The pleasures of Greece are simple but intense: diving from a yacht into water so limpid that you glimpse pebbles on the sea floor 50 feet below; turning over a fragment of white marble to find marks left by a chisel 2,500 years ago; sitting in the shade of a quayside awning to eat lightly grilled fish served with lemon, oil and fresh oregano; and watching the sun descend into the Aegean, with a glass of chilled white wine from Santorini and a dish of olives from Kalamata. Ultimately, though, it is the intensity of the light that is incomparable. Greek sunlight endows the landscape with an atmosphere of numinous significance. Colors are supersaturated, and nowhere else in the world are the sea and the sky quite so flawlessly and fathomlessly blue.
Athens is not always an easy city to love, especially in the summer, when it is often crowded, smoggy and infernally hot. But in spring and fall, the place has many charms. Kolonaki is the Greek capital’s most fashionable residential, restaurant and shopping district (Voukourestiou Street is known for its jewelry). Nearby is a remarkable small private museum, the Goulandris Museum of Cycladic Art. Aside from the Acropolis, Athens is home to the National Archaeological Museum, holding the world’s largest collection of Greek antiquities, as well as the Acropolis Museum, which opened in 2009.
From Kolonaki, a funicular rises to the 900-foot summit of Mount Lycabettus — there is also a footpath for those in need of exercise — from where a glorious panorama includes the Parthenon and the glinting waters of the Mediterranean.
I always enjoy going down to Piraeus, the port of Athens, to watch the ferries heading off to the Greek islands, or to admire the glamorous superyachts. Several tavernas serve excellent fish and seafood, especially those fronting the Mikrolimano, the small port adjacent to the Kastella neighborhood. (Ask your concierge to name his current favorite.)
There are numerous worthwhile day trips from Athens. Out of the high season, Delphi, home of the famous oracle, is a classical site surrounded by mountains, which lies two hours’ drive northwest of the city. The best-preserved classical Greek theater is located at Epidaurus (scene of the famous summer drama festival), an hour and 40 minutes to the southwest. Perhaps my favorite excursion, however, is to go for lunch on the picturesque island of Hydra, which has one of the loveliest harbors in the Mediterranean. The hydrofoil from Piraeus takes a little over an hour, but I prefer to sit in the sunshine on the top deck of a ferry for the three-hour trip across the dark-blue water of the Saronic Gulf.
The Peloponnese constitutes the southernmost part of mainland Greece. Its interior is mountainous and unspoiled; its coast is ribboned with beaches. Separated from the rest of the country by the Corinth Canal, this is a land of small villages where you will still find traditional Greek hospitality in areas that have not been overrun by tourists. Some of Greece’s most important archaeological sites are scattered throughout the peninsula and include the palaces of Mycenaean kings and temples such as those at Corinth and Olympia. The Costa Navarino offers fine new golf courses.
The town of Nafplio lies two hours southwest of Athens. Occupied by the Venetians from 1388-1540, it still has an array of Venetian and neoclassical buildings. Nafplio is an excellent base from which to explore the classical site of Mycenae, including Agamemnon’s Palace and the extraordinary Treasury of Atreus.
Also within easy distance of Nafplion, Epidaurus is home to a magnificent theater built in the fourth century B.C. to accommodate 14,000 spectators. The best preserved of all the ancient theaters in the Greek world, it still hosts a summer festival of classical drama and music.
Two hours by car southwest of the Athens airport, Porto Heli is a pretty yachting town that increasingly resembles a Greek version of Saint-Tropez. Popular with shipping magnates, including members of the Niarchos family, the region has recently attracted a growing number of the wellborn and the well-heeled, who love its unspoiled coastline and easy access to stylish islands such as Spetses and Hydra.
Santorini is a 12-mile crescent of land, all that remains of a substantial island blown apart by a cataclysmic eruption 3,500 years ago. (The blast probably gave rise to the enduring legend of Atlantis.) Today, stupendous cliffs rise from the sea-filled caldera to blinding whitewashed villages perched more than 1,000 feet above. The island itself is arid, with dark volcanic soil (that helps produce delicious dry white wines) and black sand beaches. Aside from archaeological excavations, its principal attraction is the unforgettable view, both of the immense caldera and the surrounding islands of the Cyclades. Extremely crowded in summer, Santorini is best visited in spring and fall.
Of particular interest on Santorini is the archaeological excavation at Akrotiri, a Minoan Bronze Age settlement. Lava engulfed the entire town around 1627 B.C., and it remained unknown to the world until 1867, when quarry workers cutting stone blocks for the construction of the Panama Canal revealed the buried ruins. Amazingly, serious work did not begin until 1967. In 2005, the site’s protective roof collapsed, and visitors were no longer permitted, but the site reopened in late April 2012. It is now possible to stroll through the ancient streets and to see the implements and paraphernalia of daily life from more than 3,500 years ago.
The largest wine producer on the island, Boutari, also lays claim to being one of Greece’s leading exporters. Greek wine has made tremendous strides in the past few years. I recommend that you take the tour here and spend a pleasant interlude tasting.