Ask Melissa: I still have not made vacation plans for the summer but would like to take my family somewhere in Europe. What do you recommend?
One of my favorite places to travel in Europe over the summer is Greece. I had my first taste of Greece and its incredible beauty while backpacking as a college graduate through Athens, Corfu, and Crete. Last summer, my family and I were graciously invited by our Greek friends to explore Athens and a few of the most breathtaking Cyclades islands in the world… Sifnos and Santorini.
We liked the modern Arion Resort & Spa hotel, which is 15 minutes from the airport, located in the Athens Riviera, and about 20 minutes from town. The hotel is one of three gorgeous Starwood Hotels and Resorts properties located in the same area. There are a few nice shops there, including one that sells designer bathing suits for women and men. Our spacious connecting rooms had incredible beach views. Although I did not get a chance to try out the services, the spa and gym also looked incredible.
Sightseeing: Our friends arranged a private tour for us with Helen (Elena in Greek) Soulioti, a member of the License Tourist Guides’ Union, a fantastic organization with over 1,000 multilingual members working throughout Greece.
The van picked us up after lunch and we headed out to the new Acropolis Museum (which cost $200 million to build, headed by NY architect Bernard Tschumi), and sits near the base of the Acropolis with a direct view of the Parthenon. We then walked up to reach the Parthenon, whose views of Athens and the surrounding temples below are magnificent. I recommend going at 6:00 p.m. when the sun is not as strong – it’s perfect after a day at the beach. Also, be sure to pack VERY comfortable walking shoes or flat sandals with straps, like a pair of K.Jacques. You will be walking on rocky ground and lots of stairs! The next day, we went to the Temple of Poseiden’s to watch the sunset. Our tour guide Helen told us so many interesting stories and myths along the way about Greek gods and goddesses. We also visited the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, the Parliament House, Olympic Stadium, and the Presidential Mansion.
Dining: At the hotel, we enjoyed lunch right on the beach at Taverna 37, a casual Greek tavern with the best Greek salad and fresh grilled fish. This outdoor restaurant is set into the rocks of the hotel beach area with great views from every table. For a more formal lunch, try ITHAKI, one of the best restaurants in Athens. We indulged in a variety of Greek specialties, as well as grilled calamari, prawns, lobster, branzini, and a variety of salads and dips. For dinner, I recommend trying Matsuhisa Athens, owned by Chef Nobu Matsuhisa and perched on top of a rock in the Astir Palace Resort with amazing views of the Saronic Gulf. The quality of the Japanese food here is beyond delicious. My children loved it so much – except they did have to get used to “Greek time” for dinner at 10:00 p.m.!
After two days in Athens, we took the high-speed hydrofoil to the magical island of Sifnos. The trip from the port of Piraeus took about 2.5 hours – there is a first-class lounge that serves good food and great coffee! This island is a hidden gem, and not well known to American visitors, although I heard that Rita Wilson and Tom Hanks have a place there. We stayed with friends on the beach, but also checked out a nearby hotel that was a hidden paradise, the Elies Resort. The contemporary resort is located on the beach, has a gorgeous infinity pool, and great food. I soon learned that Sifnos is known for some of the best food in the Cyclades, as well as its pottery. An interesting fact… there are over 365 churches on Sifnos and our host, who is an extraordinary photographer, Marina, who plans to photograph every one of them.
Sites, dining, and shopping: One day we took a boat trip to another small island called Kimolos, toured the nearby island Milos, and had lunch on the beach. Our lunch consisted of a variety of Greek appetizers and salads, shrimp, mussels, and the best branzini I have ever tasted. A beautiful butterfly landed on my hand during our visit there! At night we went to the town of Apollonia for dinner at Odos Oneiron (Avenue of Dreams). The food was delicious and a must if you are in town. We also walked around and shopped in some great local boutiques. Another night we went to the historic village of Kastro, a beautiful and fascinating medieval-style village that sits on top of a giant rock-hill with panoramic views of the sea. We walked down lots of steps to a local fresh-fish restaurant and had dinner within a magical setting at the edge of the sea. The children had a blast as the water crashed against the rocks with sea spray flying in front of us. Sifnos is not touristy and is truly a best-kept secret!
This unique Cyclades island is what remains of an enormous volcanic explosion that occured around 1660 B.C. and that formed the Caldera, a cauldron-like underwater volcanic structure that was created after the enormous blast. We stayed at the beautiful Mystique Hotel, another Starwood Hotels and Resorts where there are 18 gorgeous suites and villas built within the famous cliffs of Oia. The restaurant serves eclectic food made with local ingredients and overlooks the infinity pool and the sea. The hotel offers a wine tasting with rare and indigenous wines in its secret wine cave. I preferred the fresh-squeezed watermelon juice since I am not much of a drinker. Mystique is a perfect place to celebrate a special occasion or honeymoon. There are a lot of rocky steps here, so it’s good to be in shape and wear comfortable shoes. Also, this property is not ideal if you are travelling with small children.
Sites, dining, and shopping: We were informed by our Greek friends about an amazing catamaran ride in Santorini to its nearby islands, operated by a company called Santorini Sailing. The trips are run by Ted and Dina Stathis, a couple who started these cruises out of their love for sharing the beauty of the island. They offer private, semi-private, and public tours. You can choose whether you want to do a lunch, dinner, full-day, or overnight tour. Meal options include a steak and seafood barbecue (their signature dishes have been featured on the Food Network). The cruise includes sailing past the Red and White beaches, the hot springs where you stop for a swim, and the volcano. They also stop in private bays for snorkeling. The next evening, we enjoyed walking around the quaint town of Oia, filled with cafés, shops, and places of interest. A few of our favorite restaurants are 1800, and Nectar and Ambrosia.
I plan to return to Greece soon and check out some other islands such as Mykonos, Crete, and to visit some other lesser-known towns, such as Kastoria. My grandparents are from this small town located on a lake north of Athens where it is known for its beautiful furs. I highly recommend this trip to Greece and can’t wait to go back!
Although you may look like a tourist holding this guidebook, the Lonely Planet series is your ticket to the best hotspots and hidden gems for cities, countries and regions around the world. Lonely Planet was my bible when traveling in Europe and Barcelona, because for just a few bucks I felt like I had an insider’s guide to an authentic trip or just the perfect vacation. Each guide comes with comprehensive maps, history of the places, and suggestions for accommodations, transportation, and restaurants. For the spend-conscious traveler, the Lonely Planet “…on a Shoestring travel guide” series, covers locations around the globe, but with advice on where to eat cheap, sleep soundly, and uncover your destination comfortably, without breaking the bank. The Lonely Planet guidebook (paired with lonelyplanet.com) can make you feel like a local even if you only plan on staying for a few days. – Courtney Bannerot