Just a five-four flight away from Dubai, Athens is a great destination for a short break. This said, with the ongoing saga of Greece’s debt crisis, the capital is probably best avoided at the moment. Happily, the nearby Argosaronic offers an even more attractive getaway. Most of its islands are just a couple of hours away by high-speed hydrofoil, with Aegina close enough to pop over to for lunch and be back to the airport by evening.
The Argosaronic consists of four islands – the cosmopolitan Spetses (two hours by hydrofoil from Athens), picture-perfect Hydra (90 minutes), pine-clad Poros (one hour) and pleasantly bustling Aegina (40 minutes) – that all make for relaxing weekend breaks. Those flying from Dubai for a long weekend are advised to visit each of the islands by fast boat or hydrofoil rather than the regular ferry, since journey times
Aegina is a world away from the fumes and angst of Athens, with its horse-drawn carriages and pretty neo-classical buildings harking back to its days as Greece’s first capital after the 1821 Greek War of Independence. The biggest island of the Argosaronic, measuring 85 square kilometres (33 square miles) and with a population of 10,000, Aegina is centred around a pleasantly bustling town full of tavernas and cafés overlooking the main harbour.
Not to be missed, 12 kilometres east of Aegina Town, is the intricate and immaculately preserved fifth-century BC Temple of Aphaia, a local goddess, later identified with Athena. En route are the Monastery of St Nektarios and the island’s abandoned, atmospheric medieval capital, Paleohora.
The best spots for a swim are Marathona or Aeginitsa on the west coast, and Kleidi and Keri near the southern village of Perdika – an ideal place for a seaside lunch.
Where to stay
In Aegina town, the Aegenitiko Archontiko (+30 229 702 4968, doubles Dhs342) is traditional and friendly, while Hotel Areti (+30 229 702 3593, doubles from Dhs244) offers sea views. In Agia Marina, the Hotel Apollon (+30 229 703 2271, doubles with breakfast from Dhs400) offers panoramic views of the Argosaronic from its cliff-side location. In Perdika, Hotel Hippocampus (+30 229 706 1363, doubles Dhs220) is traditional and cosy.
The small, scenic, pine-clad island of Spetses has an exclusive feel, perhaps because of its affluent residents. Cars are banned, so a scooter or comfortable walking shoes are required in order to explore the charming courtyards and grand neo-classical mansions of the port capital Spetses Town. Horse-drawn carriages are a romantic, but expensive, alternative.
The majestic Mexis Mansion in the town centre, which once belonged to the island’s first governor, Hadziyiannis Mexis, is home to the Museum of Spetses. As well as displaying relics from the War of Independence, it houses the bones of Spetsiot heroine Laskarina Bouboulina, a leading figure in the fight against the Turks.
The best beaches are at Agia Anarghiri and Agia Paraskevi, a few kilometres further west. Water taxis are an exhilarating way for groups to get to secluded beaches.
Where to stay
A short walk from Spetses town, in Kounoupitsa, the traditional Economou Mansion (+30 229 807 3400, www.spetsestravel.gr, doubles from Dhs415) is much loved for its huge balconies. Also in Kounoupitsa is the luxurious Nissia (+30 229 807 5000, www.nissia.gr, doubles from Dhs1,198). For more affordable comfort, try the Yachting Club Inn (+30 229 807 3400, doubles from Dhs415), near the beach, half a mile from town. Zoe’s Club (+30 229 807 4447, www.zoesclub.gr, apartments for two from Dhs734) is a small complex of luxurious suites in central Spetses. Armatahotel (+30 229 807 2683, www.armatahotel.gr, closed Nov-Feb, doubles from Dhs440) is a boutique venue that has been converted from a traditional island home.
Arriving on this picturesque gem of an island is like stepping into a painting. The distinctive neo-classical stone mansions of Hydra Town rise above the picture-pretty port, where cafés teem with customers, and donkeys await their next expedition along cobbled lanes. Hydra is twice the size of neighbouring Spetses but has an even smaller population of around 3,000.
For spectacular sea views, follow Boundouri, a pebbly path winding upwards from the port to the fishing village of Kamini. Alternatively, climb the mountain from town to the Monastery of Profitis Ilias, the adjacent Convent of St Efpraxia and the nearby uninhabited Monastery of St Triada – views from the top make up for the one-hour trek.
Mandraki and Vlichos are the best beaches near the main harbour, but for more secluded spots, head to Bisti and Agios Nikolaos on the west of the island or Limioniza in the south.
Where to stay
The stylish Bratsera (+30 229 805 3971, www.bratserahotel.com, closed Oct-Mar, doubles from Dhs685) is set in a restored 19th-century sponge-processing factory. At the Orloff (+30 229 805 2564, www.orloff.gr, closed Nov-Apr, doubles from Dhs783) guests can enjoy breakfast in a flower-filled courtyard. Both are within walking distance of the port. Hotel Mistral (+30 229 805 2509, www.hotelmistral.gr, doubles from Dhs587) offers rooms in a traditional stone mansion with a cool yard.
Poros is a lively, pine-covered island close to some of the most striking archaeological sites in the Peloponnese, and home to around 4,000 inhabitants. Poros (meaning ‘ford’ or ‘crossing’) is actually two islands – Sferia (the tiny volcanic peninsula that is home to Poros town) and the larger Kalabria – separated by a shallow artificial canal.
Poros town’s skyline is dominated by the Clock Tower, which looms over the café-lined waterfront. On the west of the island is the glorious Villa Galini, famous for having accommodated Greek Nobel-winning poet George Seferis and US writer Henry Miller. Also worth seeing are Constantinos Parthenis’s magnificent wall paintings at the Cathedral of St George.
Good swimming spots include Neorion Bay and Kanali (north and south of Poros Town respectively), and the pretty sheltered cove of Agapi (or the Love Bay).
Where to stay
The Sto Roloi guesthouse (+30 229 802 5808, www.storoloi-poros.gr, doubles from Dhs367, villa with private pool Dhs1,224) is housed in a restored neo-classical mansion behind the port. For minimalist luxury and great views, the Poros Image Hotel (+30 229 802 2216, www.porosimage.gr, doubles from Dhs636) has a prime location on the waterfront at Neorion Bay. A cheaper option is the Hotel Saga (+30 229 802 5400, +30 229 802 5132, www.sagahotelporos.com, doubles from Dhs220, suite Dhs367), with large balconies overlooking Kanali Bay.
Need to know
Etihad flies direct to Athens from Abu Dhabi from Dhs2,150 return.
Abu Dhabi to Athens
Flight time: Approximately five hours and 20 minutes direct to Athens
Time difference: Two hours behind the UAE
Dhs1 = 0.2 euros