The Dominion Post
Chartering a boat through the Ionian Islands is the ideal way to explore the area called the playground of the ancient Greeks, writes Lawrence Schaffler.
MANY tourists may have a preconceived idea of traditional Greek islands but it’s probably quite different from the reality of the seven main islands of the Ionians.
Unlike the harsh, arid landscapes and white-washed houses that mark the islands on the eastern side of Greece, on the western side of mainland Greece, the Ionians are lush, green and soft. Even the architecture is different – houses in the villages feature red-tiled roofs and walls daubed in brilliant pastels, hinting at their Romaninfluenced heritage.
Thanks to our rampant Kiwi dollar, the islands are relatively inexpensive.
Benign and predictable sailing conditions make for a popular cruising area. The cruising guides say that from May to November the wind blows northwest at force 2-5. The direction is correct, but it’s more like force 1 most of the time.
Distances between islands are one to three-hour passages with scores of bays dotted around every island. At the head of every bay is a village, typically with a long quay for mooring, stern-to.
Some quays offer lazy lines, but mostly it’s a case of dropping the pick and reversing in, with enthusiastic restaurateurs standing by to grab your stern lines. Most – but not all – of the mooring is free, with an unspoken agreement that, in return for the mooring, you will eat at the adjoining restaurant. Many quays have shore power and water; all the restaurants have free wi-fi. Again, the password is accessed in return for dining there.
The major issue is getting to your next port relatively early to secure a good position on the quay, where there are usually between four to 30 tavernas and plenty of shops.
Our bareboat party comprised three couples on a Lagoon 42 catamaran. Equipped with four double cabins, each with an en suite bathroom, we had more than enough space and the airconditioning was welcome when connected to shore power at night.
Catamarans have pros and cons. They offer masses of space, great areas for chilling, no heeling and, with their inherent stability, the likelihood of unsettled tummies for those prone to mal de mer is slim. Twin engines help when easing into tight berths.
Space is a cat’s biggest appeal and its biggest drawback. Securing a berth for the night operates on a first-come, firstserve basis and it’s doubly difficult for a cat.
Multiple charter companies operate at two main bases in the Ionians, at Corfu and, further south, at Lefkas.
WE PICKED up our boat in Corfu and sailed south, stopping off at Plantaria and Mourtos on the mainland before heading to Lefkas, Meganisi, Paxos, Antipaxos, Kefalonia and Ithaca, and then returning the boat to Lefkas – about 250 miles all up.
According to legend, Ithaca is the birthplace of Homer and it’s utterly beautiful. Spartahori, a bay on the island of Meganisi, offers some of the most majestic views over the Ionians. Spartahori village, like most of the villages in the islands, is swathed in brilliant bougainvillea but has never enjoyed the services of a town planner – its narrow roads are unbelievably convoluted.
The restaurant down at the water’s edge, where owner Babi reigns supreme, is legendary throughout the islands. He runs a lively and hilarious operation involving the entire extended family. The quay was designed for, say, 20 vessels – he easily squeezed in about 40.
Paxos and its smaller sister Antipaxos are particularly attractive. The latter’s Emerald Bay is a favourite day anchorage and large ferries also bring in scores of day trippers from the mainland. Fiskardo, the northernmost port on Cephalonia, is an excellent base for more extensive exploring. We hired two cars there – they don’t have vehicles for six people – for a day trip around the island. In the centre of the island is an unusual geological feature, an underground lake with only a small roof aperture letting in light. A boatman punts you around in a small wooden skiff – eerie, but spectacular.
DESPITE Greece’s fragile economy and debt crisis, there is zero evidence of financial hardship in the Ionian Islands. This could be because the restaurants and shops operate on a cash economy and credit cards are rarely accepted. The islands are magical. Greek cuisine offers scores of traditional standards: souvlaki, moussaka and gyros, with the inevitable tzatziki – cucumber and yoghurt dip, and aubergines. Tomatoes in Greece are unlike tomatoes anywhere else in the world.
The most difficult aspect to Ionian chartering is getting there – two long-haul flights and a lot of time in airports. But if you have the resilience and a good bunch of friends to share the cost and the experience, it’s worth the effort.