Although the Greek Islands are world-famous as a summer vacation destination and many of the smaller islands virtually close down in winter, others remain quietly busy between November and March, especially at the weekend when the Cyclades and Saronics near Athens are inundated with day trippers from the city. However, heading for the Greek Islands in winter means almost guaranteed sunshine even if it’s not warm enough to laze on the beach all day.
Ferry services operate from Piraeus all through the winter months with a limited timetable but are all dependent on the weather. Mykonos, Hydra, Spetses, Paros and Aegina are all within an easy day’s ferry trip of Piraeus and most restaurants and hotels stay open over winter. Even if some of the larger resorts and restaurants close, family-run stores, tavernas and cosy hotels will stay open for business.
A tour of the classical sites of Delos is just a short hop from Mykonos and winter visits can beat trips in summer when the island is bone dry and arid with a merciless sun overhead. Visit in January and February for carpets of flowers across the island and temperatures that make a trek up Mount Kynthos for views of neighboring islands rather more enticing than at the height of the summer.
Further away from Athens and further south in the Mediterranean, Rhodes, Corfu and Crete are the island destinations for consistent sunshine – in fact Rhodes is Greece’s sunniest place. All three islands have relatively large ex-pat communities and winter sees little change to summer, apart from the temperature drop. The UNESCO World Heritage Site at Knossos on Crete also stays open over the winter.
The Greek Islands in winter also offer endless opportunities for hiking; Kea has a tangle of footpaths that led from one ancient settlement to the other around the island, while Crete’s White Mountains provide endless trekking routes, although the fabled Samaria Gorge is closed. And amazingly you can even ski in Crete – Mount Psiloritis is the highest peak in the White Mountains range and there’s a small ski and boarding center on the Nida Plateau at 4,600 feet (1,400 m) with very limited infrastructure and facilities. Snow is not guaranteed every year so keep a look out for local weather reports.
Cycling, horseback riding and bird watching – the latter in particular on Lesbos – are popular winter activities on many islands. Wintertime sailing in the Greece Islands can be even more enjoyable than in summer, when marinas are packed with the yachts of the super-rich and mooring fees more than double. Although consistent sunshine is not guaranteed, the strong Meltemi winds that blow in July and August drop, the seas are largely calm and you can escape to beautiful, tranquil islands and deserted beaches.