Like most of the Cyclades - what hits you first is the light, bouncing off burnished rocks. Pockets of sage and oregano cling to wind-chiselled valleys, and a craggy interior is threaded with terraced walls and stone paths laid by farmers and shepherds. For centuries, the entire island was planted with chickpeas and other crops, fields nowadays waymarked by more than 100 kilometres of walking trails. Hiking enthusiasts from all over the world find their way to Sifnos for its wild crumbling dovecotes, monasteries in the clouds and glistening coves. An island that baths deep in, there are 366 churches on Sifnos, more than one for each day of the year.
We’ve dropped anchor in the bustling port of Kamares – where the islands pulse can be felt by the arrival and departure of the next ferry due. Our last stop was the tiny fishing hamlet of Cheronissos seemingly in exile on the island's barren northern tip. While we enjoyed our second swim of the day, a few early birds reward themselves with grilled seafood no doubt snapped up straight off a boat just hours earlier. Kamares is unhurried, a handful of all-day cafes line a gently shoaling beach in a deeply cut cove surrounded by dramatic near vertical cliffs on each side. Ordering your second frappe is hardly an argument while we watch holiday makers wading through thigh deep water that wouldn’t be out of place in a South Pacific postcard.
It’s achingly difficult to peel ourselves of the loungers provided at Popi’s on the beach, but there’s exploring to be done. We pile onto a local coach for a 40-minute traverse of the island’s main spine, swapping the east coast for the west. The village of Kastro – occupies an isolated coastal knoll inhabited since prehistoric times and formerly the island’s capital. A 2500-year-old ancient citadel crowns the village, with narrow alleys and white houses forming a defensive circle beneath creating a classic medieval-castle city. A lazy stroll of the whole promontory takes us a little more than an hour. A popular side excursion is the short walk across a natural causeway leading to the Church of the Seven Martyrs, standing alone on a protruding rock, gazing into the impossibly blue sea beyond. A solid 60 minutes of activity deserves a reward, and there is no better place to watch the lengthening shadows than over an exquisite New York inspired cocktail at ‘Dolci’ on Kastro’s western flank. Through our sunset view over historic terraced stone farm houses, we slowly pick out dovecotes, family chapels and donkey trails interlacing the valley walls into the distance.
Winding your way up the main street in Apollonia at dusk is a treat, giggling children race through the tangle of alleys while the owners of small boutiques gossip on steps lined with geraniums. This unique ‘strip’ is lined with tiny artisan stores bursting with colour as local designers showcase their own jewellery, fine ceramics and boutiques. The sunset hues make way for a sliver of moon, and the domes of far-off churches begin to glow like beacons in the darkness. Dinner in the broad courtyard at Cayenned has obviously been blessed by the church wall half our group uses as a backrest. Stuffed with locally inspired fusion food and more than agreeable house wine, we negotiate the now bursting strip one last time before taking the last bus to Kamares and our watery home.
Sifniots take food very seriously. The local baker serves nougat wafers, bergamot sugar paste and amygdalota (addictive almond cookies shaped like Roman noses) still cooked in copper pots over a wood fire. Chickpeas are a staple, especially for Sunday lunch, which is traditionally cooked overnight. A local favourite is skepastaria - pot-bellied casseroles full of soft chickpeas, onions and olive oil making a smooth creamy broth. Beachside at the southern cove of Vathi, on a terrace shaded by tamarisk trees, they’re serving mastello - lamb soaked in red wine then slow-roasted on a bed of vine branches - and revithokeftedes - chickpea fritters spiked with marjoram and mint. All the ingredients come from the owner's kitchen-garden, local fishermen and neighbouring farms.
Traditional Sifniot cooking is baked in the same terracotta casserole dishes that have been produced on the island for centuries. Dozens of potteries once lined the coastline; the ceramics were stacked onto fishing boats and exported all over the Mediterranean. The clay is dug from Sifnos’ own hills, the wheels are mostly powered by foot and the kilns still fuelled with wood.
Even after just a short sojourn on Sifnos, it’s hard to sail off thinking we’ve left unfinished business behind. I guess those trails and impossibly positioned churches have been waiting for centuries, so a little longer won’t hurt! We’ll be back someday, so onward we must and an easy hop from Vathi to the magical island of Milos, where our next adventure awaits.
You’ll find it surprising, but eight types of cetacean are regularly present in the Mediterranean Sea. Including four dolphin and four whale species. The most common is the striped dolphin, and the largest is the fin whale at up to 20 metres in length. During the summer months - some dolphins are seen to have pink bellies, as when they play and become hot, expanding blood vessels help them cool down making them look quite rosy! While many dolphins are social, the whales stick more to the open water areas of the Mediterranean. Overfishing, and competition for squid especially is putting pressure on dolphin populations.
The Mediterranean Monk Seal – is extremely rare, and less than 500 individuals can be found in the waters concentrated around Greece, the Med and North Atlantic African coastline. A special marine park has been established for many years around the waters north of Alonnissos in the Sporades group – Monk seals are in the world’s top 20 most endangered animals. Their main threats are encroachment on habitat, and pollution.
Two varieties of Sea Turtle are prevalent in Greece, with their habitat laying solely in the eastern Mediterranean. The Loggerhead is the most common, accompanied by the Green Sea Turtle. Loggerheads nest in Greece, however their Green cousins are more likely to be visiting from further east in the med. Their diets are vastly different, with Loggerheads eating shellfish, while the Green Turtles mostly dining on seaweed and jellyfish. Considering less than 1% of turtles reach sexual maturity – it’s no wonder their populations are under pressure. One of the biggest threats is tourism development on nesting beaches – even the lights of nearby villages can disorient hatchlings normally guided by the moon.
Not that you ever spot them – but there are 47 recorded shark species in the Mediterranean. Sharks mostly spend their time in the deeper areas of the sea, and rarely come within sight of humans. Shark attacks are extremely rare, fatalities even more so. This is put down to traditional food sources being more than sufficient. As fish stocks have reduced due to over-fishing, so have shark numbers. It is estimated their population may have fallen by a staggering 97% in the last two centuries.
The Mediterranean is the world’s most over-fished sea, it is believed that 41% of its marine mammals and 34% of its total fish stocks have been lost in the last half century alone. Management of fish populations is made difficult by the largely small-scale fisheries along an expansive coastline, making monitoring and enforcement of harvests extremely challenging. Diminishing wild-stock is making the juveniles of each species a target amongst an already meager catch, further disrupting regular reproduction patterns and threatening worsening wild population decline.
EU Regulation attempts have only seen a small reduction in the amount of active fishing boats in the Mediterranean. It seems the only life-line for hungry European fish lovers may be Greece’s booming aquaculture sector. Over 1000 seafood farms are present with the main species being gilthead sea-bream, sea-bass as well as plenty of mussels. In recent statistics Greece produced 65 percent of the sea bass and seabream farmed by all EU countries with the majority exported to Italy and Spain. Greek fish farmers are starting to experiment with species such as Atlantic bluefin tuna, and inland fresh water farming has even seen start-up operations in rainbow trout and eel. Alongside tourism, the Greek government sees aquaculture as a major part of the nations recovery on the path to a stable economic future.
Recently, while sailing into the quaint Argolic fishing hamlet of Vivari I noticed a small overgrown rampart guarding the harbour’s southern entrance. New discoveries always stir my imagination, and I picture how it would have looked back in its hey-day and how it was purposed. Later that day in Nafplio I was left awe-struck as the imposing Palamidi fortress stood sentry high above the town, still seemingly on watch over the Argolic Gulf to the south. After visiting these and other fortresses of the Ionian & Adriatic, it dawned on me how little I really knew about the ‘Venetians’. How did they rise to control the eastern Mediterranean, and why did their empire ebb into history leaving only these monumental reminders of their former dominance?
