googling to be as prepared & find the best deals possible. Our Greece trip was one of, if not the most, challenging trips to plan. (Thailand might edge it out.) The most obvious obstacle is getting to Greece and then getting around. Our path getting to Greece was a peculiar one, but ended up being a really fantastic option: we used 60k Delta Skymiles to book an open-legged flight from ATL -> Venice and then on the way home Barcelona -> ATL.

If you’re scratching your head and wondering if I have been hitting the sauce at 10 a.m. on a Sunday while writing this blog – let me explain our logic. The easiest way to get to Greece is to fly ATL straight into Athens, but that will set you back thousands of green-backs or hundred-thousands of SkyMiles. We found that while it was very expensive to fly a major carrier into Greece – it was quite inexpensive to fly an European budget carrier. So to connect the dots we took a puddle-jumper from Venice to Mykonos (~$50) and a larger puddle-jumper from Athens to Barcelona (~$120) on the way home.

This approach worked incredibly well for our itinerary and the only thing left to do once in country was to take inexpensive & comfortable ferries that run multiple times a day from island to island. Simple right? Especially considering in the 40-year existence, the ferries have only gone on strike and shut down once during the high-season! Well it’s happened twice since the writing of this publication.

Typically, we utilize H’s IHG connection for booking our travel lodging – unfortunately, there are three IHG hotels in all of Greece. And ZERO anywhere we were staying overnight. For Greece we had to hit the boutique hotel and single proprietor route, which took lots of AirBNB Link and Booking.com link research.

If you’re feeling overwhelmed, that’s probably about right, but I promise it’s worth it. Specific recommendations and info to follow below:


MYKONOS: If you’re looking for world-class clubs with famous DJs that stay open till the break of dawn – you can definitely find this in Mykonos. (Lindsay Lohan has even found her true-calling opening such a spot on the island, which is the subject of a new Bravo TV show — not that I’ve watched.)

BUT . . . Mykonos, in my opinion, also has so much more to offer and it would be a shame for someone to pass on the island due to the fear of non-stop thumping and sweaty eastern European party-goers.

We found many beautiful & relaxing beaches to spend our days and stayed in an area that was close to the action, but out of ear-shot. The history of the ole town area and remote beaches/restaurants on the far side of the island make for plenty of non-EDM options for the rest of us.

STAY HERE: We stayed in a hotel overlooking Old Town & it was perfect — a 5 minute walk to the heart of Old Town without the buzz & bass beats coming from the clubs. A 15-ish minute ATV trek to most of the beaches which was completely doable.

DO THIS:

  • RENT ATVs: Hands down this is a must-do and the best/easiest way to get around the island. There are hundreds, maybe thousands of them roaming Mykonos and it makes sense because there isn’t much in the way of public transportation, parking is extremely limited, and they are a lot of fun to drive. A few tips:

    • If you’re obviously not a local (H&N) the vendors might try to take advantage of you (we found our guy through our hotel and paid 30 euro).

    • Make sure the engine size is large enough to make it up hills, especially if you have two people (they range from 50 -400 cc, in no world should you get the 50, it can barely power a gerbil wheel - opt instead for at least 200+ cc’s).

    • Check the tread on the tires and make sure they are newer and not Steve Harvey bald and also take pictures of the ATV condition, so there’s no way they can pin a ding on you.

    • You’ll need an international driver’s license to operate the ATVs (these are $20 and you can get one from AAA before your trip).

    • DRIVE SAFELY – everyone has been drinking, the roads are winding & poorly marked & ATVs can tip very easily.

  • ATV BEACH TOUR: This is how we spent the majority of our days and it was one of my favorite activities. There are so many beaches on Mykonos and they all have a unique personality. We conducted our own hop-on, hop-off tour of as many as we could. Some favorites:

    • Agios Sostis Beach – This beach is on the north side of the island right below Kiki’s Restaurant (more on this below). Fun little spot with mostly Europeans and the occasional nudists. If you go, be sure to go a little further north and there is a great view point looking at a place called “Marmaronisi”. Crazy waves and wind – and lots of elderly nudists.

    • Psarou Beach – This beach just screamed Kardashian. Yatchs everywhere, beautiful younger folks and no hard-partying or gimmicky commercial vendors. If you want to relax and make it rain – this is your spot.

