The inter-island ferry network is probably the most efficient and reliable service sector in Greece and weather permitting, they run like clockwork. They’re like a national bus service with routes that can take you to any island although you may have to change boats for a connecting destination. They’re not as quick as flying but are more spacious, much more interesting and much, much cheaper.
International ferry connections with Italy, Egypt, Israel and even Greece’s old adversary Turkey are possible. But Greek island hopping has a cache all of its own - on a par with visiting the Taj Mahal or trekking to Everest base camp but without the hassle or the effort.
Island hopping is easy, although a little daunting if you’re on a tight schedule – because they wait for no one. Some routes can be booked on the web, although the booking fee can cost more than the ticket or simply walk into one of dozens of ticket agents at every harbour and buy as you go.
I’m relaxing with a coffee on board Minoan lines ‘High Speed 1’ as it glides out of Piraeus on the dot of 7.30; it’s a hydrofoil, so it’s twice the price but takes half the time of a standard ferry. Within minutes we are cruising through the dazzling blue waters of the Aegean; passing Aegina with little fishing boats bobbing in our wake and barren uninhabited islets that make up Greece’s improbable total of 2,000 islands.
There’s a café, TV room, lounge and a business cabin but this is a ferry not a cruise ship; its part of the essential lifeblood of small island communities scattered over thousands of square miles of the Mediterranean. Dozens of trucks are crammed onto the lower deck - piled with building materials, food and household goods. Upstairs most passengers are equally laden with boxes, bags, but you’ve got to be impressed by the guy carting a fridge and the family struggling with various items of furniture.
All the Greek passengers seem to know each other, their kid’s race around like demented chickens, old men sit flipping their worry beads while others sprawl out to sleep the routine journey away.
Greece really is all things to all men; it has everything from the unsavoury and seriously down-market 18-30 resorts of Faliraki on Rhodes or Kavos on Corfu to luxury villas, hotels and multimillion-dollar yachts. But neither of these extremes of alcohol-fuelled debauchery or luxury seclusion is the real Greece.
A third of the population live in Athens but the heart of Greece is in the small island communities. Each is a little different but all have a common thread of culture that is impossible to mistake. The best way to identify an island that is likely to have retained its Greek culture and traditions is to check that no charters fly there. A small domestic airstrip is usually OK but even better if there is no airport at all and that means taking a ferry.
As our ferry pulls into Sifnos, part of the western Cyclades, trucks and passengers start spilling onto the quay within minutes. Vehicles and passengers jostle for precedence on the ramp, dodging each other in that refreshing but hair-raising ‘sort yourselves out’ attitude of Greece.