The best of the Greek islands on Athens’ door step

Billy Cotsis talks about his visits to the islands of Poros, Hydra, Spetses, Aegina, Agistri and Salamina

They say that Greece has 227 inhabited and 6000 uninhabited islands. They also say that each one has a story to tell; I have been lucky enough to have spent over two years of my life travelling the islands and collecting stories. Whenever I close my eyes I can feel the magic of every one of these islands, every one of the sunsets and occasional sunrises that I have experienced.

I have travelled to 67 islands, and almost all are unparalleled for the sheer beauty and culture. Yet there is one group in particular that have seemingly captured my imagination; and they are not a few hours away by boat or a long wait at the airport. Close to Athens and Piraeus I can find that magic touch that many seek out in a Santorini, Rhodes or Lesvos. A group that is totally majestic, that even the ancient Gods wanted to take their annual vacation here!

Poros, Hydra, Spetses, Agistri, Aegina and Salamina are the main islands of what is called the Saroniko (Saronic) Gulf, and they will of course mesmerise you as they did to me.

My first taste of island life outside of my ancestral Lesvos came about with my mother as a boy. She took me to visit my beloved uncle, Mixalis, at the pretty Peloponnesian town of Porto Heli. To reach the destination we took the Delphini boat upon recommendation by my cousin Vasilis from Marina Zeus (now you go from Piraeus); I still have Kodak pictures with my cousin taken at the wharf. Along the way to our destination there was a stop at the medieval fortress feel of Hydra.

The island is approximately sixty minutes of pure pleasure from Piraeus as the Flying Dolphin rises above the water and leaves the mainland behind in exchange for complete bliss. When the Delphini slows and enters the harbour, one can only assume you are in a land of riches; a richness of culture, history and wealth. The perfectly ‘U’ shaped harbour is flanked by some of the finest jewellery stores in Europe, artists’ shops and cafes to give one an authentic feel of the Saroniko Gulf. Sitting on the harbour are a number of expensive boats and people ready to explore an island with no cars, just the caique to take you round or a donkey. With a friend in 2002, we bought a map and in English it told us the island is 6 km square. Perfect for a walk around! As you walk around seeing the occasional church or settlement and then daylight fades and you keep walking and walking, wondering if the 6 km will ever end. Eventually, you stop by the ocean to talk to a fisherman, Exhausted. He explains that the island is 64 km square and that we are nuts! Indeed, when we turned the map over and read in Greek the information, it became apparent that the English translation was missing a ‘4’ after the 6! Fortunately, the fisherman allowed us to hitch a ride back to the port.

On either side of the port you can swim, though mainly off the rocks as Hydra is essentially a massive stone/rock sitting on the ocean. The water is a blend of tropical paradise and perfection. Just stay well clear of enthusiastic snorkelers. The population of 2000 is waiting for you year-round.

Next on the list is Poros, technically two islands connected by a bridge, known as Spheria and Kalavri in classical times. It’s possible that the ancient Gods designed Poros as it sits in the shape of an amphitheatre, has enough greenery and around 6 or 7 spots to go for a swim.

I first came here in 2004 and then almost every second year since. My highlight is the Love Bay and it is fair to say it truly is an island of romance as I met my then fianc√© here in 2005. And yes, she thought I was perfect, however it is Poros which is perfect for the sunset and has an array of hidden shops in the backstreets of the large port. My tip is to visit between Monday to Thursday as its quiet, despite the island boasting 5000 residents. On the weekend, Athenians tend to visit and the nightlife comes in to play. Do not visit the temple of Poseidon, as there is very little to see. I remember the German who made his girlfriend walk 40 minutes up the hill and boy did he hear it when they reached the site… There is virtually nothing there!
Not content with the beauty of Poros? For two Euros and 200 metres away catch the caique to the Peloponnese for a good feed and a laugh with the locals.

Poros is arguably one of the highlights of summer and I cannot speak enough of this small island. Bring your partner here or family, literally a short trip from Hydra.

