I had just finished escorting a group of travelers for a Greek Island cruise and was looking for some “alone” time. I always felt it is important to reflect on one’s travels – yes, the cruise line was five star and beautiful, but my time was taken up to be sure all my travelers were happy. So, once we said our good-byes, I wanted to take a big deep breath.
I had read an article about this small island, and it sounded like a fragment of someone’s imagination. Well, it’s not. It exists and goes by the name of ‘Hydra” which is how its spelled in English, but not how its pronounced (the h is silent), so I had the darndest time trying to find it on the map. Because on a Greek map it is spelled like it sounds, Idra!!
The island of Hydra is a popular small island of the Saronic Gulf, just less than a 2-hour ferry ride from Piraeus. It is famous for its picturesque architecture of elegant old mansions', the nightlife in local tavernas, and its tranquil character. Except for relaxing at cozy beaches, there are not many sites to seek out on Hydra. In spring and autumn, hiking is a popular thing to do as the island is crossed by many walking paths that lead to impressive spots with sea views and at least 300 churches dot the island plus, 5 historical monasteries. I was going to be doing a lot of hiking and that was perfect for me.
Hydra is at first glance no different from its neighbors. Like other islands in the Aegean Sea, it has white-washed streets, fragrant jasmine-filled air, brilliant red bougainvillea cascading over walls, and breathtaking vistas of the shimmering blue waters around it. Stepping off the ferry in Hydra's circular port directly in the heart of the island, visitors are met by small welcoming party of donkeys awaiting to carry your luggage, building materials or goods to your destinations. They gracefully weave their way through the cobblestone streets giving you a feel of the island’s unhurried pace. There are no cars on this island and the locals like it that way, it is enshrined in legislation (and I hope that will long continue). It is like stepping back in time.
From my very first minutes you get off the ferry, you feel that you have been transferred to another era. My suitcase was loaded on the side of a donkey, and we headed up to my appealing whitewashed hotel with the typical blue shutters. Passing an ancient “Farmacia,” we continue to climb up; there is no need for a trip to the gym, you have a natural StairMaster, 300 steps easily get up and down, without even starting your hike!
As you wander through Hydra’s quaint alleyways, it’s common to witness locals going about their daily business, accompanied by their four-legged companions. The Greek island’s population of about 2,500 locals get around using mules, donkeys and small horses. It is so refreshing. The clippity clop of the hooves traveling up the stairs, yes, the town is built amphitheatrically on two rocky hills around the harbor. A shining example of traditional Greek island settlements. Residents have clung to equine transportation, which could traverse this rugged landscape more efficiently. Donkeys and mules became an integral part of the island’s identity and besides they contribute to the greenness by ferritization of the pretty barren soils.... watch where you step.
The absence of cars has contributed to the island’s undeniable tranquility, drawing in creatives from all over, including renowned Italian actress Sofia Loren, who fell in love with Hydra while filming “Boy on a Dolphin” in 1957. And did you know, Canadian singer-songwriter Leonard Cohen discovered Hydra in the 1960s and made it his home for several years. His time on Hydra is immortalized in his song “Bird on the Wire,” which he partially wrote while living there.
One of the very best things to me is Greece's traditional Mediterranean diet. Fresh, super fresh local ingredients like a chopped tomato salad with feta and wild greens at Bratsera Taverna in town. Or the blue and white authentic experiences at family run Pirofani. Or go to the Castello, an 18th century castle overlooking the beach, they serve all day. But the one thing you cannot miss no matter how many steps need to be taken and that is catching the glorious sunsets. At sunset, you will see people leaving the port and walking out to Kanoni the most gorgeous spot to catch an epic sunset in Greece. Sip on your cocktail while you take in your astonishing surroundings and leave all of your worries behind, which is exactly what I did!
With an altitude of almost 1970 feet, Mt Eros is the highest mountain on the island and the most romantic mountain in the country as its name, translates to ‘love’ in Greek. Giving way to the panoramic views of the island, the Saronic Gulf, and the Myrtos Sea create a truly unique feeling that makes hiking here worthwhile. The Monastery of Prophet Elias is located on the northern slopes of Mt. Eros. Founded in 1813, the monastery is one of the most important religious monuments in Hydra. The all-male monastery that served as a prison and place of exile for Theodoros Kolokotronis during the Revolution of 1812. Today there is a community of four monks who live there. The incredible hike to reach the top of the mountain includes the beautiful church of Agios Konstantinos. Another great hike is to the Monastery of Panagia Zouvra, one of the oldest monasteries built in the 13th century on the island of Hydra. During the Revolution of 1821, the monastery was a place of shelter for soldiers. This Monastery of Panagia Zouvra is accessible by water taxi from the harbor. Once there you can climb the 645 steps or walk up by land. The view once you reach the top will be well worth the strenuous ascent.
In ancient times, the island was known as ‘Hydrea,’ which is a direct reference to the natural springs that are found on the island. Today most houses have cisterns to collect precious rainwater. And I needed WATER after that hike, I was dreaming of cold bottles Zagori, but then I saw Mandraki Beach calling my name and headed straight to it and dove in! Just 20 minutes of a steady walk from town you’ll find this small cove with a lovely beach, and there is even a beach bar! This beach is among one of the most gorgeous in Hydra. Wet, cool and hydrated, I called it a successful day!
“Hydra is a paradise. It’s a magical place to come, relax and rejuvenate. I feel blessed to have found it on the map and have come back whenever I can. One word of caution for my fellow travelers, leave your sneakers outside your hotel room door, these are going to be "one-wayers" too much donkey dust is embedded...they cannot go back in your luggage!! A small price to pay.