There’s something thrilling about arriving on an island after dark. Especially if you’re travelling in a wooden boat barely big enough for a dozen passengers, with two small children clinging to the hand-rails, whooping into the waves. From Kosta, on the Greek mainland, it’s only a 10-minute ride to the island of Spetses, but it feels like centuries: horse-drawn carriages line up on the waterfront, kids on bicycles slalom between a row of cannons, scattering pigeons in their wake, and the silver-domed turrets of the Poseidonion hotel glimmer in the moonlight. Stepping onto the jetty, my son and his friend race straight for Kardasis kafenion (café) anticipating their traditional welcome treat: mounds of hot loukoumades – deep-fried doughnuts like miniature cannonballs, drenched in honey and cinnamon.
Once an exclusive club for ships’ captains, during the summer Kardasis swells with affluent Athenians every weekend who come to sit at the marble tables, drink coffee and watch the world go by. But, for me, the best time to visit is once they’ve stopped arriving in such numbers. Indeed, it’s from late September onwards that I like to visit Spetses when the heat of the sun has tempered slightly, when the hotel prices have dropped significantly but ferries are still frequent from the mainland, and when there’s no need to plan ahead.
Athens provides easy access to dozens of islands and they all offer something unique once the season slows down. The breeze is cool, but the sea is still deliciously warm well into November. The autumn sunshine is gentle enough for cycling or hiking, and the locals have time to stop and gossip, as they settle back into the languid rhythm of life without huge numbers of visitors to attend to. This, for me, is a beguiling time to visit.
There’s no doubt that Greece is again in vogue. In fact, it’s almost too hot to handle: around 32 million tourists are expected to visit the country this year, up from 15 million visitors in 2010. That’s three times the native population of 11 million. In high season, this popularity comes with a price: peak rates, crowded beaches and long queues for the hottest tables and must-see attractions. There is, in effect, no chance to slow down and take stock.
You literally have to slow down on Spetses: cars are banned, so the best way to explore this low-slung, wooded island is by bicycle. Every October, my family and local friends join the Tweed Run, a vintage-themed cycle race for all ages. Riders in bow ties, plus fours and flat caps hit the streets on two wheels, pausing for a picnic under the pine trees. From the saddle, we peek over the walls of stately mansions to admire the pebble mosaics that decorate their hidden courtyards. After the prizes for best-dressed rider and most impressive moustache are handed out, we have a recovery ritual: watching a movie at Ciné Titania, an open-air cinema that’s been a summer fixture on Spetses since the 1960s. Titania was recently revamped with surround sound and a snack bar that serves top-notch gin and tonics. Best of all, there’s a retractable roof in case of sudden showers.
The change of weather also offers new ways to experience the islands. With the first scarce autumn rains, the landscapes become less harsh, more accessible. The sunburnt hills adopt a modest smattering of green. Sticky figs burst from their skins, their heady scent leaving foragers light-headed. Grapes hang low and plump from vines, purple oregano buds push valiantly through dry stone walls. This is when I prefer to visit neighbouring Hydra, another car-free island but one that’s more untamed than genteel Spetses. In high summer, Hydra’s horseshoe harbour is lined with shiny yachts and flamboyant art collectors. In September, it’s quiet and cool enough to amble over the coastal footpaths to empty pebble bays, to loll on slabs of rock without breaking a sweat, or admire the edgy art installed in the old high school with only a few stray cats for company.
The two-hour trek to Profitis Ilias, a monastery clinging to Hydra’s highest peak, is less intimidating than navigating the rocky terrain on the swaying back of a donkey, which is how some pilgrims make the trip. The pay-off for the steep ascent: wide-angle views of Hydra’s red-roofed town, islands shimmering on the blue horizon, and the hazy hills of the Peloponnese ebbing into a cloudless sky. At the summit, there’s a reward of rose-tinted Turkish delight and ice-cold water, an offering from the monastery’s reclusive monks.
On Andros, one of the closest islands in the Cyclades to Athens (the group also includes bucket-list favourites Mykonos and Santorini), the welcome is even warmer at the Monastery of Panachrantos. On one occasion, the ebullient Father Evdokimos sat me down in his kitchen and cooked spaghetti with tomato and garlic sauce, a dish so deliciously simple it’s proved impossible to recreate. One of the joys of visiting Greece outside peak season is experiencing these close-knit island communities where kindness to strangers is sacrosanct.
Lush, mountainous Andros is mysteriously overlooked by most tourists anyway. Those who do make the two-hour ferry journey come for the Museum of Contemporary Art, founded by local tycoon Basil Goulandris to show off his outstanding art collection, or to hike the Andros Routes, a 170km network of footpaths cleared and waymarked by volunteers. Over the years, I have drunk from the island’s mineral springs and braved bone-jarring dirt roads to swim in gloriously deserted bays.
When I ventured inland on foot, I never expected to find waterfalls tumbling through the woods, ice-cold rock pools, and rambling 19th-century estates, their orchards glowing with fallen lemons. The scenery is so diverse it’s like walking from the rippling hills of Tuscany to the fog-swirled peaks of the Scottish Highlands and through Alpine valleys (indeed, one area is known as “Little Switzerland”), all in a matter of days. Autumn is especially lovely, when the maple, chestnut and oak forests turn every shade of auburn and gold, and villagers will press seasonal bounty, such as chestnuts and quince, into your hands.
It’s easy to lose touch with the changing seasons when you live in a crowded city like Athens, so I make a point of heading to nearby islands at harvest time. September marks the annual celebration of Aegina’s most famous crop, the pistachio (fistiki in Greek). Pistachio groves line Aegina’s undulating hills; when the nuts are ripe, the shells turn blushing pink. The whole snoozy island cranks into party mode for September’s Fistiki Fest, with classical recitals at the 2,500-year-old Temple of Aphaia and local choirs serenading diners in the fishing village of Perdika, a favourite Sunday lunch spot for the Athenian yacht set.
Less than an hour’s ferry ride from Athens, Aegina is close enough for residents to commute to the capital; while other islands go into hibernation from December to March, Aegina remains lively. On a whim, I’ll sometimes bunk off work and jump on a boat just to eat grilled octopus and cured anchovies with lemon pearls at Skotadis, my favourite seaside ouzeri (tavern) wedged around the fish market. After too many ouzos, there might be an impromptu outbreak of Greek dancing.
The mood is more sedate at Moiras, a cheerily painted kafenion where fishermen nurse sludgy shots of Greek coffee. Moiras feels like a delicious anachronism on Aegina, but most of the 50-odd villages on Tinos still have an old-school kafenion. The saucers of meze (snacks) that accompany your ouzo are never an afterthought on Tinos, an island that is consciously becoming the food capital of the Cyclades. Almost every household produces its own pickled artichokes, sun-dried tomatoes and crumbly goat’s cheese. Tinos also has a reputation among Orthodox Greeks as a place where miracles happen. Thousands of pilgrims climb up from the port to Panagia Evangelistria monastery every year, to light a candle, hang a tin votive from the chandeliers and kiss the bejewelled icon of the Virgin Mary.
The rest of the island is wild and free. A few surfers skim the waves at Livada beach or hang out at the surf school on Kolymbithra bay. Hard-core climbers dangle from the smooth boulders that seem to have rained down on Volax, a hobbit-like village, and scale the hulking mass of Exomvourgo at the heart of the island. There are gentler hiking trails on the mountain for the faint-hearted, which afford the same rousing views across hills smudged with mauve thyme, the silence pure and still but for the lulling clang of goat bells.