Jonathan Wynne Davies discovers why high-society Athenians love Spetses.
From the moment I stepped from the catamaran on to the jetty, I could tell I was going to like Spetses.
The tiny port of Dapia is overlooked by whitewashed, neoclassical houses and fringed by smart cafes and stylish boutiques.
This is an island where your senses immediately come alive: the air, refreshingly warm, carries the smell of the sea one moment, then freshly baked pastries the next.
Locals drink their espressos and frappes as they play backgammon in the shade and eye the latest arrivals climbing out of the red-and-white water taxis.
Cocooned in blissful affluence away from the economic meltdown on the mainland.
Around the corner from the port, the winding, cobbled coastal road opens into a wide, expansive piazza that acts as a forecourt for the Poseidonion, a grand, august hotel styled like a chateau and modelled on the Carlton in Cannes and the Negresco in Nice. There is something almost therapeutic about arriving here after the boat journey, from the cool of the lobby to the airy rooms, and it feels more like the French Riviera as I open the shutters to take in a view stretching across the Saronic Gulf to the Peloponnese coast.
Standing at the end of the square, however, is a statue of Laskarina Bouboulina, a heroine as Greek as you get, who led the islanders' assault on an Ottoman fleet trying to sail through this channel during the Greek War of Independence of 1821-1832. Watching the sun set over mountains in the distance, it is hard to believe this serene landscape once echoed to the sound of gunfire, but cannons used in the battle are still dotted along the promenade, facing out to sea as a reminder of Spetses' victorious past.
Now, it is the friendly chatter and clatter of glasses from the hotel terrace that echo across the piazza, where children ride bicycles, weaving around a line of lamps.
There is something timeless about the square, and indeed the island itself. It is as close to the idyllic Hellenic picture as you can imagine: fishermen lay out their catch by the seafront as the locals stroll along the promenade, past impressive villas, domed churches and traditional tavernas with tables lining the road. Cars are banned from the town, so instead people travel in horse-drawn carriages, by bicycle or on mopeds, which rattle through the back streets with elderly women often sitting sideways on the back.
The island has an authentic charm, having remained relatively undiscovered by visitors despite being only a two-hour boat ride from Piraeus. From where I sit in one of the cafes at the old harbour of Baltiza, most of the voices I hear are Greek, sounding convivial, then surly, then impassioned, often within the same sentence.
Laughter carries from the back of boats and luxury yachts docked across from the waterfront bars and restaurants, while a short walk away old shipyards clang with sawing and hammering. The island is particularly popular with high-society Athenians, who retreat to their villas every summer to escape the stifling heat of the city. This is reflected in the prices of meals and the presence of boutique stores, such as Ralph Lauren, signs of an island cocooned in blissful affluence away from the economic meltdown on the mainland. Even the stray dogs look healthy and well fed.
Yet there is no sense of the wealth being ostentatious, as the Spetsiots place real value in the island's natural beauty and history: the secluded beaches, pine-clad hills and ancient churches.
While a couple of beaches and pretty churches are within walking distance of Dapia, it is well worth climbing into a water taxi or hiring a moped to explore the island properly. I decide on the latter and head to a rental shop, where I'm served by a man whose hair is matted with the bike oil that covers his face and hands. His black socks are pulled up to his knees, even though it must be close to 38 degrees. Having tried two bikes that are faulty, he pats the third approvingly, though not totally reassuringly, makes a token effort to wipe his hand on his T-shirt to shake mine, then bids me farewell.
I wind through narrow, stone-cobbled alleys, before climbing the hill to the historic village of Kastelli, which offers a panoramic view over the domes and clay-tiled roofs in the town below and out to the sea.
As the first settlement on Spetses, it has churches dating back to the Byzantine era that are pristine white and home to wall paintings and a wood sanctum carved in the most intricate detail imaginable.
The Venetians named the island Spezia, meaning spice, because of its position on a major trade route, but it could just as well have been after the powerful scents of jasmine and pine that hit me as I head for the beach of Kyslokeriza.
The journey takes about half an hour, past lush gardens shaded by palms and orange trees that give way to arid land where pines thrive alongside the coastal road.
Hidden in a cove at the foot of the hills, the small beach feels like a secret shared only by those fortunate enough to have discovered it. Even when the few deckchairs are filled, it is so peaceful you can hear the breeze stirring the branches.
Tables are laid out by a makeshift grill, run by a white-haired Greek who wears a smile as wide as his brimmed hat as he turns lamb kebabs and jokes with the locals.
The beach is rustic and simple. The deckchairs are uncomfortable and the pebbles impossible to negotiate without looking decidedly uncool. Yet I've never experienced a more relaxing beach than this: the fantastically private setting, the coldest beer, the juiciest tomatoes, the rosemary and thyme drifting from the grill, and the perfectly turquoise sea, of course.
With the sun setting, I head back to the town, passing burning pinewood and breathing in the air, as strong as incense and smelling of carefree summer days.
Four things to know
1 Water taxis, which take up to eight people, are expensive, so mopeds and quad bikes are a cheaper form of transport. There are bicycles for the more energetic, or a bus and taxis (there are only four on the island) for the more cautious.
2 The Yachting Club (+30 22980 73400, spetsesyc.gr) has a lot of information on accommodation, travel, cruises and renting a boat.
3 Nafplion, with its mix of Venetian and Turkish architecture, is one of the prettiest towns in the Peloponnese, and makes a good excursion from Spetses.
4 Bouboulina's Museum (bouboulinamuseum-spetses.gr) is housed in the former home of the heroine of the Greek War of Independence, Laskarina Bouboulina. Open from March until the end of October.
Etihad flies from Sydney and Melbourne to Athens via Abu Dhabi, etihadairways.com. Travel to Piraeus harbour by bus (about $3.80) or taxi ($30) and take the hydrofoil or catamaran to Spetses ($42; journey time is two to three hours). www.hellenicseaways.gr.
Hilton, Athens If you're looking to break the journey to Spetses, which is advisable, this is the perfect place to spend the night or use as a base for exploring the city. It's in a great location, only a short taxi ride to Piraeus harbour, and the rooms have balconies looking out to the Acropolis. Doubles from about $246 a night. +30 210 728 1000, hilton.com.
Villa Nika The high-quality apartments are in three traditional, two-storey villas around a pool. A 20-minute walk from the main town, the complex has a popular beach nearby (Agia Marina). Doubles from about $200. +30 22980 73430, villanika.gr.
Poseidonion Grand Hotel Built in 1914 in the style of the finest hotels on the Cote d'Azur, it exudes class. The recently refurbished rooms feel fresh and offer a fine view of the Saronic Gulf. Doubles from about $310. +30 22980 74553, poseidonion.com.
Exedra This traditional taverna serves reasonably priced local specialities, such as the spetsiota, a delicious broiled fish-and-tomato casserole. Closed November-February. +30 22980 74749.
On the Verandah The candlelit terrace at the Poseidonion comes to life in the evening. Chef Christoforos Peskias offers a twist on traditional dishes, with the pastitsio with foie gras a particularly calorific example. +30 22980 74553, poseidonion.com.
Milos, Athens Found at the lower level of the Hilton, this restaurant is not to be missed. Priding itself on sourcing food from the Greek islands, Milos is renowned for its fish, which is laid out on ice for diners to pick from +30 210 728 1000, hilton.com.