    • Platis Gialos – This beach was a nice mix of the beach listed above and the one listed below. Little bit class, little bit party. It was beautiful and a great spot to eat lunch. There were also some water activities and boat tours for the more adventurous.

    • Paraga Beach – We spent the majority of our time here. We enjoyed the music, which was constantly playing. Drinks were flowing and the crowd was younger but not on spring break.

    • Paradise Beach – This is where the spring breakers hang out. It is also where Tropicana is, if you want to drink a giant punch bowl and grind during the day – BINGO.

  • EXPLORE MYKONOS TOWN: Nicknamed Little Venice – which makes complete sense if you’ve ever been to Venice. This area is full of winding cobble-stoned paths that are more maze than they are function. Lots of shops, dining and situated next to the picturesque windmills. Great place to explore early in the morning, get lost, grab some souvenirs and then grab a bite to eat for lunch.

  • 360 SUNSET BAR: This place made me feel like Simba as he was being hoisted at his christening. Was it the perched location overlooking Mykonos at sunset? The boho/jungle theme with lions and tree swings? Yes – and it was also the Circle of Life Remix playing as the sun went down. Hard to find, a helluva hike on foot, popular, expensive – all things I use to describe places I avoid, but this place was LEGIT. One of our favorite places and experiences in Mykonos, (especially since this is where we met our travel friends from Denver who we spent the rest of our time in Mykonos with + shared a heli to Santorini).

  • PARTY: Got to. You don’t go to Waffle House and get the pancakes. We could only handle one day/night of this in our old age, but I think we did it right by renting a cabana with a DJ during the day, transitioning to dancing at an upscale restaurant/club in the early evening and then heading to Tropicana Beach Bar (where H got on stage with DJ Hot Sauce). Followed by late-night gyro grubbing.

  • CHARTER PRIVATE HELICOPTER: Well this was a spontaneous splurge. Not by choice, but out of necessity when the ferry-workers strike happens to land on the day we were set to cruise to the most popular Greek isle (Santorini), from the second most popular Greek isle (Mykonos). Either way – it was the perfect cherry on top of the sundae that was our time in Mykonos & the perfect start to our time in Santorini. H couldn’t stop happy crying as we landed in Santorini at sunset — was it the experience? The copious amounts of wine? Both.

EAT HERE:

  • TASOS TAVERNA: I can be your gggyro baby! While in Greece, we were on the hunt for the best Gyro. We had our first one, on the beach, at this restaurant. It very well might have been the best. And desert was free. Loved it.

  • KIKIS: This one is a bit of a sore spot for us, as we’d read it’s a must-try that is on the other side of the island and very quaint with long wait times. We pulled up on our quad and there was no line, went to the beach below to frolic – came back and you’d think there was a Joey Fatone signing in progress. Wait was over an hour, so we left, and I’ve never heard the end of it.

  • THEA: Restaurant at the Petinos Beach Hotel with open air seating over-looking Platis Gialos Beach. Perfect spot for lunch with Greek staples and a gentle breeze.

  • KASTROS BAR & RESTAURANT: Restaurant we had lunch at in Mykonos Town that was open to the Aegean. It was nice, and the food was good, but they baked the view into the price of the Moussaka.

  • PARAPORTIANI TAVERN: Courtyard-style, family-owned, plastic-chair style restaurant with like 20+ pages of menu items. We asked Mario, nephew of the owner, to choose for us and it was delicious. We also sat for hours and sampled all the ouzo at our disposal. Greek family reunion vibes at this establishment.

  • SAKIS: One of my favorite memories of Heather was at this walk-up late-night eatery. We skipped dinner our party night in favor of more dancing and made it to Sakis just before closing. She was lovin’ it, might even say it was her favorite meal of the trip.


SANTORINI: Rocky-cliffed island formed by a volcanic eruption and known for it’s white-washed & blue-domed buildings, marble streets and some say the greatest sunset on Earth. (Some say it and a lot of people believe it.)

The island is primarily made up of two main villages – Oia and Fira. Fira is the more commercial and “downtown” area (p.s. skip the Santorini Cable Car experience - not a hit), but Oia is the quintessential “Santorini” (with the majority of the white buildings & blue domes) & has the front row seat to the sunset – and do people line-up to get a glimpse. The island goes completely quiet on the north-end for about 15 minutes, followed by a stampede to other parts of the island. Imerovigli is also a cute village worth a visit.

