In Zorba’s play­ground

Greece’s Cy­clades is­lands are a fas­ci­nat­ing study of con­trasts. Des­o­late and arid, they some­how sup­port vi­brant, rab­bit-war­ren vil­lages crammed with bustling tav­er­nas serv­ing fab­u­lous food. They’re also home to the bois­ter­ous meltemi wind...

Boating NZ - - Feature -

Over the years I’ve char­tered yachts in var­i­ous parts of the Mediter­ranean – Croa­tia, Turkey, Greece – and in each case the lack of wind has left us mo­tor­ing for 90% of the time. For 2018, I thought, we’ll go some­where where we can hoist some can­vas and ac­tu­ally sail. All my re­search pointed to the Cy­clades. Sun­drenched is­lands, friendly Greeks, his­tory – and steady winds. As the old adage goes – be care­ful of what you wish for… The Cy­clades are synony­mous with the meltemi, blow­ing con­sis­tently from the north at 20-25 knots. But it’s an un­pre­dictable wind that can quickly morph into a hellish vixen whistling at 35-40 knots (and more!) for days at a time, par­tic­u­larly in the peak sum­mer sea­son (July-au­gust). It of­ten forces char­ter­ers to hole up in a ma­rina/an­chor­age. If you’re on a dead­line, need­ing to get the boat back to base, this can be a tad awk­ward. More on this in a mo­ment. We joined our boat – a 2015 La­goon 450 cata­ma­ran – at Lavrion on the south-eastern tip of the main­land. Lavrion is a con­ve­nient launch point to the Cy­clades, and it’s only a 40-minute taxi ride from the Athens air­port.

Nu­mer­ous char­ter com­pa­nies op­er­ate from Lavrion – we used Is­tion (­ – and our cat – Maria, was

a su­perb choice for our party of seven. Equipped with four dou­ble cab­ins (each with en suite), air­con­di­tion­ing, three fridges and a gen­er­a­tor, she pro­vided all we could want – and more. Ev­ery­thing worked flaw­lessly – a rare treat on a char­ter boat!

My re­search sug­gested the op­ti­mum route for a two-week char­ter was sail­ing clock­wise, south-east through the north­ern Cy­clades (wind on the beam) to Naxos, and then, for the trip back to base, is­land­hop­ping north-west, through the south­ern Cy­clades. See Is­tion’s sug­gested itin­er­ary. None of the legs be­tween is­lands is very long – par­tic­u­larly as Maria cruised ef­fort­lessly at 7–8 knots.

Week 1 was tremen­dous – glo­ri­ous beam/broad reach­ing in 20–25 knots, with stops at Kea, Sy­ros, Ti­nos, Mykonos and Naxos. As is com­mon in the Mediter­ranean, moor­ing in the vil­lage mari­nas in­volves re­vers­ing into a berth. Some mari­nas are equipped with lazy lines, but we were ad­vised not to use them as they are poorly main­tained. In­stead, we dropped the pick and re­versed in.

Again, as is com­mon, drop­ping the pick in a crowded ma­rina can re­sult in ‘an­chor rage’ – when mul­ti­ple chains be­come en­tan­gled. I’ve dived to lib­er­ate our boat’s an­chor (and oth­ers) on many

Each vil­lage is an unimag­in­ably con­vo­luted maze of al­leys – but won­der­fully charm­ing.

oc­ca­sions – but am happy to say our record on this char­ter was blem­ish-free.

Moor­ing in a ma­rina isn’t com­pul­sory – many crews pre­fer to an­chor in bays dot­ted around the is­lands – but be­ing able to step off the back of the boat makes life a lot eas­ier for ev­ery­one, es­pe­cially when restau­rants and shops are beck­on­ing.

One slightly un­pleas­ant as­pect of the mari­nas is ‘ferry surge’. Large fer­ries con­nect many of the is­lands – a use­ful trans­port op­tion for vis­it­ing other is­lands if you’re holed up in a ma­rina. But the fer­ries’ com­ing and go­ing can cre­ate a se­ri­ous wash, and it’s best to keep the boat’s stern well off the quay. For­tu­nately, Maria’s very flash, elec­tro-hy­draulic passerelle eas­ily ex­tended over the ex­tra dis­tance.


If you’ve read this far, you might have guessed that in Week 2 things changed some­what.

I specif­i­cally opted to char­ter in Septem­ber be­cause the Euro­pean hol­i­days have ended (so

things are qui­eter) and the boats are cheaper. And, sup­pos­edly, the meltemi goes to sleep. But it seems she’s a rest­less lady.

Our ar­rival in Naxos (the turn­around point) co­in­cided with a sig­nif­i­cant in­crease in wind strength – 30–35 knots, gust­ing 40. And the fore­casts weren’t en­cour­ag­ing: the in­vig­o­rated meltemi would be around for the en­tire week…

Gen­er­ally speak­ing, while cats are fab­u­lous cruis­ing ves­sels they don’t go up­wind par­tic­u­larly well, and things are com­pounded when the ves­sel presents lots of windage – like the La­goon. I didn’t fancy the prospect of beat­ing north-west back to base in those con­di­tions, and af­ter much dis­cus­sion with the crew we opted to re­main in Naxos. There are worse places to be holed up!

