Aegina has glorious beaches, great food, a touch of antiquity and friendly people — minus the crowds, writes Pauline Ray.

It's the Greek island hardly anyone apart from the Greeks has heard of. Much less famous than its big brothers, Mykonos, Santorini and Naxos, the island of Aegina is free of tourist hordes, and if you only have a few days' stopover in Athens, it provides the perfect Greek island experience.

It's about 26km from Athens and accessible by frequent ferries and hydrofoils, both of which take an hour or less. Aegina has glorious beaches, great food, a touch of antiquity and friendly people — minus the crowds, at least when we went there in May in search of sun and sand.

By accident, I had booked our accommodation on the non-touristy side of the island, and as we bumped our way over the hills and winding bends on awful roads in a very modest taxi, I had a sinking feeling that I had made a giant mistake. But when we rounded a corner and arrived at the Hotel Angela at Agia Marina Beach to be met by a friendly mother-and-daughter duo, we were in seventh heaven.

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About 100m away was the wonderfully clear, blue Aegean. Having escaped the dreadful Auckland winter, we were so overcome with excitement that we tore down to the beach in our long-trousered travel clothes. We flopped straight on to the loungers: the price being that you had to eat lunch there. That was hardly an imposition when you could eat octopus, squid and delicious salads brought straight to our loungers.

On another day we opted to eat at the al-fresco restaurant set up under canopies in the sand.

The one slight shock, after we tore back to the hotel to change into our swimgear, was that the sea was surprisingly cool in the May sun. But as the sun was so warm on each of our three days (30-35C), the swimming was refreshing after that initial shock.

Aphaia Temple on Aegina Island in Greece. Photo / Getty Images
Aphaia Temple on Aegina Island in Greece. Photo / Getty Images

The main town, Aegina, where the ferries and most of the day trippers stopped, was full of souvenir shops and restaurants, but had some lovely neoclassical, brightly coloured buildings, and a pretty port full of fishing boats. Agia Marina, where we stayed, comprised one main street and a few side streets. The main street was lined with restaurants and tourist shops. There was a generous display of linen shirts, swimwear, straw hats, and natural hand and body creams, all Greek, which made them great gifts to bring home.

There were also a lot of pistachio shops as Aegina is the pistachio capital of Greece, so we could buy pistachio cream, bars and cookies. We bought some pale-green coloured pistachio cream, which was not quite as tasty as it looked — I found it overly sweet.

Our quieter side of the island attracted Greek holidaymakers as Agia Marina was the best beach on the island, and lots of families and children scampered around each day.

Frenetic dads wandered up and down the beach in their swimsuits, shouting instructions on their mobile phones to their staff, presumably in Athens. One dad shouted for at least an hour around us, as we swam, ate lunch and then departed from the beach. When we left he was still shouting into his phone.

Accommodation at the Hotel Angela was comfortable, friendly and extremely affordable at $195 for three nights, including breakfast. The hotel was bedecked in bougainvillea, and each morning we were woken up by doves, chooks and children's chatter. Two doors up from us was a whitewashed church complete with the typical Greek blue-domed roof.

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We didn't see any worshippers while we were there, but we did see the Greek Orthodox priest out for dinner several nights.

Just along the main road from our hotel was a trendy bar run by a German woman and her Cretan husband, who befriended us after we were diverted by their cocktails on our first night. Their windows opened out on to the one main street — sensible in the balmy heat — and the pair beckoned us in for a drink every time we walked past. Well, why not? We tried very quaffable Greek white wine and retsina, which nearly blew our heads off, but we gave ouzo a miss.

The food was delicious — plenty of octopus, squid and firm white fish — and reasonably priced. As the temperatures were so balmy we could always sit outside and usually chose to eat at restaurants overlooking the sea. However, one night we sat in a covered courtyard in a restaurant on the main street, and bought olive oil from the owner, whose friend grew the olives and pressed the oil. Silly idea when you are travelling home by air, but we are still enjoying it as a wonderful memory of our holiday.

One sad aspect was that outside the thin main drag a lot of shops and hotels were boarded up, although some of the hotels may have opened up further into the peak tourist season.

John Ray on Aegina, in the Greek Islands. Photo / Pauline Ray
John Ray on Aegina, in the Greek Islands. Photo / Pauline Ray

One morning, before it got too hot, we trudged up a virtual goat track to the Temple of Aphaia, a 2500-year-old Doric temple which predates the Parthenon in Athens. The path was pitted, and partly overgrown and we only made it to the top because as we climbed we could see the top.

The temple was worth the climb as we had commanding panoramic views of Agia Marina Bay and the coastline. Some of the temple's limestone columns are made of a single piece of stone. Goodness knows how the ancients lugged the stone and rocks to build it so far up on the hill. The temple was in surprisingly good nick, compared to some of the other architecture of the ancient world. Our visit was rather poignant, however, as there was one lonely guy in the ticket office (it costs about $8.50 to get in), and when we asked why the museum was not open, he said because they only had funds to open it one or two days a week. Symptomatic of the hard times we saw in other parts of Greece.

We loved the island so much we debated whether we should tell people about it, but for people who want an unspoiled Greek island experience, Aegina is definitely worth exploring as a stopover or an even longer visit.

Checklist

GETTING THERE

Emirates flies daily from Auckland to Athens via their hub in Dubai. Return Economy Class fares are available from $2179. emirates.com