The long, narrow island of Hydra, just 37 nautical miles from Athens in the Argo-Saronic Gulf, is both cosmopolitan and tranquil. Donkeys and boats are the only form of transport as laws prohibit automobiles (except for a few small garbage trucks), mopeds, and even bicycles. Due to the island’s status as a national historic monument, strict building laws also regulate development, protecting Hydra’s traditional architectural style and enhancing its old-world charm.
Hydra’s municipality covers 72 square kilometers. The main town is built amphitheatrically around the island’s main harbor, lined with large and small yachts, as well as traditional caicques, or fishing boats. Shops, hotels, cafes, and tavernas line the port, while cobblestone streets and alleyways wind along the coast and climb the steep, rocky hillsides, leading to the island’s various neighborhoods and villages.
Though Hydra has a year-round population of less than 2000 (per 2011 census), which can swell to 6000 over the summer, the interior is nearly uninhabited. Fires burned through this once densely forested area in 2007, destroying trees and other vegetation covering nearly one-third of the island.
Reminiscent of Hydra’s proud past, the architecture of the main town is extraordinary. Mingled among the islanders’ cascading whitewashed homes, with their brightly colored windows, stately, gray-stone mansions, built in the eighteenth century by wealthy merchants and ship owners in the Venetian style, watch over the main harbor. Many of the Hydra island mansions have been faithfully restored, and several house museums or galleries and are open to the public.
Despite the island’s rich history as an eighteenth and nineteenth-century naval and commercial power, Hydra’s economy today depends primarily on tourism and fishing. In the late 1950s, artists and writers, such as Canadian singer Leonard Cohen and novelist Henry Miller, started coming to Hydra. Since it has served as the setting for numerous movies and novels, as well as a destination or residence for artists and intellectuals, both Greek and foreign.
Local traditions remain very much a part of the fabric of life on Hydra, with religious celebrations dotting the calendar. As Hydriots take particular pride in the role their ancestors played during the 1821 Greek War of Independence, each June, the island also hosts a spectacular commemoration of Hydriot Admiral Miaoulis’s battle against the Turks, bringing Greeks from all over the country for a weekend of festivities, a naval reenactment, and fireworks. …Because its fleet was the body of the marine war during the Greek War of Independence in 1821, as it is still witnessed by the castle, the canons and the representation of the important marine battles and victories that still exist in the town of Hydra and on the entire island.
The sea around Hydra is deep, clear, and cool. Most of Hydra’s swimming areas are located on the rocks lining the island’s coast, though there are a few sand or pebble beaches. The main bathing areas in Hydra Town include Spilia and Hydronetta, and Avlaki’s swimming platform and Kamini’s pebble beach are another five to fifteen minutes respectively along the coast road heading toward Vlychos, another pebble beach with umbrellas, and Vlychos Plakes, a sand beach. Heading along the coast road in the opposite direction from Hydra Harbor will take you to Mandraki. Other beaches include Molos, Bisti, and Agios Nicolaus, reachable by boats leaving hourly from the Hydra’s main port.
Though the name Hydra means ‘water’ and refers to ancient springs that once provided the island’s water source, these days the island is dry, with its water generated by a desalination plant located behind Mandraki Bay, and those who don’t have private cisternas (wells for trapping rainwater) mostly drink bottled water. For this reason, Hydra is a particularly arid island, and any farming and animal husbandry are generally limited to family concerns.
On a visit to Hydra, soak up the island’s rich history and culture by visiting the island’s mansions, museums, galleries, churches, and monasteries. Wander the quaint and charming cobblestone streets past brightly colored doors framed with brilliant bougainvillea or plumbago, stroll the road along the coast with its stunning Mediterranean views, or hike the island’s rural trails, past pine trees and olive groves, shepherds herding sheep, and donkeys grazing patiently in the fields. Browse the boutiques and gold shops and admire the yachts moored in Hydra’s bustling port. Enjoy a quiet, traditional taverna meal in one of the neighboring villages. Have a night out on the town, dining in one of Hydra’s restaurants, then partaking in the active nightlife on the Port.