A catamaran trip exploring Greece’s Saronic Islands
As I prepared for a week of sailing the Greek Islands, I felt as though I was about to reunite with an old friend. Thirty years had passed since I’d visited Greece, but I had clear memories of the delicious food, friendly people, and striking contrast of the green hills against the turquoise sea. I was a young, inexperienced traveler but knew enough to understand that Greece was special.
A Trip to Greece, 30 Years Earlier
My friend and I had been backpacking in Italy when we decided to add a quick trip to the Greek island of Corfu. We dozed on an overnight ferry from Brindisi and landed in Corfu as the sun appeared on the horizon, casting a lemony glow. It wasn’t yet breakfast time, and we were greeted with ouzo shots and a raucous smashing of plates, at the famous backpacker’s hostel, the Pink Palace. We ate, swam, and explored the island by scooter. There was also some late-night revelry, including a backpackers nod to Greek culture, the toga party.
Fast forward and midlife me was excited to once more experience the food, culture and history. And to trade late-night dancing for early mornings with a cup of coffee and a view.
Greece has the longest coastline in Europe, and thousands of islands, so I chose Greek Island hopping by sailboat for my return trip. Since I’d be traveling on my own, I decided to join a private catamaran charter with Traverse Journeys, a U.S.-based tour operator that offers thoughtfully-curated travel experiences around the world.
Sailing the Greek Islands
Our adventure would explore the Saronic Islands, found in the Aegean’s Saronic Gulf between the Greek mainland area of Attica and the Peloponnese Peninsula. The Saronic Islands’ proximity to Athens allows for a a sailing adventure that can easily begin and end in the Greek capital – no need for connecting flights or ferries. For that reason, the Saronic Islands are popular with Greeks, as a place for a weekend away or extended holiday. And many Athenians own homes here.
Our 6-day sailing itinerary would take us from Athens to the islands of Aegina, Spetses, Poros, and Hydra, with one night spent in each. A fifth stop would be at the mainland port of Epidaurus.
Other island groups commonly explored by sailboat include: the Ionian Islands (of which Corfu is a part), the Sporades, North Aegean Islands, the Dodecanese and the famous Cyclades, where Santorini is found. Detailed information about all of Greece’s island groups is available on the Greece tourism website: Visit Greece – Greek Islands.
Google Map - Saronic Gulf Greek Island Hopping
Our group met at the Alimos Marina in Athens where we were welcomed aboard a 50-foot catamaran. Our crew for the week were a charismatic former Greek Navy captain named Haris Psaropoulos, and Joy Sherman, an experienced American sailor and captain, from Connecticut. Joy would be our first mate and cook on this trip. She has sailed Greece quite extensively. Haris would prove to be a sort of cultural attaché, advising us on important matters such as how to drink a shot of ouzo (by sipping it slowly) and the meaning of GMT, “Greek Maybe Time” — don’t expect things to go precisely to plan or according to a schedule.
Leading our tour was Ashley Blake, the founder of Traverse Journeys. Like many of the six guests, Ashley had limited sailing experience, but is adventurous and ready for anything. She welcomed us with locally made tote bags and special gifts for sharing during our week together, such as Greek mountain tea. My sailing experience was limited to day trips, but I love water. I was very happy to discover there were stand-up paddle boards and snorkel gear on our catamaran. As long as the weather wasn’t too wild, I was ready for my first sailing adventure in the Greek islands.
After settling in to our spacious cabins, each with an its own bath, we set out for our first destination, Aegina Island. From the bow, I watched Athens fade into the distance, enjoying the wind on my face. A sailing trip gives you a pleasant breeze whenever you are underway, a nice perk in warm weather. The boat followed the hilly coastline and a large ferry appeared on the horizon. By the time we cruised into Aegina’s port, with its colorful fishing boats and waterfront tavernas, I already felt a world away from Athens.
