Savvy travellers know that if you're planning to do a bit of hopping round the Greek islands, the little seaport of Rafina is the best place to start
Unless you’re a weird person with a thing for pain, forget about battling all the way from Athens Airport to Piraeus, the capital’s main seaport. Cut Athens out of the loop, and head straight for the islands. The smaller port of Rafina, only 20 minutes from the airport terminal by taxi (or 30 minutes by bus, which drops you right at Rafina harbour) is a much more convenient and congenial place to begin an island adventure.
Ferries, hydrofoils and high-speed catamarans sail from here to Andros, Tinos, Mykonos and Syros in the Cyclades, and there are almost hourly services to Evia, Greece’s second largest island, which you can see on the near horizon. And whereas kicking your heels while you wait for a ferry in grimy Piraeus is a chore, killing time in Rafina is actively enjoyable. It’s almost like being in the islands already.
Athenians drive out from the capital to dine at the fish restaurants that line Rafina’s inner harbour. Outside each taverna, the catch from the fishing boats anchored nearby is displayed on beds of ice – so fresh it’s still twitching. Dinner or lunch here is more than just a meal. It’s a marine biology lesson, with an array of unfamiliar sea creatures to sample.
All the quayside eating places are good, but my absolute favourite is Ioakeim, where you can expect to pay at least €25 a head for a memorable fish dinner. On a tighter budget, To Limeni, on Plateia Rafinas, is a great mezedopoleion, where an evening spent snacking and drinking shouldn’t set you back more than €15. For smart after-dinner drinks, two huge open-air café-bars immediately above the harbour bustle with locals until well after midnight.
Arriving on a late-night flight (or, on the way home, catching a morning plane), you may have no option but to stay overnight near the airport, and Rafina is made to measure. Mid-priced options include the Hotel Corali, on the main square, a five-minute walk from the quayside, where an en-suite double with a balcony overlooking the square starts at €60. The hotel’s own café, with tables under trees on the square, is a nice spot for breakfast. Hotel Akti, even closer to the harbour, is modern and functional, costs marginally more than the Corali and has a rooftop bar from which you can watch the ferries come and go.
The cream of the crop is the Avra Hotel, on the waterfront, with around 100 rooms (all with private balconies and frills including minibar and satellite TV), a gourmet restaurant and a posh terrace bar. Doubles here cost from €80, but for one night only it’s worth spending the extra €15 for a sea-view room. Sadly, even this ‘A’ Class hotel doesn’t have a pool, and the stretch of beach next to the Avra is on the scruffy side. There’s a more inviting stretch about a mile north of the town centre, at Kokkino Limanaki, where you’ll also find Camping Kokkino Limanaki, with huts to rent for €26, rental tents for €9, a decent restaurant and direct access to the beach.
With a little more time on your hands, hop on a bus to ancient Vravrona, about 10 miles south of Rafina. This shrine to the goddess Artemis has a small archaeological museum, and the site is studded with columns and foundation stones that bear witness to its status in ancient times, when girl priestesses dressed as bear-cubs danced for the goddess at her five-yearly festival. It’s one of the least-visited archaeological sites near Athens, and it’s a peaceful place to while away a last afternoon before reluctantly saying goodbye to Greece until next year.