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After an exciting two days exploring Athens’ historical marvels, R. Gowri goes island-hopping in the Saronic Gulf, sailing across the blue waters of the Aegean Sea
IT'S Day 3 in Greece for me and on my itinerary is a visit to my favourite Greek God’s hilltop temple.
A Ganymedes Tours coach will take me to Cape Sounion from Athens, the capital city of Greece, where I've spent my first two days. Cape Sounion is at the southernmost tip of the Attica peninsula, some 71km from Athens by road. Here on a promontory caressed by winds, majestically looming over the Aegean Sea below, lie the ruins of the 5th-century temple of the Greek God of the Seas, Poseidon.
The ride there, around an hour and 15 minutes, allows me to admire Greece’s fabulous coastline. The beaches of Glyfada, Vouliagmeni and Varkiza are just beginning to shows signs of life this early in the morning. City folk frequent these stretches of golden sand and little coves for a day’s swimming and sunbathing. Others set sail on their boats across the startlingly blue Aegean sea for weekend adventuring.
On my left are luxury villas perched on hill slopes.
At the Cape, there is a very slight walk up from the parking area to where the marble-columned temple stands. My ticket takes me to very near the structure but not into it. The temple is guarded from vandalism. This is because at the base. on stones from which the columns rise, visitors have left their mark. One stone bears the inscription “Byron”.
The English poet Lord Byron had twice visited this famous archaeological site during his travels in Europe in the early 19th century. Did he put “pen” to marble here or was someone else the culprit? It’s no debate though that he was taken by this place and was inspired enough to write some beautiful verse about the temple in his poem Isles of Greece.
The site has a mystical and commanding aura because of its isolation and lofty perch, 60m above the sea. I would have loved to spend the entire evening here, to catch the famous sunset and sip Greek coffee at the spacious cafe at the foot of the temple. But, unlike Byron, I get no time to linger for long in this romantic place.
THE CAPE: Well worth a half day’s trip by tour coach, public bus or taxi. Admission to temple grounds is 4 euro. Souvenir shop has some nice mementos.
ISLANDS IN THE SUN
I’m walking down the beautiful harbourfront of an island termed a “living museum”, torn between keeping my gaze on the very cute donkeys standing before the moored yachts and the artistic shopfronts on my left, with window displays of handcrafted jewellery, fine silks and Grecian handicraft.
It’s Day 4 in Greece. I have arrived on the island of Hydra, a parcel of heaven — where motor vehicles are prohibited. Where writers, artists and artisans retreat to mull, reflect and create amidst hills, secluded beaches and monasteries.
The Italian actress Sophia Loren filmed The Boy On A Dolphin (1956) here and said, in an interview with a newspaper, that Hydra was one of the most beautiful places on earth. In fact there is a statue of a boy on a dolphin behind an old renovated mill.
All along the paved roads tavernas and chic cafes welcome sightseers, and the items on the menus are surprisingly affordable. While modern conveniences are present (three banks and a post office), Hydra, which is under a preservation order, is replete with old sanctuaries and any new building work must conform to the architectural styles of its past.
Hydra’s allure is of an old-fashioned port settlement. Adding to the romance are the more than 200 chapels, the monasteries, picturesque whitewashed villas hugging the hillsides, and mansions-cum-museums whose contents reveal the buildings’ past as fortresses against pirate attacks, and the island as a bastion of Greece’s struggles for liberation against the Ottoman empire in 1821.
I arrived here by the yacht Cosmos (see sidebar) which will take me to two more islands, with brief stops at each. The trip to Hydra takes three hours from Marina Kallitheas in Athens. I have an hour and 50 minutes to look around on my own (since I did not take up the guided walking tour, available for a fee).
The donkeys at the harbourfront can be hired for riding or carrying luggage. Getting around Hydra or to one of its beaches is either by riding the donkeys or water taxi. Apart from beach activities, there’re also hiking and horseriding. But for these more time-consuming attractions, I would have to stay overnight.
So for now, I follow the melodious peal of church bells past a high gate and find myself in the stone courtyard of the Church of the Dormitian of the Virgin Mary. The grounds have a tomb and an imposing marble bell tower. The interior has beautiful Byzantine artwork and icons, and it’s really cool and peaceful here. The buildings date back to 1643 when it was a women's monastery, later it was rebuilt after an earthquake in the 18th century. Now part of it is an ecclesiastical museum. The monastery apparently also played a big role in the Greek revolution.
My next stop at the small island of Poros leaves me with only 50 minutes to “do” the sights. Impossible, although this is the smallest of the three islands at 31 sq km. It took an hour from Hydra to Poros by sea and I saw, coming in, that this is a very green island, with pine trees foresting the hills right down to the sands. It's also very pretty, just like Hydra.
Many tourists make the climb up to the clock tower via stone steps between a row of shops. I was told it would take only six minutes but the sun is beating down on me. I change my mind, head for the nearest ice-cream parlour and gleefully, gobble down some delicious homemade ice-cream.
The island has an archaelogical museum and cultural centre. Poros has a strong naval history and was a base for leaders to meet during the Greek revolution. If beach bumming is what you’re after, you can make trips to some of the more secluded beaches via boats moored at the pier.
The largest of the three islands, this is more like a market town. Apparently it’s a popular weekend retreat for Athenians, some of whom have holiday homes here because of Aegina’s many beaches. It's an hour 20 minutes from Poros to Aegina by boat. According to mythology, the nymph Aegina was kidnapped by the Greek God Zeus and their son Aeacus became the ruler of the island. It was the first capital of modern Greece.
