Archie Thomas, The Daily Telegraph, July 22, 2013
The older of the two dentists on the Greek island of Hydra did things the old-fashioned way. In the waiting room of his elegant, book-lined surgery in Hydra Town’s backstreets there was a tray of hard liquors. Clutching my aching tooth, I tried not to wonder who they were for – the dentist or his patients.
In his grandfather’s reclining chair, the full vintage quality of the dentist’s operation came into view: in the drawer, alongside the ancient scalpels, was his treasured collection of cigarette lighters. It was a long way from the cold, clinical climate of my London surgery.
Indeed, the Greek island of Hydra is, in many ways, a throwback to a simpler time; a time when there were two options to a bothersome wisdom tooth: a mouthful of clove oil or a bit of string and the slam of the door (I opted for the former).
We’d travelled to Hydra by hydrofoil from the port of Piraeus, close to Athens. Whereas in Athens there had been an air of desperation – on the bus from the airport to the port we rarely passed an apartment block, restaurant or hotel not for sale, and the shops that were still open for business all sported knock-down sale signs – Hydra positively pulsed with life. We arrived at 10pm but the jewellery shops, which line Hydra Town’s horseshoe-shaped harbour, were all open – and with good reason; they were all doing a brisk trade.
The relative economic vitality of Hydra’s marble-paved harbour had come as something of a surprise to us. My wife and I had set sail for Greece with our ears ringing with cautionary advice from friends and family – particularly nervous as my wife was five-months pregnant. Take fistfuls of euros because there could be a run on the bank, they warned. The hospitals are barely functioning so make sure your travel insurance covers getting a rescue helicopter at four in the morning. But Hydra in June was cheerful, a lot more cheerful than rain-lashed Shepherd’s Bush.
Although the second easiest Saronic Gulf island to reach from Athens (Poros is half an hour closer), Hydra doesn’t attract mass tourism chiefly because it doesn’t possess sandy beaches. However, it is not short of decent swimming spots. On our first morning on the island, we loaded up on a breakfast of Greek yogurt and honey (what else) at the Bratsera, a charming small hotel in a renovated former sponge factory, and took the picturesque 20-minute (one mile) coastal walk west of Hydra Town through the village of Kamini to Castello beach.
Getting to the better beaches involved a water taxi from the harbour, which sounds like more of a hassle than it actually is – they run regularly and you can always get back. The following day, we took one (€3/£2.60 per person) to pebbly Plakes beach where, after swimming out in the still, crystal clear water, we ate lunch at the Four Seasons, the best lunchtime taverna on the island.
Castello and Plakes were pleasant but both became a little busy after lunch. So, later in the week, we headed further afield to the isolated beaches at Bisti Bay and Agios Nikolaos Bay, two achingly beautiful and almost empty pebbly beaches on the island’s south-western tip. We spent a dreamy day at each and were bothered only by the noise of stones gently rolling in the clear green water and beautiful black butterflies landing on our books. It was pure bliss – until my medicinal clove oil ran out.
Little has changed in Hydra since Sophia Loren was in Hydra Town
Back in town, everyone seemed in a chipper mood. At the Pirate Bar well-heeled Athenian day-trippers, international tourists and locals gathered in the early evening to sip espresso freddos and cold Mythos beers and watch the beautiful people go by, the blingy boats bob in. We soon realised that the contagion of austerity has not spread to the marrow of Hydra because the island is quite unlike the rest of Greece – make that Europe – in most ways. There are no vehicles on the island. Even bicycles are banned. It’s left to donkeys to lug visitors’ luggage and islanders’ goods up the steep, stepped lanes.
The reason Hydra’s tourist-driven economy is not stalling is because it attracts the sort of independent-minded traveller who, once smitten, returns in search of the calm provided by the car-less tranquillity. Just ask Leonard Cohen. He first visited in the Sixties, fell in love with the place and bought a grand old house in the town.
The town’s time-warp appeal is safeguarded by a preservation order that means Hydra Town is a national monument; there are to be no tacky new builds to blemish the white-stone face of the place. I was keen to see some of the arid, mountainous inland of the island and – leaving my wife moseying around the shops on the harbour – I hiked up to the Profítis Ilías monastery. It was a tough hour-and-a-half climb but worth it; from the monastery I looked down on the roofs of the amphitheatrical town, which surely did not look much different a century ago.
Hydriot life revolves around the harbour but it is in the intricate alleyways of the town as it climbs up the hill that we found the real charm of the place. While the harbour is no stranger to the odd ostentatious superyacht and their (usually Russian) owners, the inland lanes are a soothing antidote to the occasional see-and-be-seen poutiness of the portside. In the backstreets, we glimpsed a very traditional Greek way of life, unpolluted by iPhone culture.