Our first dinner was in a pretty waterfront taverna owned by a local family. They had selected a special menu for our first evening, a chance to try some of the local dishes. We feasted on tender calamari, crispy fried cheese, seasonal greens known as horca, red snapper and the best greek salad I have ever tasted.
When we were served little glasses of ouzo at the end of the meal, I braced for a pungent assault, recalling what I’d tasted in Corfu so many years before. I took a small sip and found the ouzo’s subtle warmth and mellow flavor were delicious, unlike any ouzo I had tried.
The next day we drove up through Aegina’s rolling hills, pine-scented air wafting in through the car windows. Aegina is the driest island in the Saronic, hot in the summer and mild in winter, and offers ideal conditions for growing the very special “Aegina pistachios”. They thrive in the perfect alchemy of soil and air, with steady breezes assisting in pollination.
We passed pistachio groves with trees as old as 100 years. I admired the shiny, broad leaves which created a vibrant canopy on arching branches. The pistachios were still small in late May; they wouldn’t be harvested until early fall, and would grow into a small, colorful pistachio called “koilarati” which means round.
Temple of Aphaia
We continued up the windy road toward a very special ancient monument, the Temple of Aphaia. When we parked in a small lot I thought there was a mistake. Where were the buses and cars? We climbed the steps to the temple and realized we were the only ones here.
The temple was stunning. It was built circa 500 BCE and the columns are Doric limestone. This is the only temple entirely devoted to the goddess, Aphaia. The setting, amongst pretty pine trees with incredible views out to the sea, felt both dramatic and serene. And the absence of other tourists made it feel as if we had stepped back in time. The Temple of Aphaia is considered one of the better preserved of the Ancient Greek temples and the quiet atmosphere allowed me to imagine what life was life in Ancient Greece.
Back in port, I stopped by a pistachio seller near the waterfront and bought two bags of nuts and other treats to bring home: pistachio butter, pistachio jam and pistachio pesto. I wandered through the pretty laneways near the port, admiring the cute tavernas and charming shops. When we set sail, soon after, I left Aegina thinking I would have loved a little more time there.
Hydra was love at first sight for me. It’s gorgeous and colorful, and somehow feels both glamorous and relaxed. In part that’s because there are no cars on the island, only hard-working donkeys and horses. And while it doesn’t have many beaches, and the lack of cars mean they are hard to reach, its pretty cliffside restaurants with swimming access more than make up for it.
I wandered among the streets of Hydra (the main town shares the name of the island) and made my way to Hydronetta, one of the island’s famous restaurants. It clings to the side of a rocky cliff and is accessed down a steep and winding set of steps. (I am at Hydronetta in the main image at the top of this story.) After enjoying the view and glass of rosé, I descended another set of steps to a little jetty where I jumped into the turquoise sea. The water was cool but refreshing and the salt made it especially buoyant. I floated happily, enjoying the incredible surroundings.
The remainder of my afternoon is best described as: eat and drink, admire the view, swim — and repeat. It was heaven. After one final dip, I watched the sun sink into the turquoise sea and meandered back to the port as the sky turned pink.
I found our group at a charming taverna seated under a sweep of pink bougainvillea. I joined them as delicious local specialties appeared one after the other. It was another wonderful evening with the my fellow travelers.
Breakfast was served on the boat each morning but we had the option to explore while we remained in port. In Hydra, I got up early and wandered the quaint streets to take photos of some of the pretty courtyards. Afterward, I stopped at a small cafe and enjoyed Greece’s special freddo coffee (iced coffee made with espresso and frothed milk) and a delicious breakfast pie made with feta encased in light crisp pastry. Traditional Greek feta is distinct from much of what’s available elsewhere. For it to be considered “domain of origin” it must be made with a combination of sheep and goat’s milk.
I watched the donkeys already hard at work, the clip-clop of their hooves echoing through the cobblestone laneways.