STAY HERE:

Depending on the length of your stay — whether it be shorter (like our visit) or you are fortunate enough to stay longer — I’d recommend staying in either Oia or Imerovigli. We stayed in Oia, which was more expensive, a little more difficult to get to (unless you’re dropped off by helicopter wherever you’d like….bingo!) and pretty small. For longer stays, I would recommend Imerovigli. Heather and I had a good time the whole trip trying to pronounce this place. ERRRMOGVILIA.

DO THIS:

  • CATAMARAN BOAT TRIP: Since there aren’t really beaches to explore during the day, a catamaran trip is a must-do to explore the island. We chose “Sunset Oia” and it was a great experience. They shuttled us to and from our hotel, provided beer/wine & a fresh Greek lunch & the boat allowed a maximum of a dozen people (beware: some boats book up to 50 people which does not sound fun and/or relaxing in the least). This was definitely a highlight of our time in Santorini.

  • CLIFF JUMP / EXPLORE AMOUDI BAY: Our catamaran trip departed from Ammoudi Bay, so we spent some time here, but we definitely could have spent longer. It was a port area a few hundred steps below the streets of Oia with lots of restaurants and good swimming spots.

  • SKAROS ROCK: In my opinion, the second-best place to watch sunsets are from this rock. If you decide not to do the cliff walk (below), I suggest taking the bus to Fira and follow the trail to Skaros Rock in Imergovila. Make sure you time it so that you arrive shortly before sunset to get a good spot. We watched the sunset here our second night & it was heaven.

  • CLIFF WALK – FIRA TO OIA: Everything we read, strongly recommended doing this walk. It’s a marathon of a walk – and it sure isn’t flat. I would pass like we elected to and instead walk Fira to Imergovila and walk all of Oia. Skip the in between and save yourself the sweat and blisters.

  • SUNSET IN OIA: Possibly H’s favorite part of the whole trip and possibly one of the main reasons we went to Santorini. I’ll admit it was amazing. It seems like you can see forever, and everything is a blend of blue / orange / red. Can see it all over the island, but no where as perfectly as in Oia.

  • SANTO WINES: This tasting room is on the must-do list. As impressive as the views are in Oia – they are pretty unbelievable here as well. And the pours were huuuge. It is located on the southside of the island – a mile or so from the ferry port. If traveling by ferry, time your visit on your way out or in because it is a trek from the rest of Santorini. (The bus also stops right outside the winery – the stop before the port if I recall.)

  • TAKE 1M PHOTOS — I’m married to a photographer so I have no choice, but it’s nice having all of the memories. She set up an anniversary session with Kimon while we were there it was was pretty cool to have a tour of all of the coolest spots on the island at sunrise from a local.



EAT HERE:

  • KASTROS: On the northern tip, with front row seats to the sunset in Oia – this place is popular, and I’d say impossible to get a table without a resi. We made reservations about a month in advance to get first row seats and the food/service/wine was as good as the view.

  • AVOCADO: Multiple people recommended this joint to us and it looked delicious when we tried to eat there. The wait was less than an hour, but H was turning into a Gremlin – so we ate somewhere else. I’d recommend it even without first-hand experience.

  • AMMOUDI BAY FISH TAVERN: This is another option we didn’t have time for but were recommended by so many people – I would recommend food untasted. A nicer spot in Oia – I would expect the need for a reservation and plenty of euros.

  • SKALA: We ate here out of necessity —Heather needed to feed. But, it was actually a nice meal with a romantic atmosphere. Wait staff was really friendly, food was good and there were kittens running around everywhere. Bonus.


MILOS: Out of this world, lunar-looking volcanic island with incredible natural rock structures and a landscape best explored by sea.

It’s easy to come to Greece and visit just Santorini & Mykonos, but we wanted to check out other islands as well. It was quite a decision to land on Milos, with so many other great options like Naxos, Paros & Ios. But, what sealed it for us was the natural wonders of Milos that we haven’t seen or heard of anywhere else in the world. It is a perfect place to spend a couple days and explore the whole island – one day by convertible and one day by catamaran.

STAY HERE:

Once again the best (…I guess only route) is to stay at a boutique hotel or house-sharing option. We stayed at the Milos Bay Suites, which I would recommend – it was recently renovated and is walking distance to the port (where all the action is), but tucked away of the beaten path.

