welcome to Saronic islands of GREECE
The islands of the Saronic Gulf, which lies between Attica and the Peloponnese, are so close to Athens that each summer they are inundated by Athenians-all of whom, of course, are seeking to avoid the crowds of Athens. These islands are especially packed on summer weekends, as well as whenever there is a serious heat wave in Athens. In addition, the Saronic Gulf islands are popular destinations for travelers with limited time but who are determined not to go home without seeing at least one Greek island. Book well in advance; reservations in summer are invariably a necessity, especially on weekends. The website www.greek-islands.biz is a useful resource for all the islands. The easiest island to visit is Aegina, a mere 30km (17 nautical miles) from Piraeus. The main attractions here are the graceful Doric Temple of Aphaia, one of the best-preserved Greek temples, several good beaches; and verdant pine and pistachio groves. That’s the good news. The bad news is that Regina is so close to the metropolitan sprawl of Athens and Piraeus that it’s not easy here to get a clear idea of why the Greek islands are so beloved as refuges from urban life. Aegina has become a bedroom suburb for Athens, with many of its 10,000 inhabitants commuting to work by boat. That said, Regina town still has its pleasures and both the Temple of Aphaia and deserted medieval town of Paleohora are terrific. Poros is hardly an island at all, only a narrow inlet separates it from the Peloponnese.
There are several good beaches, and the landscape is wooded, gentle, and rolling, like the landscape of the adjacent mainland. In spring, the citrus groves of Limonodassos are in bloom. Poros is popular with young Athenians (in part because the Naval Cadets’ Training School here means that there are lots of young men eager to party) and with tour groups. On summer nights, the waterfront is either very lively or hideously crowded, depending on your point of view.
Hydra (Idra), with its bare hills, superb natural harbor, and elegant stone mansions, is the most strikingly beautiful of the Saronic Gulf islands. One of the first Greek islands to be “discovered” by artists, writers, and bon vivants, Hydra, like Mykonos, is not the place to experience traditional village life. The island has been declared a national monument from which cars have been banished. Its relative quiet is gradually being infiltrated by motorcycles. A major drawback: Few of the beaches are good for swimming, although you can swim from the rocks. Despite the hydrofoils that link Hydra with other islands and the mainland, the island maintains a resolute individuality.
Spetses has always been popular with wealthy Athenians, who built handsome villas here. The several good beaches are home to large hotels that house tour groups. If you like islands that are wooded, you’ll love Spetses, although summer forest fires the last few years have destroyed some of Spetses’s pine groves. This gentle, tourist posters that depict the Cycladic forested island is very unlike the images of isles with their bare, austere landscapes and most Greek islands shown on countless simple whitewashed houses.
STRATEGIES FOR SEEING THE SARONIC GREEK ISLANDS
If possible, avoid June through August unless you have a hotel reservation and think that you’d enjoy the hustle and bustle of high season. Also, mid-July through August, boats leaving Piraeus for the islands are heavily booked-often overbooked. It is sometimes possible to get a deck passage without a reservation, but even that can be difficult when as many as 100,000 Athenians leave Piraeus on a summer weekend. Most ships will not allow passengers to board without a ticket.
If you go to an island on a day trip, remember that, unlike the more sturdy ferryboats, hydrofoils cannot travel when the sea is rough. You may find yourself an unwilling overnight island visitor, grateful to be given the still-warm bed in a private home surrendered by a family member to make some money. We speak from experience. There are frequent hydrofoils from Piraeus to all these islands. For more information, see “Getting There,” below. The schedules and carriers change with irritating regularity, however, so it’s a good idea to get up-to-date information from the Greek National Tourism Organization (EOT, aka GNTO), at 7 Tsochas, Ambelokipi ((CJ 210/870-0000 www.gnto.gr), well out of central Athens. The office is officially open Monday through Friday 8am to 3pm and is closed weekends. At press time it was unclear whether the EOT office at 26 Amalias, in central Athens, would remain open. (Go there in person to get reliable information.) Unfortunately, some hydrofoils leave from the Piraeus Main Harbor while others leave from Marina Zea Harborand some leave from both harbors! Greek Island Hopping, published annually by Thomas Cook, is, by its own admission, out of date by the time it sees print. That said, it’s a very useful volume for finding out where (if not when) you can travel among the Greek islands. With virtually all of the hydrofoils and ferries that serve the Saronic Gulf islands, it is impossible to book a round-trip. As soon as you arrive at your island destination, head for the ticket office and book your return ticket. If you do not do this, you may end up spending longer than you planned-or wished-on one or more of the islands. At press time, both Minoan Flying Dolphins and Ceres Flying Dolphins had been absorbed by Hellas Flying Dolphins (www.dolphins.gr), but there may be more ownership and name changes by the time you arrive.