6 best places for island hopping

How would you feel about watching the sunset from a different beach every evening?

Discovering the roots of some of the world’s greatest civilisations? Partying all night or exploring all day? All this while immersing yourself in an array of languages, cuisines and cultures. Well, it’s easier than you’d think. Using NOMAD from Kiwi.com, you can hop between these islands — or indeed, between any destinations you choose — for far less than you’d think.

Sicily

In contrast to the rich, haughty north, the Umbrian hillsides, the glory of Rome or the fervoured passion of the south, Sicily is one unto itself. Not yet overrun by tourists, it’s at once rugged and soft, laid-back and manic, part of Italy and yet not.

The three largest cities — Palermo, Catania and Messina — present three very different faces of the island. Palermo, the capital, is an opulent place of gastronomy, marketplaces, and architecture that shows its history as the meeting place of Mediterranean cultures; unusual Arab-Norman structures dominate the ancient skyline.

Ampitheatre in Taormina with Etna in the background — Shutterstock Island hopping in the Mediterranean
Ampitheatre in Taormina with Etna in the background — Shutterstock
 

Catania, on the other hand, is not as immediately pretty, more of a slow-burner, but very much worth your time. In the shadow of the ominously looming Mount Etna, its streets are paved with volcanic rock, and at pavement cafes locals stop for a spot of granita, a coffee and a chat. It has a slightly more alternative feel to Palermo, and you can read about it a lot more in-depth here.

And Messina? Well, since its founding by the Greeks in the 8th century BCE, its history has been one of destruction and rebirth. Reaching its peak in the 17th century as one of the grandest cities in Europe, it has been speculated that Messina was the place at which the plague entered Europe, killing 48,000 people. It was devastated in 1783 by an earthquake, again in 1894, and for a third time in 1908, this time also being hit by a tsunami for good measure. However, a mammoth rebuilding effort restored much of the city to its former glory, and there are many fabulous things to be seen.

You can even swim in the old town of Cefalu — leonori / Shutterstock Island hopping in the Mediterranean
You can even swim in the old town of Cefalu — leonori / Shutterstock
 

Add to these the elegance of Syracuse, the cliffs and beaches of Licata, untouched Cefalu, and much more besides, and you might never want to leave. But what kind of island-hopping holiday would that be?

Corsica

Despite being one of the 18 regions of France, Corsica has a long history with Italy, having been ruled over by the Republic of Genoa, and spending time as an Italian-speaking independent republic. To this day, Italian is recognised as an official regional language on the island, and many other cultural elements remain.

 

The old town of Bonifacio is built on a cliff high above the sea — Shutterstock Island hopping in the Mediterranean
The old town of Bonifacio is built on a cliff high above the sea — Shutterstock

That’s not to say that la dolce vita isn’t also la belle vie, as the heady mixture of both Italian and French elements makes Corsicans a proud law unto themselves in many ways. They do, however, retain a very Franco-Italian love of good wine, good food and good friendship, so what’s not to like about that?

In a lot of places you can see Corsica described as a mini continent, and with good reason. Jutting sharply out of the Mediterranean as it does, you can lie on some of Europe’s most gorgeous beaches, the sparkling blue water lapping at your feet, and within half an hour be up in the sawtooth mountains, surrounded by ancient forests and discovering tiny, beautiful villages that seem to have been frozen in time.

An aerial view of the stunning Rondinara Beach, Corsica — Shutterstock Island hopping in the Mediterranean
An aerial view of the stunning Rondinara Beach, Corsica — Shutterstock
 

Being outdoors is very much a reason to visit the island, what with the possibilities for hiking, climbing, diving and so forth, but it also has a number of wonderful towns and cities to visit as well. The capital, Ajaccio (the home of Napoleon Bonaparte, no less) is a pastel-coloured town on a yacht-filled bay, while its regional rival, the elegant port of Bastia, is now a centre of trendy nightlife and beautiful people.

So, for a mellow holiday experience where the main point is to enjoy life at a slower pace, Corsica is a great destination. However, it’s now time to jump to somewhere slightly different…

The Balearics

A Spanish island group consisting of Mallorca, Menorca, Ibiza and Formentera along with many smaller islets, all four are popular tourist destinations for different reasons. A couple of things they have in common though are the beautiful climate, a cuisine famed across Spain (featuring lobster stew, sobrassada sausage and Maó cheese, among other things), and a reputation for knowing how to let their hair down.

Club Amnesia has hosted some of Ibiza's most famous parties — Shutterstock Island hopping in the Mediterranean
Club Amnesia has hosted some of Ibiza’s most famous parties — Shutterstock
 

Of the four, Ibiza has a reputation as the real party island, and for good reason. Home to such iconic clubs as Amnesia and Pacha, even decades after establishing itself as one of Europe’s hottest summer destinations, it still pulls in the crowds. That’s not to say, mind you, that it’s all 24-hour party people; there are still secluded coves and mellow beaches if you search them out.

Mallorca has overcome its reputation for being a bit of a package holiday hell during the 1970s and 80s and now, with new restrictions in place, islanders are trying to shift the focus away from partying, and onto chilling out in the pretty town.

