A sailboat chartered by a cruise liner is the best way to cruise the Greek Islands



Boats among the hundreds of Greek islands in the Aegean Sea. (Ivan Bastien / Alamy Stock Photo)

Like vagabonds, the seven of us, duffel in tow, strolled leisurely along the bustling docks, taverns and kafenias of the port of Naoussa on the Greek island of Paros. (It is perhaps only in the Mediterranean that “quiet” and “lively” don’t seem contradictory.) We were killing time, on the lookout for Stuart and Monique, whom we had never met. They were respectively the skipper and the cook of the sailboat that we had chartered.

The sailboat should have been easy to find: a 54-foot Jeanneau monohull (unlike the catamaran), so new that it did not yet have a name engraved on its stern. We would apparently be his very first paying customers. But other than this description of the boat, among the hundreds of others anchored in the harbor, we had no clear idea of ​​what we were looking for, let alone what exactly to expect during the coming week from island to island. island in the Cyclades.

We all had some sailing experience, but only two, Dan and Elaine, had ever chartered a sailboat in Greece. My wife Pat and I had never even been to Greece, but it was always a dream destination. Originally, I wanted what is called a “bareboat charter”, meaning that I would be the skipper. Although they politely used other excuses, none of my friends wanted to risk their lives serving as my crew.

After carefully choosing a crewed charter, the next choice had been which Greek islands to explore. Each of the island groups offers a different experience, from the olive groves and resorts of the Ionian Islands (including Corfu and the Ithaca of Odysseus) to the beautiful beaches and Ottoman architecture of Rhodes and the other Dodecanese islands, scattered along the Turkish coast.

The rich mix of picturesque villages, beautiful beaches and 5,000 years of history made the Cyclades our choice. Which of the seemingly countless arid islands we would actually visit would be determined by winds and fantasy. There would be no fixed route. What we knew was our starting point: the island of Paros, which we reached via a four-hour ferry from Athens.

Testifying to its popularity, the Naoussa wharf on the island of Paros is crowded, while the solitude of the sea invites you. (Walter Nicklin / For the Washington Post)

When we finally found our chartered sloop-rigged yacht in her underpants, there was Monique, an American expatriate, with bags of groceries in her arms. In addition to the wine, beer and olive oil needed for the following days, she had all the ingredients for our very first meal on the boat: small roasted tomatoes with garlic and oregano, served with tuna, capers and penne. No matter what Poseidon had in store for us, Monique would make sure we were well fed with a healthy Mediterranean diet.

Soon Stuart the skipper appeared, with his own duffel bag from his home base in England, and we prepared to cast off. Those of us with the most boating experience – Nina, Dan and I – volunteered to be part of her crew. He would turn out to be a caring captain – never barking orders but simply suggesting and instructing. I think Pat, always a nervous sailor, expected Captain Ahab to be bossy. “Princess Panics-a-Lot” is the teasing nickname Stuart gently gave to Pat whenever she worried that, flapping in the wind, we would lean too much and might tip over.

That night, a Saturday, we dropped anchor in a small, quiet and secluded bay, not far from the busy port of Naoussa but on the same island of Paros. Each couple had a private bunk and head. The gentle sway of the boat and the lapping of the sea against the hull brought a deep and blissful sleep which – after flights across the Atlantic to Athens, then struggles with city traffic to get to the port of ‘Athens from Piraeus for the ferry – seemed particularly well deserved.

As the very first rays of dawn at Homer’s “rose fingers” filtered through the portholes, Monique was already awake preparing breakfast. My job was to hoist the anchor. It was a little windy, so Stuart raised the mainsail and jib to complete the inboard engine. Dan and Nina’s job was to winch the sails, as instructed by Stuart. The rest of the crew – Elaine, Ann, Pat and John – stretched out in the cockpit or on the deck, to feel the wind and marvel at the beauty of the “dark sea”. We were on our way to the sacred and uninhabited island of Delos.

The Cycladic Islands, which means “circle”, get their name from the way they orbit the figurative sun of Delos, now a UNESCO World Heritage Site and one of Greece’s most important archaeological sites. , dating from the Bronze Age. Headless statues without limbs, mosaics representing dolphins, phallic monuments in homage to Dionysus, a dry lake where Apollo was born. . . . When American civilization collapses, will it leave behind such enchanting and enduring ruins?

That afternoon we sailed to Naxos, the largest of the Cyclades. The cove we anchored in was tiny. With a fishing village as a backdrop, it was the perfect place to swim in the crystal clear waters. Stuart made a back swim platform and we all took a dip. Then, to dry yourself off, you really didn’t need a towel; the hot, arid air was enough. It was then that we decided that, rather than sailing to tourist hotspots like Santorini and Mykonos, we stick to secluded beaches and bays. Going where cruise ships don’t go, we realized, was perhaps the biggest advantage of a yacht charter.

Hence our next stop: an island not even mentioned in the voluminous travel guide to the Greek islands that I lugged with me, wild and rocky Donoussa. Nothing like a good swim to whet your appetite, so Monique had lunch while waiting for our return on board: chicken stuffed with feta, herbs, lemon, accompanied by small boiled potatoes, then mashed and fried with garlic and rosemary. Did we take a nap after lunch, rocked by the gentle sway of the boat? I do not remember.

With the sailboat toasty in the horseshoe-shaped harbor below, there’s plenty of time to hike and explore another rugged island in the Aegean Sea. (Walter Nicklin / For the Washington Post)

The exquisite endless variations on our Mediterranean theme meant the hours blended together so seamlessly that I would soon forget what day of the week it was, not to mention the fact that it’s hard now to create a retrospective catalog of each separate experience. sailing between islands with magical names like Amorgos, Koufonisia and Shinoussa. Where were we on our trip when we came ashore for a strenuous hike up a steep, rocky path to an ancient monastery? And where and when exactly did we meet this tanned, totally naked, very much alive – and similar to a Greek god! – couple on an otherwise deserted beach?

But with the crystal clearness of the Greek seas and skies, I remember this: my birthday, which fell halfway through our trip. For dinner on board, Monique prepared herb-crusted salmon, fresh tomatoes with mozzarella and basil, followed by a birthday cake with candles. Then we headed for shore in the dinghy to find a terraced vantage point as the sun set over our sailboat anchored below, so small it looked like a child’s toy. Enhancing the view, after dinner toast with Greek-inspired ouzo – the boiled residue of the grape skins from the pressing of the wine. I don’t think I’ve ever had a better birthday.

Nicklin is a writer based in Virginia and Maine. Its website is medium.com/1968-une-year-not-as-other. Find him on Twitter: @RoadTripRedux.

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