Summer Festivals in Hydra
On a June weekend—often, but not always, the third weekend in June—Hydra celebrates the Miaoulia, which honors Hydriot Admiral Miaoulis, who set much of the Turkish fleet on fire in the Battle of Geronta in 1821. The plucky admiral rammed the Turkish fleet with explosives-filled fireboats; casualties on both sides were, understandably, considerable, with more Greek than Turkish ships left afloat. Celebrations include a reenactment of the sinking of a model warship; if you're not on Hydra for the festivities, you may see the fireworks light up the sky from other Saronic islands and the adjacent Peloponnesian mainland. In early July, Hydra has an annual puppet festival that in recent years has drawn puppeteers from countries as far away as Togo and Brazil. As these two festivals are not on set dates, check for schedules with the Greek National Tourist Office (tel. 210/870-0000; www.gnto.gr) or the Hydra tourist police (tel. 22980/52-205).
Attractions in Hydra Town
Why did all those "beautiful people" begin to come to Hydra in the '50s and '60s, and why is the island so popular today? As with the hill towns of Italy, the main attraction here is the architecture and setting of the town itself—and all the chic shops, restaurants, hotels, and bars that have taken up quarters in the handsome old stone buildings. In the 18th and 19th centuries, ships from Hydra transported cargo around the world and made this island very rich indeed. Like ship captains on the American island of Nantucket, Hydra's ship captains demonstrated their wealth by building the fanciest houses money could buy. The captains' lasting legacy: the handsome stone archontika (mansions) overlooking the harbor that give Hydra town its distinctive character. In earlier days, Hydra was a prosperous port that sent ships as far away as America; that history comes to the fore at the harborside Historical Archives and Museum (tel. 22980/52-355; admission 4€; daily 9am–3pm and 7–8pm), which has old paintings, carved and painted ship figureheads, and costumes. There are sometimes exhibits of work by local artists in a gallery here.
One archontiko that you can hardly miss is the Tombazi mansion, which dominates the hill that stands directly across the harbor from the main ferry quay. This is now a branch of the School of Fine Arts, with a hostel for students, and you can usually get a peek inside. Call the mansion (tel. 22980/52-291) or Athens Polytechnic (tel. 210/619-2119), for information about the program or exhibits.
The nearby Ikonomou-Miriklis mansion (also called the Voulgaris) is not open to the public, but the hilltop Koundouriotis mansion, built by an Albanian family who contributed generously to the cause of independence, is now a house museum. The mansion, with period furnishings and costumes, is usually open from April until October, Tuesday to Sunday 10am to 4pm; 4€. If you wander the side streets this side of the harbor, you will see more handsome houses, some of which are being restored into private homes, while others are being converted into boutique hotels.
Hydra's waterfront is a mixed bag, with a number of ho-hum shops selling little of distinction—and a handful of jewelry shops and elegant clothing boutiques—one bold (or honest) enough to call itself Spoiled! (tel. 22980/52-363; www.spoiled-shop.gr). Most of the elegant shops are either on side streets off the harbor, or in the area below the Tombazi mansion. Alas, the wobbly global economy has threatened a number of the nicest shops, and you may not find everything still there when you visit. Elena Votsi (www.elenavotsi.com) sells her original designs (including a graceful gravity-defying sterling silver clothes hanger for baby's first designer outfit) here and at her shop in Athens's Kolonaki district. Hermes Art Shop (tel. 22980/52-689) has a wide array of jewelry, some good antique reproductions, and a few interesting textiles. Domna Needlepoint (tel. 22980/52-959) has engaging needlepoint rugs and cushion covers, with Greek motifs of dolphins, birds, and flowers. Vangelis Rafalias's Pharmacy is a lovely place to stop in, even if you don't need anything, just to see the jars of remedies from the 19th century.
When you've finished with the waterfront, walk uphill on Iconomou (it's steep) to browse in more shops. Meltemi (tel. 22980/54-138) sells original jewelry (including gorgeous earrings) and ceramics. Just about everything is borderline irresistible—especially the winsome blue ceramic fish. Across from Meltemi, Emporium (no phone) shows and sells works by Hydriot and other artists. If you want to take home a painting or a wood or ceramic model of an island boat, try here.
Hydra boasts that it has 365 churches, one for every day of the year. The most impressive, the mid-18th-century Monastery of the Dormition of the Virgin Mary (E Kimisis tis Panagias) is by the clock tower on the harborfront. This is the monastery built of the marble blocks hacked out of the (until then) well-preserved Temple of Poseidon on the island of Poros. The buildings here no longer function as a monastery, and the cells are now municipal offices. The church has rather undistinguished 19th-century frescoes, but the 18th-century marble iconostasis (altar screen) is terrific. Like the marble from Poros, this altar screen was "borrowed" from another church and brought here. Seeing it is well worth the suggested donation.
A Monastery, A Convent & Beaches
If you want to take a vigorous uphill walk (with no shade), head up Miaouli past Kala Pigadia (Good Wells), still the town's best local source of water. A walk of an hour or two, depending on your pace, will bring you to the Convent of Ayia Efpraxia and Monastery of the Prophet Elijah (Profitis Elias). Both have superb views, both are still active, and the nuns sell their hand-woven fabrics. Once you're there, the monks will offer you a glass of cold water in their shady courtyard and probably try to sell you some needlework made by the nuns. They occasionally allow visitors in to see their charming chapel as well. (Note: Both nuns and monks observe the midday siesta from 1 to 5pm. Dress appropriately—no shorts or tank tops.) Alternately, many visitors make the trip by donkey, with rates starting at a highly negotiable 60€.
Unfortunately, most of Hydra's best beach, at Mandraki, a 20-minute walk east of town, is the private preserve of the Miramare Hotel. If you're on Hydra briefly, your best bet is to swim off the rocks just west of Hydra town at Spilia or Hydronetta, or head out to sandier (and fashionable) Kaminia. Still farther west are the pine-lined coves of Molos, Palamida, and Bisti (all three as sandy as it gets on Hydra), best reached by water taxi from the main harbor (about 10€). The Kallianos Dive Center (www.kallianosdivingcenter.gr) offers PADI scuba lessons and excursions off Kapari island, near Hydra. Excursion boats from the harbor also set sail for Ayios Nikolaos, a pebble beach with sun beds and refreshment concessions on the south coast (the cost is about 8€ a person round-trip).
The island of Dokos, northwest off the tip of Hydra, an hour's boat ride from town, has a good beach and excellent diving conditions; it was here that Jacques Cousteau found a sunken ship with cargo still aboard, believed to be 3,000 years old. You may want to take a picnic with you, as the taverna here keeps unpredictable hours.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.