It's now a stop-off on the glittery international art circuit and yet the boho, go-slow Greek island of Hydra will always sway gently to its own rhythm
SAILING INTO THE SMALL SARONIC ISLAND of Hydra in early summer, the unrivalled colour I see is yellow. The port - a perfect horseshoe - backs into a high amphitheatre dotted with 18th-century mariners' mansions painted citrine, picked out now by the morning sun. It is a Rip Van Winkle town, cute-warm and coiled around dazzling-bright labyrinths of steep steps and slender streets.
I arrive to hear that summer so far has been a flow of clear-blue days, and that Leonard Cohen was around last night handing out olives and ouzo. As Cohen has lived here on and off since the 1960s, it's not impossible… but best ask the island's keeper of stories, harbour master Pandelis, about such things.
Prodigiously bearded and continually harassed by sailors wanting a mooring in the snug port, he's being followed about today by the king of Malaysia. Apparently the king of the Netherlands is on the lookout for him too, not that Pandelis demonstrates any favouritism, standing in his small tug yelling instructions to fishermen and kings alike, happy to park any one of them next to a semi-derelict vessel filled with nautical junk.
There is no denying that in some months of the year Hydra has immense glamour. In the high season, weeks pass when its port feels almost like a little St Tropez, full of visitors lolling over the day's first glass of Champagne. Other times, you'll find only a few old men playing backgammon, and smooching couples off the early hydrofoil from Athens ordering pastries for breakfast.
On the cobbles, a line of donkeys waits patiently to carry suitcases up to the hotels and apartments. There are no land vehicles here, not even pushbikes. Banned for all time. Hydriots feel about the wheel the way the Amish do about Velcro: they know of its existence and have determined that with it comes the fall. How wise this has proved. No wheels have meant no heavy construction or gigantic hotels; the island can never be overcrowded or spoiled through overdevelopment, and has the atmosphere of a long-cherished and deeply quixotic place, a place far, far away, even though it is separated from the Peloponnese by just a narrow strip of water. There are no street names on Hydra either. You simply set off and see what lies around the next corner. Flora's café, perhaps, in a bright square full of lemon trees, with its pots of exquisite cold rice pudding spiced with cinnamon. Or a sweet supermarket where the freezer bursts hilariously with octopus tentacles and the honey comes in tins stacked in a quivering 10ft pyramid.
Hydra has long attracted artists and art money. In cliff-side galleries in June and July, New Yorkers show short films on the subject of dislocation to an excess of glob
But no activity on Hydra compares to a trip out in a boat. The island is only 50 kilometres square and completely riveting when seen from the water, despite not being particularly lush or landscaped with the comely vines and olive trees of other Greek islands. Still, whichever way you turn, the impact is captivating.
Late one afternoon I join Tasos and Eleanora - a fisherman and his girl - searching for squid on a simple cruiser. Chugging out of the port along the coast we pass the popular Hydronetta bar on the cliffs where people are already gathering for sundowners and, moments later, the house where Byron once stayed ('On old Aegina's rock and Hydra's isle/The god of gladness sheds his parting smile'). Sere thistles and bright Judas trees punctuate the nearby shore close to grand villas and more modest cottages overhung with harebells and gentians. After a few minutes, the distinctive landmark of a squat terracotta mansion in the village of Kamini that once belonged to a wealthy publisher but is now used for storage and is full of buoys and ropes, and a defunct but magnificent glitterball rescued from the sea.
A little further along, we pass the chapel of Saint Kyprianos, made from mud and wine and constructed long ago in gratitude by the survivors of a terrible storm, and beyond that a cove where five goats, almost mythically huge - really the size of Shetland ponies - play along the shore. Standing whooping on rocks, a group of kids watch a menacingly handsome adolescent known locally as Wolf Boy free-diving from a crag, arching his body like a rainbow and then sharply straightening seconds before impact. Everybody explodes in applause. ('What goes through your mind when you hit the water?' I ask him one night after bumping into him on a dancefloor in town. Pulling a mock-dramatic face he leans into my ear and whispers, 'the full moon'.)
Half an hour passes as we hug the coast. On the distant hills I spot a house, very high and white and alone. By foot it would take perhaps two days to get there from the port. Pine trees, heat, cicadas. What happens when someone gets old or sick and they can no longer walk down for food? 'Oh, they just wait,' shrugs Tasos, lounging with his arm around Eleanora, pausing for the optimum moment to drop his fishing lines strung with the fake silver fry so loved by greedy squid.
I don't know why my heart stands quite so still - it is only a house on a hill - but the patience. The peace.
As the afternoon draws to a close, everything beyond the lulling shores is washed in a plumbago haze. The mainland in the near distance shimmers through a silvery curtain of atmosphere. Athens is just 68km away, although it feels infinitely remote. Even the pretty ketch now bobbing into view seems almost a chimera. Plonked on the stern, a pot of basil; above it, a bikini hung up to dry. Nobody seems to be onboard.
Hydra is the birthplace of five Greek prime ministers and the first president of the Second Hellenic Republic. I've often wondered why that was so, this relatively barren rock with one town and a handful of hamlets reached by foot or donkey. Some places are just like that: powerfully and romantically unusual. Its current mayor - the son of a grocer - grew up on the island but won a scholarship to read philosophy at Cambridge, returning home to be elected to office at just 36. I see him one day carrying a pile of books, and he shows me a photograph of himself looking scholastic in his room at university. On the walls, nothing but the Hydriot revolutionary flag.
