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Which Greek island should you go to?

River in the Palmtrees of Preveli

Which Greek island should you go to?

(CNN) — Greece’s 1,400 islands — 230 of them inhabited — are one of the Mediterranean’s most beautiful assets. From the Ionian, up by Albania in the northwest, to the Dodecanese, near Turkey in the southeast, they offer vacations you can’t get many other places. Each of the island groups has its unique allure, plus some of the most picturesque seascapes on Earth. But for sheer variety in a small radius, proximity to Athens’ ferry port at Piraeus and the best inter-island boat connections, none compete with the Cyclades. We present the top nine islands in and around the Cyclades, each with its marquee attraction.

Best scenery: Santorini
The story behind this island is the stuff of legends — in 1600 BC after a volcano erupted and its center collapsed into the sea, it left behind parts of its caldera that today form the island Santorini. The views from pretty much anywhere on this crescent-shaped outcrop are superb. Sheer rock faces are striated in multitudinous shades, villages and towns cling to the tops of cliffs, the caldera is filled with clear deep turquoise water home to the visiting cruise liners.
Best nightlife: Mykonos
Mykonos is Greece’s answer to Ibiza, but without the attitude and posturing. Either side of the summer season Mykonos resembles another low-key beach destination but come July and August, night owls arrive in droves, and the main streets of Mykonos Town are packed with revelers — even revelers with babies strapped into carriers. At times the narrow alleys are so jammed with bodies the only way to move is en masse with the crowd as it sways through the streets in a singular motion.
Best traditional village life: Naxos
The largest island in the Cyclades has a string of swoon-worthy beaches on its west coast, a Venetian castle in its main town, some interesting ruins and great local produce and dairy. But what sets it apart from the other islands are its traditional villages. When you leave Chora, where the ferries berth, the pull of village life is evident — note the sign at the outskirts of town that simply reads « Villages. » There are 46 of them on Naxos, some miniscule, but all a window into traditional life. The hamlets are tucked among the hills and the switchback road that crisscrosses the island.
Since most tourists don’t venture inland, the villages haven’t succumbed to money-grabbing gimmicks.
Best kiteboarding and windsurfing: Paros
The constant wind on Paros is evident as the ferry approaches the island — you can see giant turbine fans steadily cartwheeling on the north coast. While Paros might be as cosmopolitan at Mykonos and pretty enough to attract Hollywood royalty (Tom Hanks purchased a house in the neighborhood, on sister island Andiparos), the real draw here is the force of nature. During the summer, the Meltemi winds blaze down through the Aegean, supplying welcome breezes for beachgoers, but also creating conditions ripe for windsurfing and kiteboarding. The winds peak in intensity during July and August; the five-mile channel that divides Paros from its neighbor Naxos funnels the Meltemi to glorious effect. Visitors should time their visit around the island’s most important festivity, on August 15, celebrating the Virgin Mary’s ascension to heaven and culminating in a giant fireworks display mounted on boats in the bay of the port town Parikia.
Best beaches: Milos
Every islander has their favorite beach, but none of the Cyclades promises the number and diversity of beaches as volcanic Milos. Some have white sand, some black, some are rocky, others offer the satisfying sensation of crushed shells underfoot, with water ranging from emerald to aquamarine to cobalt blue. With a heavily indented coastline and pretty little coves at every turn, Milos has about 80 fine beaches, many only accessible by boat. While each has its charm, some should not be missed.
Best for nature lovers: Ikaria
Their diet, strong community and daily exercise mean Ikarian men are four times as likely as American men to reach the age of 90, according to a study by the University of Athens Medical School. This rugged, wing-shaped island on the cusp of the Cyclades and named for Icarus — the son of Daedalus who fled from Crete, got too close to the sun and tumbled into the sea just offshore — has gained fame for the longevity of its residents. The 99-square mile island is basically one large mountain, peaking in the central Pramnos-Atheras range. For such a small area, the geographic variation is astounding — Ikaria has rivers and tiny lakes, high forests of pine and oak, and hills at every turn that combine to make Ikaria an Elysian Field for outdoor buffs. Ikaria’s network of mountain paths known as monopatia is an informal web of routes that connects villages.
Best Robinson Crusoe destination: Koufonisia
Actually two islands, Kato and Ano (meaning lower and upper) Koufonisia, with the former almost uninhabited, are like a land that tourism forgot, mainly because the quickest ferry from Athens takes six hours. Home to only a few hundred residents, Ano Koufonisi is tiny, just 2.2 square miles, so walking or cycling round the island are the most efficient modes of getting about. The main industry, apart from the creeping reach of tourism, is fishing, and the main town of Chora retains the feel of an untouched fishing village, with small boats bobbing in the harbor.
Best couples getaway: Folegandros
The mountainous, mostly treeless Folegandros doesn’t get the crowds of the islands around it thanks to sparser ferry service, a boon for twosomes in search of some solitude with their sun and sand. Santorini is often the go-to island for couples in these parts, but another Cycladian island where houses perch on clifftops is an even better escape for lovebirds. The main village of the island, Chora, set on a cliff plateau 650 feet up, embodies the archetypal image of Cycladic buildings of small white houses with blue doors lining cobblestoned street. Donkeys remain a widely used means of transportation and goats scramble up and down the sun-baked hills. Painters and writers from Europe come to Folegandros for quiet inspiration and the most enduring memories of a visit here are the silence and the bays with crystal clear water.
Best food: Crete
A 90-minute high-speed catamaran ride from Santorini, Crete is Greece’s Wild West, where the locals are fiercely independent and have a fondness for guns (used, I’m assured, only to shoot at street signs or into the air during festivities). Its 3,200 square miles are blessed with scores of microclimates, fertile soil and crops that haven’t succumbed to the scourge of industrial farming. Which means that the tomatoes, cucumbers, eggplants, strawberries, watermelon and other fruits and vegetables that grow here taste as nature intended. The topography of central mountains ringed by shimmering coastline allows two growing seasons — lower elevations in the winter, higher elevations in the summer — and Crete is a hub for olive oil, cheese and wine production. Eat at a traditional taverna (even a touristy one) or kafenio (Greek café) and you’d be hard pushed to have a bad meal because the raw ingredients are so darned good. Elounda, on the island’s northeast coast, is surrounded by some of the island’s great agricultural areas, like the Lasithi plateau, has a selection of hotels for all budgets, and some excellent examples of what makes Greek mainlanders sigh when they think of the divine freshness of Crete’s cuisine.
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http://edition.cnn.com/2013/08/15/travel/greek-islands/index.html