Yesterday, I experienced a full-day adventure from Athens to three Greek islands in the Aegean Sea – Agistri, Moni, and Aegina. The Aegean is known as the “cradle of Hellenic Civilization“. The islands visited are part of the Saronic Gulf between the Attica and Argolis peninsulas.
The day trip boasted snorkeling, swimming at beaches with sparkling turquoise-water, and a taste of local culture and food. All of this, on an authentic wooden Greek sailing gullet! For me, the clincher was sailing in the beautiful boat, swimming, and snorkeling in warm Aegean water!
Rough seas delayed the trip a day, piquing my interest. Having been on similar sails, I prepared for anything, but contemplated a mellow group and competent, fun crew. It’s been hot in Athens – 100s and high 90s – so the thought of Aegean swimming had crossed my mind several times.
Athens Beaches and Evia Island
Usually, locals aren’t very complimentary about Athens beaches, because of industrialization in the area. One showed me a map and pointed to a location northeast of Athens. The coastal area they recommended was in a small gulf bordered by a long and narrow island – Evia (you-BEE-yah). After Crete, less-touristed Evia is the second largest of all the Greek Islands.
Beaches near Evia are known for their beauty. There’s a popular spa in the town of Edipsos, with “hot water gushing from rocks and crevices into the sea and pools of local hotels and healing centers”.
Ferries from Athens don’t serve Evia, so you must travel by private boat or drive for hours via a long, narrow, tedious road. A ferry from Rafina goes to the town of Marmari, and it’s a short drive to Evia’s Karystos District with “medieval castles, ancient sites, miles of beautiful beaches, and leafy mountain villages”.
Athens and Koukaki Neighborhood
Evia is an example of local “secrets” you learn, if you stay in one place for a while. I’m getting comfortable with Athens, and enjoy the urban environment, despite the fast pace and high-density. It’s entirely different than the other two cities visited on this trip so far – Belgrade and Istanbul. Athens Koukaki neighborhood is unique, and I’m beginning to know its residents, restaurants, and creative shop owners.
One gruff-looking elderly lady walks her two aging German Shepherds every morning and again at dusk. She looks like she might shoot you for the slightest indiscretion, and the large lumbering dogs are a bit scary. When passing her on the street, I flashed a big smile and said hello. She melted, nodded, and smiled back, and the dogs wagged their tails – maybe new neighborhood pals? Digressing, so back to the Greek islands…
Day Trip Group
I didn’t count the total number of people on the day trip, but it was around 30. Everyone was mellow, and those I spent time talking with were fantastic company.
For part of the trip, I sat next to a couple from Paris – a French man and his Brazilian wife. They were animated and fun. We laughed and shared travel stories. I also spent time talking with a couple from Berlin – a Greek with a German wife. They were traveling with their two daughters (early to mid-30s) and their boyfriends. The Greek father kept a close eye on his daughters, but even so, the boyfriends succeeded with sneaking in a few hugs. He talked about the islands in a loving way, and I could tell he missed living in Greece.
A frazzled French woman was chaperoning a group of young students – mostly African. I couldn’t tell exactly where they were from, but none of them spoke much English. I interacted with them more in the water than onboard the boat. They also enjoyed swimming in the Aegean and giggled with delight in the water. Then, there was a couple from New York City – their humor was a bit droll, but they were sweet after they warmed up. Another pair of New Yorkers were two young students at NYU, one from the US, the other Russian.
I spent time snorkeling with a couple from Switzerland. We jumped into the Aegean from the top deck of the boat together, and my goggles went flying after I hit the water. The young Swiss guy dived and was successful retrieving them! I think they were both shocked that I was one of the first to dive into the Aegean. Forgot I had the goggles unsecured around my head, and was happy they were rescued, Getting sidetracked again….
Another American couple from Pennsylvania was nice but reserved. We walked together to see the Temple of Apollo on Aegina Island, only to discover it was closed on Tuesday?
Captain and Greek Gulet
Our boat, a 48-year-old wooden Greek gulet named Marisol (looking to the sun in Spanish), was in great shape! Her captain and I think the owner, is a young blonde guy with Rastas. He spoke excellent English, and I honestly couldn’t tell if he was Greek or another nationality, but probably Greek. It wasn’t clear how the tour company – Viator – was set up. I booked the day trip through Get Your Guide. They act as a broker and subcontract out to local companies.
Although it was a fantastic day with great company, it was really disappointing that we didn’t sail! I’ve taken lessons and sailed in Mexico, California, and many countries during my travels. I love it. As we motored to the first island, I asked the captain if we would be sailing. His reply was, “maybe on the way back”. Huh?
Although there was sufficient wind on the return trip to Athens, no sails were hoisted, and I was devastated. I’m not sure why we didn’t sail, and suspect it might be a safety issue? I will mention my disappointment in a review of the trip. It was a gorgeous day, but I truly wonder, why they advertised a day trip on a sailing gulet, and then didn’t sail? :o(
Swimming and Snorkeling
Since there was no sailing, I thought the best part of the day was swimming and snorkeling. The fish weren’t terribly exciting – not like in the Seychelles or Zanzibar where schools of fish are like computer screen savers exhibiting polka dots, zebra stripes, and bright vivid colors while floating in equally colorful coral gardens. I guess you get spoiled once you’ve seen that.
