Island Hopping in the Greek IslandsGoing to a Greek Island on your own does not have to be an intimidating experience. Just follow these simple instructions and you will have an adventure which can be duplicated a few thousand times, or as many times as there are Greek islands.
For the sake of convenience I will use the island of Aegina as our sample island, though of course you could substitute any island of your choice. I chose Aegina because it is close to Athens, only an hour by ferry, half that by Flying Dolphin, and because there are boats leaving every hour so I don't have to wake up early to catch a morning boat, the majority of which leave between 7:30 and 9 am.
If this was an early boat you will have asked the concierge at your hotel to have a taxi waiting for you at least an hour and fifteen minutes before the boats scheduled departure. If you tell the taxi the name of the boat, or which island you are going to, he will know exactly where to go. From downtown Athens to pireaus should cost well under 2000 drachma.
Don't count on the ferry leaving late and you making it in the nick of time. I have actually missed a ferry by a foot. I could have jumped but I did not want to risk falling into the murky waters of Pireaus, (plus my girlfriend was on crutches).
You can also take the Metro, as I do by following the steps that follow. Because I am only doing a day trip there is no need to check out of my hotel, nor is there any need to bring my luggage, which makes traveling today a breeze. All I have is my digital camera, some floppy disks and what I am wearing. You may want to bring a day bag with a towel and bathing suit.
Your first step is to find the train station closest to your hotel. Most likely this is Monastiriki in the flea market, easy to locate because the entire square is one enormous construction site as they build the new Metro. You can walk down Metropoleos or Ermou streets or follow Adrianou until you hit Hadrian's wall at Aeolou, make a right and then your next left on Pondrosou. Inside the train station there are machines to buy your ticket. It's 75 drachma to Pireaus so stick a hundred drachma in and press the buttons until it reads 75. Then when it rejects your money and does not give you a ticket walk up to the friendly guy at the booth, or stand in line and buy two tickets so you don't have to do this again when you come back.
The little kids standing by the booth may look like beggars but they are actually employees of the Greek National Tourist Organization doing a survey on the generosity of tourists and for as little as 50 drachma they will smile and give your country a point on their hidden handheld computers in their pockets. You don't have to tell them where you come from. They are trained to know.
As you face the train tracks you have a choice. Left to Kifissia or right to Pireaus.
Go right but not before sticking your ticket into the little orange box to have it validated (or invalidated since once you get off the train it is useless). Then walk down the stairs giving money to the GNTO officials who are posing as street musicians. Wait on the platform for the train to come and when the doors open, hop aboard, just as you would in your own country.
Above the doors in the interior of the car is a map of the metro line as it is today. It is one line that goes from Pireaus to Kifissia in the northern suburbs. The trip to Pireaus is about twenty minutes and actually sort of entertaining if you look out the window. You will see neighborhoods like Moschaton and Kalithea where you will probably never walk, but are quite nice. Around Thission there are archeological ruins right next to the tracks and at Faliron you cross over a river! Well it's not much of a river. You would not want to swim or wade in it since the percent of water versus other substances is a little low, but at one time it was a real river that emptied into the Faliron Delta where the big Olympic indoor stadium is now.
When you get to the last stop in the old Pireaus station walk to the front of the train. You can drop your ticket in the garbage. If you keep walking straight there is a ticket agency on the right. You can buy your ticket there if you have not gotten it from Dolphin like I do. You can also buy it at the boat which is the best idea for an island like Aegina which has many boats going each day.
If you look through the archway you will see your first ferry straight ahead. (The ferries directly across the street are usually going to Sifnos, Paros, Naxos, and Santorini.) There are some fast food joints on the main street and if you wander around the back streets you can find all sorts of stores to buy snacks or supplies for your trip.
Since the trip to Aegina is only an hour away we don't need much in the way of supplies.
Getting across the main street is a challenge. It seems like the light never favors the pedestrians and when it does it only lets them get half way across, trapping them in the narrow median between cars that race by. Be careful here because this is the most dangerous part of your trip and the last barrier between the city and freedom. Once you get across there is a map of where the boats are docked and a shuttle bus that will take you back and forth eternally if you wish.
