Nestling in the Saronic Gulf, separated from the mainland of the Peloponnese, Hydra has long been a holiday hideaway for the Athenian smart set and cosmopolitan visitors charmed by the fact that the only transport on the island is by water taxi or donkey. Actually it's quite a small place and most people get around quite happily on foot.
The main town is set around the crescent shaped harbour from which boats and catamarans ply to and fro between the island and Piraeus some 70 kms away. The island ferries take around 3 hours for the journey, the 'Fast Cats' make the trip much more quickly. You can also hop on a ferry to Aegina, Poros, Spetses, Nafplion and Monemvasia.
Steep stone streets, in which you'll find most of the accommodation and hostelries, head upwards from the waterfront. Just about all of the action is around the harbour, Hydra is only 20 square miles in extent and apart from a few very small hamlets what you see when you land is pretty much get.
It's all rather special and if you think it all looks like a film set that's because you've probably seen it in one of the many movies that have been shot here. Sophie Loren made Boy on a Dolphin here in 1957, Greek chanteuse Melina Mercouri also filming here a few years later. It’s long been a place of poets and painters – Leonard Cohen bought and restored a house here.
Like all Greek islands Hydra (which, by the way, is pronounced 'eee-dra') has been lived on since time immemorial. In particular it has been an important maritime base, although for periods during ancient history the local population ebbed and flowed and may have suffered badly from pirates as locals (called Hydriots) had nowhere inland to flee.
As with all of this area the balance of power changed from Byzantine through Venetian and Ottoman and back. However it became well-known from the 17th century onwards after a naval school was established in 1645. The first truly Hydriot vessel was launched in 1657 and the island started to take on greater importance due to its trading strength.
In the early days Hydriot boats were between 15 and 50m tons and traded locally in the Aegean. However in 1757 they launched a vessel of 250 tons and Hydra became an important commercial port. The Treaty of Kucuk Kaynarca saw Hydra prosper as her boats sailed under the Russian flag up to the Black Sea and west as far as Ancona. A plague in 1792 slowed things down a bit as the town was abandoned for a while. However by the end of the 18th century the island was firmly back on the map - Napoleon presented it with silver candelabra for running food into France past the English blockade.
In the 19th century Hydra had over 16,000 inhabitants, the mansions of the Sea Captains that ring the harbour paying testament to its importance and wealth. It played a critical role in the Greek War of Independence but over time declined as ship owners failed to see the attraction of steam. Today the population is down to around 2,000 local inhabitants.
Hydra's charm comes from its unspoiled nature - a survey of over 500 expert travelers gave it the highest rating of any Greek island and ranked it 11th out of 111 islands worldwide for preserving its 'integrity of place'. That means there's not an awful lot to do and see other than enjoy the natural rocky beauty and some stunning little bays and coves.
However the famous 'Sea Captain's Mansions' are worth a visit. The Tsamadou Mansion is now a maritime academy, the Tombazi is part of the school of fine arts and many others all contain collections of 18th century island furniture. The family of Lazarus Kountouriotis donated his mansion to the Historic-Ethnographic Institute of Greece and it is now an extension of the National Museum of History.
There are numerous churches and six orthodox monasteries - most notably Profitis Elias founded in the tenth century and Ayia Efpraxia, both on a hill overlooking the main harbour. The island's Cathedral is the old monastery of Dormition the Virgin on the harbour-side in town. It contains the tomb of Lazarus Kountouriotis the sea captain who gave his fortune to support the Greek War of Independence.
Hydra's rocky terrain makes for mostly pebbly beaches but there are some great places to swim. The best way to get to the nicer beaches is by water-taxi.
What should you do on any Greek island as the sun goes down? Stroll along the waterfront and find a place for a drink, then think about a nice taverna or restaurant for dinner (seafood is an island speciality) and perhaps get involved in a little Greek music or dancing. You wouldn't exactly call the nightlife here extreme or edgy but it's not without sophistication with some good bars and music. The great thing is the choice is all within walking distance.
A boutique hotel in the heart of historic Hydra, Cotommatae 1810 is a splendid traditional 19th century Hydriot mansion full of authentic charm. Dating back to the era before the Revolution, the house was built as a dowry for one of the ruler’s daughters. It has a unique architectural style and contains artefacts relating to a naval as well as sponge trading past.
3 nights from £519 per person incl flights
A simply heavenly hotel which restores and relaxes with the elegant simplicity of its rooms and its warm and welcoming service, The Four Seasons Hydra is set in a little paradise.
3 nights from £629 per person incl flights
Situated on the fabulous small rocky island of Hydra in the Argosaronic Gulf, Hotel Brasera is an award winning restoration of an1860s sponge factory and is filled with sponge diving photographs and artefacts. This is Greece at its best: small, charming and authentic. The hotel is just a stone’s throw from the old town and harbour on this island where no cars are permitted.
Only an hour and a half from Athens by boat, the Orloff boutique hotel is a unique historic house that has been lovingly restored to an elegant four-star hotel. Originally built in 1796 by Count Orloff of Russia, this beautifully renovated traditional mansion has stylish interiors and provides an atmosphere of comfort and relaxation in a pleasant part of the old town of Hydra.