The water in Cala Macarelleta is as clear as glass — Shutterstock Island hopping in the Mediterranean
The water in Cala Macarelleta is as clear as glass — Shutterstock
 

Menorca is far more low-key. Far more rural than the larger two, it features Unesco-protected wetlands, a scattering of bronze-age historical sites, and dry-stone walls surrounding quaint villages. Formentera, smaller still with a population of just over 12,000 on the whole island, is only a short ferry ride from Ibiza, but is a world away in terms of pace of life.

Crete

Home to countless myths and legends from one of the world’s greatest civilisations, Crete, and its capital Heraklion, is one of Europe’s fastest growing tourist destinations. This doesn’t mean to say that it’s overflowing, mind you; just that people are starting to realise that there’s a lot to do and see.

Ancient ruins of the ancient palace of Knossos — Shutterstock Island hopping in the Mediterranean
Ancient ruins of the ancient palace of Knossos — Shutterstock
 

One of the most famous sites in the surrounding area is the ruins of the Palace of Knossos, home of the labyrinth that housed the legendary Minotaur. It’s the largest architectural site on the island (and it’s up against quite a bit of competition), and has been called Europe’s oldest city.

Indeed, at its peak in around 1700 BCE, the palace and surrounding city boasted a population of almost 100,000, incredible by the standards of the time. Palatial structures, columns, pottery, restored frescoes (one featuring a charging bull, naturally) and more are all visible, giving visitors a real sense of how it would have looked nearly 4,000 years ago.

Culturally, that’s just one of many reasons to love Crete. Minoan, Byzantine, Venetian and Ottoman buildings dot the land, giving an instant sense of the societies that have grown, expanded, had their moment, then faded. The lives of millions of people, of ideas, political systems, languages and cultures are all in stark evidence.

Explore the Samaria Gorge in Crete — Shutterstock Island hopping in the Mediterranean
Explore the Samaria Gorge in Crete — Shutterstock

Indeed, Crete feels almost like an entire country in one island. Palm groves and beaches give way to a spine of snow-capped mountains topping out with Mt. Idha at 2,456 m, so there’s something for every type of traveller. This is also true when it comes to places to stay. For every 5-star luxury resort, there’s a room in a villager’s cottage for which you’re expected to help out. Eclectic really is the word for it.

Cyprus

Like Ibiza above, there are parts of Cyprus that have become party central for people from all over the continent and beyond. Ayia Napa, on the southeast of the island, once a sleepy fishing village, is now a vibrant mass of bars and clubs, beach parties and hedonism. But Cyprus is also a place for recharging yourself once you’re done with all that.

Work your way high up into the pine-scented Troodos mountains; explore the ancient sandstone buildings of Paphos; visit villages built around the twin industries of wine making and olive growing and sample the delights they have on offer, or lie on beaches that can be either the finest white sand, or hard, sun-blasted slabs of ancient rock.

Traditional embroidery at Pano Lefkara — Shutterstock Island hopping in the Mediterranean
Traditional embroidery at Pano Lefkara — Shutterstock
 

For something halfway between the partying and nature, the cities on the island, such as Limassol and Nicosia, offer everything you could want, from luxury shopping and dining to narrow streets and squares to stroll around. Here you can spend your time looking for more ethnic, traditional items such as homemade jewellery, goatskin rugs, and jars of local honey.

The Chrysaliniotissa Crafts Centre in Nicosia is a good example of this, a collection of artisan workshops gathered around a courtyard, with talented locals making traditional handicrafts (and fabulous cups of coffee). It’s part of an ongoing project to regenerate the ancient part of Nicosia, around the Chysaliniotissa Church, the oldest Byzantine church in the town.

Malta

Malta’s long and complicated history has left a raft of intriguing legacies behind it, from a language descended from a now-extinct branch of Arabic, to the enigmatic Knights of St. John and the Temple Builders, and on to some of the most scenic natural sights in all of Europe.

Traditional houses and walls of Valletta — Shutterstock Island hopping in the Mediterranean
Traditional houses and walls of Valletta — Shutterstock
 

The capital, Valletta, tumbles down to the seafront, with both expensive yachts and traditional fishing boats nestled calmly in its waters. Glorious, fortified Mdina, is home to St. Paul’s Cathedral — a dominant thump of a building that is beautifully traced by the dusk of an evening — as well as endless lanes and squares that are a string of charming surprises to anyone taking a wander through them. You’ll have to book in advance to see the Hal Saflieni Hypogeum in Paola, a World Heritage Site that’s an underground burial place and temple, incredibly dating back to 3600 BCE.

There’s more stunning subterrain to see outside of the city. Ninu’s Cave on Gozo — a small island just to the north-east of mainland Malta — as well as the nearby Xerri’s Grotto, are unusual in that you have to access both through family homes! A family member will give you a guided tour of each. Also on Gozo, Calypso’s Cave is steeped in myth, it supposedly being the place where the sea nymph Calypso imprisoned Odysseus in Homer’s Odyssey.

Go swimming or snorkelling in the Blue Hole on Gozo — Shutterstock Island hopping in the Mediterranean
Go swimming or snorkelling in the Blue Hole on Gozo — Shutterstock

All this sits in harmony with the contemporary face of Malta, a mix of 21st-century worldliness and sophistication that picks and chooses when it appears amongst the reminders of history. Valletta was European Capital of Culture as recently as 2018, reinvigorating it as a centre for art and design, while the locals are welcoming and friendly. After all, they know how lucky they are to be living somewhere as magical as this.