‘La Serenissima’ was the moniker for this grand maritime republic in north-eastern Italy. Founded on principals of Diplomacy, justice and prosperity – until this day Venice still exudes a unique devotion inspiring charisma attracting tens of millions of visitors annually. From humble beginnings these lagoon dwelling communities grew to become a cultural icon and European commercial super-power throughout the Middle Ages and the Renaissance.
The embryonic republic found origin in the decay of the western Roman empire. Roman refugees fled their mainland cities driven by repeated raids by Germanic Lombard tribes occupying the power vacuum left in northern Italy. A Venetian proverb stated the trade in salt, essential in food preservation as the ‘foundation of the state’. This, alongside fishing sustained the fledgling society whom progressively fortified their lagoon island homes by a series of embankments to protect from the Adriatic to the south. Their relative isolation fostered a union not only for the purpose of defence, but also to form an autonomous rule of their own. Although they were traditionally Roman in origin, they resisted Byzantine, Frankish or Lombard rule through astute diplomacy, neutrality and a uniquely stable style of government for 1000 years. In total Venice had 117 Doges or ‘Dukes’ elected through their own oligarchal democratic system. Their autonomy was also bolstered by ascending Naval superiority, and freeing themselves of the grasp of the Papacy. In 828 the Republic raided supposed relics and remains of Saint Mark from Alexandria, and declared him patron saint of their homeland. This is also where their standard or motif is derived from – the banner of the winged lion.
Their tentacles of trade spread throughout Adriatic, Ionian, Aegean and Black seas and beyond through unique treaties signed with the Byzantine Empire of Constantinople. Venetian naval power had been of great importance in assuring the security of the Byzantines through the early crusades. In respect of this Constantinople reciprocated giving Venetian trading ships exclusive rights and also special tax and customs exemptions. Venice also had a highly skilled network of foreign diplomats in all corners of Europe, who sent coded messages back to Venice to inform them of developments in politics throughout the region. This ‘intel’ helped Venice articulate trade throughout greater Europe, avoiding many of the frequent conflicts of the time and keeping their trade routes open. A n extraordinary variety of goods were traded through Venice from spices, sugar, textiles in the form of cotton, wool and silk, to timber metals, armour and weapons. Also of interest were local specialties of Venice such as blown glass, the first spectacles and crystal. The republic was also a slave trading post, as was common throughout the middle ages and the bulk of slaves were white Europeans being sold to the North African market.
In the 12th century, Venice opened its own state-owned shipyard, the ‘Arsenale’ initially employing 2000 workers and capable of launching in excess of 200 ships per year. Production processes & construction techniques at this facility pre dated the industrial revolution by half a millennia and underpinned the strength of the empire for the next two centuries. At its peak the ‘Arsenale’ was a haven of high technology attracting the likes of Da Vinci and Galileo, the workforce rose as high as 16000, launching on average ship per day – unparalleled at the time. Naval superiority cleared a path through piracy to open the Adriatic to their merchant fleet. Venetian galleys were state of the art, powered by 2 lateen sails, 150 oarsmen and 30 crossbow soldiers. They were the first to replace the steering oar with a rudder allowing far larger ships to be controlled. These ships also transported the most valuable of cargo, including spices, silk and precious stones. A tribute to Venetian commercial efficiency, the state-owned ships of the ‘Arsenale’ were chartered by merchants in an auction process. If a ship had excess cargo space aboard – the charterer was legally obliged to offer that space to other merchants so the ships always departed at capacity. Sea routes in the trading empire saw galleys sail to markets as distant as the Crimea in the east & via Gibraltar to London & Bruges in the west.
Spurred by an 1182 Catholic massacre in predominantly orthodox Constantinople – Venice played a vital maritime role in the Fourth Crusade leading to the sacking of the Byzantine capital in 1205. Many of the city’s ancient treasures were destroyed or looted and removed to Venice or allied home ports. The Venetians & their ‘Holy League’ collaborators split the territories of the Empire amongst themselves. For Venice this saw gains in the Aegean Islands including Crete. Through the 13th and 14th centuries Venetian aristocracy led by the Sanudo and Ghisi families seized many of the Aegean islands as their own establishing the ‘Duchy of the Archipelago’. On Naxos alone 53 districts were declared and fiefdoms established by other families of Venetian origin.
From the initial conquest of the Cyclades, the new Duchy chose not to report to Venice but directly to the more geographically appropriate Constantinople. However, both overlords were still closely aligned and the status quo still ensured security of trade in Aegean for the Venetian trading fleet. Export from the Cyclades was minimal, and most goods were only traded locally during this period with the exception of carborundum or ‘Emery’ and marble from Naxos & Paros. Each island had its speciality such as wine from Santorini, salt from Milos, wheat from Sikinos and wood from Folegandros.
The Duchy in the Aegean Cyclades lasted 3 centuries until the rising Ottoman empire systematically laid siege to each of the islands with almost all ceded. One exception, the island of Tinos originally ruled by the Ghisi family provided a resistance lasting almost two centuries beyond the fall of Naxos and Paros. The ‘Kastro’ or castle atop a large natural rock outcrop at Exombourgo was virtually impregnable. Attacks by the Turks were repelled in 1570, 1655, 1658, 1661, and 1684. In 1715 the small Venetian garrison only relinquished the fortress faced by 25000 Turkish troops. Without a battle a deal was struck to exile the remaining Venetians, with their commander later receiving a life-sentence for treason.
The landscape of international trade proved the determining factor in the decline of Venice – with western European powers opening up seaborne trading routes to the orient largely depriving Venice of its previous monopoly. Compounding the issue was the advance of the Ottomans in the east virtually cutting off the ‘silk road’ trading route from Asia. Now economically constrained, Venice was unable to maintain its former levels of defence spending and with a diminished military presence their possessions became easy pickings for the aggressive expansion of the Ottoman Empire. With war ravaging many other states in western Europe through the early 18th century Venice’s traditional allies were also heavily committed elsewhere. By 1700 the Ottomans had already taken almost complete control the Aegean, but Venice still clung to the Peloponnese (Morea) as well as it’s Ionian and Adriatic possessions. An overwhelming offensive by the Turks in 1715 easily took the remainder of Greece, and only by the miracle of a major storm was Corfu spared. Austrian intervention oversaw a peace treaty in 1717, however the power of the Venetian Republic had truly been usurped, and for another 80 years it survived under the protection of the Austrian Hapsburg Empire.
Finality came in 1797 when Napoleon lead a French force across what is now northern Italy. Venice refused French demands to abandon its neutral stance and support their advance on the Austrians. Napoleon also demanded egalitarian governmental reforms, removing the rights of the elite. With the French ultimatum within hours of expiring, in hope of saving the city from destruction the Venetian republic capitulated and dissolved bringing to a close 1000 years of autonomous rule. A period of uncertainty followed, the allied Adriatic city states fragmented and control of the lagoon and ‘terraferme’ territories switched between France and Austria. As previously with Constantinople, now Venice was plundered for many of its riches, artworks and fine monuments. In 1866 as a part of the Lombardo Venetia Kingdom, the city of Venice was absorbed into the new state of Italy.
Nowadays throughout the Cyclades fine Venetian homes and the remnants of their Castles or ‘Kastro’ still exist in many forms. Islands such as Syros and Tinos have some entirely Catholic villages and parishes, while many Greeks from the Cyclades have surnames with a distinctly Italo-Venetian origin. Throughout Crete, the Peloponnese, Cyprus and up the whole Ionian and Adriatic coasts an impressive network of largely intact fortresses remain. Dovecots – or dove houses are a beautiful reminder of farming technology embraced from the Venetian era. ‘Santorini’ or Saint Irene is actually the Venetian name for the island of Thira, two of the villages are still named Imerovigli and Firostefani, very Italian indeed! No sailing trip in the Adriatic, Ionian or Aegean is complete without discovering a little of the historical and cultural legacy of the Venetian Republic and the experiencing echoes left in their wake.