DO THIS:

  • SAIL BOAT TOUR: One of the best options to explore Greecian Islands is by boat (duh) but for Milos a boat tour is a must-do. You will not be able to see the highlights of the island such as Kleftiko Caves, Skia Bay, Tsigrado and Firiplaka Beach from land. We went with the full-day (9-hour) “Explore Milos” tour from Polco Sailing and couldn’t recommend them more: the captain was young & friendly, the boat wasn’t over-crowded (less than 10 people) and food was delicious. There was even a proposal on-board that Heather got the opportunity to photograph + share with the couple. Highly recommend.

  • SARAKINKO: One small step for man… but really, this area was unreal. If there was a beautiful blue sea on the moon – the moon and this place would be twins. The lunar-like structures also created the perfect high-dives. H and I spent a long while jumping into the Aegean (not because one of us took forever to take the plunge or anything…), swimming & exploring.

  • MANDRAKIA: Milos is full of “finger” coves and this is one of them. We did not have it on our itinerary, but ended up grabbing lunch here at a family-owned restaurant on the water. The cove was something to see and the restaurant is a definite recommendation. Per usual, there were cats everywhere.

  • FIROPOTAMOS: This beach was a milos “hot spot” if you can call it that — there was a little chic beach bar by the water that was serving up cocktails and big bass beats. We hung out for a while, swam a little and then took a post-lunch nap. It was glorious.

  • PAPAFRAGAS: I left this beach/cave for last because we didn’t even discover it in our pre-trip research. I don’t even know how we heard of this place, but it’s a must visit. The beach/cave goes underneath the overhanging land above and it is a great spot to swim & float as the waves roll through it. It also is a “dreamy” photo spot or so I’ve heard.

EAT HERE:

  • MEDOUSA: This is the great lunch spot in Mandrakia with all the cats, sea views and fresh food. It is a popular place, we waited for a little while to sit down, but it was worth it and lot to explore right around it.

  • YANKOS: The Chipotle of gyros. I think this place is a chain-fast-casual restaurant. Which worked for us, because we just grabbed a gyro and ate on the way to the airport.

  • GONIA: Another family-owned restaurant on the water, but this time closer to the main harbor. It is easy to find with its rainbow-colored assortment of chairs on the water, with all the other restaurant’s chairs being white. We stopped in for apps and drinks after our boat trip and it was a nice spot on the water.

  • MIKROS APOPLOUS: We spent our date night night here and I wouldn’t call it fancy, but it was potentially the nicest restaurant around the port and the food/service was great. They kept bringing us Greek liquor and we sampled many things – some we’ve never had before and enjoyed, but then also some we might never have again (fried sardines).


ZAKYNTHOS: “Great Wonder of the World”-esque landscape with a very strange Myrtle Beach/Bangla Road (Phuket, Thailand) downtown-area. We spent 99% of our time on the north-end of the island which is stunning to say the least, but nothing could have caught us more off-guard than when we made our way downtown (Laganas) to grab some dinner. No bueno. Such an eye-sore of a downtown for such a stunning island. BUT, again, we spent little to no time in that area & would recommend you do the same.

STAY HERE:

The island isn’t over-commercialized in the lodging sense & a majority of the options we looked at were family-owned or boutique establishments. We stayed in Laganas at a lovely old Greek couple’s boutique inn. They were very maternal/paternal, they made sure we were comfortably checked-in and were full of driving, boating and exploring safety guidelines. As mentioned above, Laganas, known for being the party area of the island, had quite the interesting atmosphere. There are tons of carnival style games on the streets and bars lining the main strip. These bars are very gimmicky and had lots of neon lights and strange themes. Thankfully, our hotel was a 10 minute walk from this area. Having to make the decision again – I would elect to stay on the east side of the island, just north of the main port. This area seemed higher-class, quieter and more family-orientated. Also this are is a good jump-off point to the blue caves.