I find this port bustling with activity and the immediate commerce that catches one’s eye are the rows of pistachio stalls. Aegina is famed for her pistachios or fistikas; they are slightly different in taste and really scrumptious.
You’ll find pistachios in a variety of forms, from simply roasted to pistachio butter, jellies and ice-cream. They’re incredibly cheap too. There's even an annual festival for it in September (set for 14th-17th this year) and visitors will get to experience the music and dance of the region, along with other events like trade fairs and gastronomy seminars and challenges.
Aegina thrives too in attracting beachgoers to its many sandy beaches with its shallow and deepwater coves. There are also its archaeological sites — the Temple of Afaia, Temple of Zeus Hellanios, monasteries, a folklore museum and a historical tower.
TO ISLAND OR NOT TO ISLAND A definite treat for the soul-weary urban dweller — a day trip is a balm, and a longer stay, soul-stirring rejuvenation.
PLATINUM Cruises offers one-day trips to the islands of Hydra, Poros and Aegina by yacht and catamaran. You pay around Euro 109 per person for a Standard ticket to the three islands.
Platinum Cruises is a consortium of Hydraiki Naval Company and Evermore Cruises (www.evermorecruises.com), two major companies in the field of one-day cruises. There are optional multilingual guided tours on each of the three islands, such as a Hydra Walking Tour (Euro 25, VAT included), or the Aegina Panoramic Tour (Euro 20) by bus that will take you to the inland villages, or excursions to Aphaia and St Nektarios Monastery in Aegina (Euro 27).
One can also choose a Swimming Tour to beaches on Agistri or Moni island from Aegina (Euro 30).
There are VIP services for more exclusive privileges onboard, like your very own 5-star suite and cuisine prepared by Greek celebrity chefs, with a choice of an optional tour thrown in for free.
The yacht Cosmos departs from Marina Kallitheas at 8am and returns to port around 7.30pm. For the price of the fare you get a welcome drink, very comfortable sofas and chairs in air-conditioned lounges and a buffet lunch. You pay separately for drinks at other times and for breakfast.
After the last island stop, there’s live music from a band and a DJ spinning (he also sings!) and the revelry and dancing start on the open deck. There is no WiFi onboard but there are recharging stations at every seating section.
SCOOT SPREADS ITS WINGS
Looking for direct connectivity to Europe? This low-cost carrier has opened up new options for travellers
SCOOT Airlines marked a new milestone in its global profile with its maiden flight to Athens, Greece on June 20, the airline’s first to a European destination.
The low-cost arm of the Singapore Airlines Group celebrated the 787 Dreamliner flight to Athens with a launch party which began on ground before takeoff and carried on onboard. Both crew and passengers took on the costume challenge — flying onboard were “Greek gods” and famous figures from Greece's past. Adding to the fun were knowledge quizzes offering ticket wins and Scoot goodies.
SCOOT TO ATHENS
Scoot Airlines flies non-stop between Singapore and Athens, The 11.5-hour flight takes off from Singapore every Tuesday, Thursday, Saturday and Sunday. At present, Scoot flies from Ipoh, Kuala Lumpur, Langkawi, and Penang (two new destinations, from Kuching and Kuantan, have been announced most recently).
“Scoot is currently the only airline and low-cost carrier offering direct flights between Southeast Asia and Greece via a direct flight between Singapore and Athens,” said Lee Lik Hsin, CEO of Scoot. “With our debut into long-haul operation... this open(s) up new travel options for Asian travellers as well as European ones, with the start of our Singapore - Athens service.”
(Scoot and Tigerair of Singapore completed their integration recently and all flights have began operations under the Scoot brand).
Scoot is the world's first all-787 airline. Its advantages include 78 per cent larger windows (largest on any jet), lower cabin altitude, cleaner air and better humidity, which make a difference on long-haul flights. The 787 also boasts a 20 per cent less fuel consumption and 60 per cent less noise than previous-generation airplanes of its size.
On-board conveniences include WiFi connectivity and in-seat power as well as the ability to redeem and accrue Singapore Airlines KrisFlyer miles, Scoot was voted 2015, 2016 and 2017 Best Low Cost Airline (Asia/Pacific) by AirlineRatings.com and ranked in the Top 10 of the World’s Best Low-Cost Airlines in 2015 by Skytrax.
Total Destinations: 60 (as of June 20, 2017). Countries: 17. Book tickets at FlyScoot.com or contact its Call Centre.
FOR GREATER EASE
I found its direct connect services stress-free when I boarded at KL, with a transit in Changi, before flying on to Athens, without having to bother about lugging around my suitcase.
There are several add-ons and signature products you can purchase when booking/travelling in the low-cost airline and these include meals (no outside meals and drinks allowed onboard), extra legroom (for instance, MaxYourSpace allows purchase of two seats next to you for stretching out), extra baggage, ScootBiz, and Scoot-in-Silence (child-free cabin with adjustable headrests).
The PlusPerks is an optional add-on bundle that offers several add-ons including preferred seat selection and priority check-in.
I found the Scoot In Style add-on a relief for the long layover in Changi Airport which gave me access to the SATS Premier Lounge that has a modest buffet selection, shower facilities, two massage chairs and workstations.