Why the Most Magical Way to See a Greek Island Is to Run to the Top of It

Photo: Getty Images/Allard Schager
"I think that's a unicorn." That's what I said to the others with me, as we approached the mountain peak on Hydra island, off the mainland of Greece. We were panting and sweaty and tired, so stopping to take a picture of what was probably a white donkey and was most definitely not a unicorn was a welcome break from the grueling uphill run we were on. We took in the view: In addition to the majestic white donkey-unicorn, the port of the city of Hydra was visible way, way below, speckled in boats and tourists, and there was the vast blue of the Aegean Sea. And then we continued running.

It was 2015, and I was visiting Hydra island with my two closest friends. One of them, Jackie, enjoys running as much as I do, so we spent our first two mornings lacing up and heading from the house where we were staying, around the neighborhood, through the port, then up the island's main mountain to a certain height. At breakfast after our second run, our waiter said he'd seen us running past the cafe both days. He asked if he could take us to the very top on a run, noting he's a professional trail runner. In retrospect, the choice skewed risky (he was a stranger!), but trusting him blindly ended up being the best dumb decision I'd never be so naïve enough to make again.

Jackie and I ran to the port bright and early the next day to meet Stavros, along with his trail-running friend, and off we went. After we surpassed our usual distance (around five or six miles), the incline got steeper and steeper, but with each increasingly challenging stride, the views became even more spectacular. My body was on fire, but I didn't pay attention to the burning in my legs the way I would in, say, a Barry's Bootcamp class. The scenic factor of the most beautiful place I'd ever laid eyes on motivated me way more than any pre-workout powder or screaming fitness instructor ever could.

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#unicorn ? #Greece

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Shortly after the unicorn sighting (let me just believe in it, okay!), we came across an ancient monastery, perched at the very top of the mountain, where seemingly no one could reach it. (I mean, how many people go on 10-mile uphill runs every day?). Stavros knocked on the door, because…why not? To my surprise it creaked open and an elderly woman peered out. She and Stavros exchanged a few sentences in Greek, and before I knew it, she was inviting us all in to see the inside of the chapel.

The woman led me and Jackie around outdoor hallways, past an outdoor courtyard, and into the actual chapel, which immediately took my breath away. When I looked up, I saw a ceiling covered in gold murals. There was a small, stone water fountain filled with holy water softly churning out of the flower-petal-decorated faucet. I actually pinched myself.

For me, it was an amazing feat of fitness and strength, but more rewarding was that I felt like I truly saw Greece.

When we left the monastery, the view from the top of the mountain greeted us, and then the realization that we had an entire second leg of our journey to complete: down, and this time, it was the backside of the mountain, which is more treacherous and rocky and slippery than the front. Still, I moved swiftly, breathing sighs of relief that the incline portion was complete. Basically, I morphed into a mountain goat and got. it. done.

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10 mile run up a mountain with @philamenah #greece

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Hours later, we reached the port, panting and sweating, but rocking the biggest smiles our faces have ever known. I felt exhilarated about the 10-plus miles we clocked—my longest run to date. For me, it was an amazing feat of fitness and strength, but more rewarding was that I felt like I truly saw Greece. So I kept up the routine (an abridged version though). Running through the town, with all the white stone houses and stray cats nestled about, I got acquainted with the side streets where hidden cafes served afternoon espressos. And open-air grocery stores with fruit spilling out. And old shopkeepers beckoning for any passersby to come in and try their fresh fish selection. I grew to recognize the boats sitting at the docks. I saw all of the local clothing boutiques and souvenir shops as I jogged past, the owners nodding to me as I sweat my way around town.

Most special to me was that I got to see the real Hydra island, including the parts that tourists don't trek through, where local farmers trot around on donkeys to deliver commodities to those living on the mountain, or maybe to the monastery at the very top. I got to see it all, and for less money than, say, taking a donkey ride (which is an available option, BTW) or a guided walking tour. I zipped around, wide-eyed, playing tourist while getting an incredible workout, too.

Now, every time I visit a new place, I call upon my tourist tactic of jogging through it. I've since run through the quaint streets of Charleston, South Carolina, the hilly mountainside of Positano, Italy, and the boardwalk of Venice Beach, California. But I'll never forget the time I scaled Hydra island in Greece with my best friend. And saw a unicorn doing it.

Check out Ruta de las Flores in El Salvador, where you can literally chase waterfalls. Or hit up the Azores Islands in Portugal, which is decked out in volcanos. 

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