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Where mass tourism is unknown: Discovering the thrill of the Greek island of Spetses

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Church bells clang. Opening the shutters, I shield my eyes from the diamond light dancing off the Saronic Gulf.

Chatter rises from the veranda below, where the Poseidonion’s breakfasting guests chuckle as a superyacht tries, none-too-successfully, to dock.

Spetses packs a punch in her nine square miles: authenticity, charm, natural beauty and relaxed sophistication.

Magical: The island of Spetses offers ‘authenticity, charm, natural beauty and relaxed sophistication’, says Teresa Levonian Cole

Spetses remains a favourite escape for fashionable Athenians — as it was in 1914, when Sotirios Anargyros, inspired by the grandes dames of the Cote d'Azur, built the Poseidonion Grand Hotel (above) as a luxurious hunting retreat

Spetses stays a favorite escape for fashionable Athenians — because it was in 1914, when Sotirios Anargyros, inspired by the grandes dames of the Cote d’Azur, built the Poseidonion Grand Hotel (above) as an expensive hunting retreat 

Despite proximity to the mainland — it’s just two hours from Piraeus by hydrofoil, or a three-hour drive from Athens and a jump over the ocean by water taxi — mass tourism is unknown here. 

Nicknamed Spezia (Spice) during Venetian rule due to its position on a serious trade route, Spetses stays a favorite escape for fashionable Athenians — because it was in 1914, when Sotirios Anargyros, inspired by the grandes dames of the Cote d’Azur, built the Poseidonion Grand Hotel as an expensive hunting retreat.

And it was Anargyros, a wealthy tobacco merchant, who saved the island from over-development.

‘Spetses was known in precedent days as Pityoussa [pine-clad], but by the twentieth century had turn out to be deforested due to its vital shipbuilding industry,’ says Petros Petrakopoulos, president of the Anargyros Foundation.

‘So he purchased 45 per cent of the island and planted 100,000 Aleppo pines, stipulating the land could never be built on.’

With proceeds from the hotel, Anargyros then founded an elite school modelled on Eton. 

The island was nicknamed Spezia (Spice) during Venetian rule because of its position on a major trade route

The island was nicknamed Spezia (Spice) during Venetian rule due to its position on a serious trade route

In the absence of private cars in the main town, on Spetses horse-power means the traditional four-legged variety

Within the absence of personal cars within the foremost town, on Spetses horse-power means the normal four-legged variety

Spetses is just two hours from Piraeus, Athens, by hydrofoil, or a three-hour drive from Athens and a hop over the sea by water taxi

Spetses is just two hours from Piraeus, Athens, by hydrofoil, or a three-hour drive from Athens and a jump over the ocean by water taxi

The author John Fowles taught here within the Nineteen Fifties and, inspired by his experiences, wrote The Magus, a cult novel set on a magical island he calls Phraxos.

‘Phraxos was beautiful,’ his protagonist says. ‘There was no other adjective; it was not only pretty, picturesque, charming — it was simply and effortlessly beautiful. It took my breath away.’

The hikes through the forests of Spetses are indeed breathtaking. Within the late afternoon the sun is low and the pines and sage are at their most fragrant, while on the summit one can hear only birdsong.

A water taxi takes you to among the island’s better-known beaches: Agia Paraskevi and Agioi Anargyri, for a lunch of meze and ouzo within the shade of its taverna, then Zogeria, famed for its lovely waters.

We pass small churches, the beach, and rows of old cannon, once aimed toward the pirates who plagued these shores. The warehouse has since found latest life as the stylish bar-restaurant Mourayo

That is the beach where The Lost Daughter was filmed throughout the pandemic, providing much-needed revenue for the island and blissful isolation for forged and crew, who included Olivia Colman, Dakota Johnson and Peter Sarsgaard.

No less enjoyable is the foremost town itself. Within the absence of personal cars, here horse-power means the normal four-legged variety.

In a carriage drawn by a handsome equine sporting blinkers, we hot-foot it along the seafront. People linger at cafes and, over delicious almond biscuits, watch the world go by.

We pass small churches, the beach, and rows of old cannon, once aimed toward the pirates who plagued these shores. The warehouse has since found latest life as the stylish bar-restaurant Mourayo.

On the deep inlet of the harbour, the 18th-century whitewashed mansions of sea captains, garlanded in good bougainvillea, tower atop steep steps. Overlooking the scene is the fortified monastery of St Nicholas, patron saint of sailors, where Spetses’ ‘Freedom or Death’ flag was hoisted in 1821 as a call to arms against the Ottomans.

Within the historic dockyards, Pantelis is perched on the gunwhale of a conventional fishing boat, rhythmically wielding a mallet. Throughout lie skeletons of other caiques, sawdust, and the delicious smell of pine and African teak. Pantelis climbs down, offers a calloused hand and leads me to a primitive workshop, where the most recent accoutrement is a single gas ring to organize coffee. 

Zogeria is the beach where The Lost Daughter was filmed during the pandemic, providing 'much-needed revenue for the island and blissful isolation for cast and crew', who included Olivia Colman, Dakota Johnson and Peter Sarsgaard

Zogeria is the beach where The Lost Daughter was filmed throughout the pandemic, providing ‘much-needed revenue for the island and blissful isolation for forged and crew’, who included Olivia Colman, Dakota Johnson and Peter Sarsgaard

Water taxis takes you to some of the island's better-known beaches, including Agia Paraskevi, pictured

Water taxis takes you to among the island’s better-known beaches, including Agia Paraskevi, pictured

A shot of the fortified monastery of St Nicholas, patron saint of sailors, where Spetses' 'Freedom or Death' flag was hoisted in 1821 as a call to arms against the Ottomans

A shot of the fortified monastery of St Nicholas, patron saint of sailors, where Spetses’ ‘Freedom or Death’ flag was hoisted in 1821 as a call to arms against the Ottomans

Mass tourism is unknown in Spetses, says Teresa. Pictured above is an aerial shot of the monastery of St Nicholas

Mass tourism is unknown in Spetses, says Teresa. Pictured above is an aerial shot of the monastery of St Nicholas

That is the realm where 18th-century merchant ships, source of the island’s wealth, were built and later converted into battleships.

Pantelis, who learnt the craft from his father, has been a shipwright for 25 years. Of the seven yards still operating here, his is considered one of only two still constructing boats from scratch.

He says: ‘As of late, fishing boats are made from plastic, so we only get about one latest commission a 12 months. It will take two of us eight months to construct.’

Hiring considered one of these caiques from Captain Tzimanis (‘the Wit’) proves a highlight. A day of scorching sun, cooling breeze and glorious sloth is spent exploring deserted bays, swimming in turquoise waters, and picnicking on freshly harvested sea urchins and limpets.

By the point we return, I’m hungry again. The old harbour, teeming with seafood restaurants, comes alive at night.

I dine on a quieter side of town with septuagenarian artist Leda Papaconstantinou. On a terrace above the ocean, over a bottle of crisp Assyrtiko and plates of ceviche, giant prawns and a delicious grouper baked in salt, I ask why she selected to live to tell the tale Spetses.

It was, on reflection, a fairly silly query.

TRAVEL FACTS

Kirker Holidays (kirkerholidays.com) offers five nights B&B on the Poseidonion Grand Hotel, including Aegean Airlines flights and hydrofoil, from £1,098 pp. See visitgreece.gr.

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