Jenss Family Travels: Exploring Greece

Rainer Jenss and his family are currently on an around-the-world journey, and they’re blogging about their experiences for us at Intelligent Travel. Keep up with the Jensses by bookmarking their posts, and follow the boys’ Global Bros blog at National Geographic Kids.

If you’re checking into this blog for some guidance about travel to Greece, here’s a simple piece of advice I just discovered firsthand: Pass up going in the summer if you can possibly avoid it. Shoot for May, early June, September, or October instead. Unless, of course, you prefer being with lots of other people, intense heat, and overrun tourist attractions.

I was told July and August are VERY busy here and the beaches, nightclubs, restaurants, hotels, and archaeological sites are all jammed. I have to assume most visitors really enjoy themselves and have a wonderful time with so much great stuff to see and do. After all, there’s good reason for all the popularity. But given the timing of our stay here in Greece (first half of May), I’d bet it would be pretty hard to beat the incredible weather, uncrowded islands, and ease of touring the sights we experienced during this time of year.

Lucky for us, we didn’t even have to resort to taking the boys out of school, at least not this year, to be here before the season officially starts. Take it from someone who has spent the last forty-five weeks touring some of the world’s most popular tourist attractions, it’s a bonus to be in these special places without the all-too-common throngs of sightseers. And if there’s any good news to come out of the global financial crisis, it’s that you can now journey abroad and generally find smaller crowds. The recession has certainly played a significant role in reducing the usually high number of visitors to not just Greece, but destinations all across the world. So in hindsight, I guess we picked a pretty good year to take this little global jaunt (more on this in my next post).

Because we want this trip to be more about education than vacation, we bought the boys a children’s book about ancient civilizations to help them better understand the history behind the places we’d visit and things we’d see.  Otherwise, they’re just a “pile of really old rocks.” Since I was eager to freshen up on Greek mythology myself, I’m not embarrassed to admit that I found the comprehension level of this book just right (Hey, this mythology business can be quite convoluted!).  Armed with some knowledge, sunblock, a good appetite, and sixteen days before our next flight, we were ready to roll.

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Our home base was the charming resort town of Loutraki along the Corinthian Gulf, about an hour’s drive west of Athens. We were given the keys to a car and summer house by some friends who live in the States but fortunately, were there to get us all set up and acclimated. Like so many of his countrymen, our friend Aris is very proud of the influence the Greeks have had throughout history and was anxious for us to see his homeland. Soon after our arrival, he gave us the first taste of Greek cuisine, which throughout the trip turned out to be much better than we expected.  One can’t have too much feta cheese on one’s salad, or olive oil with freshly baked bread, or grilled seafood (especially octopus and calamari) with just about anything! Besides the food, we found that Greece offered many pleasant surprises.

All this delicious, fresh cooking needed some wine to go with it, right? Well little did we expect to have it be poured from a plastic container, but that’s how some of best tasting wine is bottled. I wouldn’t normally think of buying anything under $10, and in plastic no less, but since this country isn’t exactly known for its world-class wines, what the heck. Besides, there was just something inviting about drinking the homemade varieties we found sold from roadside stands along the mountainous farmlands. We really enjoyed it, and that’s all that counts.

The Mediterranean waters of the Aegean Sea, albeit on the cold side, were as clear as any I’ve ever seen, which swayed me to go scuba diving. Although marine life or colorful corals are not very abundant, the water clarity makes wreck-diving particularly attractive. There were also some decent caves to explore along the volcanic coastline of Santorini, which you don’t find in many other places. Then there was the spectacular weather, with bright sunshine and brilliant blue skies almost every day (which we were told is typical from late spring through early fall). As a backdrop to the incredible scenery and architecture of the Cyclades Islands, it’s as romantic a place as I’ve ever been.

Speaking of which, Carol and I had originally planned to spend our honeymoon here until we were given a gift that took us elsewhere. So I joked that we were now on our second honeymoon . . . as a family. One of our little family rituals on this trip is to send a postcard back to ourselves from all the places we’ve been. The minute we arrived to the island of Santorini I thought we actually stepped into a postcard, it was that beautiful.

At the recommendation of Aris, we booked a “cave apartment” in the village of Oia, famous for one of the most spectacular sunset vantage points on Earth and store-lined alleyways. The caves are built right into the side of the cliff of volcanic rock, and the boys just loved hanging in their cave bedrooms. In fact, they agreed to stay in one night, which gave Carol and me the chance for a romantic dinner in town at a restaurant I’d say is the best we’ve eaten in on this entire trip. So for all the honeymooners going to Santorini–and there are many–I strongly suggest you book a table at the Kantouni’s.

While I’m in the mood to dole out advice, if you are going to rent a car in Greece, be prepared for some pretty white-knuckle driving. The National Road often resembles the German Autobahn (despite its posted speed limit) and get ready to be overtaken aggressively and often by impatient drivers who pay no attention to double solid lines and oncoming traffic. You’ll learn this fast enough, so just accept and embrace it, just as you’ll likely do with everything else in Greece.

More on our adventures in Greece in my next post.

Photos: Rainer Jenss