Aegina has glo­ri­ous beaches, great food, a touch of an­tiq­uity and friendly peo­ple — mi­nus the crowds, writes Pauline Ray

Bay of Plenty Times - - Travel -

It’s the Greek is­land hardly any­one apart from the Greeks has heard of. Much less fa­mous than its big brothers, Mykonos, San­torini and Naxos, the is­land of Aegina is free of tourist hordes, and if you only have a few days’ stopover in Athens, it pro­vides the per­fect Greek is­land ex­pe­ri­ence.

It’s about 26km from Athens and ac­ces­si­ble by fre­quent fer­ries and hy­dro­foils, both of which take an hour or less. Aegina has glo­ri­ous beaches, great food, a touch of an­tiq­uity and friendly peo­ple — mi­nus the crowds, at least when we went there in May in search of sun and sand.

By ac­ci­dent, I had booked our ac­com­mo­da­tion on the non-touristy side of the is­land, and as we bumped our way over the hills and wind­ing bends on aw­ful roads in a very mod­est taxi, I had a sink­ing feel­ing that I had made a giant mis­take. But when we rounded a cor­ner and ar­rived at the Ho­tel An­gela at Agia Ma­rina Beach to be met by a friendly mother-and-daugh­ter duo, we were in sev­enth heaven.

About 100m away was the won­der­fully clear, blue Aegean. Hav­ing es­caped the dread­ful Auck­land win­ter, we were so over­come with ex­cite­ment that we tore down to the beach in our longtrousered travel clothes. We flopped straight on to the loungers: the price be­ing that you had to eat lunch there. That was hardly an im­po­si­tion when you could eat oc­to­pus, squid and de­li­cious sal­ads brought straight to our loungers.

On an­other day we opted to eat at the al-fresco res­tau­rant set up un­der canopies in the sand.

The one slight shock, af­ter we tore back to the ho­tel to change into our swimgear, was that the sea was sur­pris­ingly cool in the May sun. But as the sun was so warm on each of our three days (30-35C), the swim­ming was re­fresh­ing af­ter that ini­tial shock.

The main town, Aegina, where the fer­ries and most of the day trip­pers stopped, was full of sou­venir shops and restau­rants, but had some lovely neo­clas­si­cal, brightly coloured build­ings, and a pretty port full of fish­ing boats. Agia Ma­rina, where we stayed, com­prised one main street and a few side streets. The main street was lined with restau­rants and tourist shops. There was a gen­er­ous dis­play of linen shirts, swimwear, straw hats, and nat­u­ral hand and body creams, all Greek, which made them great gifts to bring home. There were also a lot of pis­ta­chio shops as Aegina is the pis­ta­chio cap­i­tal of Greece, so we could buy pis­ta­chio cream, bars and cook­ies. We bought some pale-green coloured pis­ta­chio cream, which was not quite as tasty as it looked — I found it overly sweet.

Our qui­eter side of the is­land at­tracted Greek hol­i­day­mak­ers as Agia Ma­rina was the best beach on the is­land, and lots of fam­i­lies and chil­dren scam­pered around each day. Fre­netic dads wan­dered up and down the beach in their swim­suits, shout­ing in­struc­tions on their mo­bile phones to their staff, pre­sum­ably in Athens. One dad shouted for at least an hour around us, as we swam, ate lunch and then de­parted from the beach. When we left he was still shout­ing into his phone.

Ac­com­mo­da­tion at the Ho­tel An­gela was com­fort­able, friendly and ex­tremely af­ford­able at $195 for three nights, in­clud­ing break­fast. The ho­tel was be­decked in bougainvil­lea, and each morn­ing we were wo­ken up by doves, chooks and chil­dren’s chat­ter. Two doors up from us was a white­washed church com­plete with the typ­i­cal Greek blue-domed roof. emi­ We didn’t see any wor­ship­pers while we were there, but we did see the Greek Or­tho­dox priest out for din­ner sev­eral nights.

Just along the main road from our ho­tel was a trendy bar run by a Ger­man woman and her Cre­tan hus­band, who be­friended us af­ter we were di­verted by their cock­tails on our first night. Their win­dows opened out on to the one main street — sen­si­ble in the balmy heat — and the pair beck­oned us in for a drink ev­ery time we walked past. Well, why not? We tried very quaf­fa­ble Greek white wine and retsina, which nearly blew our heads off, but we gave ouzo a miss.

The food was de­li­cious — plenty of oc­to­pus, squid and firm white fish — and rea­son­ably priced. As the tem­per­a­tures were so balmy we could al­ways sit out­side and usu­ally chose to eat at restau­rants over­look­ing the sea. How­ever, one night we sat in a cov­ered court­yard in a res­tau­rant on the main street, and bought olive oil from the owner, whose friend grew the olives and pressed the oil. Silly idea when you are trav­el­ling home by air, but we are still en­joy­ing it as a won­der­ful mem­ory of our hol­i­day.

One sad as­pect was that out­side the thin main drag a lot of shops and ho­tels were boarded up, although some of the ho­tels may have opened up fur­ther into the peak tourist sea­son.

One morn­ing, be­fore it got too hot, we trudged up a vir­tual goat track to the Tem­ple of Aphaia, a 2500-yearold Doric tem­ple which pre­dates the Parthenon in Athens. The path was pit­ted, and partly over­grown and we only made it to the top be­cause as we climbed we could see the top.

The tem­ple was worth the climb as we had com­mand­ing panoramic views of Agia Ma­rina Bay and the coast­line. Some of the tem­ple’s lime­stone columns are made of a sin­gle piece of stone. Goodness knows how the an­cients lugged the stone and rocks to build it so far up on the hill. The tem­ple was in sur­pris­ingly good nick, com­pared to some of the other ar­chi­tec­ture of the an­cient world. Our visit was rather poignant, how­ever, as there was one lonely guy in the ticket of­fice (it costs about $8.50 to get in), and when we asked why the mu­seum was not open, he said be­cause they only had funds to open it one or two days a week. Symp­to­matic of the hard times we saw in other parts of Greece.

We loved the is­land so much we de­bated whether we should tell peo­ple about it, but for peo­ple who want an un­spoiled Greek is­land ex­pe­ri­ence, Aegina is def­i­nitely worth ex­plor­ing as a stopover or an even longer visit.

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