Major Venetian forts and forts on our Greece route
Aegina, Poros, Hydra, Spetses, Vivari, Nafplio, Monemvasia, Serifos, Sifnos, Milos, Folegandros, Kimolos, Naxos, Paros, Syros, Skiathos, Skopelos, Alonnissos and Skiros.
Major Venetian ports and forts on our Croatian route
Dubrovnik (Ragusa),Split, Korcula, Hvar, Brac, Sibenik & the rest of the Dalmatian Archipelago
‘The Scattered ones’ accurately defines their direct translation from Greek, the Sporades. Like seeds windblown across the ocean, these 24 islands span a contrast from the rich pine forested group in the northwest, morphing into the Cycladic like thyme covered landscapes of the southernmost Skyros. It’s not only the landscapes, but also the settlements with terracotta roofs giving way to the more cubist blue and white as you move east.
Only 4 of the islands are truly inhabited, with a tight three - namely Skiathos, Skopelos and Alonnissos in the west all separated by thirty miles from the cluster of islands making up Skyros further east. Each island has a jaggedly indented coastline each home its own assortment of quaint fishing ports, town basins or a line of beach umbrellas and a wood fired taverna ashore. A draw card for visiting yachties are the relatively small distances, moderate sailing conditions and diverse mix of civilisation and private coves to savour. Even though these islands gained acclaim as the set for the making of the first edition of the ‘Mamma Mia’ film - they’ve not been over run by mass tourism nor polluted by crass marketing ploys from such exposure. A quiet charm still exists - this is still the Greece we love - just another eclectic delight.
We find ourselves here after a whistle-stop tour in 2018, just enough of a taste to immediately look to return for another tour. Arriving directly into Skiathos tiny international airport - our yacht awaited us in the town port a just a 3 minute taxi ride away. The 2019 objective - to take time and gently follow the breeze around all the islands unearthing a few diamonds along the way. Our rough route initially followed a zig zag path along the sawtooth of coastline through Skiathos - Skopelos and Alonnissos before taking advantage of a weather window for an in-depth exploration Skyros and her satellite islets.
Of immediate appeal was Alonnissos, playing a starring role in this archipelago. The twin harbours of Votsi and Patitiri in the south allowed access to sea caves, crystal clear swimming holes and a portal to the ‘old village’ atop the island. Remotely located due to historical piracy most homes here were destroyed by a 1965 Sporades wide earthquake forcing a slow depopulation of the island, only to make a resurgence in latter years in lower Patitiri being the islands hub to the rest of the world. Slowly but surely the hamlet has been reconstructed, with a new vibrancy fuelled by visitors from abroad. We lick our evening ice cream as a band of foreign retirees play rockabilly hits near the bus stop to a handful of tourists turning the only street into a dancefloor.
Striking a more intimate key just an hours sail north is Steni Vala - quintessentially Greek where your gangplank almost strikes the chairs of the half dozen tavernas making their living the cove. Here we meet Kostas Mavrikis - who immediately welcomes us with open arms after seeing the Kiwi flags proudly flying from our mast. Kostas is a self appointed local historian and the author of 8 different books on local folklore. He hands a copy of one particular book to our crew - and then begins his account of the Anzac forces retreating through the area pushed by Nazi aggression during World War II. Thanks to Kostas - this unique bond between the people of Alonnissos and NZ and Australia will never be forgotten. He and his family spearheaded an effort to erect a small museum in nearby Patitiri to commemorate the islands history and unique exhibits on the period of the Nazi occupation. Two book sales later and after re-provisioning of our stores we leave Steni Vala with a new take on our unknown national connection to this special part of the world.
A moderate northerly sees us set sail early for Linaria on Skyros, our longest passage of the trip. A confused slop means we motor sail a decent chunk of the leg - but we finally find a uniform following sea and skip down the islands northern coast under sail alone. The island’s primary port welcomes us, an unassuming place but immediately striking us with a totally different feel to its cousins further east. Whitewashed taverna’s and a small blue domed chapel line the waterfront - Skyros is the black sheep of the family, seemingly drifted north from the Cyclades rather than the pine clad neo-classical norm of the Sporades. The independent streak of the islanders here even saw them pool funds to buy their port from the Greek state. Dissatisfied with their level of funding, they transformed the hub into probably the most quirky marina in the Med. Everything works - and your port fee includes the assistance of a dinghy borne tugboat skillfully guiding you into your berth piloted by a patient smiling harbour master. No evening here is complete without an initiation in the famous ‘disco’ showers. Between 7-8 the lights are dimmed and the bubble machine bursts into life complete with music and lights for an entertaining way to rinse the days salt away. Some nights an outdoor cinema is set up for visiting boats to complement the unique local experience.
Skyros is large, roughly peanut shaped and around 35 kms from stem to sternpost. Under the guidance of local scooter guru George, two a piece we mount our trusty steeds and set off to explore the island. After a couple of test laps of the port we immediately labour up a steep incline before descending into picturesque Pefkos harbour. Not having earned a thirst yet we climb again to Agios Panteleomonas Chapel around 300 metres above the bay - and are rewarded with a panorama southward toward distant Evvoia island. The necessary photos clog the SD card a little more before setting off through heavy pine back to sea level at Fokas - a true gem of a beach where an off-grid taverna serves wood-fired meals to hungry pink and brown beach sloths. The sheltered sand gives way to a green velveted marble terrace of rock gently sloping inland behind. We need to cool off and the waist deep water invites us to stay, and wade a while in the every increasing warmth of the clear sky. The rest of the day is spent getting lost in and out of coastal nooks as well as an unintentional visit to an Air Force base. Skyros is a bastion - on standby in case of aggression from the east, an ever present reminder that memories in this part of the world do not fade quickly. A large present but unoccupied naval base is hidden in a large inlet on the islands south also. As we cross eastward across the island we discover the agricultural heart of Skyros, fields of crops and herds of goats whiz by as we seek out the postcard like promotory of Molos. Aptly named for its solitary windmill - the now cocktail bar is surrounded by an ancient limestone quarry which has sculpted the landscape into contorted sculpture akin to a tetris game gone bad. Some of the larger monoliths remaining contain the obligatory orthodox chapel hewn into the core and illuminated by candles within. A frappe or two later we’re back aboard and bound for Linaria, another disco shower and prepped for a visit to town.
‘Horio’ is the local spin on the classical greek name of ‘chora’ or main village. Again we’re transported away from the Sporades as the whitewash of churches and small homes tumbling down a rock mound rising out of the local plain. Atop are the remains of a venetian ‘kastro’ or castle that formally would have been the keep of the islands overlords half a millenia past. Our relative isolation from human kind is shattered as the restaurants burst onto the cobbles up the spine of the main street. Some set up camp with a cocktail overlooking the main square, as children play, jostle and blade scooter below us. Others seek out the best ‘souvlaki’ in town as they get lost in the small well kept boutiques along the way. Just like the Cyclades further south, the atmosphere bursts with light, music and the hum of conversation and laughter in every bougainvillea drenched alleyway. Alas, the yawns have taken hold, and we retreat to the boat for some rest - the wind has abated and the waxing moon sparkles across the water as we step aboard.
