The Cyclades (kih-klah-dez), are Greek islands to dream about; sun-kissed outliers of rock and dappled earth lying scattered across the glittering Aegean Sea. Their characteristic white cubist houses, golden beaches, olive groves, pine forests, herb-strewn mountain slopes and terraced valleys make for an irresistible mix. Throw in a dash of hedonism, and a culture that draws vividly on ancient and modern themes, and the Greek Island dream can become reality.
Other realities can be a touch more down to earth, at least for native islanders, who have often struggled for a living through centuries of deprivation. Beneath the tourism gloss, many still raise livestock and grow food on reluctant soil, or chase a diminishing supply of fish from seas that are regularly rough and dangerous. Winters are often grey, bleak and unforgiving.
The beaches of Mykonos, Santorini and Ios are awash with sun-lounger society and raucous diversions; their main towns seethe with commercialism. All of this has its appeal, but other islands, such as Andros, Amorgos and Sifnos, have kept tourism to a more sedate scale.
The Cyclades are so named because they form a kyklos (circle) around the island of Delos, one of the world’s most haunting ancient sites. Closing that circle is still one of the most rewarding experiences for the dedicated traveller.
Need to know
Santorini may well have conquered a corner of your imagination before you've even set eyes on it. With multicoloured cliffs soaring over 300m from a sea-drowned caldera, it rests in the middle of the indigo Aegean, looking like a giant slab of layered cake. The island spoons the vast crater left by one of the biggest volcanic eruptions in history.