The Argo-Saronic islands hug the coast between Piraeus, the port of Athens and the Peloponnese, the stunning southern mainland of Greece. They could easily fill a holiday on their own, but, combined with Athens and the mainland, would make for a trip that summed up the very best of Greece.
Heading south around the Peloponnese coast, the islands become more upmarket and expensive, and are best out of season. Poros, only a long stone’s throw from the mainland, attracts some package tourism but is beautiful, nonetheless, and a great base for exploring the famous sites on the mainland (the theatre of Epidaurus and Mycenae among them).
Hydra ramps up the stakes, not even allowing cars or bicycles to spoil the island’s tranquillity. If you can afford it, its charms are obvious and have not gone unnoticed by the world’s artists, writers and musicians.
Spetses, a little further on, is an outpost for the remaining rich Greeks and the yacht crowd. Away from them, the interior is almost entirely unpopulated and hiking will allow you to savour the mysterious atmosphere that inspired John Fowles’ The Magus.
Lastly, Kythira is strictly part of the Ionian islands, but is most easily reached from the Peloponnese. If you can make it here, you will be rewarded with one of the most authentic and beautiful Greek islands there is.
Right on the town beach, just south of the harbour, this taverna has a clean modern take on traditional style. If you sit outside you’re right on the sand. It offers well-executed local dishes and, as always, it’s worth looking out for the daily 'oven dishes'.
The Temple of Aphaea is on the other side of the island from Aegina Town, not far above the unlovely resort of Agia Marina. Don’t be put off: this is one not to miss. Almost as elegant as the Parthenon itself, the classical ruin has the advantage of relatively few visitors and a lovely setting in an olive grove. The views are pretty great, too.
Rosy’s does pretty good food, but visitors should also head up to Metochi, the village in the hills just above it. Walk through the windy alleys and your nose should lead you to Parnassos, a family-run taverna. The food is good, but even if it weren’t, the views from the rooftop terrace make it worth the trip.
There’s not a lot to do on Agistri apart from chilling out. If you want to stir, Rosy’s can lend you bikes or kayaks, and offers trips in its motorised fishing boat. They also run various courses, such as yoga and shaitsu, as well as live music nights.
Just behind the cinema (follow the laughing snail signs – this is wha tkaravolos means), this well-known taverna offers a warm welcome from hosts Theo (in the kitchen) and Maria. It serves all the usual favourites plus, of course, stewed snails.
The mainland is a five-minute, €1 boat ride from Poros Town. Book a tour, or hire a car to explore world-famous sites such as the theatre of Epidavros, the ancient ruins of Mycenae and Nafplio, one of the most elegant towns in Greece. Other delights include the Devil’s Bridge canyon behind ancient Troezen, a lemon forest and the volcanic landscape of the Methana peninsula.
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This large rural tavern is in the village of Foussa, roughly in the centre of the island. It caters for tour groups but has a reasonably authentic Greek Night and does good local dishes. They are particularly proud of their wild rabbit (best sampled in a stifado – stew with sweet onions) and homemade bread.
Vayionia Bay, on the north coast of Kalavria, is one of the best beaches on the island, and one of the quietest – an important consideration on this sometimes busy island. There’s a beach cafe and sun loungers in the summer.
Eating out on Hydra can be an expensive affair by Greek standards, but you tend to get what you pay for. Sunset is a prime example, and would be worth it for its setting alone – no guessing when to come to experience its full glory. Fortunately the food, a blend of Italian and Greek focusing on seafood, is rather fine as well.
Just wandering the car-free alleys of town is joy enough on Hydra. After the decline of its merchant fleets, the island was rediscovered by Greek and foreign artists and musicians during the 1960s – Leonard Cohen still has a house here – and there are always exhibitions or cultural events to stumble upon.
To eat cheaply, best head back into town. Although a bit smarter than most, Ke Kremmidi is essentially a kebab joint. A couple of sublime lamb-filled pittas each (more than enough for most appetites) and half a litre of wine will set cost a grand total of €15.
Apart from the coast either side of Hydra Town, most of the island is wild and uninhabited. It does reward those prepared to go hiking. There are local maps available and many of the routes are signposted, though it’s best to get local advice. To complete the experience, get a water taxi to pick you up from one of several coves that you can trek to.
The harbour area of town, called the Dapia, is where most things go on, but some of the restaurants can be surprisingly pricey. For something a bit different, Clock, on the main square, does good burgers and fries as well as a tasty pizza, all at low prices.
A single road makes a loop round Spetses, and it can be used to explore the island’s many beaches. One of the most popular is the sand and shingle bay of Ayia Anargyri, on the opposite side from Spetses Town.
There is a taverna and watersports centre here, but for the best adventure, explore Berkiris’s cave, beyond the western end. Follow the path and then the steps down into the back of the cave, then dare yourself to swim out through the narrow exit. Islanders hid in the cave when the island was invaded by Albanians in 1770, and it was also a refuge for a wounded British pilot in the second world war.
This grill house is so old-fashioned the waiters still dress in white shirts and black waistcoats. In the summer it opens a terrace on top of a roof just down the lane.
Just down the hill from Hora is the little port of Kapsali, with a beach that’s sandy at one end, shingle at the other. In the distance the rock of Hytra can be seen jutting out of the sea: it’s one of the reputed birthplaces of Aphrodite. Captain Spiros will take you there on his glass-bottomed boat, which has a surprising turn of speed, and then lead you for a swim through its caves.
Just up the road is Potamos, now the main hub of the island. There’s a market on Sunday mornings in the main square, and you get a ringside seat from this taverna. The market is as much a social event as anything else, and this is a superb place to have an early lunch and people-watch.
One spot not to miss is Paleohora, the medieval capital of the island. Now mostly in ruins, it is worth a visit for the stunning views as it is almost entirely surrounded by deep gorges. The lazy can even drive here (although it is dirt road for the last bit).
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This article originally appeared on guardian.co.uk
This article was written by Andrew Bostock from The Guardian and was legally licensed through the NewsCred publisher network.