It’s the beginning of the season and the dawn arrives early rousing those who work to the sun. The skipper along with Murray seize the moment and after watering the horses with a fresh fill of gas head off for an early morning blast along the wild and largely abandoned south coast. On the road from Linaria small pockets of fishing villages are scattered on a couple of sheltered beaches before we’re on our own. A well maintained military road opens onto a barren landscape of herbacious scrub and decoratively planted oleander along the roadside. Only goats and handsomely stocked apiaries keep us company as we leave civilisation behind, sharp hairpin after hairpin we climb and decend enjoying the technical element of free riding a road devoid of vehicles apart from the odd farmers pickup along the route. We stop short of the roads terminus, high above the wild south eastern tip of the island, and dismount for a while to soak up the expansive view out over the ocean without a boat or island in sight.
On our return we’re delighted to catch a glimpse of the rare and peculiarly small Skyrian horses, albeit penned in behind fences at a local stable. These are the last few that remain from a herd first introduced here by Alexander the Great thousands of years in the past. George is pleased to see our safe return, wing mirrors intact and our saddles sore from almost 100 km of adventuring on this island of many contrasts. His hospitality knows know bounds as with a single phone call, he organises everything we need for two nights of BBQ’s on the beach, complete with a cooler, charcoal and grill. We’re heading ‘off grid’ for a couple of days and need the essentials - we complete our re-provisioning and slip our lines bidding this spectacular island goodbye.
Murray and I caught a glimpse of our destination earlier on our ride, and a lazy sail under genoa alone weaves us through small islands rounding the main island’s southern tip. Sarakino sits under Skyros like a penguin chick between its parents toes. It’s almost like a prize winning axe man has carved a wedge into the base of this islet forming a perfect bay where we long-line up to a rock outcrop, and the eager local fish life form an aquarium below. A couple of tourist boats depart, leaving just ourselves and a lovely english couple in the bay whom we immediately invite ashore for dinner. The smell of lamb chops is soon in the air as the recently acquired cooler does the rest. Soon we’re feasting on the latest refinement of fresh local greek salad prepared aboard by our resident galley whiz Tracey. She and her recently acquired husband are enjoying a unique honeymoon - Wayne takes delight at tossing the finished chops to the ever present fish life who wait in anticipation just beyond the wavelets lapping the beach. Our guests retire back to their yacht - and the cooler is slowly relieved of its contents as each of us take a stint as DJ and the stars open up above us. Tall tales are told - stories are shared and all agree it’s great to be alive right now.
Sometimes days start a little slowly, and waking in Sarakino is just one of those. A baptism in the Aegean is a fine start - this morning needs at least a couple of attempts. Back on track we weigh anchor and push west - with Skyros little sister, Skyropoula in our sights. Just a gentle zephyr tickles our skin as the diesel does the hard yards sending us on our way. We again play spy to the Greek Navy’s bolthole here, a couple of lonely quaysides give way to large ammunition magazines burrowed into the steep rock shoreline. Mission complete, a couple of hours pass and we’re dropping the hook in another Aegean idyll, turquoise water and a patchwork of sand interspersed by a thick lawn of sea grass between. The last of the lamb chops are consumed, again delighting the local marine life and we take advantage of a light afternoon sea breeze that has settled at the perfect direction for our crossing to Skantzoura.
Thanks to Google Earth we’ve hit the jackpot again, and our evening stop sees us sharing a wide anchorage with a couple of other boats. We string ourselves ashore and stake claim to our own corner of paradise. The cove is a little stone strewn so the skipper heads ashore with a grill load of Souvlaki skewers to roast golden over a quickly assembled fire of easily procured driftwood. Tracey has worked her magic again and we’re soon up in the cockpit filling our stomachs - good food hasn’t ever been in short supply. The breeze drops away and the moon has lost its crescent as it paints itself across the water, one by one we retreat below to call it an early night.
As the ink dries on the post cards, it is time to re-stock and get back into a bit of island life on our next stop in Alonnissos. A highlight of our visit is a visit to the aforementioned museum curated by our good friend Kostas. Three separate levels of this purpose built facility are filled with a treasure trove of exhibits from local island life, tools of the piracy era and the leftovers of the war years. The basement is cool - and a welcome respite from the searing heat outside. It’s one of those days that only a cool drink overlooking the bay can cure, and we pass the afternoon swimming in the bay before freshening up for a visit to the ‘old village’. The bus winds its way labouriously over the ridge lines to deposit us at the foot of the village path. Our taverna for the evening has us seated outside the kitchen window, and our drinks order arrives via an anonymous hand poking through brightly coloured shutters sitting slightly ajar. The breathtaking view over this, and neighbouring Skopelos is only surpassed by the lavender hues of the setting sun.
We take temporary leave from this island to make a quick sortie to Skopelos and a dose of scandinavian folklore. On arrival in the main port we come up empty handed with transport options to the famous Mamma Mia chapel at Agios Ioannis. Instead, after a quick bite we tackle the challenge by sea and make our way up the coast. The hillsides are thick with pine, broken by the scars of the major earthquake - large slips are slowly being consumed by the greenery as nature takes it course. The chapel emerges atop a steep rock outcrop seemingly a thorn in the side of the cliff face adjacent. The anchorage is swell prone, so we parachute drop two ABBA tragics into the water close to the beach before securing ourselves offshore for a swim. They climb, pay homage and return satisfied - our work here is done. There’s a few hours left before sunset, and a perfect breeze chimes in to give us a couple of hours of champagne sailing on our way to another new anchorage on our radar. As we near the northern tip of Alonnissos the wind abates abruptly - almost as if it was meant to be, and ushers in a 15 minute dolphin display as a large pod moves southward. A few individuals including a cow and calf find us too hard to resist, and each troupe take turns approaching broadside like torpedos before emerging beneath our bow. The water is mirror smooth, and a few roll sideways eyeing us curiously while exposing their salmon pink underbellies - excitedly Sinead and Tracey cling to the bow and simultaneously squeal in delight while providing all with a blow by blow commentary that would make more Steve Irwin than Attenborough.
Rounding Alonnissos’ northernmost cape we find the axe man has been at work again. Gerakas is a long fiord, that seemingly has no right to fit into this landscape. It’s entrance funnels us deep into a channel only a couple of hundred metres across and stood over by a towering bluff on the northern side. A gentle swell rolls down the bay, but only once we reach it’s inner sanctum do we find a handful of yachts tucked into an alcove with a tiny beach head within. The foredeck team find a sand patch for the anchor and soon we are secured onto a handily placed pinnacle of rock on the shore line. The setting is serene as Tracey once again works her wizardry down below and an amazing pasta with local produce, olive oil, capers and country sausage is heartily devoured by all. It’s amazing how doing so little leaves you completely spent - it’s an early night again.
The northernmost of the Sporades are mostly uninhabited, so our ‘off-grid’ trek continues to explore the two main harbours of Kira Panayia, the main island of a rocky cluster lying north of Alonnissos. An absence of wind has the motor humming and we tackle the western coast getting in close to the shore as the island plummets straight down into the ming-blue depths alongside us. Again every ravine and watershed is cloaked in an emerald cascade that wouldn’t look out of place in the South Pacific. Our planned lunch stop is hard to spot - Ormos Kira Panayia take its name as the islands safe harbour and we skirt the northern coast and find a tiny passage less than 100 metres wide - beyond opens a large heart shaped harbour that can only be accurately described as an inland sea’. So hidden is this haven that only the goats know where it is - and we stop for our break and swim in front of a tiny pure beach of white marble pebbles. This virtually landlocked harbour could accommodate 500 boats, we share it with 3 others and it’s a shame to leave but more exploring awaits - we bid the goats farewell as they nibble the seaweed on the water’s edge for a little hydration.