Our Aegina boats are to the left of the peninsula that houses the ticket agencies Akti Tzelepi. There is a square with a statue of Kolokotronis, a hero of the War of Independence. Walk along the dock until you see a boat that seems to be leaving sooner then the rest. The departure times and destination are written on signs across the stern (boat talk for rear), and there will be increased activity in those that are leaving.
You can buy your ticket at the booth right in front of the boat. Kids under six don't pay and under ten pay half.
Normally you will have a choice between first class, second class or deck, but in the case of Aegina, getting a cabin would be ridiculous since you would be at your destination before you figured out how to use the shower. But an island like Rhodes, Lesvos, Crete, Samos, Patmos and even Santorini which are between ten and fifteen hours away, I always splurge for a first class cabin. It costs about the same as flying but it is more relaxing and it entitles you to eat in the first class dining room which is the same food as the self-service cafeteria only they bring it to you and you get to leave a tip. Remember that it is tough to get a cabin without booking early. You probably won't find one if you are buying your ticket at the boat. If you are bringing a car you can buy your ticket to Aegina easily enough in the port, but for other islands definately get it in advance. If you are going to Hydra keep in mind that there are no cars allowed.
You may decide to sacrifice comfort for speed and taking one of the hydrofoils, either the Flying Dolphins, or their larger cousins the Mega Dolphins. These cost twice as much as the cheapest ticket on the ferry, go twice as fast and get you twice as seasick. When the sea is calm it is like flying in a big noisy, bouncy, smelly 747. There is almost no space to stand outside and breathe fresh air and their big engines let off a lot of fumes. But they get you there fast and if you don't mind flying you won't mind this. (I don't like either.) The best place to be is by the door beneath the cockpit where it is like riding on the wing of a bi-plane. Hang on. If you fall out they may not notice since most people are in the airplane seats reading.
On really rough days the Dolphins can be scary. They are not really made for bad weather and it is like flying a B-29 through heavy flak. But unlike a B-29 if the waves get too big the Dolphin stops and sits for awhile, a very unpleasant feeling. My last Dolphin trip was through the Cava d' Oro, the treacherous straits between the island of Kea and the mainland where mightier ships then the Flying Dolphins have gone down, including the sister ship of the Titanic, the Britannic. Amazingly no Flying Dolphin has sunk or turned over (that I know of), though they have run over a fishing boat or two.
In fairness to them, if you want to get to an island fast and you don't want to fly then take the fly (that's what the Greeks call them). The Mega Dolphins look like they can handle any weather and I have been amazed to see them tear into a harbor and out again in weather that even the courageous local fishermen were sitting in the cafeneons watching the Bold and the Beautiful.
Once you have bought your ticket find a good spot on the ferry. Sometimes they check your ticket when you get on so have it ready. Other times they check it on board. You can leave your heavy luggage in the car garage by the stairs. There is usually a storage compartment you can fight your way to. Andrea always leaves her stuff there but I take mine with me since I can never remember what I packed where and what I may need in the course of the trip. The lounges are usually very smoky but they can be entertaining. There is a snack bar and they sell beer and ouzo and almost anything you would want on an hour long ferry boat ride. I prefer to sit outside and watch the commotion as the ship leaves and the streets of Pireaus recede.
One of my favorite pastimes is seeing all the ferries and cruise ships as we leave the harbor of Pireaus.
I get a special kick when we pass the Lesvos ferry boats because they are the last in line and I have been on them so many times it's like seeing an old friend. I always use up about two rolls of film every time we leave for an island just taking pictures of all the ships.
Once we leave the harbor the ferry picks up speed and makes it's way through a gauntlet of tankers and freighters that have been anchored outside Pireaus for as long as I can remember though their numbers have swelled. These are ships waiting for repairs, cargo, crew, or the scrap heap. The Greeks have the second largest merchant marine, an amazing claim for such a small country, but they have always been mariners.
The hour trip to Aegina can be spent gazing out to sea (boring), or reading the paper. The International Herald Tribune and the Athens News are both the perfect length for this trip and you can throw them away when you arrive so you don't have to carry them around. You can buy the Aegina guide to read on the return trip, better late then never.
When you arrive in Aegina you make your way to the front of the vessel. Most ships you get on and off in the back but for some reason the ships of the Saronic Gulf have a different system. In fact it depends which island you are getting off on which end of the ship you exit from. If you are going to Methena or Poros you get off in the back. Aegina and Angistri you disembark from the front, I mean the bow. Anyway there are signs that tell you which way to go.
