Head for the lush green Ionian Islands in the northwest, thickly wooded with olives and cypresses. They’re very popular with tourists, and have airports with direct flights from the UK. Corfu and Zakynthos, and to a lesser extent Kefalloniá, are very developed, but as with all Greek islands, tourist centres tend to cluster in one region (in all these islands, the main tourist resorts are in the south) while other parts are quiet and undiscovered. As soon as you leave the coast and drive into the interior (car-hire is cheap and distances are short), you enter the timeless world of the Greek village.
The northernmost island, Corfu, bears the imprint of England’s brief authority, and the Venetian atmosphere of Corfu Town (the Venetians colonised the island from 1386 to 1797) sits strangely with the cricket pitch in the town square. To get away from other tourists, take a boat to the green, wooded and underdeveloped island of Paxos. The historic buildings of the island of Kefalloniá were largely destroyed by an earthquake in 1953, but in the north the picturesque fishing village (another yachting favourite) of Fiskardo survives, with pastel-painted Venetian houses from the 18th century. From Lefkas, a short ferry journey away, you can drive along a causeway to the mainland, and on to Preveza (see below).
If you’re flying to Athens, there are a number of islands easily reachable from there that may provide you with welcome peace after the hurly-burly of the capital – they’re green and pine-covered, with secluded bays and a cosmopolitan atmosphere. Hydra is the most picturesque, not least because no motorised vehicles are allowed: from the minute you sail into the multi-coloured harbour, you find yourself in a dream of long-lost Greece. Kids love the bikes and donkeys that provide the main form of transport along the winding tracks, while parents love the tranquillity of car-free streets (it’s rare in Greece to be far removed from the insistent puttering of scooters and motorbikes). Then there’s Spetse and Poros, playgrounds of Athenians, well endowed with pretty resorts and beachside tavernas.
Further afield, take a ferry from Piraeus or Raffina to the Cycladic Islands, scattered across the middle of the Aegean south of Athens. An ordinary ferry can take up to 12 hours to reach these, so with small children opt for the more expensive high-speed ferries with playrooms, games arcades, TV screens and restaurants (though of course you could just gaze out at the Aegean Sea). The Cycladic Islands are picture-book Greece, with blue-domed churches, hilltop windmills and the whitewashed cubist architecture of their towns and villages, where the dazzling white of the building-block architecture is relieved by the vibrant blues and greens of doors and window-frames and splashes of purple bougainvillea. Streets in the main towns are narrow, stone-paved and often barred to traffic (except for the ubiquitous scooters). In the heat of the day towns are sleepy under the relentless sun; by 5pm they buzz with activity as shop-owners set out their wares and the streets throng with promenading Greeks and tourists buying food and souvenirs, or just strolling around deciding where to eat later in the evening.
The Cycladic Islands are arid and austere but like the rest of Greece endowed with beaches to suit every taste. Distances between the islands are not great, and ferries run on a complex system of routes that can be a challenge to comprehend. There are reasonably busy airports on the islands of Mykonos and – far to the south - Santorini. The latter is well worth visiting – its pretty main town is perched on the rim of a vast underwater volcano that erupted c. 1450, sending tidal waves of destruction across the Aegean. Kids love the steep descent to the port in cable-cars (or, more alarmingly, by donkey), and there are expeditions by boat into the caldera (though beware – volcanic islets smell sulphurous, and are still emitting steam from vents, a sign of ongoing volcanic activity).
Further south – 2hrs by high-speed ferry – lies Crete, a large and fiercely independent island proud of its rugged landscape, hardy inhabitants and history as the birthplace of Minoan civilization. Much of the north coast has been heavily developed, but cross the soaring White Mountains that run like a spine along the centre of Crete and you will enter a different world of peaceful mountain villages, dramatic gorges and wild landscapes populated only by goats and swirling mists.
Travel west of Crete to Rhodes, at the southern end of the Dodecanese. This group of a dozen islands is spread in a great arc across the southern Aegean, with some – notably Kastellórizo – just a stone’s throw from Turkey. The most developed islands in the group are Rhodes in the south and, about halfway up, Kos. Both have had an eventful history and bear the clear signs of invasion and occupation – crusader castles, city walls, Ottoman mosques. Package tourism is well developed on both Rhodes and Kos, but it is an easy matter to escape, there is always a good balance to be struck between facilities kids love (funfairs, waterparks, horse-riding, watersports and so on) and solitude.
There are a number of more obscure Dodecanese islands – Tilos, Leros, Lipsi, Kalymnos – that can be reached by boat, and this is perfect island-hopping territory. It is never a problem to find rooms on these beautiful and varied islands, but tourism is low-key and laidback. The island populations are small, and the tourist season is comparatively short (June–Sept), as many of the summer inhabitants retreat to Athens for the winter months.
To the north you will encounter the bigger, more imposing, islands of Lesbos, Lemnos, Samos and Chios. All of these – Lesbos in particular – have their own economy and substantial winter populations, and they are not entirely dependent on tourism. They offer a fascinating blend of modern Greek towns, ancient architecture, beaches, extraordinary landscapes (the petrified forest of Lesbos is famous), and striking remnants of the architecture left by the Genoese and Ottoman merchants who were based here. Further north still is Thásos, a pine-covered island admired for its ancient ruins and honey; the island literally buzzes.
Directly west is the last island group, the Sporades, with four main islands: Skiathos, Skopelos, Alonnisos and Skyros. Many Athenians visit in summer because of their more temperate climate. They are intensely green and richly endowed with cove-like, wooded inlets and sandy beaches. Skiathos with its own airport is the most developed, but many parts of the island cannot be reached by road. All these islands are tranquil retreats, with lovely beaches, scenic main towns and unspoilt interiors.
If you’re travelling with small children, think carefully before exploring the mainland. The Acropolis in Athens can’t fail to impress, but the city is crowded and hectic and can be hard work. The interior of Greece is rich with classical remains and Byzantine architecture, but it is rugged and inaccessible. Head instead for parts of the mainland served by local airports: Preveza, Kalamata, Volos and the Halkidiki peninsula, which is accessible from Thessalonika airport. If you stay within reasonably close range of these airports, you will minimise the long-distance driving across the mountainous interior, which, although awe-inspiring, can test the patience of younger passengers.
The Halkidiki peninsula is the most developed part of the mainland; many package-holiday companies can take you to the Kassándra peninsula, while the neighbouring Sithonía is much wilder, with unspoilt beaches in the south. The third ‘finger’ is Mount Athos, a holy site for the Greeks, forbidden to women. Day-long boat cruises creep along the coast of Athos, and some of its 20 monasteries are visible, but that's as near as most tourists get.
Further to the west is Pilion, another fantastic peninsula, reasonably close to the large port of Volos. The high mountains of Pilion are thickly covered with deciduous trees, and there are many traditional villages with tall stone-built houses perched on the hillside and narrow cobbled streets. The mountain villages are ideal places for a drink or lunch accompanied by panoramic views. Down on the coast, the scenery is reassuringly Aegean, and flotilla-style sailing holidays abound. The beautiful sandy resort of Plataniá, on the southern tip, is a good jumping-off point for the Sporades.
Preveza is on the north-west side of the Greek mainland; from here't is a short drive up the coast to Igoumenitsa and the Albanian border. This is a lush area of red-tiled, stone-built villages nestled along the coast and rivers running down from the mountains (the ancient Styx is here). Coastal villages such as Párga with stunning natural harbours are yachting havens; at night waterside tavernas are packed with diners enjoying fish fresh off the boats.
See also our guide to the Peloponnese peninsula of southern mainland Greece.