Regardless, swimming in the warm Aegean Sea was incredible! The water is heavenly! I was almost the last one to get out at both swimming stops. Glad I brought a special sun-shield top, otherwise my backside would be fried.
Below, I briefly describe the three islands we visited – Agistri, Moni, and Aegina – in the order we experienced them. Sadly (at least for me), we didn’t spend much time on any of the islands. The choice was swimming or exploring, and I decided swimming was more desirable.
I’m never good at hurried traveling, so only spending a few hours on each island wasn’t nearly enough time – either for swimming or exploring. Day trips are often rushed and packed with too many activities, but when solo traveling, some things are better done by signing on with a group.
Most of my photographs are disappointing, so once again I’ve used some media shots in this post. Somehow, I lost several potentially dynamic panoramas. The sun was glaring, and photography wasn’t my primary interest. After traveling for a few months, you get weary of taking photos. On a long trip, there are constantly new things to absorb and learn – it’s impossible to do everything perfectly. It’s taken me years (ha) to learn how to pace myself – it’s an art still in the development stage.
Blog posts are helpful for rekindling “after the fact” memories. In the heat of the moment, it’s difficult (impossible) to focus on everything, Greece is an extraordinarily beautiful place, but my first stops in Serbia and Turkey were incredible as well! Some days, things become too much, and it’s best to be quiet and just observe your surroundings.
Many travel experiences are difficult to describe to others, because they absolutely must be lived firsthand to be appreciated and understood. You can read a thousand written descriptions of something and still not understand it. Nevertheless, I make time for blog posts. Sometimes they help me keep focused and grounded, as I write travel memories. During long-term travel, no matter how well you plan, challenges always occur, and survival requires awareness of what’s happening in the immediate moment – but I’m digressing again, so back to the Greek islands…
Our first stop was Agistri Island, an altogether lovely place about an hour from Piraeus Port, depending on the speed of your boat or ferry. Skala is Agistri’s main town. It’s the arrival point for ferries and Agistri Express passenger boats.
Since we had limited time, I stopped for an iced espresso and spent the rest of the time swimming with locals at one of the smaller, more secluded beaches. I was in the water almost the entire time and didn’t need a beach lounger, umbrella, or other accoutrements available for rent at larger beaches, like Aponissos and Dragonera. Agistri was my first Aegean swim of the day – BIG smile.
We pulled the anchor and moved on to Moni, a small islet between Agistri and Aegina, opposite Perdika, a small, traditional Greek village. Moni is uninhabited, and we stopped off shore for the longest swim of the day, followed by lunch aboard Marisol. Moni’s only inhabitants are animals, including deer and wild kri-kri goats from Crete. We didn’t go ashore, so unfortunately, I didn’t see them. The captain warned us about stinging sea urchins close to shore, and luckily, I didn’t see any of those either. I experienced them snorkeling in the Seychelles. It’s unpleasant.
Moni has rich pine forests, and there’s a small mountain on the north side of the islet. The Germans used Moni to defend the port of Piraeus against the Allies. If you hike up the mountain, there’s a German lookout post that’s been there since WWII.
Aegina is the last island we visited, and it’s the largest in the Saronic Gulf. It has fascinating history and many things to offer. We explored one side of the island before heading back to Athens. Spending less than two hours on Aegina made it a cursory experience at best.
Aegina is strategically located between the Peloponnesus Islands and Athens. Historically, it was a trade area, and artifacts discovered there are said to date back as far as c. 2000 BC and 1700 – 1500 BC. Mycenaeans settled Aegina.
As the “last phase of the Bronze Age in Ancient Greece,” Mycenaean civilization is a historical study of its own right. It spans the period from approximately 1750 – 1050 BC.
Mycenae is “celebrated by Greek poet Homer as the seat of King Agamemnon, who led the Greeks in the Trojan War“. The archaeological site of Mycenae includes a walled citadel and scattered burial and residential complexes.
A few Aegina attractions are listed below. The island has many interesting sites to visit! The main attraction on the side of the island we visited is the Temple of Apollo, which unfortunately was closed to the public that day:
- Cathedral of Saint Nectarios – one of the largest Greek Monasteries and largest orthodox churches in the Balkans.
- Hill of Kolona with the Temple of Apollo – an ancient temple dedicated to God Apollo.
- Temple of Aphaia – a Doric temple built around 420 B.C. dedicated to Goddess Athena. Amazingly, three temples – “the Temple of Aphaia in Aegina, Temple of Poseidon in Cape Sounion, and the Parthenon in Athens – geographically form a perfect isosceles triangle“!
- Tower of Markellos – near the center of the main town in Aegina, the tower is an “impressive, eye-catching pink edifice with Venetian architectural and an imposing façade”.
- Monastery of Agios Nektarios – an important religious center established by Orthodox Bishop of Pentapolis Nektarios.
Pistachio trees have been cultivated in Aegina since 1860. The dominant variety – “Aeginis” or “koilarati” – is a high-quality tree. The nuts taste phenomenal! The bad news is they’re as (or maybe even more) expensive than varieties of pistachios in the US. Having eaten delicious Aegina Pistachios, don’t think I’ll ever be satisfied with the other varieties.
Milos Island in August
In August, I travel from Athens via ferry to Milos Island for a week. Hopefully, by then my sunburn will heal or miraculously turn tan, and I’ll be ready for more snorkeling and swimming!