I GO ON A DAWN MULE RIDE UP to the high Monastery of St Matrona to take carrots to 70-something Sister Nectaria. Leading the little expedition is 26-year-old blonde Harriet who came to Hydra aged 10 from Uxbridge with her mother and has the best-groomed donkeys on the island. On the way she tells me about a secret valley where in the winter, feeling lonely, she used to hunt for quail and hare, and where there is an ancient chapel that had long lost its bell. One morning she met a man out hunting too, Vasili - a Hydriot much older than her, warm-hearted - and they fell in love and he restored the bell in her honour. Now they are engaged and 'go to the valley together to listen to its peal'. She says all this unselfconsciously, unaware of how absurdly enchanting it sounds. Vasili, brown eyes full of worry, dotingly leads our mules through banks of bracken and myrtle and masses of what looks like a wild, thorny buttercup hung with dew-shivering spiders' webs.
Up at the monastery, sisters Nectaria and Matrona, dressed in black habits and veils, have been awake for hours. They're the only nuns left here now (across all of Greece there is a crisis in recruiting to the religious life), resident since they were 11 and 14 when, consumed with heavenly duty, they walked up the hill to present themselves. Working contentedly at their sewing machines, the nuns are full of news about a rare trip to a hospital in Athens where Matrona, homesick and bewildered, had to drag a mesmerised Nectaria out of the flower shops off Syntagma Square.
Sitting on the courtyard wall we drink tea and gaze out across the island: sky-blue as an agapanthus. Behind us, dry peaks burn; far below, the curved lick of deserted and glassy Mandraki bay. Nectaria turns to smile dotingly at Harriet, nodding her approval to Vasili. 'We stole her from England,' she rocks, patting Harriet's hair as it gleams pale in the sun. 'We took her and kept her.'
Back down on the shore, in peaceful Kamini, a short walk along the path from the port, I have what I think of now as the perfect Aegean afternoon, starting with a binge at the smallest restaurant I've ever seen: four tables and a menu of three dishes written on a chalkboard strung with dried sage. I am served fresh anchovies and giant fava beans, and creamy slabs of cheese, Greece teaching me yet again that feta only ever comes one of two ways: either a salty chore or a thing you can't stop forking until you faint.
After lunch, a swim, simply stepping off nearby rocks into the sea. Far beneath my feet are sponges of such rare quality Hydriot merchants sold them the world over for centuries and they still come up from abyssal depths the colour of caramel, smelling of kelp forests. Even Sophia Loren couldn't resist, clutching several to her décolleté after a dive scene in the 1957 movie Boy on a Dolphin, which was filmed here. Half the island appeared in it and everybody still talks about it like it happened yesterday. Time on Hydra is relative, ever-deepening and drifting. For the rest of that lovely, lost afternoon, Kamini is siesta-deserted. Next to someone's abandoned towel on the rocks, a handful of fresh apricots.
That evening along the waterfront there's the gossipy murmur of newly arrived summer crowds. The billionaire art collector Dakis Joannou (a long-time visitor to the island) has just docked in a fibreglass tank designed by Jeff Koons - enormously blue and yellow, steaming menacingly through the water like a cubist icebreaker. And then, soon after, a gentleman's motor yacht - theMabrouka - which had belonged to Lawrence of Arabia, enveloped in the resin-drenched smell of a newly renovated ship.
Girls on their way to an opening at the DESTE Project Space wear Balmain dresses and sexy-fantastic shoes. American teenagers on a tour of the Argolic Gulf, their pink skin glowing freckled as foxgloves, step off boats, daring each other and shouting. The lights of the port enrich and refine the many colours until past midnight when a low-hanging moon turns the sea to iron and outsidePapagalos bar the drinkers' faces flicker in mirrored oil lamps, somewhere between the waking world and the world of dreams.
Much later, after cocktails and dancing to bad Greek pop music at Red Club, I lose my way in the backstreets. Because high buildings within the harbour protect the port, nights here have a drugging, winey warmth, and bursts of hibiscus everywhere black-red in the shadows. Then whitewashed walls and pretty apartments and squares of long-deserted rococo merchants' mansions shuttered and still. Without scooters or cars, the quiet on Hydra has a discernible pulse. Yet… from an open window a little further along comes the sound of John Denver's 'Leaving on a Jet Plane', and I make my way down the street to poke my head through.
Salvaged maritime miscellany muddles the room. Water-damaged paintings, chests and whistles. And there is Pandelis frying potatoes, standing on hazardous floorboards. We both hoot at the surprise of seeing him in a house rather than yelling from a harbour wall. 'Oh, dig out those photos of Sophia Loren,' I plead. He was an extra in Boy on a Dolphin when he was 10, an experience he speaks of rarely, as though such precious memories ought to remain shrouded. On the cabinet by my head, a formal portrait of him at around that age wearing a little white peasant's smock, standing outside the church of Saint Dimitrios, where there is an esteemed deacon called Manoles who chants the liturgy every Sunday in a voice so transportingly Byzantine that women stand outside the door weeping into their hankies.But Pandelis waves me off.
'It was her body double,' he tuts as I duck away. 'She was much more beautiful. Her body double!'
Then, just the cobbled street, and a waiter sweeping mounds of purple blossom and squashed figs.
HYDRA HIGH POINTS: the essential address book
The best bars in Hydra
The Pirate Bar in the port is an institution. All the bars along the cliff leading out of town are super for sunset drinks. Papagalos serves great cocktails and is a more sheltered place to watch boats come and go.
The best restaurants in Hydra
Xeri Elia Douskos taverna in Hydra Town is always good, with supper likely accompanied by old men singing and playing guitar. Petkakis, above the swimming rocks in Kamini, is tiny but dishes up delicious vine leaves. AtKodylenia's taverna, also in Kamini, try the feta with red pepper and squid.
And my favourite of all is Techne , its on the sea way from Hydra to Kamini.
This feature first appeared in Condé Nast Traveller June 2016