The rocky, partly volcanic Argo-Saronic islands, most of them barely an olive’s throw from the mainland, differ to a surprising extent not just from the land they face but also from one another. The northernmost island of the Argo-Saronic group, Salamína, is effectively a suburb of Pireás, with its narrow strait, barely a kilometre across, crossed by a constant stream of ferries. There’s little to attract you on the other side, however, and the island is covered only briefly here. Égina, important in antiquity and more or less continually inhabited since then, is infinitely preferable: the most fertile of the group, it is famous for its pistachio nuts and home to one of the finest ancient temples in Greece. Tiny Angístri is often treated as little more than an adjunct of Égina, but it’s a lovely place in its own right, ideal for a few days’ complete relaxation. The three southerly islands – green Póros, tiny, car-free Ýdhra and upmarket Spétses – are comparatively infertile, and rely on water piped or transported in rusting freighters from the mainland.
Given their proximity to Athens and their beauty, the Argo-Saronics are hugely popular destinations, with Égina (Aegina) almost becoming a city suburb at weekends. Póros, Ýdhra (Hydra) and Spétses are similar in the summer, though their visitors include a higher proportion of foreign tourists. More than any other group, these islands are best out of season and midweek, when visitors (and prices) fall dramatically and the port towns return to a quieter, more provincial pace. You’ll also notice a significant difference between Ýdhra and Spétses, the furthest of the islands, and those closer to Athens – because of the distance, and because they’re accessible only by hydrofoil and catamaran rather than the cheaper conventional ferries, they’re markedly more expensive and exclusive, with significant expat populations. The islands were not extensively settled until medieval times, when refugees from the mainland established themselves here, adopting seagoing commerce (and piracy) as livelihoods. Today, foreigners and Athenians have replaced locals in the depopulated harbour towns; windsurfers, water-taxis and yachts are faint echoes of the massed warships, schooners and kaïkia once at anchor.
SALAMÍNA is the quickest possible island-hop from Pireás, and indeed much of its population commutes to the city to work. The island itself, however, is highly developed, has few tourist facilities, and is close enough to the Athenian dockyards to make swimming unappealing. The island’s port is at Paloúkia, facing the mainland, just a short hop across a narrow, built-up isthmus to Salamína Town on the west coast. Five kilometres or so beyond Salamína Town, Eándio has the island’s cleanest and most attractive beaches. A similar distance from Salamína Town to the north, the monastery of Faneroméni (daily 8.30am–12.30pm & 4pm–sunset) is a working nunnery with impressive frescoes, beautifully sited amid pine woods overlooking the mainland.
Perhaps the main reason for heading to Salamína is for the boat trip itself, through an extraordinary industrial seascape of docks and shipworks. The waters you cross were the site of one of the most significant sea battles of ancient times; some would say of all time, given that this was a decisive blow in preventing a Persian invasion and allowing the development of Classical Athens, and with it modern Western culture.
In 480 BC, the Greeks were in full retreat from the vast Persian army under Xerxes, following the defeat of the Spartans at Thermopylae. Many Greek cities, including Athens, had been sacked and burned by the invaders – indeed smoke from the ruins on the Acropolis probably formed a backdrop to the Battle of Salamis. The Greeks had roughly 370 triremes supplied by around twenty cities, the bulk from Athens, Corinth and Aegina; the Persian fleet was twice the size, with heavier ships, but even more diverse, with many from subject nations whose loyalty was questionable.
Through false information and strategic retreats, the Greeks managed first to tire many of the Persian crews – who rowed all night to cut off a non-existent escape attempt – and then to lure them into the narrow strait off Salamína. Crowded in and unable to manoeuvre, and with the wind in the wrong direction, the Persians found themselves at the mercy of the more nimble Greek triremes, and the battle eventually became a rout. Some two hundred Persian ships were sunk, against forty-odd on the Greek side, and few of their heavily armoured crews or marines survived.
