Unlike its bigger, brasher neighbour Cephalonia, Ithaca has no sandy beaches or airport, making it a less obvious choice for a holiday, and it seems to like it that way. Most visitors have family ties with the island, being part of the global diaspora created by a massive earthquake in 1953. Which is why you will find Australians, Americans, South Africans and Zimbabweans in the cafés and tavernas, rather than a job-lot of Mancunians or Londoners as is often the case in package-holiday spots elsewhere in Greece.
Spiny backed and sheer-sided, Ithaca is almost sliced in half by the stupendously blue Molos Bay, creating an island of two parts. Vathy is in the south, arranged as an amphitheatre at the head of a deep harbour with a curiously narrow entrance; the only other village in the area is Perahori, up in the hills behind the port. The north is dominated by Mount Netritus, around which loops the island’s main road, connecting the villages of Lefki, Stavros, Frikes and Kioni along a suicidal corniche sandwiched between the unforgiving mountainside and plunging cliffs.
Otherwise, most of our days are spent on a beach. Dexia is a favourite with locals – although it has the narrowest stretch of sharp pebbles – because the ancient olive grove that runs down to its gently lapping shoreline provides blessed shade. When the children were younger, they would keep themselves entertained for hours by catching cicadas in the gnarled bark of those centuries-old trees.
After an afternoon nap, an ouzo and supper either at the house or in the village – it used to be Trehandiri for the kleftiko, but the ship’s cook has moved on, so now it’s over to magnificently mustachioed Nico’s – you somehow always end up eating ice cream on the central square, where sun-glazed children play late into the night and there is an almost tribal loyalty to one patisserie or another (Livanis, since you ask).
There is little to disturb the peace or cause great excitement on Ithaca, but such exertions are rare, for this is a place to slowly unfurl in the sun, rest and read, rekindle friendships, and laugh easily.
Mykonos has a reputation for unbridled hedonism which seems entirely unfounded. The truth is, Mykonos is everyman’s Greek island, fantastically adept at appealing to the broadest possible church. It is also big enough to keep its many diverse admirers in totally separate compartments.
In high summer, Mykonos plays host to thousands of cruise-ship passengers. They pour into town in the late afternoon, do a bit of shopping, photograph the sunset from a pricey bar in Little Venice and head back to the new port built expressly for this purpose. Yet somehow the town’s famously befuddling, labyrinthine streets – designed to confuse invading pirates – manage to absorb their excitable voices and footfall in a vanishing act worthy of an accomplished conjurer.
Although not as infatuated with the Pink Pound as it used to be, Mykonos is still loyally gay-friendly, with Elia beach catering to the Germanic clothing-optional crowd, and night spots such as Kastro and The Piano Bar whipping out drag acts, show tunes and deafening classical music for old-school scene queens.
Elsewhere, club kids hang out at Paranga and Super Paradise beaches; sporty types head to Ftelia on Panormos Bay to windsurf; families congregate around pragmatic Platis Gialos and Agrari; cool couples prefer out-of-the-way Panormos beach; and an altogether more sophisticated set heads for low-key Agio Sostis.
There is much more to the island than sassy, international Mykonos Town, with its painterly streets overhung with crimson bougainvillaea, its twinkly boutiques selling Gucci and Prada, its Nobu restaurant and Argentine steak house. Head out of town into the rocky, moon-landing terrain and there is no doubting where you are.
Most islanders live in Ano Mera, the traditional inland village with its drowsy central square. The supermarket here services the unimaginably smart holiday villas dotted around the baking interior and deep blue Panormos Bay, all built in the classic Cycladic igloo mould that dates back to the earliest Minoan settlements, but now interior-designed to polished near-perfection.
Mykonos’s talent is that it can be anything, and everything, you could possibly want a Greek Island to be.
Sponge-divers, boat-builders, merchant mariners and wine traders made Symi’s fortune. Neoclassical mansions in every shade of umber and ochre tumble down the hills to the port. No matter how many times you round the headland, that view will always make your heart flutter.
The harbour is like an amphitheatre: cawing seagulls, honking ferries and the clinking masts of wooden gulets reverberate across the tiled rooftops. Only half an hour from Turkey’s Turquoise Coast, it feels more Italian than Ottoman. The colourful town has the sophisticated buzz of the Amalfi coast, especially in August when the Italians take over Michelin-starred Muses restaurant and Yorgos and Maria’s taverna, where you can sample every stuffed vegetable under the sun.
There’s no airport and only one road, which bumps through the forested heartland to the 18th-century monastery of Panormitis. Orthodox pilgrims come in droves to kiss the silver icons and admire the Byzantine frescoes. Smaller monasteries, hidden among the island’s groves of Lebanese cypress, are well worth a pilgrimage on foot.
But most visitors don’t stray far from Symi’s ravishing beaches. Enterprising islanders with speedboats and fishing boats will take you off to castaway beaches. At ritzy Ayia Marina bay, the turquoise water is so clear you can see tiny fish darting between your toes. Hungry goats poke their noses through the fence of the farm/taverna on Marathounda beach, which serves the most addictive deep-fried baby shrimps, a Symi speciality.
Nicknamed the pantofla (slipper), the ferry takes just eight minutes to get from lively Paros to low-key Antiparos. But the Hollywood crowd – Tom Hanks and the CEO of 20th Century Fox own homes here – come by yacht or helicopter. Antiparos isn’t fancy, but it’s seriously fashionable.
Pretty much everything happens on the main street, which leads to Kastro, a 15th-century fortified settlement. Sit at a pavement café sipping a freddo cappuccino and you’ll soon get to know the local tribes: bronzed rock chicks, cosmopolitan Greeks, and good-looking Scandinavians apparently unfazed by holidaying with hordes of small children.
The sandy beaches lapped by shallow waters are ideal for babies and toddlers. The spooky cave of Ayios Yiannis is a thrill for kids, encrusted with stalactites and stalagmites dating back millions of years. Otherwise, there’s really not much to do apart from alternating your favourite beaches and tavernas. Young families stroll to the sheltered bays on either side of town; hot young things head to Apandima or Soros. For more seclusion, drive south to Ayios Yiorgios, a volcanic headland scalloped with tiny coves: go early to bag your own private beach. Captain Pipinos is a fantastically good fish taverna on the waterfront.
When it all starts to feel too incestuous, you can escape to Paros for dinner and then hit the bars in Naoussa. Don’t worry about getting marooned: the pantofla runs until 2am.
Much of Hydra’s timeless appeal is down to building regulations. With its grey-stone mansions and blindingly white alleys, the harbour town is still as ‘aesthetically perfect’ as Miller found it in the 1930s. The other major draw is that vehicles of any kind are banned, so the rest of the island still has the ‘wild and naked perfection’ the writer fell for. Sun-baked footpaths trace the craggy coast, with countless coves and rocks for cooling off. (The name Hydra derives from the ancient Greek word for water, but the taps often trickle to a frustrating drip when you get back from the beach.)
Life is slow and simple on Hydra, but it’s also casually decadent. Every summer, international artists and sharp-eyed collectors come together for cutting-edge art shows in the ramshackle high school and slaughterhouse. One year, Matthew Barney and Elizabeth Peyton staged a dawn funeral procession for a dead shark. The carcass was solemnly carried to a banqueting table by the sea and devoured by their disciples. You wonder what the local cats and donkeys make of it all.