A charter in the Ionian sea yields a sampling of the "real" Greece
We sailors are lucky. Thanks to the availability of boats that can be chartered in many of the world's wonderful places—and to my mind, many of these wonderful places are islands—we can travel around at will, complete with housing, a kitchen, and a clothes closet. Within certain parameters, of course, we can go where we choose, stay longer or seek out another, hopefully better place, while also enjoying the mode of transportation for its own sake. Without dependence on bridges or buses or ferry schedules, we're totally free to come and go at will, weather permitting.
Deserted anchorages have their place in this scheme, but what I like best when I'm far from home is to be a tourist under sail. I like to arrive in the harbor of a small town, find a space at a dock that, in putting me in the center of whatever action there is, makes me feel for a brief time that I'm a part of the local life, and go off to see whatever is there to be seen. It's also convenient. If time and money permit, I like to spend a few days ashore before the charter (when the clothes are still clean), often in a big city—partly to get a feel for the country and mostly to be a tourist where sailboats cannot go.
Time and money having been found, the four of us—Dave and Mary Ann Chase and George and I—spent part of a week in Athens, took a day trip to Delphi, and were feeling surfeited with culture and quite ready to start our Greek charter. We hopped a bus across Greece from Athens to Lefkas Town, whose large modern marina serves as one of two charter centers (the other is Corfu) in the Ionian Sea. The town is bustling with conveniences—banks and ATMs, bakeries, fruit and vegetable shops, and supermarkets that deliver to your boat.
Lefkas hasn't always been an island; its connection to the mainland was dug out by Corinthian colonists around 650 B.C., and it is now accessible to vehicles via a swing bridge across the 25-meter-wide canal. We found a nice pedestrian area of residences, shops, and restaurants a short walk from the marina and had an especially nice dinner served by the restaurant owner and his wife and daughter.
The first day we provisioned, supplying ourselves generously with the basics of our version of the Greek diet—olives and olive oil, lots of tomatoes, feta cheese and wine, fruit and vegetables, and bread from the bakery. We did a boat and chart checkout and stowed the mountains of stuff. But three hours of motoring later, when we pulled into the harbor of Spartakhori, on the island of Meganisi—the town itself is up a steep hill—the pleasant early-summer day had morphed into a rainy and prematurely darkening night. We were tired, hungry, damp, and not at all sure where or if we'd find a place to anchor among the crowd of boats that had arrived earlier. We were more than happy to see a man standing on the dock, waving us in; he had a place for us, and, even better, we could see a cheerfully lit taverna behind him. We assumed that the price of the dock space was having dinner at the taverna—a fair price indeed. We were invited into the kitchen to meet with each available fish before we chose. Finding something to eat when you're cruising in Greece is not a problem.
What is a problem, if you charter in any of the Greek island groups, is that a week can't possibly be enough. This is certainly the case when you're cruising the islands of the Ionian Sea, off the west coast of mainland Greece. Even though only a modest 135 miles or so separate Corfu in the north from Zakynthos in the south, the seven main islands and a host of islets compete for your attention, brandishing fabulous beaches, charming towns, and a dizzying number of ports and anchorages. We stretched the possibilities of a single week by opting to take Vista III, a comfortable Jeanneau Odyssey 43 from The Moorings's base in Lefkas, south for a bit and then north to be dropped off in Corfu, a place I'd always wanted to visit.
Of course we had to go to Ithaki. How could any sailor pass up a visit to (legend has it) the home turf of Odysseus himself? Figuring out when to leave in the morning was something of a puzzlement, since we'd read that the summer northwest wind doesn't really come up until around midday; however, we'd noticed that anchoring space (if any) and/or dock space are likely to have disappeared by midday. We followed the directions in the indispensable Greek Waters Pilot—turn left after the third windmill—for entering the horseshoe-shaped harbor of Kioni. It was about midday when we crammed ourselves into a narrow opening along the quay, which was already well populated by cruising boats with home ports in Germany, a few charterboats, and the colorful local fishing fleet.
There were restaurants and a few small shops on our side of the harbor, and several well-dressed older couples were out for a stroll. Passers-by looked over the boat and us, occasionally stopping for a brief chat. Across the harbor we could see houses awash in bougainvillea, their red-tile roofs dotting the slopes at the head of the bay, with churches poking up above the greenery.
We walked up the hill on the other side of the harbor—this is a redundancy; all walks on these islands are uphill, both ways—enjoyed some smashing views, took some photos, and hurried back to the boat to tighten up our lines and add more fenders when the wind came up briskly at midday, eventually bringing with it a gusty rain that threatened the umbrellas of the restaurant farther down the quay. Unlike the Aegean islands, the islands of the Ionian are known for their vegetation and their rain, and they did not disappoint.
