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Small and exclusive, Spetses has both the looks and the location. This pine-covered island beauty in the Argo-Saronic archipelago is the picture of old-world elegance: climbing bougainvilleas, neoclassical mansions and horse-drawn carriages line the handsome port, where sea taxis bob about beneath wartime cannons.
Just ninety minutes by sea from Piraeus, this (almost) car-free island has long drawn wealthy Athenian weekenders. You’ll find them lingering over fine seafood in waterside restaurants or over freddo cappuccinos in the smartly-decked cafes of Dapia harbour. Or on the terrace of Poseidonion Grand Hotel – the heart of the island’s aristocratic social whirl.
Spetses is sometimes dubbed the Monaco of Greece due to its bonds with shipping and royalty: the former King of Greece, Constantine, has a home here, while the late shipping magnate Stavros Niarchos bought the small nearby island, Spetsopoula. Year round, upwardly-mobile sporting events like the Spetsathlon, Classic Yacht Regatta and Tweed Run bring an international buzz to this quietly glamorous island. Most don’t come to Spetses to be beach bums. Even so, outside of fashionable Dapia there are seductive coves and beaches, scenic trails and modest tavernas where this island’s more democratic charms arguably win the day.
Friday: Harbour Feelings
On most islands, you can’t get away from the port fast enough. Not so on Spetses. Storybook Dapia and the Old Harbour define what this sophisticated Saronic island is all about. Dive right in with a half hour stroll between the two, starting from Dapia’s ‘votsalota’ (the pebble mosaics at your feet) and ending at the lemon meringue-coloured chapel of Panagia Armata. Along the way, look out for house-proud Spetsiots tending their flower boxes and the metal sculptures of Athenian artist Natalia Mela. You can’t miss her emblematic rendering of Greek War of Independence heroine Laskarina Bouboulina holding fort in the main square - or her metallic siren watching over the Old Harbour with a trusty trident.
Enjoy the remains of the day with cocktails at the Poseidonion Grand Hotel, the island’s most historic landmark. Built by tobacco tycoon Sotirios Anargyros in 1914 as his gift to the island, and modelled on the Negresco in Nice, the Poseidonion was immortalised by writer John Fowles in The Magus (alas, he called it “that obese Greek Edwardian hotel”). Nonetheless, the guestbook bears witness to the Poseidonion’s pedigree: look for the faded signatures of Ingrid Bergman and Elizabeth Taylor. There are few better places to people-watch and you can also browse the gallery of Greek contemporary artists in the colonial-style lobby.
For a romantic setting, it’s hard to beat Spetses’ classic restaurant, the Orloff taverna, overlooking the Old Harbour. Housed in the island’s first port authority, built in 1802, you can dine on the quay next to colourful fishing boats under Victorian lamp posts, with views across to the Peloponnese. Most can’t resist double helpings of the Orloff bread basket with its heaven-sent olive and tomato loaf. It’s best accompanied by a round of their excellent Mediterranean meze, including baby octopus in wine sauce, meatballs with mint, or smoked cod with squid ink tarama. After dinner, discover another local treasure, the Titania outdoor cinema, behind Dapia port. Forget popcorn and warm wine: here you get posh cocktails from Poseidonion’s mixologist (and gourmet snacks, if you’re still peckish).
Saturday: A Peach of a Beach
It’s not all see and be seen on Spetses. Meet the island’s laidback side with an excursion to Cape Zogeria, a stunning run of unsullied bays and sandy beaches on the island’s north western tip. A one-kilometre dirt track will take you to the main bay of Zogeria (topped with a whitewashed chapel), but a water taxi or kaiki (wooden boat) from Dapia will take you to any beach of your choice. Make sure to swim up an appetite. Zogeria taverna has been serving the same delicious soutzoukakia (meatballs in aromatic tomato sauce) to an appreciative audience for over 40 years.
Beyond Dapia’s pricey boutiques and waterfront cafes, you’ll find lanes and lively squares dotted with more pocket-friendly eating options. Sooner or later, most visitors to Spetses end up at the jolly Quarter Pizzeria restaurant on bustling Clock Tower square. Locals love it too.
Everybody who’s anybody goes to Bar Spetsa. At least for the first drink (or three) of the night. This seaside bar in Agios Mamas is run by local character Costas (who revels in his nickname “Costas the Cantankerous”). Order a brandy sour and kick back with dressed-down Greek shipping scions. Decorated with vintage Bob Dylan and Woodstock posters, the mood is both low-key and high-powered. If you want to take the party to the next level, head for the Old Harbour where you’ll find louder alternatives: Bikini Bar, Guzel, Marine and Nuovo 1800.
Sunday: Hit the Road
Spetses has 25km of walking trails, making it a terrific island for hikers, cyclists and everyone who likes outdoor activities (there are many outlets where you can rent bicycles by the day or week). Ride to Agioi Anargyroi beach, a pebble-and-sand strip with loungers, about 12 km southwest of the port. Or swim out to Bekiri’s Cave, where you can snorkel amid stalagmites in lurid blue waters, a mesmerising spot where local women and children allegedly took refuge from Ottoman raiders.
If you haven’t “done” Tarsanas, you haven’t really “done” Spetses. Go full tourist and hail a horse & carriage to the Old Harbour where Tarsanas Fish Restaurant remains the hot ticket for Sunday lunch (definitely book ahead). Run by second-generation local fisherman Minas Kaloskamis, the setting is as pretty as a picture (sometimes swans swim up near your table). Order the signature “fish a la Spetsiota”: fillets of red snapper or cod broiled with fresh herbs, onions and tomato inside parchment paper.
Acquaint yourself with one more local legend before you depart. The 19th-century mansion of Laskarina Bouboulina, the only Greek woman to attain the rank of admiral, has been converted into the evocative Bouboulina Museum. Bouboulina led her own trading ships into battle during the Greek Revolution. But no more spoilers. You can take 40-minute guided tours (often hosted by descendants of Laskarina Bouboulina) daily between April and October.
Good to know...
In the second week of September, the whole island celebrates the Armata. Fireworks rain over a model Ottoman vessel that is set alight at sea to commemorate a naval battle in 1822, in which 100 local ships took on ten times as many Ottoman battleships and triumphed.
Hellenic Seaways services Spetses several times a day from Piraeus all year-round (although times differ from summer to winter). Smaller, faster ferries take 90 minutes; larger vessels take between 2-3 hours. Compare prices and schedules and book on Viva, Ferryhopper or Ferryscanner.
Alternately, it’s a 2.5-hour drive from Athens to the port of Kosta (near Porto Heli). From here, you can catch a 10-minute water taxi to Spetses for about €20 per boat.
To find out more about Spetses, visit here.
There are no cars allowed in the Old Harbour and Dapia, and only residents with special permits may bring vehicles to the island. You can rent a motorbike or bicycle, take a taxi or a water taxi, or enjoy the island on foot.