ANGÍSTRI, fifteen minutes by fast boat from Égina, is a tiny island, obscure enough to be overlooked by most island-hoppers, though the visitors it does have are a diverse mix: Athenian weekenders, retirees who bought and restored property here years ago, plus a few British and Scandinavian package holidaymakers. There’s a small, not terribly attractive strip of development on the north coast facing Égina, but the rest of the island is pine-covered, timeless and beautiful – albeit with very few beaches. It’s also strangely schizophrenic: holiday weekends can see hordes of young Greeks camping out on otherwise empty beaches, while in Skála a few small, classy hotels are juxtaposed with cafés serving English breakfasts to the package-trippers.
A substantial and attractive island with a proud history, less than an hour from Pireás, ÉGINA (Aegina) is not surprisingly a popular weekend escape from Athens. Despite the holiday homes, though, it retains a laidback, island atmosphere, especially if you visit midweek or out of season. Famous for its pistachio orchards – the nuts are hawked from stalls all around the harbour – the island can also boast substantial ancient remains, the finest of which is the beautiful fifth-century BC Temple of Aphaea, commanding superb views towards Athens from high above the northeast coast.
ÉGINA TOWN, the island’s capital, makes an attractive base, with some grand old buildings around a large, busy harbour. The Neoclassical architecture is matched by a sophisticated ethos: by island standards this is a large town, with plenty of shopping and no shortage of tempting places to eat and drink. Life revolves around the waterfront, where ferries come and go, yachts moor, fishermen tend their nets and kaïkia tie up to sell produce from the mainland.
The restored Pýrgos Markéllou, or Markellos Tower, is an extraordinary miniature castle which was the seat of the first Greek government after independence. Despite appearances, it was built only around 1800 by members of the Friendly Society and the local politician Spýros Márkellos. You can’t go inside except during the occasional special exhibition, but walking here, through the cramped inland streets, is enjoyable in itself.
Égina’s Folklore Museum is a lovely example of its type, housed in a nineteenth-century mansion. Its upper rooms are packed with fine old furniture, traditional costumes, and many of the trappings of island life a century ago, along with a small local historical archive. Downstairs are rooms devoted to fishing, with model boats and fishing gear, and to agricultural life, with a collection of the basics of village life.
The site of Ancient Aegina lies north of the centre on a promontory known as Kolóna, after the lone column that stands there. The extensive remains, centring on a Temple of Apollo at the highest point, are well signed, and some reconstruction makes it easier to make out the various layers of settlement from different eras. Near the entrance, a small but worthwhile archeological museum houses finds from the site, along with information on the island’s ancient history. Highlights of the display include a room of Minoan-influenced Middle Bronze Age pottery, rescued from a nearby building site.
On the north edge of town, between the port and Kolóna, there’s a tiny but popular beach with remarkably shallow water. This was the site of the ancient city’s harbour, of which various underwater remains are clearly visible. You can swim south of town, too, but there are more enticing spots further north – immediately beyond Kolóna there’s an attractive bay with a small, sandy beach, while other small coves lie off the road heading further out of town in this direction. Just a couple have any facilities, with loungers and beach bars; Kamares Paradise is among the more attractive.
Separated from the mainland by a 350m strait, PÓROS (“the ford”) barely qualifies as an island at all. Popular with Brits and Scandinavians – more than any other Argo-Saronic island, Póros attracts package-holiday operators – it is also busy with weekending Athenians, who can get here by road (via Galatás) or on cheap ferries from Pireás, and with yachties taking advantage of the extensive mooring. There are in fact two islands, Sferiá (Póros Town) and the far larger Kalávria, separated from each other by a miniature canal spanned by a bridge. The town is a busy place, with constant traffic of shipping and people: if your stay is longer than a couple of nights you may want to base yourself on Kalávria for a little more peace, coming into town for the food, nightlife and shopping.
