How to Do Greece Like Onassis, But Cheap
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Paris Hilton sashaying down a whitewashed Mykonos alley, Lindsay Lohan cavorting on an unnamed playboy’s sleek yacht…every summer it’s the same game as snapshots of A-listers’ Greek island mini-odysseys overtake Instagram and the New York Post’s Page Six. It may all be good fun, but the assumption that you have to be an heiress or tycoon to live it up in Greece is simply not true. While the original Greek tycoon, Aristotle Onassis, had a whole island to himself (Skorpios, in the Ionian Sea) and his own yacht to get there, you would be amazed at how many Onassis moments you can have in Greece today on the cheap.
You don’t even really need a plan — it’s more in the approach. Greece has been in a deep financial crisis since 2010, which is partly why the dollar still goes farther here than in Other Beautiful Mediterranean Countries like Italy. The country’s pain is real, and many Greeks face serious problems making ends meet. The other side of this otherwise sad state of affairs is that visiting is affordable.
Even though hotel taxes and other travel costs are inching upward, Greece is still a relative bargain. And the farther away from cliché you get, the more euros will stay in your wallet. Example? You can skip Santorini — it’s the Kim Kardashian of Greek islands: lovely to look at and generously curved but also overpriced and, frankly, a little self-absorbed.
Think too about timing. In recent years Athens has become a contender for European city break destination that can hold its own against the likes of Barcelona and Rome. That means hotel occupancy (and rates) go up in May and spike in July, but deals can be found in August when Athenians flee the city heat for the islands. Crete has grown in popularity so much that September promises to be just as busy as July, so think shoulder season there, like May-June and given the island’s southerly position, well into October too. Now with all that in mind…
Food and Drink
One of the chief pleasures of travel in Greece is enjoying the cuisine. Some of the best food is also the simplest. Street food like gyros are imitated all over the world, but nothing compares to the high tang and low price of what you’ll find in the streets of Athens. The Greek capital has its fair share of tony restaurants, but these are mainly the province of well-heeled Athenians. Some of the best, heartiest food you’ll find is in the everyday neighborhood taverna or beachside eatery. Ditto for the drink: Athens has plenty of trendy bars, but you can enjoy dirt cheap ouzo or mastiha (a spirit made of mastic oil from Chios) at just about any cafe you’ll find.
Buy Greek Groceries
If you have more than a couple days in Athens or virtually any Greek island, you don’t want to miss the chance to explore a Greek grocery store. In addition to perusing cool snacks that you’re not likely to find at Trader Joe’s anytime soon (chocolate-covered baklava, anyone?) you’re likely to find a selection of home-style prepared foods like moussaka or herb-roasted chicken and great range of otherwise hard-to-find Greek juices, wines and spirits.
Luxury Hotels for Less
Athens in recent years has undergone a boutique hotel boom. While there are comparatively fewer five-star properties than in many other European capitals, in terms of quality three- and four-star hotels you’re really spoiled for choice. A hotel like Coco-mat Athens is a perfect example: small, eco-chic and located in the non-touristy neighborhood of Kolonaki. Even in high season, you can find room rates at great hotels in the 100 euro per night range, and they almost always throw in an amazing breakfast buffet at no extra charge. Insider tip? For the best rates, call the hotel whenever possible: That’s how the Greeks get the best deals.
Trade Santorini for Milos
It’s not that I’m knocking Santorini. It’s just that everybody else is knocking on this famous volcanic island’s door, to the extent that from May to September it is often seriously overcrowded. Cruise ships disgorge masses of day-tripping passengers who clog the narrow streets of the main towns of Fira and Oia, often with protruding selfie sticks in hand. Yes, the history and geology are unique but remember Greece has more islands than you can count. And very close to Santorini is another volcanic island, Milos. You might recognize some of its alabaster landscapes from this otherwise annoying music video. Another plus: Milos’s beaches are way better than Santorini’s.
Trade Mykonos for Paros
Mykonos is where Jacqueline Kennedy went to whet her appetite for island getaways before she became Jackie O, and today it outdoes even Santorini for its glamor and hard-partying ways. In summer, hotel prices skyrocket and the few good beaches get uncomfortably crowded. Thankfully, there is an antidote: it’s the nearby island of Paros. Bigger than Mykonos and prettier too, it’s where the kind of Greeks who aren’t dating Paris or Lindsay go to party. I stayed at an awesome hotel called Kalypso, in the seaside town of Naoussa. Lots of great beaches were close by. And from Paros you can take a cheap 10-minute ferry ride to tiny Antiparos, where Tom Hanks has a house.
You can experience Athens like a tourist, queuing at the Acropolis or paying too much for a seafood dinner in the Plaka, or you can do it like a local. Go for smaller cultural showcases like the beautiful, gem-like Museum of Cycladic Art. Neighborhoods like Pangrati and Petralona are quite central and full of restaurants and bars that young Athenians frequent. And there are parts of the Piraeus port, just a metro ride away from downtown, that can easily stand in for Monte Carlo, with one main exception: lounging around here is a lot less expensive.
The second largest city in Greece was named after Alexander the Great’s half-sister and, as the capital of the Greek region of Macedonia, is both a modern metropolis and cultural heavyweight. It’s also a lot of fun and still cheaper than Athens, but maybe not for long. You can sometimes gauge how up-and-coming a given European city is by how often coverage of it crops up in in-flight magazines, and Thessaloniki is surfacing more often — last month it made the cover of the Swiss Air Lines magazine. This is a beguiling city that will stick with you long after you leave.
Easy Escapes From Athens
You probably don’t need to be told this, but here you go: you don’t need to feel stuck in Athens. Let me back up — I love Athens, but to really live it up and unwind like a Greek zillionaire you need to get out of town. The aforementioned island swaps are one way to go about this while saving a bundle, but if you want to take thrift to the next level, consider the appealing islands of the Saronic Gulf: Aegina, Agistri, Spetses, Poros and Hydra are all within easy reach of Piraeus and rare is the ferry ticket that will cost you more than 25 euros to get to them (often it’s less). Check out fares and schedules at Hellenic Seaways. And if you want to see Crete without involving airports, take a Seajet to Ios before continuing on to Heraklion (you’ll make a short stop in Santorini first).
Another way to slay it like an Onassis is to remember this one tip: once you’re in a given island, private boat charters around scenic sections of island coastlines like those in Paros, Ios and Milos are a great way to get your yacht on without having to be a Greek or Russian oligarch. Skip the Internet (that’s right) and ask for a recommendation at your hotel or, even better, scout for your skipper directly at the port.
Featured image: island of Hydra. All images by Anthony Grant
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