With the dollar almost at parity with the Euro, there’s never been a better time to go chartering in Europe. Here’s a quick guide to where and when to go, and how to get there.
To understand why Croatia has become one of the world’s top charter destinations, just open up Google Earth and zoom in on the Adriatic Sea. On one side is Italy’s eastern seaboard, pretty enough in its own right but not much of a sailing area; on the other, the spectacular coastline of Croatia. Some 1,200 islands dot Croatia’s Dalmatian coast; only 50 or so are inhabited, and many of the remainder enjoy national park status.
Besides being blessed with some of the most beautiful scenery in the Mediterranean, Croatia’s coast and hinterland are redolent of its turbulent history. Greeks and Romans left their marks, followed by the Venetians, Ottomans and Austro-Hungarian Habsburgs before the country became part of the kingdom of Yugoslavia in 1928. The traces of the four-year war that followed the collapse of Yugoslavia in 1991 are now all but gone, and although Croatia is currently ranked the 18th most popular tourist destination in the world, it still seems relaxed and uncrowded from the deck of a sailboat, simply because many of the coolest places can only be reached by boat. Want a cove to yourself for the night? That won’t be a problem.
If anything, the Croatian islands are over-endowed with natural beauty, to the point where choosing a charter itinerary becomes annoyingly difficult. There are a lot of islands that really deserve to be visited, and more than a few places on the mainland too. You wouldn’t want to miss out on the stunning islets of the Kornati archipelago to the north, or the unique character of Vis or Hvar in the Dalmatian islands, nor the medieval cities of Dubrovnik and Split. The only answer is to keep going back…
Know that the Aeolian Islands are named after Aeolius, Roman god of the winds, and you get an idea of the kind of sailing you can expect around this volcanic archipelago, just a daysail off the Sicilian coast. The water is clear and cobalt-blue, the summers are hot and the islands are just far enough apart to combine rewarding sailing with plenty of downtime to swim, snorkel or explore ashore. If you want fine restaurants and nightlife, the more populated islands of Lipari, Salina and Panarea offer those, along with marinas and supermarkets. If you want quieter anchorages, the more remote islands offer those, along with hot springs and volcanic mud baths. Two of them, Stromboli and Vulcano, are active volcanoes; one of the highlights of an Aeolian charter is watching Stromboli’s natural fireworks display as you sip Chianti in your cockpit on a warm summer night.
Amalfi coast & Bay of Naples
This stretch of coastline is perhaps one of the most photographed in the world. Considering it’s only 30 miles long, it punches way above its weight. A dramatic coastline, sparkling blue water, offshore islands, picturesque villages spilling down hillsides, excellent seafood, ancient ruins—the Amalfi coast is a microcosm of the best the Mediterranean has to offer. Rub shoulders with celebrities on the island of Capri, enjoy a glass of wine on the dockside in Sorrento, spend a day at the ruins of Pompeii, go hiking on Ischia; you may not be sailing long distances, but you’ll pack a lot into your days. Be warned, though, the Amalfi coast is flooded with tourists in high season.
Known as the home of spectacular big-boat regattas, Sardinia is the second biggest island in the Med. Its 1,100 miles of rugged coastline are a sailor’s dream: it’s not for beginners, with winds often blowing a steady 20 knots or more, but it is home to some beautiful anchorages and harbors, medieval villages and the remnants of the many cultures that left their imprint here. The gorgeous Costa Smeralda on the northeast end of the island is the best sailing area, but it’s packed with superyachts and jet-setters from June to the end of August so marina berths are hard to come by and eye-wateringly expensive, especially in Port Cervo. Be prepared to anchor out a lot—luckily, there are many good anchorages—or go in the off season. Don’t miss the Maddalena islands at the northeastern tip.
Even if you’ve never been to France, you’ll know the names of the cities and harbors along its Mediterranean coast; Cannes, Nice, St. Tropez, Antibes, Monaco, all redolent of romance and la bonne vie. There’s no official start and end point for the French Riviera, though the Côte d’Azur starts at the border with Italy and extends to Toulon, or thereabouts. It’s not a destination for those wanting to get away from it all, though the island groups near Toulon to the west—Porquerolles, Isle du Hyères, Ile du Levant—and the Iles du Lérins off Cannes are pretty, mostly unspoiled and offer good anchorages when you want a respite from the high life on the mainland.