PÓROS TOWN rises steeply across the western half of tiny volcanic Sferiá, a landmark clocktower at its summit. There’s a two-room archeological museum on the waterfront (Tues–Sun 8.30am–3pm; €2) whose local finds will fill a spare half-hour, but otherwise few sights. This is a place to eat, drink, shop and watch the world go by. Away from the waterfront you’ll quickly get lost in the labyrinth of steep, narrow streets, but nowhere is far away and most of the restaurants reasonably well signed. For a fine view over the rooftops and the strait, climb up to the clocktower (signed Roloï) – the tower itself is structurally suspect and fenced off, but you can still enjoy the outlook.
Take one of the boats shuttling constantly to and from Galatás and you’re on the mainland Peloponnese, where there are numerous potential excursions. Local travel agents run a variety of tours, or you’ll see hire cars on offer in Galatás from around €25 a day.
Ancient Troezen is an unenclosed site near the modern village of Trizína, barely 10km from Galatás. Legendary birthplace of Theseus, the scattered site is most easily understood if you purchase a map in the village – this also recounts the stories of Theseus’s life. A short walk up a gorge from the site takes you to the spectacular natural rock arch of the Dhiavoloyéfyro, the Devil’s Bridge.
(Epídhavros) Most famous for its fourth-century BC theatre, one of the finest ancient monuments in Greece, Epidaurus is also an extensive sanctuary to Asklepios, god of healing. The theatre is used for productions of Classical Greek drama on Friday and Saturday nights from June to August as part of the annual Athens & Epidaurus Festival (greekfestival.gr; organized excursions from many island travel agents).
A long day-trip, but arguably the most rewarding destination in the Peloponnese, Náfplio is a gorgeous nineteenth-century town in a stunning coastal setting protected by forbidding fortresses. There are plenty of excellent restaurants and cafés.
A popular, upmarket escape for Athenians, SPÉTSES had brief fame and a vogue as a package destination, largely thanks to John Fowles, who lived here in the early 1950s and used the place, thinly disguised, as the setting for his cult novel The Magus. But the island never developed the mass infrastructure – or the convenient beaches – to match. Today, the town is much the biggest in the Saronic islands, with apartments and villas spreading for several kilometres along the northeast coast, while the rest of the island remains almost entirely uninhabited, with pine forest inland and numerous excellent small beaches around the coast.
A single paved road circles Spétses, mostly high above a rocky coast but with access to beaches at various points. You can also get to many of the beaches by excursion boat.
Kaïki or College Beach is just twenty minutes’ walk west of town, with a frequent bus service and extensive facilities including loungers, bars and a waterski outfit that also rents jet-skis. Vréllos, a small, pebbly cove in a pretty, wooded bay, is the end of the line for buses heading west out of Spétses. Thanks to paved access and a beach cocktail bar pumping out loud Greek rock it’s almost always packed at weekends.
At the western extremity of the island, Zoyeriá is reached down a track that soon degenerates into a path (which doesn’t stop locals riding their scooters) past a series of rocky coves – following this you eventually climb over a small headland to arrive at a sandy beach with a large and popular summer-only taverna, Loula. Many of the patrons here arrive the easy way, by boat.
The bay of Ayía Paraskeví, on the southwest coast, shelters a part-sand beach that is almost always quieter than its near neighbour, Áyii Anáryiri. The end of the eastern bus route, it has a seasonal café/bar, but no other development at all.
Áyii Anáryiri is the largest and most popular beach on Spétses: a long, sheltered, partly sandy bay, with an offshore swimming pontoon and a watersports centre offering kayaks, pedaloes, windsurfers and catamarans to rent, as well as a waterski boat. At the end of the beach concrete steps lead round to the Bekiris Cave, a low-ceilinged, shallow cavern; you can clamber in through a narrow entrance at the back and then swim out, though best to have something on your feet for the sharp rocks.
Almost at the southern tip of the island a long, steep concrete track leads down to a cove of pale-coloured pebbles at Xylokériza. There’s no sand at all here, but it’s a beautiful spot, surrounded by pines and phoenix palms, and rarely crowded. There’s a café and volleyball court.