Completing our circumnavigation of the island we pass by the monastery - the only permanently occupied point on the island. A position of solitude - complete with garden, olive grove and proud Greek flags flying in the breeze. The monks have their own high powered speed boat to resupply before retiring back to their self-exiled existence overlooking a timeless seascape populated by the rare and extremely endangered Mediterranean seal bearing their name. There’s overnight wind in the forecast, so we tuck ourselves deep under the island in the best protected anchorage we can find. Free swinging on the anchor we set as much chain as possible in case of a blow. The wind arrives a little after 11pm, accompanied by its best friends - thunder, lightning and torrential rain. It’s a slightly nerve wracking experience, but the boat rides well on her anchor as the wind settles from the north. The bay continually illuminates as if we were in the middle of the blitz. Waves of electrical activity pass over us through the night making it a wet sleep in the cockpit for the skipper, but dawn breaks soon enough and after the rain has eased to a sprinkle we look for finer weather to the south. A steep swell greets us outside of the bay and it is not until we reach safe haven in Peristera to the south we find out the ferocity of the storm as it lashed Northern Greece before reaching us. Reports online describe the worst event of its kind since the early 80’s and some tragic deaths ashore as well as many casualties.
Our final stop is Panormos on Skopelos, the southernmost bay on the island’s eastern coast and lined with thick pine to the water’s edge. Murray again does the honours swimming a line ashore in probably his most difficult mission yet, and succeeds admirably earning his accolade of ‘Navy Seal’ at dinner ashore later that evening. Panormos translates as wide bay, and the humble traditional tavernas are repeated at regular intervals along the beach made up of quartz chips all roughly rounded by nature and steeply dropping away into the bluest of bays beyond. Our meal tonight is a celebration tinged by sadness as we all go our separate ways the following day. Over a half-kilo or two of local white the promises of a reunion trip are already starting to flow. Some in the group are novices and some have half a dozen trips like this under their belt but all agree this one was special - with the Sporades the star of the show and delivering in every respect. As the wheels leave the runway of Skiathos and we bank right out over the islands we are treated to a final reminder of what where we have been - we gaze out the window and recognise almost every small bay, cove and port town - knowing we’ll have to return.
THE SPORADES ISLANDS ARE BEST SAILED EX SKIATHOS (JSI) EASILY ACCESSED EITHER VIA ATHENS (45 MINS) OR SELECTED EUROPEAN AIRPORTS. 7-14 OR 21 DAY ITINERARIES AVAILABLE
Famous all over the world as the homeplace of Odysseus, the mythical hero of Homer, Ithaca Greece is an iconic island - carpeted with lush greenery, dotted with quaint villages and exotic beaches, Ithaca island oozes charm in abundance.
Every bit as rugged, romantic and all-round epic as its role in Homeric legend would suggest, Ithaca or Ithaki (in Greek) is something special. The hilly, sea-girt homeland to which Odysseus struggled to return for 10 heroic years continues to seduce visitors with its ancient ruins, breathtaking harbour villages and wilderness walks. Squeezed between Kefallonia and the mainland, it’s the kind of island where time seems to slow down and cares slip away.
Cut almost in two by the huge gulf that shields Vathy, its main town, Ithaki effectively consists of two separate islands linked by a narrow isthmus. Vathy is the only significant settlement in the south, while the mighty northern massif holds delightful villages such as Stavros and medieval Anogi, and is peppered with little coves holding pocket-sized resorts such as Frikes and Kioni. Much of the island has been reconstructed after a devastating earthquake hit the Ionian in 1953.
The only way to truly discover this region is by yacht, once on the open sea your only next human contact will be of your choosing as you gently harness the afternoon’s sea breeze to seek out your private anchorage for the night. Conditions are predictable and easy to navigate and — with many small coves, caves and beaches where a yacht can anchor or long line off — chances are you’ll be alone in your self-made berth to swim, fish or explore.
This region of Greece is not the whitewashed villages - but rather lush green islands of cyprus and elm trees and flowering herb shrubs growing wild. The islands were settled by Greeks before Macedonian rule then annexed by the Roman Empire where they remained for 400 years before the Byzantine Empire in the mid 8th century. From 1204 they fell to Venetian rule, the islands the only part of the Greek speaking world to escape Ottoman rule, thereby defining their fierce independence and place in the Greek story.
Many islands are still dotted with Venetian lighthouses and ruins. In Polis, the remains of a Byzantine town were found in the beachside Cave of Loizos, now largely underwater.
With 3,000 permanent inhabitants and not much in the way of infrastructure, little has changed since Odysseus was king of this island. Mountains studded green with pine trees, beaches of tiny white pebbles bordered by soaring cliffs and water so colourful it could have kept Monet occupied for decades.
The island’s beauty will leave an indelible mark in your mind, and there is a quiet majesty here that tends to permeate everything. Take in small villages lined by olive trees – some thousands of years old – the sound traditional fishing boats in the harbour, where proud seafarers display their catch, or the distant echo of the wind travelling through forests. You’ll find the setting fosters a sleepy, refreshing kind of peace. It's a raw, unspoilt countryside, where donkeys still toil the land and farmers not only pick their own produce but sell it off the back of their trucks.
Old men with craggy faces sit in their local cafenion flicking their worry beads over their hands, just as they’ve done for decades. The irony is, there’s nothing to worry about. Nothing at all. Yet they come daily. To sit and pontificate, to sip minuscule cups of thick, sweet coffee. They watch the modern world come and go. This is the Greece of old, it does still exist on the Ionian island of Ithaca.
Ithaca is included in all one week itineraries sailing Lefkas, and two week itineraries ex Corfu.
Croatia has successfully boxed its way into contention in the world of Mediterranean tourism heavyweights. Alongside Dubrovnik, the big islands of Hvar, Korcula and Brac welcome 18.5 million visitors each year looking for their own taste of Mediterranean authenticity. In many regards they all deliver, as they have done for many decades since Marshal Tito openly began promoting tourism here in the sixties. However, a solitary few were kept in a foreign tourism exile, simply out of reach until a couple of decades ago.
Sitting in isolation 30 miles off the Croatian mainland, Vis is the remotest of the populated Dalmatians, the archipelago of 1,185 islands that pepper the eastern Adriatic. Sitting on the halfway point between Croatia and Italy, Vis is hard to reach, and its inaccessibility makes it both enticing and exclusive. Those who make the journey are rewarded with an island rich in cultural and culinary delights all steeped in a history of cold war intrigue. Its deeply indented coastline hides stunning beaches, coves and two small cities where life goes as slowly as it has for centuries.
Vis is the place to come if you want ‘pomalo’- the Dalmatian philosophy of doing things slowly, a mantra that has seeped into the island's very soil. A few things have helped keep Vis under the tourism radar. When the rest of the country started to open up to tourism, Vis was kept off limits by the Yugoslav army. There’s still a legacy of 37 abandoned military sites across the island. A reasonable amount of Yugoslav army-issue barbed wire remains, offering that ‘something a little different’ that the all best islands possess. Beyond its turquoise coast the hinterland thrives with scrubland of wild rosemary, capers and sage interspersed with vineyards, olive groves, carob trees and Croatia’s finest citrus. Viticulture using the local grape varieties -, plavac for red and Vis’ own vugava for white is spawning a thriving cottage industry today in renaissance after a phylloxera outbreak decimated local vines in the early part of the 20th century.
Timing is everything, and our arrival into the idyllic port of Kut couldn’t be better executed. An armada of charter boats behind us jostle for the last remaining spots on the quay as we sip on our sundowners enjoying the action. The only other urgency we witness is the skipper’s rush to secure a reservation at the best ‘konoba’ (local for tavern) within a stone’s throw of our gangway. With its origins dating back to the ancient Greek settlement of ‘Issa’, the adjacent main port town of Vis is filled with historical monuments including 17th century houses, remains of a Roman cemetery, and an archaeological museum. In fact, over millennia Vis, or Issa, OR Lissa, has been occupied by the Greeks, Romans, Venetians, English, Austro-Hungarians, Italians, Germans and the Yugoslavs before settling as a part of the newly found Croatia in 1991.
