When I was seven, my family moved from Greece to the United States. I’ve been living in limbo ever since, shuttling back and forth, accruing frequent-flier miles and a growing sense of disorientation. What starts as an idyllic summer vacation often morphs into a mild identity crisis. If I’m both Greek and American, where am I really at home?
So in planning my annual trip to Greece last summer, I chose destinations that wouldn’t make me feel like a visitor. After three decades of traveling in the country, I’d already done countless sunsets on Santorini, moonlit concerts under the Acropolis, and midnight dinners on Mykonos. I wanted to go where locals spend their vacations, the Greek equivalent of Stonington, Maine, not Miami Beach. On this trip, I aimed to re-create the simple, sunlit joy of summers past, when home was wherever you spread your beach towel. I finally narrowed it down to three islands I’d visited years ago on trips that left me with fond memories and clear, sharply lit snapshots. Then I canvassed Greek friends who confirmed that the places have remained virtually unknown to most Americans but beloved by Greeks. The risk of revisiting somewhere you’ve loved is that it will betray you by having grown older and more jaded, as you have. But the islands I rediscovered made me forget the past and embrace the present—meeting friends on Spetses, walking into a time warp on Monemvasía, and exploring caves and coves on Kíthira. These islands couldn’t be more different from each other, but each is quintessentially Greek, full of unpretentious food and locals offering the kind of welcome you only find when you’ve really gotten away.
I first visited Spetses, a small island with 18 miles of coast and a hilly interior of pine forests, as a teenager, while staying in my aunt’s cottage in Portoheli, on the mainland. From my aunt’s house, I’d hike down a dirt path to the port, then take a water taxi across the Gulf of Argolis over to Spetses town, a waterfront stretch of well-kept ship captains’ mansions with pebble mosaics in their inner courtyards and massive anchors out front. Spetses seemed gloriously cosmopolitan to me then: British, Italian, and French visitors mixed with the wealthy Athenians who moored their yachts in the harbor.
It’s not so different today. Less than two hours by hydrofoil from Athens, Spetses is still a favorite getaway for city dwellers seeking an escape from their manic megalopolis. "There are no cars on the island in summer, except a few belonging to local businesses," said the woman who welcomed me to the Nissia hotel, a complex of pastel cottages built on the grounds of an old textile factory, as she led me around a pool populated by nannies giving swimming lessons. "You can flag down a horse-drawn carriage on the harbor, walk, rent a bike or motorcycle, or have us call a cab. But be prepared to wait," she warned. "There are only four cabs in total."
The four cabs serve a population of 4,100 year-round inhabitants, all living in or around Spetses town. In 1821, when the Greek War of Independence began, Spetses had 13,000 inhabitants. Now, there are only enough locals to support one high school, but in summer and on holidays, the island’s population swells to nearly its 19th-century level. During the time I spent on Spetses, I grew accustomed to the island’s rhythm, swaying between the traditional life and the swanky summer scene. One night I ate a simple meal of tomato fritters and calamari at Roussos Taverna while a gypsy lady circulated, hawking embroidered tablecloths. When she stopped to take a bathroom break, my mustached waiter watched over her bundle of fabric, leaning against a wall under a string of octopi with his captain’s hat pushed low on his forehead. The next evening, I joined friends who had piloted a speedboat over from the mainland to eat at their favorite restaurant, La Scala. We sat at a candlelit table on a rooftop overlooking the sea, and soon the blond owner, Fenella Catsoris, recognized my friends as regulars. She hurried over and exclaimed, in an accent and scene out of Absolutely Fabulous, "We’ve got fresh truffles! I went to Athens today on the catamaran and picked them up." Originally from England, Catsoris married a Greek and had been living on Spetses for 22 years. Now she is enriching the island’s gourmet offerings, one truffle at a time.
I spent my mornings in town, browsing art stores and dodging yachties photographing each other with their cell phones, and my afternoons playing Gilligan’s Island, sailing a rented motorboat from one secluded, crescent-shaped cove to the next. One afternoon, I swam in solitude until a yacht sailed up and I decided to grant its topless inhabitants some privacy. So I motored on to the sandy beach of Agia (Saint) Paraskeví, eight miles southwest of the harbor, where pine trees scented the air and provided a dark-green backdrop for the cobalt sea and a whitewashed chapel. After a lunch of fried zucchini and perfectly spiced mini-burgers at the beach’s nameless taverna, I reclined on a sun-bed, eavesdropping on a seven-year-old boy who spoke Greek with his parents, French with his nanny, and Arabic with his sister (they live in Dubai during the rest of the year, he told me).