If you get bored of Poros, take a trip to what is essentially nineteenth century Greece with a visit to Spetses. This is approximately two hours from Piraeus and similar to the other islands I have mentioned, no vehicles just a caique to take you around. Once we actually managed a pub crawl using a caique. Ironically, it doesn’t count as an official pub crawl when my drink is essentially a cola light.

Unless you are not a romantic, take your partner on the horse and carriage along the ocean and dream of the time when Laskarina Bouboulina the famous revolutionary lived on Spetses. Her museum is a must as well as the crystal clear beaches. The architecture is magnificent and will transplant you to the age of Neo Classical buildings of previous centuries.

Even though the prices are expensive compared to the neighbours, just the thrill of counting out of commission cannons, similar to Hydra, is alone worth it. As is the fact the island is well organised, a hallmark of the Saroniko and you can take a water taxi around the island or to neighbouring Costa for a taverna on the beach or Porto Heli, both on the Peloponnese.

A population of 4000 awaits, and during summer is seven day a week destination.

Upon my return to ‘civilisation,’ I inevitably plan my next outing. This time I make my way on a ferry to the tiny Agistri.

Named after a fishing hook, I first came here in 2004 and like Poros I seem to visit frequently with last year being the most recent. Usually on a weekend it is full of Athenians seeking a quick escape for a few days and being only an hour from Athens, why would you not want to take advantage?!
With a population of less than 1200 the island relies on tourism, yet it is not exactly flushed with tourists daily. This makes it even more attractive as you will receive decent service and a spot at the beach. Camping is also well known on the far side of the island, and I use the word far loosely as it’s only a few km only.

Returning in 2008 with my cousin and his partner was something I will always cherish. It was before the economic crisis and unfortunately was the last holiday we all took together. As usual there was plenty of laughter and we could never figure out the proud eatery proclaiming the ‘best English breakfast in Greece.’ I think we preferred an Agistri breakfast of a gyros at around Midday when we would normally wake up. My cousin Kostas introduced me to the stunning beach on the other side of the island called Limenaria.

Last year I was here with another cousin. The only problem was we almost didn’t secure a return ticket as it was, ironically, busy; always have a return ticket as there are few boats off the island.

Is one of those islands you are drawn to or wish to avoid. Neighbouring and certainly overshadowing Agistri, you will find an island with a population of almost 14,000 and all year vibrancy. Being close to Athens and indeed once a sea merchant rival, you have a few businesses here that connect with Athens on a daily basis with boats coming and going. This provides a sense that it is almost a suburb of Athens. You can drive around this island; during the height of summer, you may even notice a traffic build up.

If you are religious, certainly worth a trip to Saint Nectarios and from there make your way to the quirky Temple of Zeus Hellanios, near Pachia Rachi village. This is a Byzantine church, built on the ruins of an ancient temple from the fourth century BCE.

A friend of mine in London, Tryfonas, is from the island and will only ever entertain holidays on Salamina. To many, this is essentially an extension of Athens, and with a quick ferry crossing, it does lend itself to being a suburb with 40,0000 living here and containing Paloukia, the second biggest port of the Hellenic Republic.

Salamina may not have the same wow factor of the rest of the islands, it does have that village meets city element, modern meets old. Most importantly you can feel the history. For without the Battle of Salamina, history may have taken a different direction if the Hellenic fleet had failed, and like most of these islands it is the birthplace of some significant names including Ajax and Euripides.

You do not need my friend or myself to tell you that the delicious food on Salamina is up there with the best. Essentially, I enjoyed sitting on a beach taverna with the water lapping our table, feasting. History never sets here, as of course culture and paradise never sets on the truly spectacular Saroniko Gulf.

* Billy Cotsis is the author of ‘From Pyrrhus to Cyprus: Forgotten and Remembered Hellenic Kingdoms, territories, entities and a fiefdom’.