Above the town, the 19th century English Fort St George is an ever-visible landmark. Behind it is a military cemetery, the soldiers entombed beneath hailing from another island, far away. During World War II, when Vis was the only island in the Dalmatians unoccupied by Axis powers, the arrival of British forces now laying here ushered in a period of militarization that was to endure 50 years. By 1944, the British had been joined by 2,000 partisans fighting for independence led by Josep Broz Tito, soon to be known as the "benovolent dictator" From his initial position here on Vis, Marshal Tito would go on to dominate three decades of politics in communist Yugoslavia as well as playing a important role as a diplomat and statesman on the world stage. As for the English, their first occupation of Vis originated in Napoleonic times and left one very curious legacy. Situated by a now abandoned WWII airfield is the oldest cricket club in Europe outside the British Isles. For more that 200 years leather has been striking willow on this remote outpost in the Adriatic.
After a morning dip near the end of the quay, we embark on a day of coastal exploring. The first stop is at a nearby submarine pen, one of many throughout these islands. This one is a monster, at 110 metres long recessed into a narrow headland. We take the dinghy inside to sample the acoustics, and watch the brave take on the 15-metre ledge jump from the top of the outer portal. An afternoon sail along the inhospitable north coast finishes with a tight pass between rocks before rounding a heavily fortified headland on our entrance to the wide bay at Komiža. Lifting a mooring ball just outside the picturesque village, we swim and relax in anticipation of going ashore to explore.
Facing Italy on the islands west coast, charming Komiža town takes pride in being the more elegant of the two mini cities on the island. Once the island’s largest centre, a walk through the small lanes echoes the history of the town back in 16th-18th century. The 700-year-old harbour is still guarded by the impressive 16th century Venetian fort tower. It was here in 1593 a fleet of uniquely local fishing boats call ‘Gajeta Falkuša’ set off in the oldest recorded fishing regatta in history. Crews of 6 under oar and 120 square metres of sail battled the 42-mile course to Palagruža island, in which the victorious gained the rights to the best fishing grounds for the season. The ensuing catch would be dried on rocks before salting and storage in barrels for the return to Komiža. At only 7-8 metres in length one ‘Falkuša’ could carry 8 tonnes of sardines fuelling a fishing industry which at it’s peak sustained 7 local sardine canneries. At its zenith Komiža rivalled mainland Split in size and influence, but modern fishing methods have long seen the decline of these halcyon days and the last cannery lays idle. The ultimate ‘Regata Falkuša’ took place in 1934, and the only original hull now spends her days in the Fisherman’s Museum now occupying that original fort tower. On a refreshing note, fishing still sustains this village with more income originating from the seaborne fleet than the tourism dollar, an unusual trend! These days a number of replica ‘Falkuša’ boats reside on the charming local waterfront, alongside a tasteful mix of local eateries and shops. Tonight, we dine above the promenade with a view over the harbour and the scattering of visitors passing by on their ‘ice-cream’ stroll. It was at one of these local ‘konoba’ the producers of Mamma Mia 2 chose to mimic the original Greek movie set for the sequel. No doubt this will have a profound effect on tourism here in the coming years.
The following morning, Tomi and his crew at VISit military tours pick collect us bright and early. We’re off in a couple of converted Land Rovers to explore the islands more ‘restricted’ past for a few hours. Tomi is originally from Zagreb, but his guides are mostly young locals giving a great insight into the past of the island through stories passed down through generations. We explore bunkers, rocket depots and abandoned warehouses and barracks. Finally, we’re taken for a bit of wine and local produce tasting adjacent to the old WWII airfield, complete with more story telling from both sides. On our return journey, the guides make one last stop to soak up the expansive vista atop Mt Hum, 587m above the bay below. Before us lay Komiža, Biševo and a hazy Italian coastline on the distant horizon. The tour and its taste of local hospitality are definitely a highlight of our trip to Vis.
Back aboard, we choose to skip a visit to the Blue Cave on Biševo after hearing of the long delays and hurried approach to getting people through. We depart Komiža rounding the south coast of the island we’re treated to a veritable smorgasbord of bays and coves to explore. The pick of the crowds is Stiniva, a horseshoe cove with a castle-like entrance only missing its drawbridge. Just wide enough for small dinghies to pass the cove opens into the castles keep – a stunning pebble beach with lush green forest behind. It’s a little over run after being voted European beach of the year recently, however one or two coves further east toward Rukovac we find somewhere equally as delightful and all to ourselves. After yet another swim and a lunch stop, it’s a lazy afternoon sail over a couple of hours to St Klement, our hop-off point for Hvar.
Thank you Vis, for a fascinating couple of days where using a little imagination we can all get a glimpse of that Mediterranean authenticity we came for.
Encompassed by piercing sunlight and azure waters, this 12-square-mile rocky island is poles apart from its Cycladic cousins Santorini and Mykonos.
With no airport and just enough ferries each day, this tranquil outpost of the Aegean mixes a laid-back unhurried feel with a new level of sophistication taking many by surprise. As you enter the ancient capital of Chora, the absence of package tourists and cruise ship hoards makes the faint hum of people dining and enjoying the 4 main squares all the sweeter. Perched 300 metres atop a sheer cliff on the sea, Chora is surrounded by stone-lined crop plots interspersed with classical Cycladic residences giving a feel as if you’d stepped back 100 years. The island has only 700 residents year-round, swelling to around 3,000 for the summer.
Our arrival is timed early. Not only do we avoid the early afternoon heat, but we also find a space in the tiny port which at best only provides shelter for about 8 visiting yachts. Today is our lucky day, as the wind has abated as forecast making the port town of Karavostasis a pleasant haven for the evening. Once secure, the group moves ashore, some to enjoy the cool waters of pebble lined swimming beach on a shimmering bay dotted with gently bobbing local fishing boats. The rest head straight for the cabana clad cafes nearby to enjoy a ‘real’ coffee, always a highlight of civilisation. Time slows as we discuss options on how to invest our efforts over the afternoon and evening.
While some choose a small boat excursion to discover isolated beaches and a few coastal caves, others choose the pool. Located on the outskirts of the main village a short bus ride away, ‘Chora Resort’ beckons with its shaded loungers, excellent pizza, mocktails, cocktails and a soundtrack so chilled ice cubes are forming in the pool. A small number of guests drift in and out as we enjoy this freshwater oasis all afternoon.
A rendezvous has been arranged for 6pm at the cocktail bar of Anemomilos Hotel, edgebound upon the verge of a sheer vertical drop. This awe-inspiring vantage point is also conveniently located at the base of the winding path that leads to the Church of Panagia, the islands star attraction floating immediately above us. I can think of no better location to observe the early evening light softening as it washes its palette over the cliffs adjacent. So captivating are the surroundings a few choose to station themselves here, eagerly attended by long term bar tender Aleks in his simple but elegant style. For the rest, the steady stream of walkers passing by hint to what’s in store and they too take to the path to play pilgrim to possibly the best sunset worship on earth. Around 12 hairpins and a 15-minute walk is all that’s required to summit the track, with each cliff edge turn revealing a new vista over Chora and the precipice into the Aegean. There’s even a couple of solitary donkeys on hand to assist with the ascent if necessary. As the flamingo pinks, lilacs and tangerine smudges give way to the deepest of fading blue, there is no clichéd clap from the crowds, just a few couples in wonderous embrace and others enjoying a few moments of silent contemplation.
Although Danae and her family team at Anemomilos present an amazing menu, tonight we’ve chosen to dine in one of the towns gorgeous squares. The sky was already starlit, as our first few turns led us into the labyrinth adjacent to the old ‘Kastro’ or Venetian Castle. From the 13th century for many years the islanders fell under the loose rule of the Sanoudo family based in Naxos a few islands away. Fascinating to explore in its own right, the Kastro’s outer perimeter wall can still be made out amongst the tiny residences that now occupy this quarter of town. The island suffered a tumultuous history through the medieval period, even seeing periods of complete abandon only to be rebuilt several times in the process.
