Greece proved to be a challenge to visit but well worth the effort. The country has complex geography that includes lots of mountains and hundreds of islands. Although there are many things to see and do on the mainland it is the islands that sets Greece apart. Any trip to Greece should include at least a few islands. With that in mind we decided that we wanted to do a sailboat cruise. There are many commercial yacht companies that will charter a yacht that you can sail if you have the training and skills. Unfortunately we do not so it required finding a boat with a crew. After doing some research on commercial yacht packages we decided to put our name on an internet yachting bulletin board that serves both commercial and private enterprises. That is how we met up with George and Melody. After nearly a year of correspondence and planning we were rewarded with a wonderful one week cruise on their 44' sloop Valentine. We could not have found more competent, friendly folks with which to spend our week cruising in the Greek islands. Along with their two black Labrador retrievers, Kola and Tia, daughter and mother, we set sail from the island of Syros on April 29, 2004 to explore the Cycladic islands. The cruise would take us from Syros to Naxos, Ios, Siphnos, and finally to Santorini. Since our timing was early in the yachting season we anticipated cool and possibly wet weather. Fortunately there were only a few foul weather days leaving us plenty of sunshine to enjoy the sailing and the onshore touring.
The vacation went quite smoothly all things considered. Coming from the US my brother, Scott, and his wife, Diane, met up with us in Athens. The next day we visited the Acropolis and it's museum The following links provide some interesting description of the museum and the Acropolis:Acropolis - Athens
The next we rode the Flying Dolphins ferry to our rendezvous with Melody and George who had already positioned the yacht on Syros.
Late that afternoon we met George, the skipper of the Valentine, and Melody his wife who is also the first mate, navigator, radio operator, and cook.
The following day we sailed to Naxos where we spent the night.
Next morning we checked out the ancient stone arch located at the entrance to the harbor and watched fishermen mending nets on the dock near our moorage.
Leaving Naxos the next morning we headed for Ios well known for the throngs of sun seekers who appear every summer. Nude beaches can be found but were barren due to the springtime weather which provided temperatures in the low 60's (F). It was an exciting sail of several hours in Beaufort scale 5 seas (wind at about 30 knots, swells around 4 to 5 feet).
At the entrance to Ios harbor stands a magnificent white church high above the water. After landing and tying up we lounged on the Valentine while Melody went food shopping and George took the dogs for a walk. Later that day we hiked up to the church we had seen earlier to take photos. On our return to the boat we passed several women and children who were painting the cement between the flagstones on the walkway to the church. Almost all the buildings in the islands seem to be painted white. Most have red tile roofs. The churches usually have royal blue domes with golden crosses. Frequently you see religious murals painted on their walls. Most buildings in the islands are made from stone or concrete blocks covered with stucco. The islands are typically arid with scrubby vegetation along the coast and increasing forestation at higher elevations. Olive, fig, pine and palm trees are indigenous. Bougainvillea, rose and oleander grow in abundance in the village gardens and along the walls of the buildings. Donkeys are still used as work animals although motorized transportation has largely taken over as the preferred means of getting around. Goats and sheep are frequently seen on the hillsides, and of course there are free-run chickens occasionally crossing the road.
After a day at Ios we sailed on to a series of smaller islands called by some, the pearls of the Cyclades, SERIPHOS - SIPHNOS - MILOS - FOLEGANDROS
At the first landing we had some authentic Greek cuisine in a little taverna that opened just to feed us dinner. The kitchen was staffed by what appeared to be three generations of women from the same family ranging in ages from 4 to 70+. Our choices for dinner included a selection of fresh fish and lobster. One of the fish would have served 12 so we passed and chose several smaller ones, three lobsters and an assortment of appetizers consisting of broiled ground lamb patties seasoned with fresh mint, marinated calamari, calamata olives, assorted local cheeses and the Greek style flat bread that resembles pita. They told us it would take about an hour to prepare so we retired to the Valentine for cocktails until the dinner was ready. The meal was served on time and in the family style wherein we shared all the items. Everything was excellent including the red Greek wine! The women were pleased that we appreciated their efforts and came out to join us towards the end of the meal. George who speaks a bit of Greek was able to let them know how pleased we were and how good their food tasted. They told us that they were happy to see some many customers early in the season.
