If the words "Greek Islands" suggest blazing sun and sea, bare rock and mountains, olive trees and vineyards, white rustic architecture and ancient ruins, fresh fish and fruity oils, the Cyclades are your isles of quintessential plenty, the ultimate Mediterranean archipelago.
"The islands with their drinkable blue volcanoes," wrote Odysseus Elytis, winner of the Nobel Prize for poetry, musing on Santorini. The major stars in this constellation of islands in the central Aegean sea—Tinos, Mykonos, Naxos, Paros, and Santorini—remain the archetypes of the islands of Greece. No matter which of these islands you head for, it always seems, at least in summer, that Zeus's sky is faultlessly azure, Poseidon's sea warm, and Dionysus's nightlife swinging (especially in Mykonos's clubs). The prevailing wind is the northern vorias; called meltemi in summer, it cools the always-sunny weather. In a blazing fusion of sunlight, stone, and aqua sparkle, the Cyclades offer both culture and hedonism: ancient sites, Byzantine castles and museums, lively nightlife, shopping, dining, and beaches plain and fancy.
Each island in the Cyclades differs significantly from its neighbors, so approach your exploration according to what sort of experience you seek. The most popular islands are Santorini, with its fantastic volcanic scenery and dramatic cliff-side towns of Fira and Ia, and Mykonos, a barren island that insinuates a sexy jet-set lifestyle, flaunts some of Greece's most famous beaches, has a perfectly preserved main town, and courts celebrities. These two islands have the fanciest accommodations. Naxos has the best mountain scenery and the longest, most pristine beaches. Tinos, the least visited and most scenic of the Cyclades, is the place to explore mountain villages, hundreds of churches, and fancifully decorated dovecotes. Syros, with its aristocratic roots, is one of the smallest islands but has its own unique neoclassical elegance. Throughout the Cyclades, many shuttered houses are being authentically restored, and much traditional architecture can still be found in Ia on Santorini and Apeiranthos on Naxos—villages that are part of any deep experience of the islands.
These arid, mountainous islands are the peaks of a deep, submerged plateau; their composition is rocky, with few trees. They are volcanic in origin, and Santorini, southernmost of the group, actually sits on the rim of an ancient drowned volcano that exploded about 1600 BC. The dead texture of its rock is a great contrast to the living, warm limestone of most Greek islands. Santorini's basic geological colors—black, pink, brown, white, pale green—are not in themselves beautiful; as you arrive by boat, little shows above the cliff tops but a string of white villages—like teeth on the vast lower jaw of some giant monster. Still, the island was once called Kállisti, "Loveliest," and today appreciative visitors seek its mixture of vaulted cliff-side architecture, European elegance, and stunning sunsets.
A more-idyllic rhythm prevails on many of the other Cyclades (and, of course, off-season in Santorini). In the town of Mykonos, the whitewashed houses huddle together against the meltemi winds, and backpackers rub elbows with millionaires in the mazelike gray stone streets. The island's sophistication level is high, the beaches fine, and the shopping varied and upscale. It's also the jumping-off place for a mandatory visit to tiny, deserted Delos. Apollo’s windswept birth islet, still watched over by a row of marble lions, was once the religious and commercial center of the eastern Mediterranean.
Tinos has stayed authentically Greek, since its heavy tourism is largely owing to its miracle-working icon, not to its beautiful villages. Naxos, greenest of the Cyclades, makes cheese and wine, raises livestock, and produces potatoes, olives, and fruit. For centuries a Venetian stronghold, it has a shrinking aristocratic Roman Catholic population, Venetian houses and fortifications, and Cycladic and Mycenaean sites. Paros, a hub of the ferry system, has reasonable prices and is a good base for trips to other islands. It's also good for lazing on white-sand beaches and for visiting fishing villages.
As reflected in its neoclassical architecture and soft ocher color, Syros stands apart. A place of religious, industrial, and aristocratic history that gave birth to the bustling port city of Ermopoulis, its strikingly beautiful capital.
Of course, throughout the Cyclades, there are countless classical sites, monasteries, churches, and villages to be explored. The best reason to visit them may be the beauty of the walk, the impressiveness of the location, and the hospitality you will likely find off the beaten track.