Aegina: Greece’s best-kept secret?

"It’s quaint and quiet, but at the same time incredibly vibrant – there’s life everywhere you look, but you still feel as though you’ve got all the space in the world." When it comes to a holiday in the Greek islands, one hears a lot about Santorini and Mykonos. But just a short ferry ride away from the bustling city of Athens lies a magical retreat: Aegina Island.

Famous for pistachio nuts and dotted with beautiful beaches, Aegina is a great destination if you’re short on time but want to get a feel for island life.

I spent a few nights there in January thanks to the kind hospitality of a close friend. I’m so glad that I met Alexia Demetriou. She’s nice, hilarious and one of the most genuine people I know. She also happens to have an amazing house in the heart of Aegina with sea views from every window.

Was our friendship fate or what?

I fell in love with Aegina as soon as I stepped off the ferry. Having come from bustling Athens, arriving in Aegina felt like a breath of fresh air. It’s quaint and quiet, but at the same time incredibly vibrant – there’s life everywhere you look, but you still feel as though you’ve got all the space in the world.

The heart of Aegina Island: the small yet vibrant town centre

As I stayed with Alexia and her family, I had the luxury of enjoying an authentic Greek experience. If you visit Aegina I would encourage you to avoid the resorts and hotels, and instead find a small, authentic Bed and Breakfast. That way you will catch a glimpse of what life is really like for many locals.

The highlight of my stay had to be the food. In Greece, the whole day revolves around food, especially the main meal of the day: lunch. Alexia’s grandmother – known affectionately as YaYa – would begin cooking lunch before she’d even had breakfast. I remember waking up to a pot of pumpkin soup bubbling away on the stove and thinking, I have to wait until this afternoon before I can devour that?

I can remember the smell as if it were yesterday. All of the produce was fresh. Whole onions and garlic and huge chunks of pumpkin simmered for hours to capture the flavours, before YaYa mixed all of the ingredients together to form a soup.

But a traditional Greek lunch couldn’t possibly be only a delicious homemade pumpkin soup. Come midday, the table was laid with bread, olives, wine, octopus (surprisingly tasty) and my personal favourite, Tzatziki – a natural yoghurt dip infused with cucumber and plenty of garlic. I could eat it by the spoonful. I can see why the Greeks have siestas – after a meal like that, all you want to do is curl up in the sun and snooze.

Afternoons were time for relaxing, the perfect lifestyle for someone like me who can’t concentrate past 3pm. We’d play cards, sleep, read, go for a walk, go for coffee. I imagine every day feels a bit like a holiday when you live on a Greek Island.

Other food highlights included homemade baklavas (pastry dripping in butter and sugar, oh so good), the simple yet perfect Greek salad, fried cheese (sounds disgusting but is actually mouth-watering), freshly smoked tuna, Greek-style kebab (warm flat-bread with fries inside!) and lightly salted calamari with lemon juice. Some of the food in Greece is high in fat and sugar, but the diet is based on plenty of fruits and vegetables. When you eat fried cheese with a giant green salad, you can somehow convince yourself it’s good for you (although I’m not sure my hips would agree!)

When I wasn’t eating, I was exploring Aegina. It’s a stunning little island and the people are lovely. It seemed like every second person we ran into was related to Alexia! Greek families really are big and complicated. I think it’s fantastic – I don’t know many of my second cousins or great-aunts, but in Greece family ties are always cherished.

I found the island had something for everyone. Whether you are into pondering life over coffee, shopping, lying on the beach, hiking, visiting ancient artefacts or sipping cocktails by the pool, you will find Aegina more than meets your needs. If you find yourself craving a bit of downtime after a few busy days in Athens, Aegina is the perfect place to unwind.