(CNN) — 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.

We present 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 scenery: Santorini

The story behind this island is the stuff of legends — in 1600 BC after a volcano erupted and its center collapsed into the sea, it left behind parts of its caldera that today form the island Santorini.

The views from pretty much anywhere on this crescent-shaped outcrop are superb.

Sheer rock faces are striated in multitudinous shades, villages and towns cling to the tops of cliffs, the caldera is filled with clear deep turquoise water home to the visiting cruise liners.

The whitewashed buildings in the main town Fira resemble a fresh blanket of snow atop a mountain.

On the northern tip, at Oia, where the sunsets are outstanding, houses, hotels and churches tumble down the rock walls. Every evening bus loads of tourists descend to watch the sun sink into the Aegean.

The scenery is as just impressive at sea level. Red Beach, as the name suggests, has a rust-colored backdrop and Mars-esque boulders, Eros Beach’s eerie hoodoo-like walls would fit right in at a national park in Utah, and Caldera Beach, the only one that faces in toward the caldera, gives visitors a discernible sense of the volcano’s immensity.

Where to stay: Vedema, in the village of Megalochori, doesn’t have a caldera view, but its setting in a small village feels authentic (the town square and village church are a one-minute walk away).

The 45 rooms have views of the village homes or the surrounding rolling vineyards.

If a vista of the caldera is key, check in to sister property Mystique. Set in Oia, it has a secret wine cellar, and its 22 cave-style rooms are terraced into the cliff face, providing that classic Santorini experience.

Vedema, Megalochori, 84700, Santorini; +30 22860 81796; doubles from $320
Mystique, Oia, 84702, Santorini; +30 22860 71114; doubles from $470

 

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