Ayía Marína or Paradise Beach is a busy, almost suburban beach, within walking distance of the eastern edge of Spétses Town. Packed with loungers, it also has a popular bar-restaurant and a watersports operation offering kayaks and waterski and ringo rides. There are views offshore towards the tempting but off-limits islet of Spetsopoúla, the private property of the heirs of shipping magnate Stavros Niarchos.
If you want to explore Spétses on foot, you can strike directly across the island to many of the beaches. Follow Bótasi out of town, past the Lazaros taverna, and as you leave town a sign (the only one you’ll see) points you up a paved road. The paving soon runs out, but a good broad track heads up towards the heights. At the top there are no signs at all: one track leads directly down the other side, to rejoin the road halfway between Áyii Anáryiri and Xylokériza (the other end of this track is optimistically signposted “Profítis Ilías 5”, but in practice is virtually impassable, on two wheels or four). The better option is to turn right along the spine of the island, with increasingly impressive views across towards the mainland over both coasts; before long there’s an obvious (unsigned) path heading down towards Áyii Anáryiri. Continue beyond this and there’s a less obvious path to Ayía Paraskeví, while the main trail curls back around towards the north, eventually descending to the coast road near Vréllos.
The Doric Temple of Aphaea stands on a pine-covered hill 12km east of Égina Town, with stunning views all around: Athens, Cape Soúnio, the Peloponnese and Ýdhra are all easily made out. Built between 500 and 480 BC, it slightly predates the Parthenon, and is one of the most complete and visually complex ancient buildings in Greece, its superimposed arrays of columns and lintels evocative of an Escher drawing. Aphaea was a Cretan nymph who, fleeing from the lust of King Minos, fell into the sea, was caught by some fishermen and brought to ancient Aegina; her cult, virtually unknown anywhere else, was established on the island as early as 1300 BC. Two hundred years ago the temple’s pediments were intact and essentially in perfect condition. However, like the Elgin marbles, they were “purchased” from the Turks – this time by Ludwig I of Bavaria – and they currently reside in Munich’s Glyptothek museum. A small museum offers a great deal of information about the history and architecture of the temple. A well-signed path leads from the temple to Ayía Marína; an easy walk down, slightly tougher coming up.
The island of ÝDHRA (Hydra) is one of the most atmospheric destinations in Greece. Its harbour and main town preserved as a national monument, it feels like a Greek island should, entirely traffic-free (even bicycles are banned) with a bustling harbour and narrow stone streets climbing steeply above it. Away from the main settlement the rest of the island is roadless, rugged and barely inhabited. The charm hasn’t gone unnoticed – Ýdhra became fashionable as early as the 1950s, and in the Sixties characters ranging from Greek painter Nikos Hatzikyriakos-Ghikas to Canadian songster Leonard Cohen bought and restored grand old houses here. There’s still a sizeable expat community, which contributes to a relatively sophisticated atmosphere, and also noticeably high prices. But even the seasonal and weekend crowds, and a very limited number of beaches, can’t seriously detract from the appeal. When the town is overrun, it’s easy enough to leave it all behind on foot or by excursion boat. The interior is mountainous and little-visited, so with a little walking you can find a dramatically different kind of island – one of rural cottages, terraces of grain to feed the donkeys, hilltop monasteries and pine forest.
ÝDHRA TOWN, with tiers of grey-stone mansions and humbler white-walled, red-tiled houses rising from a perfect horseshoe harbour, makes a beautiful spectacle. Around the harbour, trippers flock to cafés and chic boutiques, but it’s also worth spending time wandering the backstreets and narrow alleys – one thing you may notice while doing so is that even more than most Greek island towns, Ýdhra is overrun with wild cats, probably because there are so many “cat ladies” who feed them.
The waterfront mansions were mostly built during the eighteenth century on the accumulated wealth of a remarkable merchant fleet, which traded as far afield as America and – during the Napoleonic Wars – broke the British blockade to sell grain to France. In the 1820s the town’s population was nearly 20,000 – an incredible figure when you reflect that today it is under 3000 – and Ýdhra’s merchants provided many of the ships for the Greek forces during the War of Independence, and consequently many of the commanders. At each side of the harbour, cannons facing out to sea and statues of the heroes of independence remind you of this place in history.
