With crisis prices, secluded beaches, and upbeat locals, Thomas Breathnach found bail-out bliss on the islands of the Aegean
Any seasoned traveller worth his salt should brush up on their destination's local lingo. But Greek is a different kettle of sardines. Flicking to the back pages of my Lonely Planet before a recent visit, I discover 'ney' means yes, 'oxhi' means no, and spot the thin line between wishing my breakfast buffet waitress 'kalimera' (good morning) and calamari (battered squid).
Survival phrases in tow, I set off to our bailed-out brethren of the Aegean, to see if go-for-broke Greece means a good deal for Irish island-hoppers.
My first stop is Samos, a cultured medley of neo-classical architecture, terracotta-tiled Venetian mansions, and impressive Byzantine churches, set just one mile from the Turkish coast. Considering the remote and rugged nature of the island, my friend Amber and I decide to make tracks for Avis and splash out on a bargain Suzuki Jimny (€40 a day; avis.gr) It's no Jeep Wrangler, but winding up mountainous gorges in this 4x4 soft-top is as close to MacGyver as I'm going to get.
We leave the glistening crescent bay of Samos town deep below us, and via a well-nigh eroded coastal track, arrive at our luxury villa in remote Kerveli beach.Owner Stefanos is on hand with a warm welcome, a supply of freshly picked oranges from the family orchard and a bottle of sweet Samian red wine from their organic farm. I'm already feeling at home.
The villa itself spoils us with sea views and mountains views, and a pretty amazing whirlpool bath.
But what really gilds the lily is the stroll to the beach. Sheltered by cypresses, lemon trees and silver olive groves, a gaggle of geese guides us down to the deserted pebble strand. A rickety pontoon leads us on to postcard turquoise waters. It's utter seclusion.
That evening, we cruise along the Aegean's highest mountains to discover more of the island. Sleepy Kokkari on the north coast offers a tempting selection of beach-side tavernas, while Pythagorio -- home to mathematician Pythagoras -- boasts a buzzing marina, as well as the ruins of the temple of Hera, better known as the sister (then wife) of Zeus.
We were there over the Easter weekend, and the Saturday midnight vigil at Paleokastro church culminates in a memorable candlelit procession through the village's narrow streets. The occasion is topped off with an invite to lunch the next day from Stefanos's father, who won't take oxhi for an answer. Surrounded by the extended Vassiliou family and a festive spread, with every Greek speciality from tzatziki (yoghurt dip) to katsiki (roast goat), we feast as honorary guests of Hellenic hospitality. "To new friends and the IMF: Yiamas."
Our big fat Greek Easter behind
us, it was off to one of Europe's most infamous party islands -- Mykonos. Our six-hour ferry ride through blustery seas meant grinning and bearing local television -- but you don't survive an omnibus episode of a Greek soap opera without absorbing something of the country's culture. By the time we reach the Cyclades, I've learned that almost as many Greeks smoke on screen as they do off it, and if Stella won't soon see through the philandering ways of Athens' answer to Bela Doyle, this love-triangle plot line on Erotas is all going to end in tears.
But Mykonos is instantly charming. Immaculate whitewashed lanes, cavernous buildings with quirky cafés, and charming chapels lie around every corner. As we walk down to Little Venice amid mazes of blue and white, bursts of geraniums add welcome colour. It's almost surreal in its perfection.
With car rental in Greece a viable alternative to taxis or public transport, we hire a zippy Smart Car to arrive at Greece's most notorious beach in style. But consistent with the traveller's rule of thumb -- "Greece: opening hours May to September" -- we're in for something of an anticlimax.
The cries of party revellers and the base of house music have all but been replaced by the lull of a lonely tide and the sound of Kostas Kordalis and Sons painting a layer of ivory emulsion on the empty beach bar. But so what if it was less 'Ibiza Uncovered' and more 'Shirley Valentine' meets Woodies DIY? Undeterred, we recline back, mildly contented, as the sole occupiers of Super (off-season) Paradise.
After two days of rain, we're keen to hit the sunny South Aegean, but another storm brewing at sea means all sailings off the island have been cancelled. With oxhi ferries or flights, we're resigned to an extra night in whitewashed and by now washed-out Mykonos. Wondering if the island could throw us anymore setbacks, we soon realise it could. An hour later, after a "well, let's-make-the-most-of-the-rental" excursion, our Smart suddenly finds itself stuck on a plinth overlooking Fokos Dam after Amber engages in an over-zealous Mary Mitchell O'Connor manoeuvre.
It sounded a lot worse than it was. Miraculously, as we had found after skimming a rock face the night before, Smarts appear to be the scratch-proof pop-up car that keeps on giving. A wee push and some coaxing, we steal away unscathed but for a frosting of the undercarriage at the scene of the crime.
Santorini is our next stop. Expectant of a quaint postcard arrival with a beast of burden at the ready to carry my Samsonite, I'm somewhat disorientated to realise that Greek ferries approach Santorini from the new port in the south, while smaller boats and cruise-liner passengers can avail of the famous old port of Thira.
We take a quick bus transfer (pack the Dramamine) up the cliff face to Thira, to our humble abode for the night -- Loizos (€28pps; loizos.gr). The budget haunt is just metres from the caldera rock face and we're immediately struck by the island's sprawling cliff top villages precariously perched on an area well known for its volcanic form. Santorinians really will do anything for that good view.
And what of those views? The best on the island are to be had in the village of Oia, where we head for the quintessential shots of Santorini's blue-doomed churches against cloudless skies. It may be late April but already there are queues for the best photo vantage points as American tourists spot a Facebook profile pic in the making.
After another gut-wrenching coach ride back from Oia, diagonal donkey riding wouldn't seem the most logical pursuit, but being in Santorini it has to be done. Down the winding steps to the port, our surly handler unleashes a stentorian roar as he cracks his whip on my mule's rump. Grasping on to my saddlehorn like I'm riding a mechanical bull, now is no time to read Stavros the PETA act.
The following night in Athens International, I reflect on how high Greece really had set the bar. While ferry fares may have jacked up our bill, Greece's much trumpeted "crisis prices" meant excellent value across the board. It really had been a trip of superlatives.
From my most heavyweight and delectable serving of lamb cutlets (Atlantida: Mykonos) to my first pentathlon (bus, foot, donkey, cable-car, ferry: Santorini), it was only fitting that in the cradle of the Olympics I'd manage to break several personal records. I'm already in training to go back again and beat them.