“Happy is the man who, before dying, has the good fortune to sail the Aegean sea.” Greek writer Nikos Kazantzakis (“Zorba the Greek”) had it right. To discover Greece by water is to really live and you have to do it once in your life.
From ancient ruins to bustling restaurants, the Hellenic nation offers sights aplenty. Mainland Greece boasts a wealth of idyllic towns—Nafplio, Parga and Corinth, to name a few—but it’s the Greek Isles that truly captivate the senses.
Who hasn’t imagined lounging on the balcony of a whitewashed villa overlooking a turquoise sea? While The Cyclades—Santorini, Mykonos and the like—may get the bulk of visitors travelling to the Greek islands, the Saronic Gulf, just west and south of Athens, is bit more off-the-beaten-track, offering escapes that eschew modern conveniences for a truly authentic Greek experience. Using ferries in Greece is the perfect getaway for that first beach holiday of the year.
Getting there: Blue Star Ferries head to the islands of the Saronic Gulf from Athens Piraeus, the main ferry port in the city. Travelling from island to island may require a return to Athens so check the routes and timetables before planning your trip.
One of the largest islands in the Saronic Gulf, Aegina is also one of the easiest to get to, making a day trip a worthy excursion. Athenians often take weekend trips to Aegina due to its proximity to the mainland.
Legend has it, Zeus kidnapped the nymph Aegina and placed her on the island that now bears her name. Aegina—the island, not the nymph—quickly became an important maritime port, which is still the case today. Fishermen and sailors congregate at the bustling harbour, hauling in their catch and welcoming travellers, respectively.
Food is always a good starting point when disembarking the ferry and Aegina doesn’t disappoint. Walk past the main harbour restaurants to one of the side streets to discover authentic Greek cuisine. Tholos is of particular note and is an ideal spot to savour grilled fish and horta (sauteed leafy greens indigenous to these islands) as you watch the fishermen return after a day at sea.
Explore sites such as the Aphaia Temple, built in the fifth century to commemorate the heroes of the Trojan War, and the Tower of Markellos, which was once the seat of the island’s government.
After a day of sightseeing in the sun, head to one of Aegina’s pebbled beaches, the best of which is Vagia beach on the island’s northeast, where you can rent sunbeds and while away the hours enjoying a soft drink as the waves lap your feet. Another good option is below the sleepy fishing village of Perdika. It’s not a big beach, for sure, but locals head here for quick dips into the placid blue water after a refreshing lunch.
Poros is just an hour-and-15-minute ferry ride from Athens so another perfect day trip for intrepid travellers.
In classical times, the island was divided in two, with one side a dominant military port. It remained important throughout numerous invasions and governmental changes. Today, it’s a popular spot for mainlanders seeking a quick getaway. Visitors from far-off places will revel in all that Poros has to offer, from ancient sights to tranquil beaches.
Take a hike to what remains of Poseidon’s temple. It makes sense that this idyllic island would have a temple to the God of the Sea but the temple is sadly a shadow of its original state. One benefit of this is that you might have the whole place to yourself. Still, only several Doric columns remain. The real appeal is the breathtaking view of the island of Aegina and the surrounding sea.
Beaches on Poros run the gamut from small and secluded to large and bustling. The aptly named Love Bay will win your heart. The sandy beach is a short bus ride from Poros Town. Pinewoods surround the cosy beach, which offers sunbeds and parasols for rent. It even has a chapel on site for any spontaneous weddings.
Just a 25-minute ferry ride across the Saronic Gulf from Poros lies the most famous of the Saronic islands: Hydra. Sustainability is key here as residents and visitors alike get around by foot or by the ever-present donkeys. No cars, motorcycles or bicycles are allowed, making it the perfect place for romantic strolls after a tavern dinner.
Hydra is not a beach-lovers paradise; it’s more about meandering through narrow alleys and up coastal drives to higher altitudes to breathe in the beauty of the Aegean Sea. Hikers will particularly enjoy the path to the Profitis Ilias monastery, which sits on a promontory high about town. You might miss that handy motorbike, but you’ll certainly thank yourself for embracing what nature gave you.
Hydra affords guests a wealth of sights and sounds, from the Historical Archive Museum, which boasts nautical relics that were instrumental in the Greek War of Independence, to Kountouriotis, a mansion-turned-museum that features vintage furniture and paintings by Greek artists.
Since Hydra isn’t known for its beaches, a jaunt on horseback is a welcome alternative. Harriet’s Hydra Horses, run by a British expat, offers itineraries that take you across varied terrain. The horses are often rescues, which makes the experience even more uplifting.