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Footloose in Hydra

Curving Quay of Greek Isle is Shopper Play Land

February 22, 1987|BEVERLY BEYER and ED RABEY | Beyer and Rabey are Los Angeles travel writers.

HYDRA, Greece — Picture everything you've heard or seen on tourist-office posters about Greek-island port towns and the image would be remarkably close to this one:

Lovely harbor hardly larger than a football field jammed with small boats painted radiant blue; every lane and walkway of cobblestones; blinding white houses forming an amphitheater on hills around the little bay; marble belfries of a 17th-Century monastery standing guard over the town at water's edge.

And then there are the donkeys and cats. There are no cars or buses to spew noise and exhaust on the island, so the lowly burros haul everything from humans to luggage to crates of fish.

Hydra's curving quay is a play land for shoppers, tiny boutiques ringing the port like colorful baubles on a Christmas tree. And between the shops you'll find a phalanx of tavernas, canvas stretched over scads of tables to shield diners and dawdlers from the unforgiving Greek sun.

Hydra is no more than a 100-minute hydrofoil commute from Athens ($10).

Here to there: Fly Pan Am to Athens with a stop in Frankfurt, TWA through New York, or lots of domestics to JFK for a change to Olympic Airways to Athens nonstop. And several foreign carriers make it with a home-country change. Athens-Hydra boats take about three hours, the hydrofoil less.

How long/how much? You could do it in a day-trip from Athens, but why not lay over for one night at least, soaking up atmosphere and ouzo? These days, it's difficult to imagine how inexpensive food and lodging is in Greece. Just count your blessings and enjoy the good life for a pittance, maybe less.

Getting around: Two steps take you across town, two feet or a burro anywhere on the island, a small boat to beaches and villages around the coastline.

A few fast facts: Greece's drachma was recently valued at 138 to our dollar. Greek weather is to dream about most of the year, bordering on paradise from April to late October. Add the ever-friendly Greek people and it's hard to have anything but a marvelous time in this beautiful country.

Getting settled in: Miranda (just in from port; $38 B&B double) is an 18th-Century sea captain's home kept up with tender care by present owner. Sixteen rooms, seven with baths and most of them huge, some with balconies for breakfast and sunning. Entry patio is lush with jasmine and orange trees, just the sort of place to book for a week of lazing in shorts and sandals.

Hotel Greco (a bit farther off port; $32 double B&B) looks brand new but isn't, an old stone home recently made very contemporary with handsome furnishings, bright contemporary art, air conditioning and all the rest of it. Take breakfast in the garden beneath an olive tree, stroll narrow walkways to other meals at nearby tavernas.

Leto ($25) and Theano (same) are a couple of other good ones, the latter new and a few minutes' walk from town near Kaminia beach, both quite neat and comfortable. But call ahead from Athens for your lodgings, as most Hydra hotels are booked early in summer season and many close in winter.

Regional food and drink: Greek cooking is deceptively simple, nothing subtle about the use of fresh herbs and such, but what hits the table has a great taste and satisfaction to it. And because many menus are top-heavy with seafood, best prepared without fancy footwork by the cook, we find a meal even more appealing here. You will also be encouraged to visit the kitchen, as most Greeks do, to see what's in store for you.

Salads also get the straightforward treatment, and there's nothing better than great chunks of tomato, cucumber, feta cheese, onion and black olives anointed with good olive oil and sprinkled with fresh oregano. A paean to the kitchen poet who first parsed this one.

Lamb is playing a lesser role these days, and more's the pity, but veal and beef are taking its place on the wheel of a gyro and skewers of souvlakia. The old standbys of moussaka and pastitsio casseroles always seem to waft a gentle cloud of temptation our way, and the Greek way with keftedes meatballs even more so.

Domestica and Camba brands are good table wines, red or white, but the white is better.

Moderate-cost dining: Taverna Douskos on a little shaded square at village center is Hydra's oldest, 150 years of dining inside or out beneath lovely trees. Stefanos Douskos buys only the freshest meat, seafood and vegetables, prepares them with little fanfare but lots of care.

The Three Brothers is also a family affair with two locations, the one at town center rather klunky yet with a very good selection of Greek basics to choose from, all laid out in hot tables for your perusal. Lots of fresh fish on ice, but we settled for lamb wrapped in filo pastry with feta cheese. The stuffed eggplant with tomato sauce was marvelous.

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