It’s early evening on the quiet coastal road that encircles the Greek island of Spetses. The sun sinks behind cliffs blanketed with thicket, herbs and wild olives, which descend to a glittering expanse of the Aegean sea. A herd of goats begins to tail us along the tarmac, tawny coats flecked with roadside dust. Save for the soft whirr of our electric bikes and the twinkling of bells hung around the goats’ necks, it’s a quiet scene, the air thick with scents of salt and hot grass.
This is the snapshot I recall when I think of this small romantic island, which lies 93 km from Athens, 2 hours by ferry. With bags of old world charm and a rich naval heritage hinging on the island’s role in the 1821 War of Independence, Spetses attracts a wealthy and largely Greek holidaymaking crowd, its traditional character safeguarded by strict planning laws.
Private cars are banned from the island, with just 8 taxis operating from the central port. It’s worth noting, though, that goods vehicles are in use, and most locals travel by motorbike. Otherwise, it’s electric bikes or the clatter of horse drawn carriages, which weave through the narrow local streets, passing brightly painted doorways draped with jasmine and trumpet vines.
The island’s population of just 4000 is centred around its only town, which surrounds the quaint Old Harbour, where tall masts frame apricot-tiled roofs and local craftsmen whittle model boats on the shoreline, and new port Dapia, with its polished boutiques and cafés. To the west lies the historic district of Kounoupitsa.
From the grandeur of the sand-toned Poseidonion Grand Hotel, which has epitomised Grecian elegance since 1914, to the sun-baked trails of the Spetsathlon, the biggest triathlon in Greece, this little island is rich in contrasts and surprises.
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Where to stay
Villa Persa, White Key Villas
After days spent exploring the harbour or biking to secret coves, the 6-bedroom Villa Persa is a truly special place to return to. Part of White Key Villas’ portfolio of privately owned luxury villas, this charming aristocratic estate is perched above the Old Harbour, offering views of bobbing fishing boats, clusters of white and shell pink houses and green hills beyond.
Stone pillars and palms flank a private pool and wraparound terrace surrounded by landscaped gardens, with seating areas tucked away in the shade. Dining al fresco here, on fresh grilled octopus and velvety fava cooked by a local chef as the sun sets behind tall Cypress trees, feels cinema-worthy.
My duel aspect room offers views of both the pool and sea, with French doors opening onto a balcony overlooking the harbour. The interior décor is a refined take on rustic – think engraved cabinets, ornate foot stools and a wrought iron four poster bed laden with plush linens and cushions. A bathroom with a stone sink and dark wood trim is well stocked with White Key’s signature toiletries – don’t miss the prickly pear body lotion, a cooling balm post-sunbathing.
Villa Persa encapsulates White Key’s ethos, which starts with the quality of the property – all 330 villas are among the most exceptional and characterful in Greece, and blessed with sea views – and extends to full-service hospitality. Whether guests want to book a private chef to cater their holiday or plan an itinerary of child-friendly activities, the White Key team are on hand to curate a bespoke holiday experience. Sleeps 10-12 guests, rates upon request.
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What to do
Dine under the stars on Orloff Restaurant’s famous veranda…
Watching the lights flicker on the waters of the old port while enjoying a plate of creamy black squid ink risotto at the legendary restaurant, Orloff, is possibly the best way to spend an evening on Spetses. Housed in a whitewash classical building which was once the island’s first port authority, this buzzing tavern, located between the new port Dapia and the Old Harbour, has catered to locals and celebrities alike since 1991. The ever-amiable owner Christos, descended from an old Spetses family, is a fountain of local knowledge, always happy to divulge stories and offer recommendations. Don’t miss the skilfully marinated tuna carpaccio, or the zesty heaps of cloud-like taramasalata.
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Explore quiet coastal roads on electric bikes
A bike tour is one of the best ways to take full advantage of Spetses’ ultra-navigable, quiet roads, and lightweight electric bikes make quick work of inclines. Begin in the old town and navigate your way around the coastal road, passing sea captain’s mansions draped with bougainvillea, idyllic beaches and churches hidden down tree-shaded side-roads. The total journey is 26 km long, with the highest point some 150m from sea level, and you may want to break up the journey with a swim. Finish with an ice-cold glass of white wine back in the Old Harbour.
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Discover calm coves – and the mythical Bekiri’s Cave
From Zogeria Bay, bordered by towering pines and olive trees, to the family friendly turquoise waters of Agios Mamas, Spetses is blessed with calm, naturally scenic beaches. Head to Aggi Anargiri on the west side of the island, whose stretch of sand, shingle and pebbles meets with deep blue-green waters and a rocky outcrop hiding a secret cave. Accessible through a gap in the stones, or from the water, Bekiri’s Cave is a low-lying cavernous spot where a romantic scene of the Greek film Tzeni Tzeni was filmed in 1965.
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See the island from the water with Spetses Cruising
This family-run cruise provider, founded by Yannis and Veneta Vasatis, has been operating for over three decades. The friendly staff have an impeccable grasp of the best sea excursions around Spetses, with delicious homemade meals served aboard premium boats. Journey across crystalline waters to neighbouring Dokos and Hydra, venture further afield with a trip to Vathi Avlaki and Monemvasia, or create your own bespoke boat trip. Prices vary according to vessel and group size.
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Discover the atmospheric House of Bouboulina
Bouboulina, a naval commander and Greek heroine who played a vital role in the War of Independence, is central to Spetses’ identity. If you only visit one historic site on the island, make it her Π-shaped house, which was built at the close of the 17th century and is furnished in 18th and 19th century style, with ornate wooden ceilings and an assortment of rare weapons.
Words: Mary-Jane Wiltsher