If this were a popular Cycladic island like Mykonos, Paros, Naxos, Sifnos or Santorini there would be hordes of people waiting on the dock holding up signs with pictures of their rooms or hotels. In this situation you just find one that looks nice in location you want to be, whether it is a beach or a town. If you have booked your accommodations in advance there is a good chance that your ride is somewhere in the crowd so look for someone holding a sign with the name of your hotel or even a scrawled word that has some resemblance to your own name.
Aegina is not a bad place considering it is so close to Athens. It is a real honest to goodness Greek island with an attractive waterfront, a little white church, plenty of fishing boats and some pretty nice sailboats too.
There are two caiques (Greek style fishing boats) that are fruit and vegetable markets. There is a bustling fish and meat market and the small street behind the harbor road is filled with cafes, small shops, cafeneons, people and closed to automobiles.
All the cafeneons have octopus hanging in front of them and charcoal grills to cook them for ouzo mezedes. Very civilized. When I get off the ferry I look for a place to sit, have a coffee or a drink, relax and get my bearings. Most islands will have a line of cafes on the waterfront and Aegina is no exception. They are usually more expensive then those on the back streets but the vantage point they give make them worth the extra drachma.
To be honest, I have an ulterior motive on this trip besides enlightening travelers to the simple pleasure of visiting a nearby Greek island. I am going to look at the small fishing village of Perdika where my friends Elias and Katerina have a house. I want to check it out as a possible place to live if I should move back to Greece because they say you can be in the center of Athens in less then an hour from Perdika if you take the Flying Dolphin and the metro. There is a taxi stand right by the ferry boats and the trip to Perdika is a 10 minute drive and costs about $7.
Perdika is indeed a small fishing village lined with nice little restaurants, it's harbor guarded by an island that is actually just a big rock and is known for its wild peacocks. I have lunch at a colorful restaurant called Saronis, where the waiter, Dionysious tells me all there is to know about Perdika. The swimming across the bay is some of the best in the Aegean, at least the part of the Aegean within ten miles of Athens. Because migrating fish pass closely by the fishing is excellent, especially for snorkel and spear fishing.
The restaurant is owned by a German woman named Claudia who has been here for twenty years. The fried fish, greek salad and sadzicki are excellent. The view is perfect for ouzo and mezedes too. There are many foreigners in the village, some with businesses, others just escaping life in the 'real world'. The main street is above the harbor road and is car free. It is surprisingly Cycladic looking with geometric houses painted white to reflect the sun.
The village is on a peninsula that has been landscaped with stones and is full of wildflowers. There is a large church near the tip and the rocks by the sea have been filled in to make platforms for sunbathing and swimming. It's not Paradise beach, nor is it even Astir in Glyfada, but for being less then an hour from Athens it is not bad. Enough ouzo and grilled octopus I could easily get used to it until it was time to de-tox and recuperate.
Aegina is famous for two things really. The Doric temple to Aphaea is well preserved and was built around 400 bc when Aegina's power challenged that of Athens. The other is pistachios. Aegina is the pistachio island with trees everywhere and bags of it sold even in the tourist shops. And I would have bought some back with me except I had to run to catch the ferry which I barely made.
I didn't even have time to buy the Aegina guidebook so I could have more info in my webpage for the island then what can I get from Lonely Planet, or my own experience as a youth when we used to come to the island to do things we could not do under the watchful eyes of our parents. Really not the kind of info one could put in a travel guide but a lot more fun then taking pictures of fruit boats.
If I had more time I would certainly stop at one of the cafe-ouzeries in the back streets for some grilled octopus, a carafe of Mytilini ouzo if they had it, and maybe a salad. But this would be opening a whole new can of worms and were I to get involved in my surroundings I might even miss the last boat to Pireaus which is around midnight I think. They post the ferry boat and flying Dolphin times on the kiosks where they sell the tickets right on the dock.
Anyway I have plans to go out with my new pal David
Willett from Lonely Planet Guides, an excellent wine and ouzo drinker himself.
My friend Ana works on the Metro has promised to give us piles
of information on Athens new subway system and I wouldn't want to miss
an evening with so much potential for excitement (she gave me a pen, a
map and a commemorative coin).