The mansions of the wealthy eighteenth-century merchant families are still the great monuments of the town; some labelled at the entrance with “Oikía” (“Residence of …”) followed by the family name. Among the finest are the two Koundouriótis mansions, built by two brothers: Yíoryios, whose former home is periodically open for art exhibitions, was a leading politician of the fledgling Greek nation and grandfather of Pávlos, president of Republican Greece in the 1920s; older brother Lázaros was prominent in the independence wars.
The Lázaros Koundouriótis Museum is the large ochre building high on the western side of town. The hot climb up the stepped alleyways is rewarded with great views down over the town and port, and a lovingly restored interior that looks ready to move into. The red-tiled floors, panelled wooden ceilings and period furnishings outshine the contents of the museum – paintings, folk costume and independence paraphernalia.
On the eastern waterfront, the Historical Archives Museum occupies one of Ýdhra’s great houses. It’s a small, crowded and enjoyable display of clothing, period engravings, and ships’ prows and sidearms from the independence struggle. The Melina Mercouri Centre, next door, often has interesting temporary art exhibitions.
The most obvious and important of Ýdhra’s many churches is Kímisis tís Theotókou by the port, with its distinctive clocktower. The cloistered courtyard houses the small but rich collection of the ecclesiastical museum – silver-bound books, icons, vestments, bejewelled crosses and the like.
Over the weekend closest to June 21, Ýdhra Town celebrates the Miaoulia, in honour of Admiral Andreas Miaoulis whose fire boats, packed with explosives, were set adrift downwind of the Turkish fleet during the War of Independence. The highlight of the celebrations is the burning of a boat at sea as a tribute to the sailors who risked their lives in this dangerous enterprise.
Orthodox Easter is also a colourful and moving experience, especially on the evening of Good Friday when the fishermen’s parish of Áyios Ioánnnis at Kamíni carries its Epitáfios, or symbolic bier of Christ, into the shallows to bless the boats and ensure calm seas.
To explore the island’s interior and south coast, head out of Ýdhra Town on the street that leads past the Miranda hotel or around the eastern edge past the Piteoussa: as you start to climb, a left turn leads to Áyios Nikólaos, keeping right heads to Profítis Ilías.
The monastery of Profítis Ilías and nearby convent of Ayía Efpraxía are about an hour’s climb above Ýdhra Town. What must be the longest stairway in Greece (or alternatively a zigzag path) constitutes the final approach to Profítis Ilías (closed noon–4pm, but water and loukoúm are hospitably left at the gate). If you want to go further, a rather tougher, harder-to-follow trail continues left behind the monastery to a saddle overlooking the south coast. From here a pathless scramble brings you within twenty minutes to the 590m summit of Mount Éros, the Argo-Saronic islands’ highest point, but the path itself branches: right to the chapel of Áyios Mámas, on whose feast day of September 2 there’s a pilgrimage of people and animals to be blessed; left eventually circles down to the sea at the tiny hamlet of Klimáki, a couple of hours’ walk in all.
The path from Ýdhra Town towards deserted Áyios Nikólaos monastery offers spectacular views back down over the harbour before reaching, at the top, a broad, easy dirt track heading straight across a high plateau towards the monastery. Just beyond Áyios Nikólaos is a small settlement, from where you can in theory head down to Limnióniza, a scenic cove on the south coast an hour and a quarter from Ýdhra Town. However, it’s a steep scramble on a path which is hard to find and there are no boats back unless you arrange to be picked up by water-taxi. A far easier alternative is to follow the broad track down from Áyios Nikólaos to Mandhráki, where you can have a swim before taking the boat back to town.
This is Ýdhra’s eastern tip and is about three hours’ walk from town, on a path that heads east from Áyios Nikólaos. There are several small chapels along the way, along with the substantial Moní Zoúrvas. Perhaps the best way to do this trip is to take an early morning water-taxi to the cape, and walk back to town along the island’s spine.