On our way to our next stop, Captain Haris cruised into a small, quiet bay at Dokos Island. The sea was a spectacular green and crystal clear. We enjoyed a swim with the water in the sheltered cove water considerably warmer than at Hydra. The calm sea was also ideal for a stand-up paddle. Having access to these special stops was a significant perk of Greek island hopping.
Only two hours from Athens by ferry, Spetses is a favorite among both Greeks and international travelers. With its Venetian-style architecture, seaside mansions and plethora of yachts, it was the most cosmopolitan of the islands we visited.
We had the afternoon in Spetses to enjoy as we wished and some of the group set out on a bike ride around the island, accompanied by Ashley. I rode my bike about a kilometer from port where I was enticed by the sight of a quaint beach and green striped umbrellas. I enjoy being active but also love relaxing with a glass of wine and a beautiful view. That day I chose the latter. With high season still a few weeks away, I was pretty much on my own at the charming beach-club restaurant. The staff were welcoming and encouraged me to linger as long as I liked. I took the opportunity to enjoy the time to myself. Quiet time to soak in the atmosphere is a part of solo travel that I really love.
The upscale flavor of Spetses translated into higher prices than the other Saronic islands we visited, but the food was very good and we enjoyed another wonderful dinner at a waterfront taverna recommended by Captain Haris. I tried the local tuna known as bullet tuna, it was tender with a delicate flavor.
Although Hydra was the island that most enchanted me, if I had to pick one island where I would have liked a few extra days, it was Poros, our next stop. The landscape was beautiful and it had a sprawling waterfront, bustling with fishing boats, ferries and other sailboats. There was lots to see and do including a charming town and many beaches dotted around the hilly island. After skipping the bike ride in Spetses, I decided to circle Poros by bike, along with one of my fellow travelers. We enjoyed stunning scenery and met a few goats on the way. Poros felt like the place where vacationing met everyday Greek life. Locals conducting business and enjoying leisurely afternoons at the local tavernas.
Our dinner in Poros was especially memorable. The staff at the Oasis Taverna created a multi-course menu for our group. We had a chance to sample a variety of local dishes, including several types of seafood. I especially enjoyed the seafood risotto and frozen limoncello for dessert.
In the morning I walked along the waterfront to watch fisherman head out for the day, and wandered through the charming laneways. The bougainvillea was especially captivating and I had a lovely time taking photos and observing daily life here.
Epidaurus & Epidaurus Amphitheatre
The final stop on our Greek island sailing itinerary was Epidaurus on the mainland area of Argolid. A pretty u-shaped harbor was set against a backdrop of gorgeous green hills and a low-key waterfront with shops and tavernas.
Here we had the chance to tour another ancient monument, the Epidaurus Amphitheatre. It was constructed in the late 4th century BCE and is notable for its exceptional symmetry and near-perfect acoustics. It’s said that someone sitting at the very back can hear as well as someone in the front row. In ancient times, people believed that a visit to this site had healing powers; the amphitheatre is part of a larger ancient sanctuary dedicated to the ancient Greek god of healing, Asclepius. Since 1955 annual summer performances have been staged here, mostly ancient dramas. Apparently it is a hot ticket.
Once more we enjoyed minimal crowds on the day we visited. After climbing the ancient stone steps to the top, I enjoyed the view out over the treetops, and next visited the small but charming Archaeological Museum of Epidaurus, located next to the amphitheatre. It holds dozens of small artifacts excavated at the site, as well as reconstructions of ancient statues once found here.
It was very hot on the day of our visit, so after returning to the boat I was pleased to have a chance to get back in the water. This time it was to explore an ancient site under the sea — the Sunken City of Epidaurus. These remains of an ancient Greek villa, included stretches of stone walls and huge vases, all sitting silently just two meters below sea level. It was perfect for snorkeling, with great visibility and easy access from the boat and the beach. I loved the chance to swim atop this unique monument and imagine what life was like here, more than 2000 years earlier.