Early the next morning we were awakened by a local who told us that our yacht was tied up in a spot that was needed by a large in-coming ship. George got us untied quickly and we made way out of the harbor on our way to the next of the island, Siphnos. We passed the in-coming boat that was only slightly larger than ourselves so imagined that the local who roused us was somehow connected with the other boat and just wanted to clear us out on their behalf. In any case, we were up and going and arrived at Siphnos after a couple hours sailing. We approached the harbor carefully as the charts showed shallow water on both sides of a narrow channel leading into the moorage. The Valentine draws 2.7 meters to the tip of the keel which is fairly deep for a yacht her size. The chart showed a minimum depth of 3.5 meters in the channel. Seemingly there was enough clearance for us to pass through, but George, a careful skipper, wanted to proceed with caution. It turned out to be a good move as the channel was difficult to follow and we did bump bottom once although only slightly. After finding our way through to the dock we tied up and began to explore. We found out that there was a local bus taking passengers hourly up the winding mountain road to the main town. In days passed pirate attacks on island settlements were a possibility so the Greeks built the main settlements high in the hills where they would have plenty of warning against raids. The pirates now are part of a romantic history, but the towns remain high in the hills. That evening we took the bus to the nearest town where we had a nice meal. The views from this high vantage were spectacular, and we stood there watching as the sun set into the sea. The next morning Lana and I found a lovely secluded grotto not far from our moorage where we sunbathed and played with the two retrievers who would fetch items thrown into the water. This spot had a special spirit that somehow completed my expectations of solitude and freedom from the usual tourist experiences on a Greek island cruise.
Our final leg took us to the well known and spectacular island of Santorini, a still active volcanic formation that defines the southern most island of the Cycladic group.
The crossing to Santorini took a couple hours. During that time we checked out guide books for information on the location of our hotel and things to see and do. We had allocated three days on this island because the information showed that this place is one of the premier vacation destinations in Greece. A little geologic history helps to put things in perspective. About 3000 BC Santorini was a conically shaped volcanic island with a large Minoan population living in a city known as Thira. Unfortunately for the inhabitants the island exploded leaving only the rim of the original mountain. Most of the rest went up in the air or into the sea. The Minoan civilization on the island was destroyed; however, one can still visit the caves containing their pictographs that are now seen frequently on Santorini artwork. Eventually the island was repopulated by the Greeks and today it is one of the most visited of their many islands. The next morning George and Melody put us ashore near the funicular providing easy access to the top of the ridge where most of the island villages are located. At the top we grabbed a cab that took us to our hotel in the village of Ia. Our rooms we simple but functional and clean. The view west to the sea was amazing. From our patio we could see the entire collection of islands that comprise the Santorini archipelago not to mention the spectacular sunsets.
Since the initial eruption new islands have formed nearby. In
the throat of the former volcano a plug has formed rising 253 meters
above the sea. Near the top of this new island one can visit the
still active steam vents and smell the sulfurous odor typical of
volcanic activity. We did just that taking a kaiki, a traditional
Greek sailing yacht, from Santorini to Kameni island. The climb
from the landing to the summit through the volcanic ruble is fairly
easy as a footpath has been constructed. The entire island is
part of the Greek national park system. At the top there are
views in all directions and a monument that makes a natural spot for
photos of your climbing accomplishment. After descending and
re-boarding, the kaiki took us to the hot springs located along the
shore of the volcanic formation. Those who wanted to visit the
springs jumped in the sea and swam about 100 meters to their location
in a nearby cove. At 18 C. (65 F.) the water temperature provided
ample motivation to swim quickly to the springs. We finished up
the day with a leisurely lunch at a seaside restaurant before making
the long climb back to our hotel.
The return trip to Athens by air provided a great overview of our island hopping cruise. Normally ten hours by ferry it only took us 35 minutes by turbo prop. We all stayed in the same hotel adjacent to the airport for the final evening and what a swank place it was. Scott managed to strike a sweet deal on the rooms that turned out to be definitely five star quality. It was the perfect way to end what had been a wonderful and relaxing visit to Greece.
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