Rhodes (Ródhos) is deservedly among the most visited of all Greek islands. Its star attraction is the beautiful medieval Old Town that lies at the heart of its capital, Rhodes Town – a legacy of the crusading Knights of St John, who used the island as their main base from 1309 until 1522. Elsewhere, the ravishing hillside village of Líndhos, topped by an ancient acropolis, should not be missed. It marks the midpoint of the island’s long eastern shoreline, adorned with numerous sandy beaches that have attracted considerable resort development. At the southern cape, Prassoníssi is one of the best windsurfing spots in Europe. If you want to escape the summer crowds, take a road trip into the island’s craggy and partly forested interior: worthwhile targets include the castles near Monólithos and Kritinía, and frescoed churches at Thárri, Asklipió and Áyios Yeóryios Várdhas.
Blessed with an equable climate and strategic position, Rhodes, despite its lack of good harbours, was important from the very earliest times. The finest natural port served the ancient town of Lindos which, together with the other Dorian city-states Kameiros and Ialyssos, united in 408 BC to found a new capital, Rodos (Rhodes), at the windswept northern tip of the island. The cities allied themselves with Alexander, the Persians, Athenians or Spartans as conditions suited them, generally escaping retribution for backing the wrong side by a combination of seafaring audacity, sycophancy and burgeoning wealth as a trade centre. Following the failed siege of Macedonian general Demetrios Polyorketes in 305 BC, Rhodes prospered even further, displacing Athens as the major venue for rhetoric and the arts in the east Mediterranean.
Decline set in when the island became involved in the Roman civil wars and was sacked by Cassius; by late imperial times, it was a backwater. The Byzantines ceded Rhodes to the Genoese, who in turn surrendered it to the Knights of St John. After the second great siege of Rhodes, in 1522–23, when Ottoman Sultan Süleyman the Magnificent ousted the stubborn knights, the island once again lapsed into relative obscurity, though heavily colonized and garrisoned, until its seizure by the Italians in 1912.
By far the largest town on the island, Rhodes Town straddles its northernmost headland, in full view of Turkey less than 20km north. The ancient city that occupied this site, laid out during the fifth century BC by Hippodamos of Miletos, was almost twice the size of its modern counterpart, and at over 100,000 held more than double its population.
While the fortified enclave now known as the Old Town is of more recent construction, created by the Knights Hospitaller in the fourteenth century, it’s one of the finest medieval walled cities you could ever hope to see. Yes, it gets hideously overcrowded with day-trippers in high season, but at night it’s quite magical, and well worth an extended stay. It makes sense to think of it as an entirely separate destination to the New Town, or Neohóri, the mélange of unremarkable suburbs and dreary resort that sprawls out from it in three directions.
It was the entrance to Mandhráki harbour, incidentally, that was supposedly straddled by the Colossus, an ancient statue of Apollo erected to commemorate the 305 BC siege. In front of the New Town, the harbour is today used largely by yachts and excursion boats.
From the capital as far south as Líndhos, the east coast of Rhodes has been built up with a succession of sprawling towns and resorts. Some, such as Faliráki, have long since lost any charm they may once have possessed, but there are still some pleasant lower-key alternatives, including Stegná and Haráki.
Situated at the very southern tip of Rhodes, Prassoníssi is regarded as one of the finest windsurfing sites in Europe. Strictly speaking the name refers to “Leek Island”, the sturdy little islet just offshore, which is connected to the mainland by a long, low and very narrow sandspit through which a small natural channel frequently opens.
Not only do the waters here belong to different seas – the Aegean to the west of the spit, and the Mediterranean to the east – but in season they usually offer dramatically contrasting conditions. Thanks to the prevailing meltémi wind, and the funnelling effect of the islet, the Aegean side is generally much rougher, with head-high waves. On summer days it therefore becomes the area for expert windsurfers and daredevil kitesurfers. The Mediterranean side, meanwhile, tends to be much calmer, almost lagoon-like, and its shallow sandbars make it especially ideal for beginners.
The season at Prassoníssi lasts from May until mid-October. Of the three windsurfing schools that operate here, the Polish-run Prasonisi Center (late April–Oct; 22440 91044, prasonisicenter.com) is the keenest and friendliest.