We returned to Athens for our final day of the trip and had the chance to explore the city. Traverse Journeys supports a non-profit community partner on every trip and in Greece that partner is Lighthouse Relief. On our final afternoon, we visited Lighthouse and the staff graciously welcomed us and took some time to explain their mission. Their work provides immediate and long-term support to people experiencing displacement, especially in the Ritsona refugee camp outside Athens. Lighthouse began in a tiny fishing village on the Greek island of Lesvos in 2015. At that time, thousands of refugees were arriving every day in rubber dinghies. The island’s residents were welcoming but didn’t have the infrastructure to meet the need, so Lighthouse was created. Lighthouse’s work was tremendously inspiring and reminded me that finding ways to support large numbers of refugees is an ongoing reality for Greece.
After a lovely walk around the city’s historic center, Ashley hosted our farewell dinner at a special spot called the Cafe Avissinia, a family restaurant serving traditional fare made from recipes passed down through several generations. The moussaka was the best I’ve ever tasted and the milk pudding served for dessert was among my favorite desserts, ever! The creaminess of the pudding was accented by a sweet rose sauce and crunchy pistachios. When I asked the charming owner about the dish, she said it was a family recipe, from the island of Crete. She didn’t say more, confirming my guess this top-secret dessert was really something special.
Greek Island Hopping Life
One of the things I so enjoyed about my trip sailing the Greek islands, was the time I had to relax each day while we traveled from one island to the next. I read, enjoyed the scenery and chatted with the other guests. I can’t be in the sun all day so also appreciated that there were shady places to relax on our catamaran. The stern had a lovely seating area that was covered. We could sit in the open air, but still be in the shade.
On our way to Poros we were treated to a visit by a pod of dolphins who played alongside the boat and then raced together at the bow. Thrilling!
Other perks of Greek island hopping by private charter included not dealing with ferry schedules – or ferry delays – and no packing and unpacking. Spending the week on a sailboat was so relaxing.
The Best Time to Visit Greece
If you are planning a trip to sail the Greek islands, or any visit to Greece for that matter, the decision when to go is almost as important as where. My trip to Greece was in the last week of May which I thought was ideal. It was more than hot enough, as high as 32 Celsius (high 80’s Fahrenheit). Hot enough that we ran the air conditioning in our catamaran most nights. I found the water temperature very pleasant as well. Yes, it’s cooler than in summer, but everyone in our group who swam found the water temps pleasant. The sea where we swam in Hydra was the coolest because the coast was less sheltered. If you love warm water but want to do a similar trip, you could consider late September, when days are pleasant and the water remains warm from summer.
Personally, I would find summer too hot for a sailing trip in the Greek islands. It’s also when Greece is the most crowded. I think mid May through mid-June or mid September through October are the sweet spots for Greece travel.
Find more information about the weather in Greece at the Greece Tourism website: Climate in Greece.
Sailing the Greek Islands With a Group
Traveling with Traverse Journeys was a great experience and it reminded me of the reasons I love group tours. When someone else is managing the day-to-day logistics, confirming dinner reservations or ordering a shuttle, it allows me to be in the moment and enjoy the experience. Being with a group was also a lot of fun. I could spend time on my own when I wished and also enjoy the company of my companions. There was also always someone to dine with.
For me, a small group makes the experience really enjoyable. I prefer group tours that are less than 20 people and have found 12 or less to be ideal. There were nine of us on this sailing trip, including Haris, Joy and Ashley.
I would highly recommend the Saronic islands near Athens for your Greece Sailing adventures, and loved my trip with Traverse Journeys. I never did get seasick (in fact we had such calm seas the sailing was limited. Our trip was more of a catamaran cruise, which I was fine with.) Now that I have my sea legs, I’d love to take another Greek sailing adventure. Next time, I might add on a few extra days – I’d like to return to Corfu.
Traverse Journeys offers trips all over the world. You can explore their destinations here: Traverse Journeys upcoming trips. The code MG100 will give you a $100 discount on any trip.
DISCLOSURE: I received a press rate from Traverse Journeys for this Greek island sailing trip.