Seated beneath a large Aleppo pine, once again we over-order. On conclusion our bellies swell with lemon laced pureed fava beans, zucchini croquettes, local mizithra cheese and lolly sweet tomatoes. The local matsata pasta accompanies casseroles of goat, lamb and rabbit, all washed down with multiple carafes of a more than agreeable house wine. Everyone’s eyes roll back as our hosts bring out a fabulous lemon sorbet for dessert, on the house of course!
Literally rolling out of the restaurant, we emerge into the village in full evening hum. Every table is occupied as we ramble from alley to square, each group animate with story and debate. Early diners meander in and out of small boutiques seeming to burst neon amongst the regulation whites, blues and abundant magenta bougainvillea. Simply finding an out of the way spot to sit, ice cream in hand and watch passers-by is a fascinating pleasure in its own right. We see glimpses of the Folegandros of yesteryear: old men playing chequers worry beads in hand and the local priest stopping for a chat with the townsfolk while enjoying a pour of the local honey and cinnamon raki.
We are tired – it never ceases to amaze how a day of relaxing can be so exhausting. Those who’ve ventured here for longer will spend days exploring the old stone donkey paths that criss-cross the island’s barren interior or hiring a moped to while away days at a few of the island’s beaches. Along the way they Instagram pictures of handsome donkeys, infinite sea views and no less than 65 churches across the dramatic landscape. Absent are the party posse of Mykonos or the umbrella led processions of Santorini, Folegandros flies beneath the radar with its unique blend of authenticity and grace.
The gentle motion of the bus winding its way back to Karavostasis sees pairs chatting quietly while a few make a head start on bedtime. The last ferry has long made way, and in the absence of any nightlife the only sound is water lapping and a little quiet cockpit banter from another group a few slips away. Back onboard a soft sea swell caresses the boat against the quay conveying a maternal sway in our berths that’s impossible to resist. Eyes close to the the brilliance of a handful of stars visible through an open hatch above.
You can't beat a good love story, and tales of romance in the Greek Islands aren't uncommon. If it wasn't the story lines of Mamma Mia or Shirley Valentine, the ancient Greek Gods were a certainly a flirty bunch for sure. When Ben Reierson and Sandy Barker individually joined onto a trip from Santorini to Mykonos late in the Summer of 2006, neither of them probably suspected that they'd be falling into a life long love affair right there and then. So inspiring was it that Sandy adapted their fairy tale firstly into a short story, and currently into a novel which is in its final stage of completion. While we'll surely keep you updated on that, Sandy also took time to pen this trip report from a Tropic Sailing trip to celebrate their 10th anniversary a couple of seasons back. Sandy really is quite the wordsmith, and here she captures the essence of sailing Greece exceptionally. If you're thinking about a sailing holiday this is a must read, my thanks to Sandy, do enjoy!
There's something rather magical about going where the wind takes you, quite literally. The cares and stresses of everyday life ebb away, and the present becomes everything. Briny air, inky blue swells, and a wind that carries you and your fellow sailors to the next port. It’s freeing.
The weather is a perfect 28°C with a warm breeze and only a few clouds in the vibrant blue sky.
Our Yacht, The Argo, will be our home for the next week. I take off my watch and stash it away, because I won't need it today. Time moves differently when you're on a boat.
We are seven, including our skipper Patrick, our ages ranging from mid-30s to mid-50s. We are across industries and continents in our everyday lives, but for the next week we will be Argonauts.
Tonight we will anchor just off Akrotiri on Santorini, ready to enjoy more favourable winds for our sail up to Ios in the following morning. None of us mind. The view is beautiful and we enjoy swimming off the boat in the deep Oxford blue water. Colours, particularly of the water, will be important to the Argonauts, because every day we sail, the Aegean will reveal its vast palette and we will discover that the waters off each island are distinctive.
The next morning, sailing through the caldera offers a magnificent view not just of Santorini, but also of Thirasia, the island sitting opposite, and the ever-evolving Nea Kameni which is situated in the caldera's centre and was site to the cluster's most recent eruption in 1950. Looking up at Fira and the other towns that cling to the cliff edges, you can't help wondering how they stay there and what feats of engineering got them built in the first place. It's stunning.
We moor for a simple lunch of tomatoes, bread, tzatziki and cheese in a cove with a perfect view of Oia. After our meal and a quick dip, we will be purely under sail as we forge our way north to Ios.
Patrick gives commands to his crew of civilians with the ease of someone who has done this many times before. The undulating sea is mesmerising as we talk about nothing and everything. We will find that we form friendships quickly with so much concentrated time to get to know each other.
Before long we can make out the brilliant white of a church standing guard at the entrance of the port, and we ease into a berth beside a luxury yacht with its Italian skipper lending a helpful hand as we secure our moorings. I am fascinated by the easy camaraderie of the two skippers despite being complete strangers and having no common language.
Ios is bustling and dinner that night is a stone’s throw from the yacht – we can see the ‘Argo’ from our seats. Children play loudly nearby as we eat, adults laugh and toast each other, and there is a thrum of energy. At a time when I would typically be asleep, it seems like the village is just ramping up. I wonder at being able to sleep aboard a boat docked in such a busy port, but the lull of the rocking sends me off peacefully. Patrick's promise of a spectacular and secluded spot to spend our third night has us all intrigued.
After stocking the boat with supplies the following morning, the frenzy of the market will prove a vast contrast to the second half of our day.
We are heading towards a secluded bay on the island of Dhespotiko. As promised, the hidden bay is incredibly beautiful. The island rises sharply from the water on either side of the narrow bay and is covered in reddish rocks and tufts of dusty green. We anchor just off a small sandy beach and are the only boat in sight. The water is clear and we can see to the sandy depths. A little teamwork sees us with the fixings and tools for a BBQ set up on the beach. Tonight we will eat by moonlight, a selection of meat, seafood and vegetables grilled under the stars. The warm water laps at the tiny shore, the food is incredible, as is the reflection of the moonlight on the small bay. We laugh and talk and poke sticks into the fire. We are a million miles from anywhere.
We are in no hurry to leave the unnamed bay the next morning, all of us wanting to get the most out of this unique location. Some of us swim, others set off to climb the giant hill that overlooks the beach. Even from only half-way up the vantage points will produce some incredible photos. The Argo is a long white sliver in an arrow head of vibrant blue, cupped by rugged red earth. After following a goat track back down the hillside, I leave my camera, shoes and clothes in the tender and swim back to the boat from shore. It is exhilarating being in this water. I want to stay all day.
Once again under sail, four of us take our places on the windward rail. I love this spot on the side of the boat, watching each swell approach. Some of the swells break against the hull and send a wave of cool water over us as we laugh and squeal like children at a water park. We arrive at Vathi salt-crusted, sun-warmed and eager for dinner at the waterside restaurant that Patrick has suggested.
We anchor in the middle of the bay, it is peaceful here, a nice contrast to the vibrancy of Ios. The water laps at a narrow shoreline as we walk – sometimes in the water – around the bay to a lovely restaurant under the trees. It has a perfect view of the setting sun.
We order from across the menu a wide selection of Greek specialities – lamb, octopus, squid, stuffed vegetables, tzatziki and olives. We are particularly impressed with the wine selection, and the first bottle of Assyrtiko is so delicious we order a second bottle almost straight away. Around us, families – many of them Greek – enjoy the serene setting, delicious food, and warm evening breeze. Under the table, I cheekily feed a ginger cat who has hungry kittens in a nearby tree. It's a lazy, enjoyable meal. We walk even more slowly back to the tender, full from our feast and ready for bed.