Grandmothers in black, sat in doorways buried by magnificent bougainvillea, watched the world go by. Very little has changed in these streets since Sophia Loren was photographed mingling with the locals while she was on the island shooting Boy on a Dolphin in 1957. And long may it stay that way.
Enjoy a coffee overlooking the crystal clear sea
British Airways (0844 493 0787; britishairways.com ) offers daily flights to Athens. From the airport, the express bus X96 goes to the ferry port at Piraeus. The bus, which leaves every 20 minutes, takes roughly one and a half hours, and costs €5/£4.30. Bus tickets must be purchased from the bus ticket desk by the stop at the airport before you board. A taxi from the airport costs €30 (£26) or more.
Hellenic Seaways (0030 22980 54007; hellenicseaways.gr ) operates regular ferries and hydrofoils from Piraeus to Hydra. The journey takes around two hours. All the hotels in Hydra Town are walking distance from the harbour but some are up lots of steep steps; donkey drivers charge €15 (£13) to transport your bags to your hotel.
Hidden Greece (020 8758 4707; hidden-greece.co.uk ) offers a seven-night package to Hydra from £757 per person, including return flight to Athens with Aegean Airlines from Heathrow. Transfers and the ferry from Piraeus to Hydra are not included. Bed and breakfast accommodation is at the boutique Hotel Angelica.
THE INSIDE TRACK
Café Isalos (22980 53845; isalos.com ), right by the ferry dock, does the best coffee on the island. Their espresso freddo (€4/£3.50) is just the ticket when you step off the ferry.
Rafalias Pharmacy (22980 52059; facebook.com/rafaliaspharmacy ) was founded in 1890 by Evangelos Rafalias, grandfather of the current owner. The working pharmacy is a unique architectural and cultural monument, as no renovations to the building or the interior have taken place.
The harbourside is studded with jewellery shops which all compete for the attentions of Hydra’s well-heeled visitors. Evi Metheniti (69424 44004; evimetheniti.gr ), which is slightly set back from the south-west corner of the harbour, is the pick of the bunch.
WHAT TO AVOID
Steer clear of the comparatively overpriced and touristy restaurants on the harbour – in summer they attract droves of day-trippers and the better spots are tucked away in the warren of stepped backstreets.
Mandraki beach, 2.5km east of Hydra Town, really isn’t worth the trip unless your idea of a beach includes floating trampolines. The beach, which offers a variety of noisy water sports, is dominated by the Miramare resort.
The historical contents of the Lazaros Kountouriotis Historical Mansion – mostly samey “festive costume”, only some of which originates from Hydra – sadly do not match up to the grandeur of the mansion.
THE BEST HOTELS
The Nefeli £
The mid-range hotel in the Kiaffa district a fair old climb up the hill (over 300 steps) but well worth the sweaty brow and burning thighs; it’s a breezy oasis of calm and the view from roof of the main building is superb. Australian couple Alex and Brett have created an intimate atmosphere at the hotel which was built on the ruins of an 18th-century mansion (0030 22980 53297l; hotelnefeli.eu ; doubles from €75/£65).
Hydra Hotel ££
The stylish eight-room Hydra Hotel, whose extremely welcoming host Katerina Nikolaidou is a gold mine of excellent recommendations, is just the ticket for those after peace and tranquillity in modern surroundings. Healthy, hearty breakfasts are served in the room or in your own private terrace (22980 53420; hydra-hotel.gr ; doubles from €130/£112).
Bratsera Hotel £££
Under the preservation order guidelines, Bratsera Hotel remains the only hotel in Hydra Town to boast a swimming pool. It is not just the cooling pool that gives the Bratsera (a converted sponge factory) its strong reputation; the airy rooms with whitewashed walls are tastefully decorated with rough-hewn antiques and hessian rugs. Similarly priced rooms can be a little uneven – ask for a room on the first floor with a balcony (22980 53971; bratserahotel.com ; doubles from €140/£121).
THE BEST RESTAURANTS
The better restaurants are to be found in the warren of winding backstreets. Gitonika, or Manolis and Christina’s (the owners’ names) as it is better-known, is a simple taverna with a roof-terrace which knocks out a mouth-watering moussaka and to-die-for dolmades (22980 536615; close to Agios Konstantinos church; mains from €5/£4.30).
Ostria is another eatery offering uncomplicated, fresh fare set back from the front which is also known better by the name of its owners – Stathis and Tassoula. Gregarious Stathis catches his own octopus and swears blind his calamari is the best in Greece – it’s hard to argue (22980 54077; in a small square just back from the south-west corner of the harbour; mains from €5/£4.30).
Upscale dining on Hydra is something of a let-down. That said, the 180-degree panoramic sea views from Sunset restaurant offset the somewhat pricey menu and have you wondering where on earth landed the top spot (22980 52067; sunsethydra.com ; near the canons to the west of the harbour; mains from €10-€20/£8.60-£17
Read our full travel guides to the Greek islands