So, I con­tacted the Is­tion base and sug­gested that, to get the boat back in time for the next char­ter party, they send a crew down to de­liver the boat back to Lavrion. This it did – ef­fec­tively turn­ing our voy­age into a one-way char­ter – and we paid an ex­tra de­liv­ery fee. Two gents ar­rived look­ing for­lorn and left the fol­low­ing morn­ing for the long slog (un­der en­gines) home. They ar­rived bat­tle-weary but safe.


For any­one who’s ex­pe­ri­enced Greece’s Io­nian Is­lands – the enor­mously pop­u­lar cruis­ing ground on the other (western) side of the main­land – the Cy­clades couldn’t be a starker con­trast. Where the Io­ni­ans are rel­a­tively lush with pas­telshaded vil­lages (Ital­ian in­flu­ence), the Cy­clades of­fer bar­ren land­scapes, white-washed houses and blue domes, doors and shut­ters. A more ‘clas­si­cal’ Greek set­ting.

Civil­i­sa­tion owes Greece for many won­der­ful con­cepts – democ­racy, ge­om­e­try, logic – but the lat­ter two seem to have es­caped the town plan­ners in the Cy­clades. Each vil­lage is an unimag­in­ably con­vo­luted maze of al­leys all jammed with gal­leries and shops – and scores of tav­er­nas. At night, par­tic­u­larly, there’s an ir­re­sistible vibe – es­pe­cially through the lens of the fa­bled Mythos beer. It is all won­der­fully charm­ing.

The bar­ren land­scape also raises an in­trigu­ing ques­tion: the tav­er­nas serve up the most sump­tu­ous food – where does it come from? Not only the sun-kissed toma­toes, cu­cum­bers, cap­sicums, olives, onions and large blocks of feta cheese – but also the seafood: squid, sar­dines, clams, cray­fish, shrimps and bream. I thought the Med was ster­ile? Com­pletely fished out?

Each is­land has its at­trac­tions. Naxos – per­haps be­cause we spent more time there – was our favourite. Hir­ing scoot­ers for an is­land tour was great fun. Ti­nos pre­sented the odd­est ‘re­li­gious’ event I’ve ever en­coun­tered. The is­land’s fa­mous for its an­nual pil­grim­age, cen­tred around the cel­e­brated Church of Pana­gia Evan­ge­lis­tria dom­i­nat­ing the main town.

The church hosts an icon of the Vir­gin Mary – be­lieved to

have healing pow­ers. Every year it’s vis­ited by some 50,000 pil­grims who crawl on hands and knees to the church – about a kilo­me­tre up­hill. A hellish chal­lenge – and not a Mythos in sight.

Mykonos and Santorini are the most pop­u­lar is­lands in all of Greece. Both, sadly, are tourist traps – prices for meals are lit­er­ally dou­ble what they are in other is­lands. Both are on the cruise ship itin­er­ary – mas­sive ves­sels car­ry­ing 3000-4000 pas­sen­gers apiece – so when four pull into port, things be­come a lit­tle claus­tro­pho­bic. I didn’t care much for Mykonos, but Santorini, with its tow­er­ing vol­canic cliffs, has the most ma­jes­tic views. The is­land’s part of a caldera, the re­mains of a cat­a­clysmic vol­canic erup­tion some­time around 1600BC.

As any ra­tio­nal thinker will ap­pre­ci­ate, weather is al­ways a bit of a ‘stab in the dark’ for char­ter­ers. Some­times you’re lucky, some­times not. The Cy­clades is a won­der­ful cruis­ing desti­na­tion – but the meltemi makes your char­ter a lit­tle more un­pre­dictable.

If I were to do this again, I’d opt for a one-way trip – pick­ing up the boat at Lavrion and leav­ing it for col­lec­tion at Amor­gas or Santorini. That way, you can af­ford to visit more is­lands – and spend longer on them – with­out hav­ing to worry about beat­ing back to base against a tight dead­line. You pay a bit more, but it’s def­i­nitely worth it.


RIGHT The ar­chi­tec­ture is dom­i­nated by white­washed walls with blue domes, doors and win­dows. BOT­TOM RIGHT Con­struc­tion of Apollo’s tem­ple be­gan in 750BC. It’s still not fin­ished. Bloody Greek chip­pies.

Where are the Cy­clades?

LEFT A feast for the senses – heat, sear­ing white walls, strik­ing colours – oh, and a bit of wind...

ABOVE The writer at La­goon’s Bordeaux fac­tory. The fa­cil­ity plans to dou­ble an­nual pro­duc­tion to 700 boats.

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