After a short sail to nearby Kamares, we follow Patrick onto the local bus where a few Euros each will get us across the island to Platys Gialos. Sifnos is just beautiful. The roads to Platys Gialos are winding, and the bus rises to the top of hills and dips into the valleys. There are homes, farms, small towns and windmills – some working, some decorative. The beach, unlike Vathi the night before, is brimming with people, mostly Greek families. Our waitress is delightful and the menu offers an array of fresh vegetables and seafood. I cannot resist the fried anchovies, so don't. They are delicious.
There is a laziness to the afternoon, and we eat leisurely before catching a bus back in the other direction.
Late afternoon, we arrive in Kastro, a fortress town perched high on a hill and with expansive ocean views on all sides. We walk the perimeter of the town, and see Roman-built walls too old to fathom, amongst the whitewash and bougainvillea. Stray cats gaze at us lazily from vantage points. As we round a corner, we see a tiny white church balanced on an outcrop of rock far below us and just above the sea line. As we await our bus back to the marina at the Dolci Café, we overlook ancient farms that dot the valley, while sampling the impressive cocktail list.
Back in Kamares, we’ve enough time to swim before changing for dinner. The water is warmer here than anywhere we have swum before and we can see an almost-full moon rising over the hills before the sun even sets. Dinner that night is in Apollonas, a gorgeous town in the heart of Sifnos. It is reminiscent of Mykonos, with whitewashed buildings and cobbled pathways leading off the main square in a tangle of walkways and alleys. Families, couples, groups of friends, travellers and local alike, fill the town with an intoxicating energy. The shopfronts boast beautiful wares from artisans and jewellers, and clothes in flowing fabrics and vibrant colours.
The choice of bars, cafes and restaurants is overwhelming, and thankfully we have a reservation where we will sit on a terrace overlooking the excitement. The wine is great, the food is fantastic and collectively, we never seem to run out of things to talk about. We will split up after dinner, some of us to shop, others to grab a drink at a local bar. Late that night we meet back at Kamares to ferry to the boat in the tender. It has been our busiest day, and it has been exquisite.
Another day of incredible sailing brings us to to Kythnos, where we moor in a beautiful harbour surrounded by jagged rocks and caves called Ormos Kolona. The cove is peaceful and the atmosphere friendly. The water here is so clear we can see straight to the bottom over 10 metres below, and several of us swim to the beach nearby to indulge in the natural hot springs.
After a simple dinner ashore, the moon is full now and hovers over the cove, with long milky fingers stretched across the water. It is our last night together and we enjoy a nightcap when we arrive back at the boat after dinner.
Our final day sees us sail to Athens via Cape Sounion, the southernmost tip of mainland Greece where the Temple of Poseidon reigns from on high. It's a perfect spot to stop for lunch sheltered from the fresh breeze that has carried us back from the edge of the Cyclades.
An afternoon of sailing under power, and it seems all too soon that we can make out the Acropolis and Mount Lycabettus. We dock, we pack and chat, and when it is time to say goodbye, it feels like we are leaving family. There are hugs and promises of emails and photo-sharing to come. As we climb into the cab that will take us to the airport, I feel contented. It was an incredible week of exploration, relaxation, adventures and just being. Wonderful.
What makes a sailing holiday? So often I get put on the spot to explain what really happens onboard one of my trips, wherever it may be. I’ve pondered this in some detail, as even after all these years each opportunity to get out sailing affords me some different kind of reward. I also see that benefit for those that sail along with me.
Just now, as I sit down to write this - my eldest daughter has discovered something new on a sailing trip. She and her younger sister are currently in the forward cabin tucked into sleeping bags stargazing through an open hatch above. The last embers of this evenings sunset are almost gone, and the heavens revealing themselves in a clear summer evening sky. It’s a new moon, so little gets in the way of a good star show even though we are so close to a major city. I popped up forward for an update, as they’re intent on seeing a shooting star. I know I would have heard all about it already if it had already occurred, but my eldest had spotted something else, a star tracking across the sky passing through the rest as they lay stationery. Of course I immediately thought she’d seen a plane as it departed our nearby international airport, but at seven years old she’d spotted her first satellite.
Maybe its parental exuberance that I get excited by little things, but it reminds me of many experiences I’ve had in the last 12 years of operating sailing holidays on yachts. I get to take people out of their ordinary environments, onto the ocean and into some spectacular locations. Once there, many people experience extraordinary things for the first time and it’s magical to be a part of.
So often a sailing holiday is packed with first time experiences and those well outside of your normal regular comfort zone. These share the trip with so many other rich qualities, that once combined I firmly believe have the ability to ‘stretch time’. Days feel like weeks and weeks like months. Such is the fullness of the adventure that so much more is gained than a regular guided tour, ship cruise or visit to a resort.
Relaxation - how unbelievably relaxing are sailing holidays? Whether it be the lazy start to each morning in a sleepy port watching the world come to life, or diving off the swim platform into crystal clear baptising waters. Things just get started from there, there’s something meditative about watching either a calm or excited ocean as you make your way from one island to the next. Podcasts, Kindles, conversation, Spotify or just a damn good book keep you company as you find a happy place aboard to while away the hours. Arriving by sea differs to a plane or land arrival into a new destination. It slowly develops before you, gradually revealing secrets one by one, each posing a new question to discuss - and time isn’t an issue. Afternoons and evenings blend, from meandering in a new village - to dinner and late evening strolls through tiny alleys interspersed with boutiques, artisan stores and ice cream stalls. No day is the same, yet has the same result - a satisfied exhaustion that sees you sleep astonishingly well, resurfacing to repeat it all again.
Adventure - Few of us are fortunate enough to spend as much time messing around on boats as we’d like. For many its the culmination of dreaming about it for years or finally having the time to actually do it. Sailing is a foreign world - for some it’s unimaginable and somewhat frightening, I feel sorry for them! It’s so hard to communicate to the less open minded about how a sailing holiday can free your spirit. The yacht in its own right becomes a cocoon that nurtures you - guiding you on the journey. The wind and ocean environment clears the clutter of everyday city life breathing new life into your spirit. New discoveries on land, on and beneath the water amaze and enlighten.
Intimacy - Sailing takes people away from the modern world habit of digital dependency. Sure, its hard to completely detox but with so many external stimuli available its certainly easy to go cold turkey on a sailing trip. Your peers, shipmates and skipper also create a network of positivity around you. People talk more, share life experiences and form strong friendships on sailing holidays - bonds which frequently endure well into the future. Sailing crews are close knit, and so is the relationship with your skipper and yacht. It’s not unusual to see tears quayside on departure day accompanied by promises of future reunions. The group galvanises into a team tackling daily tasks as a combined unit, and sharing so many unique experiences along the way. The water is always around you, both in sight and sound. The locals are authentic, the location always superb. These experiences are so very real and far removed from the mainstream alternatives available these days.
Firsts - I’ll never tire of excitement of a new experience. First time sailing, helming or tiring a proper knot. First time seeing bioluminescence, shooting stars or sleeping fireside on a beach. First time snorkeling on a wreck, riding a scooter or diving head first. For some it’s genuinely a novice experience or others it’s a great reconnect.
I’m sure there is more to add! There’s certainly a magic involved and even I personally after spending virtually every working day I have on the water, can’t wait to spend my leisure time on my own boat - ‘stretching time’. If you’ve taken time to read this I’d love to hear your strongest recollections of the experience and how you have or would convey them to others.
"Twenty years from now, you'll be more disappointed by the things you didn't do than by the ones you did.
Throw off the bow lines, sail away from safe harbour, catch the wind in your sails
DREAM, EXPLORE, DISCOVER" - Mark Twain