Just to the north of Sardinia, Corsica is a jewel of an island. The coastal scenery is dramatic, the interior is rugged and fascinating—Napoleon was born here, and the locals haven’t forgotten it—while the coastline boasts plenty of anchorages and good marinas. The west coast, though more exposed to prevailing winds, has some of the most impressive mountain scenery in the Mediterranean. In the south, the old city of Bonifacio, longtime home to the French Foreign Legion, is not to be missed; just around the corner is a long stretch of uninhabited, rugged bays and protected anchorages, with easy access to the gorgeous Lavezzi islands and Sardinia, just across the Straits of Bonifacio. Why not a two-week charter, taking in both Corsica and Sardinia?
In the same way the British Virgin Islands are thought of as the nursery slopes of Caribbean sailing, so the Ionian islands are a gentle introduction to Mediterranean chartering. Stretching some 50 miles from north to south on the west coast of Greece, this chain of seven main islands (and many islets) offers flat-water sailing with mild to moderate winds and a plethora of interesting and beautiful destinations. Serene anchorages carved into hillsides, tiny fishing villages, waterfront tavernas, clear, warm waters, seafood to die for; from Corfu in the north to Zakynthos in the south, these islands are steeped in history. Study up on Greek mythology before you go.
This tiny island nation doesn’t often crop up on the charter radar, but it is truly a secret gem. Strategically located between Sicily and the African coast, it has changed hands many times over the centuries and its mixed cultural heritage is unique even in the Mediterranean. The coastline is indented with coves and beaches, and the crystal clear waters and pretty, uncrowded anchorages of the offshore islands of Gozo and Comino are renowned. The scuba diving is legendary, and the prevailing northwesterly wind seldom blows too hard for comfort. With its excellent tourist infrastructure, Malta is also a good jumping-off point for Sicily, just 60 miles away. The lucky Maltese have the longest sailing season in the Med, stretching well into December.
While decades of tourism development have left their marks on the Balearic Islands in the hotel complexes that line many of the best beaches on Mallorca and Ibiza, there is still plenty of good sailing to be had around these Spanish islands. You’ll most likely pick up a boat in Palma de Mallorca, and from there it’s an easy sail to anchorages on either coast. The southeast coast is particularly well blessed with plenty of calas, or coves, where you can drop you hook. A warning though—in high season, there’s an awful lot of traffic, and anchorages and harbors get congested. If crew and charter company permit, sail the 60 miles from Palma to Ibiza overnight. You could do a late nightclub session in Ibiza town, then spend a day or two poking around the unspoiled island of Formentera. It would be asking too much to pack all the islands into a week—you’d need a fortnight to do them justice. The really good news? The sailing season extends almost year-round.
Also called the Turkish Riviera, this 1,000-mile stretch of coast makes up one of the finest sailing charter grounds anywhere. Parts of it have been covered in concrete hotel blocks to accommodate the hordes of tourists who come to enjoy the flawless weather and the long white beaches. Fear not, though, there is no end of quiet coves, inlets and bays where you can tuck yourself away. The Turkish coast is a rich repository of history, dotted with Byzantine, Roman and Greek ruins. The food is terrific and the people are warm and welcoming. Most of the major charter companies have bases here, or if you don’t want to bareboat you can charter a gullet, or Turkish crewed motor yacht.
When to go
Generally speaking, charter bases will operate from mid-April to late October. In Malta and the Balearics, there is no real beginning or end to the sailing season. It would be wise to avoid the peak holiday months of July and August, when much of Europe is on vacation at the same time. Anchorages will be crowded and marina slips hard to come by. In May, June, September and early October, boat traffic in most of the desirable charter grounds will have subsided.
How to get there
Once you are in Europe, the many budget airlines serving all these popular holiday destinations make flying an inexpensive proposition. You can generally save money—sometimes a lot of money—by booking the cheapest possible flight from the U.S. to a hub like London and then booking onward flights with one of the budget carriers.
Two great resources are Google Flights (google.com/flights) and Rome to Rio (rome2rio.com).
In summer, weather conditions around the Med are mostly settled—except when they aren’t. In much of the western Mediterranean, winds tend to be light, with heating of the land masses bringing up good sea breezes in the afternoon. Along the mountainous islands or regions, there can be strong katabatic gusts off the high peaks,
so it’s often wise to sail a mile or two offshore.
On the French coast west of Toulon, the feared Mistral or Tramontana accelerates down the Rhone valley and can blow from the northwest at up to 50 knots, often affecting the Balearics and sometimes felt as far south as Corsica and Sardinia.
In the Adriatic, Croatia gets lots of sunshine and moderate winds but is also home to the Bora, a strong northeasterly that can gust to 60 knots or more and can last a couple of days, though it’s more prevalent in winter.
Around the Greek coast, predominant winds are from the north, tending to be lighter in the Ionian and strongest in the Aegean, where the Meltemi—a strong northerly that can blow 30 to 40 knots for up to four days—is not uncommon.