The Argo-Saronic islands are situated between the coast of 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.
Aegina (an hour by ferry from Athens) is a much better bet. The classical temple of Aphaea is everything you imagine a Greek temple to be and is far less visited than some. 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.
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). 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.
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. 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.
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. 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, however. 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. 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.
Skala is the port of Agistri island in Saronic gulf, Greece. The little island of Agistri is just beyond Aegina, only 45 minutes by hydrofoil from Piraeus, but if you know where to go it can be a magical place. 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.