11/14/2010 10:35 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

Rhodes Beckons Sun/Sea Lovers, History Buffs, Nature Fans


It's hard not to enjoy a trip to Rhodes with its plentiful sun, historical sites, diverse cultural offerings, natural beauty, fun spots, and laid back atmosphere.

The Dodecanese Greek island, the largest in a group of 12 (hence the Greek number "thotheca"), is easily accessible to visitors from Europe, Asia and Africa and is situated closer to Turkey than mainland Greece. Its size is also manageable - 78 kilometers long (48.4 miles) and 38 kilometers wide (23.6 miles) - with the highest mountain standing at 1,215 meters (3,986 feet) above sea level, so no place is too far.

According to Greek mythology, Zeus divided his war trophies to the gods of Mount Olympus after defeating the Giants - not the baseball team -- and becoming master of the earth. But the sun god Helios was on a mission at the time, so he missed out on the booty and complained. To pacify Helios on his return, Zeus allowed him to take whatever spoils rose out of the sea, which became the beautiful island full of flowers that is today known as Rhodes.

Another myth attributes the island's emergence to Helios' love for the nymph Rhodes, daughter of the sea god Poseidon. The upshot: love at first sight, marriage, and seven children, with son Kerkaphos begetting three sons - Kamiros, Ialysos and Lindos - who built cities bearing their names and divided the island among themselves.

Tourist guides claim the island on the eastern tip of Greece,+Greece&sll=37.0625,-95.677068&sspn=35.082817,69.697266&ie=UTF8&hq=&hnear=Rhodes,+Dodecanese+Islands,+Greece&z=9 enjoys up to 300 days of sunshine, so visitors from colder climes have the luxury of basking in the sun when their own back yards may be covered in snow.

But the uninitiated should also beware since over-exposure is harmful and the summer months can be scorchers, with temperatures touching 40 degrees Centigrade (104 Fahrenheit), or more, during the day in some areas. Fortunately, the cool evening breezes and windy areas in Rhodes' northern and western spots more than make up for it.

The island's capital, also named Rhodes (Rodhos in Greek), is at the very northern tip.

For history buffs, Rhodes is layered with cultures. From the mythological Telchines, to the first inhabitant Carian tribes of Asia Minor, to the Phoenicians from the shores of modern-day Lebanon, to assorted nation states that later made up Greece, to the Romans, Byzantines, Persians, Saracens, Crusaders from Europe, to the Turkish and Italian occupations in the 20th Century, Rhodes has hosted countless invaders and guests.

It's no wonder its inhabitants are multi-lingual and more open to outsiders than more reserved or "xenophobic" Greeks from other parts of the country. Depending on the context and historical background, the Greek word "xenos" can mean foreigner, stranger, enemy, or guest-friend.

Although mythology and temples honoring an endless variety of gods are ubiquitous, there's no denying the Greek Orthodox Church is the religious mainstay. There's a church just about everywhere, complemented by those small figurines of Jesus, the Virgin Mary, or some saint on street corners and mountain curves to protect motorists, pedestrians, villagers, or anyone nearby.

No visit to Rhodes is complete without tours of the main sites, including the capital's Medieval Town and Castle of the Knights.

Beautiful churches sit comfortably alongside the Suleiman Cami mosque - a testament to religious co-existence today. The Byzantine and archeological museums are a must, with their treasure troves of relics. Tourists are drawn to the old town's pedestrian-only area of shops and restaurants like bees to honey. They are tempted by the handicrafts, pottery, jewelry shops, leather goods stores, and apparel boutiques offering international brand names and locally made goods.

The crochet embroidery table cloths, runners and blouses made by the older "yayas" (grandmothers) are particularly attractive, but bargaining is a must if the price seems too steep, notably since the Euro is painfully high against the U.S. dollar.

All that walking and touring builds up an appetite, to be satisfied by various specialties like lamb gyro or souvlaki sandwiches accompanied by a refreshing tzaziki yougurt and garlic salad for tourists on tight budgets.

More copious meals may lead to dipping pita bread into taramosalata (Greek caviar spread), olives, an order of mousaka (an eggplant-based meat dish), khoriatiki salata (typical Greek salad with feta cheese), stifado (another lamb-based dish), and, a rich array of seafood, including red mullet, calamari and octopus. The fruits are tasty but desserts can be a little too sweet, and for those accustomed to stronger espresso or Turkish coffee, Greek coffee can seem weak.

Naturally, one needs to wash down all that food with beer, wine or ouzou (the grape and anisette-based drink that turns milky white when mixed with water and ice).

For the more adventurous, there's always the casino with its gambling tables and slot machines.

If the body still holds out after all the touring, swimming, eating and drinking, nightclubs abound.

But bouzouki players don't start performing until midnight, and, yes, you can hear Mikis Theodorakis' legendary tunes from Zorba the Greek.

Or you could head to discos where pop music bands and DJs are de rigueur to dance away the night before a dawn dip in the azure blue sea.

Rhodes: Greek Island With A Special Touch