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Olympics by Day, Islands by Night: the Best Way to Experience the Games

March 17, 2004

By Christopher Deliso

While this summer’s Olympic Games will take place in and around Athens, this doesn’t mind that prospective visitors should necessarily base themselves there.

Especially considering the anticipated throngs of tourists and Olympic-related personnel this August, tourists are advised to head elsewhere.Athens is, by all accounts, a chaotic, crowded city. Greece’s capital is Europe’s most densely-populated city and in summer becomes almost unbearably hot. Temperatures often rise to 45 degrees Celsius; with the smog and heat discharged by thousands of air conditioners the reality can be even worse. City officials are also concerned that the city’s water system many perhaps become overburdened.

In any case, most of Athenian accommodation is long gone. The hotel shortages have been blamed on the International Olympic Committee’s devouring of available rooms. Yet thousands more Olympics officials also must be stuffed onto cruise ships for the duration of the games.

Foreign travel agencies have also been squeezed out. A representative of Japan’s JTB travel agency lamented recently that “this is the most difficult Olympic package we’ve ever had to arrange.” Massive price hikes and a paucity of rooms mean the Japanese company is sending its clients 40 km north of Athens and operating with hotels that “had no previous experience dealing with Japanese clientele,” according to the Ahasi Shimbun newspaper.

With not only hotels but campgrounds also booked solid, travelers will have to look further afield for housing. However, this may not turn out to be so bad. After all, there are the islands.

While most of the Greek isles are a bit too far from Athens to accommodate Olympic tourists a handful are within range. Evvoia, Greece’s second-largest island hugs the coast not far northeast of Athens. And the Saronic islands, strung down the eponymous gulf south of the city, are within close enough proximity to the city via the frequent high-speed hydrofoil operators that criss-cross Greece’s seas. Marine transport also has the advantage of being reliable and eminently predictable: there aren’t ever traffic jams or snarled highways on the open seas.

Thus, even if travelers might initially balk at the 1 hour and 35 minutes it takes to get to the Saronic Gulf island of Hydra, two considerations will change their minds: first of all, the likelihood that land-bound travelers will face their own messy commutes; and second, this enchanting island’s natural beauty.

Hydra is the antithesis of hectic Athens. Since the 1950’s, when the island was chosen for the making of the film Boy on a Dolphin, starring Sophia Loren, filmmakers, artists and writers have been seduced by Hydra’s unique atmosphere. The island doesn’t allow automobiles; only donkeys and pedestrians are able to navigate the winding streets of Hydra port, a chic settlement clustered with whitewashed mansions built over 200 years ago by the island’s then-powerful sea captains.

During Ottoman times, Hydra was forgotten by the Turks and so many Greeks from the neighboring Peloponnese took refuge there. Over time, it became powerful through its ship-building industry and early in the 19th century provided the Greek revolutionaries with vital assistance, in the form of 130 warships and an admiral to lead them, Greek war hero Andreas Miaoulis.

Hydra’s port town is clustered with waterfront cafйs and shops, set between steep and narrow streets, the upper reaches of which are largely uninhabited and reward leisurely investigation.

History buffs will enjoy the island’s museum for historical archives, which preserves the legacy of Hydriot naval power and its role in the War of Independence. Grandest among the many mansions built by the shipbuilder aristocracy is that of revolutionary leader Georgios Koundouriotis, who hailed from the island.

Hydra has long wild stretches, hidden coves and places of pilgrimage, such as the monastery of Profitis Ilias, located on a hill 90 minutes by foot out of town. Here monks still preserve the ancient rites of the Orthodox Church as kept in Byzantine times.

Like its Saronic neighbors Poros and Spetses, Hydra crouches in the shadow of the Peloponnese. Side trips to this massive peninsula are highly recommended: the Peloponnese hosts a wealth of attractions, from the Venetian towns of Nafplion in the east and Monemvasia in the south to the Byzantine ruins of Mystra, and the original site of the Olympic Games, near the western coast of the peninsula.

While accommodation on Hydra cannot be called inexpensive, it is of very high quality and also less susceptible to the massive price hikes that have made Athens and its environs prohibitively expensive. And further, it’s still available.

One of the best hotels on Hydra, the Orloff, is a “lovingly restored” sea captain’s mansion set above the port, combining secluded, flowering courtyards with A-category amenities: http://www.orloff.gr The Orloff currently has a few rooms still available for select days in August- contact proprietress Maria directly via email: orloff@internet.gr

A truly remarkable Hydriot hotel is the A-category Bratsera. The cozy feel of this little place (once a sponge factory) owes to its weathered wood interior. The Bratsera also overlooks Hydra port and boasts a garden and swimming pool. There is still some availability for August. Prices are reasonable, ranging from 125 euro ($200) for a standard double room to 195 euro ($315) for a ’superior’ double with balcony. Contact Eva at bratsera@yahoo.com

A recommended B-category hotel is the Angelica, which looks down upon Hydra’s port from a lush hilltop setting: http://www.angelica.gr Contact manager Stelios Bougiouklis for more information on availability: angelicahotel@hotmail.com

Information on the fastest form of Greek marine transport, the hydrofoil, is available on arrival and at the official Hellas Flying Dolphin website: http://www.dolphins.gr.

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