We left Kioni on a clear morning, headed for Kalamos—the midday breeze came in early, and we were under full sail at last. We had a choice of three harbors, so we checked them out. One House Bay did indeed have one house; nearby Porto Leoni had depth issues (10 to 15 meters, or more, equals a lot of rode). Porto Kalamos, with 2-to-3-meter depths, seemed about right, and George (of George's Restaurant fame) was waiting on the quay to take our lines.
Since Dave and George opted for naps, Mary Ann and I strolled over to the village on the other side of the harbor to find the ice-cream store and, feeling that some of our essential supplies were running low, got directions from the owner, a Greek-American woman who summers on the island. We weren't surprised to find ourselves once again climbing up rugged goat paths, past luxuriant olive groves, and finally to a sign with an arrow and the crucial word "bakery." The bakery was closed for siesta, but some local women and children noticed us, and soon the bakery's owner appeared with key in hand. We smiled and pointed and left triumphantly with bread and cookies in hand.
It was time to start heading north if we were to get the boat to Corfu on time. The sky was blue and cloudless, the sun was shining, and the wind had disappeared, and it was a perfect day for finding ourselves a deserted anchorage. If every day had been like this one, we'd have been seeking out more of them. During our first pass-by of Meganisi, we'd noticed a series of fairly identical little bays in the area of Porto Atheni; we chose Ormos Epano Elia because there was just one boat at anchor. The water was blue and clear as could be; Mary Ann and I jumped in, shoes in hand, to test it—perfect in temperature and amazingly buoyant—on a swim to shore. I'd noted during our chart checkout that you can walk to the village of Katomeri "if you can find it," so we walked and walked up and around goat paths and past ancient windmills. The village, like Brigadoon, had disappeared.
After a night spent back in Lefkas, it was a sails up, engine off/sails down, engine on five-hour trip to Paxos and the start of getting away from getting away from it all. The island is tiny, the smallest in the Ionian, and has three harbor towns, one a small fishing village, one a harbor popular with cruisers, and a third, served by car ferries, hydrofoils, and excursion boats from Corfu, rather busy. This town, Gaios, is the one we chose, depending on the Greek Waters Pilot for instructions as we negotiated the channel around the two little islands, one fortified (Agios Nikolaos) and the other a monastery (Panagia), that guard the entrance. We eventually found the quay for ordinary folks and fisherman (the other one is for commercial boats and megayachts) on the quiet side of the harbor.
Gaios was big enough and busy enough to give Mary Ann and me a couple of happy hours of poking around while the guys did guy things. Our first find was the olive-oil store, which resembled a wine cave; the proprietor told us that olive oil from Paxos is the only kind Harrods carries, so I made my only Greek purchase there. A Georgian-style building at the end of the main street along the waterfront is identified by a plaque as having been the British consulate (the Ionian islands were a British protectorate in the 19th century), but the large, charming main square, with its pink and cream buildings, is Venetian. We figured that eating dinner out would leave us enough food for lunch on the way to Corfu the next day and congratulated ourselves on our frugality.
Why go: The Ionian Sea is Greece's "easy" cruising ground; the navigation is straightforward, and the strong meltemi winds of the Aegean don't blow here. There's plenty to see and do, including world-class windsurfing on Lefkas at Vasiliki.
When to go: I enjoyed the cooler weather of early June; it was perfect for those uphill walks and no doubt less crowded than in full summer. Summer charterers will probably head for the bays and beaches and swim a lot.
What to know: Look to your charter company for much valuable information. It would be nice to know some Greek, but most people in shops and restaurants on these much-visited islands speak English. Transliteration of place names from the Greek alphabet can be confusing; for example, Lefkas and Levkas and Lefkada are all the same place.
Cruising guides: You'll no doubt find Rod Heikell's Greek Waters Pilot or Ionian on your boat. These are exemplary guides. However, checking for updates (www.imray
.com/corrections/Ionian.pdf) would have eliminated a stressful tour around Corfu harbor, where significant changes had occurred since the volume was printed.
When I was a preteen and an avid reader, I discovered Gerald Durrell, a naturalist who wrote mostly about his adventures capturing animals for zoos. Among his many books is My Family and Other Animals, about his eccentric family's three-year stay on Corfu in the late 1930s. I vowed that some day I would go to Corfu, and it took a long time for me to finally get there.
The Durrells would no doubt have recognized present-day Corfu Town, an intriguing mix of English, French, and Venetian architecture that somehow remains unmistakably Greek, but the string of resorts we sailed past on the east coast, south of the city, would have curled their hair. So too would the tacky vacation developments strung up the east coast cheek by jowl and curving along the north coast too, as we discovered while touring in a rented car. At least there's a nice view of Albania, less than a mile away to the east.
We came back through the mountains and down the largely undeveloped west coast, as different from the east coast as night from day. It's well worth taking an extra day and renting a car to see a bit of Corfu. Before you go, read Prospero's Cell, by elder brother Lawrence Durrell, a well-known poet, playwright, and travel writer, for another view of Corfu as it once was.