Anyone hankering for an island escape from Athens without having to spend numerous hours commuting needn’t look any further than the Saronic archipelago. Among the islands is Hydra, barely an hour from the port of Piraeus (Athens); an island popular with day-trippers, yet even better when you stay.
What sets Hydra apart from the other inhabited Saronic islands is that cars and other motor vehicles are prohibited; the only exceptions being garbage trucks and ambulances. This means that getting around the island is by foot, by boat or by donkey.
The island’s main town, also called Hydra, is built on a natural amphitheatre facing the port. 18th century bastions sit either side of the port, and the small town between them harbours traditional stone mansions, monasteries, cobbled streets and passages and numerous squares.
The centre of town is the waterfront, a beautiful precinct of outdoor cafés, restaurants and small shops that filter into the passages that radiate from the port. It’s here that we found some of the best green grapes we’d tried in a very long time!
The beauty of staying in Hydra, rather than doing it as a day-trip, is you get to experience it before and after it swells with visitors. As the sun is still rising over the ridge you can take in the cool air and watch the fishing and service boats unload their cargo. Everything is piled onto trolleys and on the backs of donkeys and delivered throughout the village.
If you time it right, you’ll catch a fisherman selling his fresh catch straight from the boat, even sneaking a few small fish to the numerous friendly cats you see around the village.
Cream cheese koulouri at Stachi Bakery
Breakfast in Hydra is easy to come by, as many of the cafés offer hearty plates of food and decent coffee to go with it. The scrambled eggs with bacon at Isalos Café is almost big enough for two, but if something lighter is preferred, then Stachi Bakery in a passage by the port ought to be investigated. Their cream cheese koulouri is perfectly fresh first thing in the morning. They also have plenty of local cookies, pastries and breads.
The cheapest coffee can be found at the Cool Mule Café, providing you get it takeaway, but the real reason people come here is for their fab gelato.
Cool Mule Café
The Historic Archives and Museum of Hydra (IAMY)
Brushing up on the island’s traditions, history and culture is made easy by visiting The Historic Archives and Museum of Hydra, also known as IAMY. Artefacts, original manuscripts, old firearms, traditional costumes and paintings by Greek and European artists are all on display among many other things. Entry is €5.
A walk up to the nearby bastions offers beautiful views over the town and surrounding Aegean, plus you can get up close to the original 18th century cannons used to fire at raiding Turks.
Spelia – café-bar and swimming spot
Aside from taking a dip at one of the glorious beaches and swimming spots – like Spelia and Avlaki Beach – a leisurely walk along the rugged coastline is a wonderful way to spend the morning.
There’s a paved path that follows the coast southwest from Hydra village, passing beautiful coves, beaches and tiny hamlets. The first you get to is Kamínia, a sleepy fishing hamlet facing a small marina. Come in the afternoon and watch the sunset from Kodylenia’s, a traditional restaurant perched on the rocks. Just below it is a fab swimming spot – no beach, just beautiful turquoise water straight off the rocks.
A little further is Castello Hydra, a renovated fort-like structure that’s now a restaurant, boutique hotel, function space and beach. Stop here for a swim, lounge on the terrace with a cocktail and take in that Aegean panorama.
Keep walking along the path and you’re greeted with an elevated view of Vlychos, another small fishing hamlet that’s sparsely populated, yet offers a few eateries and taverns. Plus there’s that tempting pebble beach and cluster of umbrellas.
The Pirate Bar
Anyone’s bound to be a bit knackered after a morning of coastal exploration and swimming. Life’s tough in the Greek Islands!
The solution? Drinks overlooking water, of course.
Those cafés and restaurants are perfect territory for all things beer, vino and ouzo, so why not take advantage and simply go with the flow? Our pick was The Pirate Bar, but you couldn’t go wrong with whatever you choose.
There are some excellent restaurants in Hydra, as I’m aware, but our long-term travellers budget and the Euro weren’t great friends. Tucking into regional specialties and local vino at places like Xeri Elia would have been lovely, but we made do with what the budget allowed. Not that we went without, mind you.
One of my favourites is Café Hydra, a tiny place tucked in the back streets in an abandoned market building. A handful of tables, simple hand-written menu, breakfast, grilled meats and seafood. Loved their eggplant (6) baked with onion and tomato, stewed chicken (6) and grilled octopus (8).
Ciao Café is another great spot, set up with a fishermen’s theme and popular with the older men of the village. You can expect crêpes, baked pasta and many local specialties. Their four-cheese gratinated spaghetti (6.5) is quite something!
It’s here that we learned why many of the older men often have a sprig of fresh oregano tucked on one of their ears. When it was time to eat, they simply tore leaves off it to season their food. One of them couldn’t help himself when I got my baked pasta. He gave me his sprig of oregano and, in Greek, said and gestured that I tear off the leaves and mix it through my pasta.
More traditional food can be enjoyed at Taverna Lulu’s, a family set-up with a lovely outdoor terrace beneath shady ficus trees. Everything’s home-cooked and hearty – from soudjoukakia (meatballs in tomato sauce) to giouvetsi (meat with pasta), even bolognese and carbonara.
When the pangs for gyros strike, the beautifully decorated And Onion (Kai Kremmidi) smashes out some very tasty specimens. We really love the Middle Eastern touches with some of the food, things like hummus and falafels. Great pork souvlaki (9) and adana kebab (6), too.
And Onion Restaurant (Kai Kremmidi)
Hellenic Seaways runs between Piraeus and Hydra six times a day, although frequency can change seasonally. Check their website for more details.