CNN: Nine top greek islands

Greece’s 1,400 islands -230 of them inhabited- are one of the Mediterranean’s most beautiful assets.

From the Ionian, up by Albania in the northwest, to the Dodecanese, near Turkey in the southeast, they offer vacations you can’t get many other places.

Each of the island groups has its unique allure, plus some of the most picturesque seascapes on Earth.

But for sheer variety in a small radius, proximity to Athens’ ferry port at Piraeus and the best inter-island boat connections, none compete with the Cyclades.

CNN presents the top nine islands in and around the Cyclades, each with its marquee attraction (for ferry schedules, check www.gtp.gr or www.greekferries.gr).

Best food: Crete

A 90-minute high-speed catamaran ride from Santorini, Crete is Greece’s Wild West, where the locals are fiercely independent and have a fondness for guns (used, I’m assured, only to shoot at street signs or into the air during festivities).

Its 3,200 square miles are blessed with scores of microclimates, fertile soil and crops that haven’t succumbed to the scourge of industrial farming. Which means that the tomatoes, cucumbers, eggplants, strawberries, watermelon and other fruits and vegetables that grow here taste as nature intended.

The topography of central mountains ringed by shimmering coastline allows two growing seasons — lower elevations in the winter, higher elevations in the summer — and Crete is a hub for olive oil, cheese and wine production.

Eat at a traditional taverna (even a touristy one) or kafenio (Greek café) and you’d be hard pushed to have a bad meal because the raw ingredients are so darned good.

Elounda, on the island’s northeast coast, is surrounded by some of the island’s great agricultural areas, like the Lasithi plateau, has a selection of hotels for all budgets, and some excellent examples of what makes Greek mainlanders sigh when they think of the divine freshness of Crete’s cuisine.

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