DO THIS:

  • NAVAGIO BEACH (Shipwreck Beach) – The highlight of the trip for me, sandwiched around possibly the most anxiety-filled portion of the trip. (Due to a flight delay from Milos we arrived about 14 hours later than we intended….& we were only staying in Zakynthos for about 24 hours initially. Needless to say, it was a quick trip.) Upon arrival we drove through the countryside up winding roads to get to the aerial lookout point above Shipwreck Beach. This view is incredible, breathtaking and terrifying all at the same time. The wind is howling, you are thousands of feet up and there are zero rails/fences – you can walk right up to the edge. Simply stunning. After seeing from above, we worked our way down to Porto Vromi Maries and rented a chartered boat, captained by two mid-teen Greek boys, to see and frolic on the beach. The owner of the boat company was hesitant to let us go out due to choppy waters (and I now understand the source of his hesitation) but we were insistent, letting him know we were only there for one day. Rounding a point about halfway to the beach, the waves were SWELLS. Many times our fearless high-school skippers launched us out of the water while blaring eastern European techno. I whiteknuckled my hand rail the whole time, but Heather was laughing and loving it. Totally worth it to see the beach from below & bonus — since most other charter companies weren’t out & about, we were totally alone on this popular abandoned beach. It was unreal. After spending some times on the beach, our skippers took us to a few other spots around the island, ending with parking the boat in the middle of the Agean so we could enjoy our last Greek isle sunset on the water. (H cry tally: 18.)

  • KERI CAVES– We stayed in Laganas because it logistically made the most sense to see Shipwreck Beach and the Keri Caves all in one day. But, our flight came in late and we missed our Keri Caves/Sea Turtle boat trip. Another must do, if you have time, but Shipwreck Beach definitely takes priority if time is limited.

  • BLUE CAVES – Another natural wonder on the island, the other side of the island of course. These three landmarks could not be more spread out and a full day at each is how long they deserve to be explored. We didn’t make it here either. Womp womp.

  • CAMEO ISLAND – This picturesque island with a board-and-rope bridge to access, is tucked in the Laganas Port. We woke up early our last day and explored the island. It’s a really great picture and a neat place.

EAT HERE: We were in & out so quickly that eating good wasn’t a huge priority — we mostly grabbed quick bites. Just stay away from downtown.


ATHENS: The historical and philosophical capital of Europe, with a rich history and many still-standing landmarks.

Typically history / architecture / museums take a big backseat to natural landscapes and being on/by the water on our trips, but Athens is somewhere you have to see. Athens has grown around it’s ancient remnants to become a charming metropolis. The city is full of new-age walkability with street cafes across from meeting halls and temples of some of the greatest thinkers of all time. Athens reminded us a lot of Rome.

STAY HERE:

We strategically arrived in Athens early for our flight to Barcelona so we made a day trip of it by riding the train from the airport into town and back. The public transit is pretty reliable and pervasive – so I would imagine you could stay just about anywhere in the city and get around pretty easily.

DO THIS:

  • ACROPOLIS – The area overlooking the city, where the Pantheon resides. It’s a helluva hike to get up here and then there is an equally as steep entrance fee. I think it was 30 euros pp. On the way to the entrance be sure to pivot to the left and ascend the other hilltop area for a great view of the Pantheon.

  • PANTHEON – The Greek police or park rangers will arrest anyone on site for removing any marble or pieces of the Pantheon. I still swiped a marble pebble and stowed it away in my bag. Think of what that little rock has seen. Loved the Pantheon.

  • PLAKA – A cobble-stoned street surrounded by restaurants and cafes. We ate lunch on the Plaka steps and it was delightful. A fun street to stroll and submerse yourself in Greek everyday life.

  • THEATRE OF DIONYSIS – Outdoor amphitheater that Peter Gabriel or Phil Collins played a concert at back in the 90’s. I can never keep those two straight. It was neat — worth seeing if you are close, but not if you’re going out of your way.

  • A FOR ATHENS – Trendy bar with a rooftop area overlooking Athens and across the way from the Acropolis. We basked in the sun and unwinded here for a long time, all the while putting down a few refreshing spritzers.

EAT HERE:

  • ANAFIOTIKA CAFE – On the Plaka Stairs, we ate a huge meal on the steps that included some house wine and a aperitif shot. Fresh, authentic, delicious & our one and only meal here.


I wish I had more hands so I could give Greece four thumbs up — new favorite trip ever. I would highly recommend it for anyone with the travel bug & hopefully this guide comes in handy. Until next time, efcharistó (pronounced a-fair-a-stow) for reading and happy travels. (As always, we’re happy to help if you have any planning questions.)