TAKING another sip of iced Greek coffee, I sit forward in my deckchair and gaze anxiously across at the cliffs flanking the clifftop bar I’m perched in high over the Aegean.
I’m waiting for the latest in a succession of cliff jumpers to take the plunge. For the past couple of hours, they have been periodically scrambling to the top of this promontory at Spilia above Hydra’s harbour, nervously analysing angles and depths before either launching themselves into the cooling depths below — or not, in the case of those who sheepishly clamber back down.
The island of Hydra (pronounced ‘ee-drah’), about 45 miles off the coast of Athens in the Saronic Gulf, has a long and rich ocean-going history. It has one of the oldest marine academies in the world and played a leading role in the Greek War of Independence against the Ottoman Empire in 1821.
That marine heritage is still celebrated and while you’re more likely to find a superyacht in its harbour than a warship, this tiny island (Hydra is just 25 square miles) has remained a source of inspiration for artists, writers and musicians for centuries — a subject currently being celebrated at the British Museum’s wonderful exhibition Charmed Lives In Greece: Ghika, Craxton, Leigh Fermor (free, britishmuseum.org), which is on until July 15.
Henry Miller wrote on Hydra, Leonard Cohen had a house here. Sophia Loren, Richard Burton, The Rolling Stones and Jackie Onassis were all visitors in the 1960s and 1970s. Today, dinky Hydra remains impossibly glamorous. Despite having just one town, no sandy beaches, no flashy ‘scene’ or must-visit restaurant, no roads or cars (everything is transported by either barrow or donkey) and no airport, Hydra remains the epitome of stealth wealth. Kate Moss is a visitor, photographer Juergen Teller is a regular and Pink Floyd guitarist David Gilmour has apparently recently acquired a house on the island.
Strict planning laws prohibit any new buildings being created here. Every building is whitewashed or Aegean blue. With barely any street lights, stargazers flock here. There are no high-rise buildings and only one hotel on the island with a pool — the wonderful Bratsera (from £150, bratserahotel.com), a stone’s throw from Hydra port. A former sponge factory, the pool was created in the 19th century for divers to rinse off.
Hydra’s beaches are legendary but they’re not easy to reach. The two best — Bisti and St Nicholas — are only accessible by boat from Hydra’s harbour (services leave from 11am and the latest return is 6pm, for around £10.60 return). They’re stony but pristine and organised, with loungers and parasols (£5.30 to rent) and a small beach bar serving drinks and delicious Greek salads.
While it is possible to walk the entirety of Hydra (it’s a popular place for hikers in spring and autumn), the island is mountainous and barren so it isn’t easy. There are water taxis and boat charters aplenty, however, if you want to explore.
If you don’t fancy boarding a boat, there are stone sunbathing platforms with steps into the sea dotted all around Hydra port and further afield as you walk around the headland, or try Castello with its loungers and shades (£4.40 to rent, castellohydra.gr). The stylish beach bar is in the hamlet of Kamini, about 25 minutes around the coast from Hydra port.
According to ‘Hydriot’ Maria Voulgari, who runs fascinating walking tours of the town (from £35, hydrawalkingtours.com), the island belongs to a bygone age.
‘We have no nightclubs and only a couple of bars,’ she says. ‘People sit, they take iced coffee, they think, they swim in the sea, they paint or write, drink wine, eat good fish off the boats. Hydra will never change. In 100 years it will be the same.’
Which is the best news I’ve heard in a long time.