on, Tim Stevens
returned to his once
ground in the Ionian
Sea and discovered
that things aint what
they used to be...
Lefkas Island one of the largest Greek islands in the Ionian was dusty, the houses ramshackle and only few shops had anything to sell. That was back in 1976 when the island was still recovering from the 1953 earthquake.
As there was effectively no tourism to encourage the government to restore the damage, it was rather a sad place. At the time, my wife, Bonnie, and I were visiting the area to seek out a second base for the Flotilla Sailing Club we had started that season. At the invitation of Barry Neilson of Sailing Holidays the company that evolved from Flotilla Sailing Club we recently
returned to the area with our two adult children.
After the three hour flight from London, we were met at Preveza, the usual tiny semi-military Greek airport. A 90 minute journey took us to Sailing Holidays' southern base in Sivota where the flotilla yachts line the quays near the head of the bay in front of the tavernas and shops 25 years ago, the only buildings were simple huts used occasionally by workers pressing the olives from the surrounding groves.
We were directed to the Beneteau 345 Lysander our home for the following two weeks from which we could step almost directly into the taverna. The Spiradoula family's taverna was Sivota's first and is still run by the family who now own numerous businesses in the village
the family Mercedes-Benz is, of course, discreetly parked out of sight.
The cruising area is largely well sheltered with little room for the sea
to build between the cluster of islands. In a few places the swell can make some anchorages and harbours a little uncomfortable and occasionally untenable but this is a flotilla yacht-friendly cruising ground. Like many others, we were keen to see some of the beautiful landscape featured in the film Captain Corelli's Mandolin, particularly
the jetty at Horgota beach the only remaining piece of set, left at the request of the local council.
Kastos Island also came recommended. The wind was keen and favourable so we started with a good shakedown cruise to get our sailing skills back into shape.
Kastos proved to be a pleasant little harbour with a few houses scattered around. It did not seem to have the traditional Greek atmo-sphere as most of these islands seem to have suffered from the major earthquakes of the 1940s and 1950s. But it was nevertheless a pleas-ant place to spend the night and we ate well at the taverna near the seafront. Happily, there is very little crime. So yachts can generally be left unlocked and, in fact, this alfresco taverna is left open to all throughout the season even with its valuable stocks of spirits and a
large CD collection.
Stronger north-westerlies were forecast for the next night, so we sailed for Kioni on Ithaca. Here we found a lively and crowded small harbour and village, in an amphitheatre setting with an abundance of flowers adding to the colourful scene. The quay was full of charter yachts so we anchored in the harbour and watched the arrival of more and more yachts seeking a berth. Their manoeuvres were normally the cause of much amusement and we observed the new phenomenon of yachts being 'valet parked' by a certain charter company's crew in inflatables. They just scurried to and fro, easily bringing in the yachts.
A walk up the steep road to the top of the hill proved rewarding, with wonderful views of the harbour and the old ruined windmill, complete with all the machinery which was fascinating, if not a little dangerous, to explore.
The tavernas around the harbour side were all atmospheric, but as we discovered at other harbours they are so similar that it was hard to differentiate between establishments and the menus. We did find that the Sailing Holidays' estimates of daily expenditure were more than adequate at £25 per person: a typical three course evening meal, including
wine, cost little more than £10 per head.
The following day, the normal very light winds characteristic of the southern Ionian were again replaced by some welcome brisk, good sailing winds so we skipped a planned visit to nearby Port Vathi and sailed around the southern end of Ithaca. We had great fun with unusually boisterous winds and wind shifts as we sailed between the islands but Lysander proved stiff and safe. We shot across the channel between the islands of Ithaka and Cephalonia into Aghia Euphemia on Cephalonia, a fine base for a couple of nights.
Here they are putting a lot of time and money into providing a good quality haven. Give it a few years and it will mellow well. The best meal of the fortnight not difficult was much appreciated at the Pelagi Restaurant by Paradise Beach. It seems we shared the same tastes as the actress Penelope Cruz, who played the heroine Pelagia in Captain
Corelli's Mandolin. She and most of the film crew were reported to have had dinner here six nights out of seven.
As Cephalonia is one of the larger Greek islands, it boasts numerous places of interest. Not all by the coast, so many people take advantage of the cheap car and moped hire available on the island. But we wanted to spend more time sailing than driving.
We took a taxi to the nearby Melissani caves and lake which, although not outstandingly spectacular, are still worth a visit. Spotting a sign for the Drogarati cave, we asked the taxi driver to take us there as well and despite covering an additional eight miles and taking an extra 40 minutes the taxi driver only asked us for the original agreed
price. Where else would you find that? He was, of course, duly given a handsome tip.
The Captain Corelli film continued to influence our course, so we were headed by the wind all the way up the Ithaca channel. Yet we still somehow managed to miss the famous jetty!
We counted over 120 yachts in the most fashionable harbour in the area Fiskardo. Rather than join the claustrophobic serried ranks of yachts around the quays, we anchored and took a line ashore on the opposite side of the deep bay. It is overlooked by a massive Roman fort and has a magical small bay in which only a few yachts can safely anchor overnight. It is also well worth a visit, even if you go by car, just to buy the exceptional local honey.
We headed north to Vassiliki on Lefkas Island for the night. Then, with some trepidation, we decided to see if we could find the traditional Greece remembered from many years ago on Paxos Island to the north. Would the island still be the archetypical Greek gem or would we be disappointed? In mid-morning, we sailed the long way to Paxos around Meganisi Island to find the best winds, exploring three of the bays on its north east coast. By mid afternoon, we only had two other yachts in the north arm of Abeliki Bay.
One problem with sailing in this area is that, if you want to be assured of a quayside mooring, you must grab a berth by at least mid after-noon. But the best sailing winds pipe up at the same time so a difficult choice has to be made the mooring generally taking precedence as you can step straight off the yacht into the bars. We preferred to take a pleasant swim from an anchored yacht that is not crowded, as there is the flexibility of the arrival time and it is usually quieter. However,
if you sail with the flotilla, the lead crew will ensure your place by the quay.
From Abeliki Bay on Meganisi, we motored the short distance around to what became one of our favourite ports of call Spartachori. Despite being relatively late, we were lucky enough to find a free berth on
the floating pontoon in front of the Porto Spilia taverna. We were given a warm welcome and even had a lazy line to take up. Rather than a mooring fee, there was an unspoken understanding that we patronised the taverna. We ate with the sea lapping at our feet, enjoying delicious kebabs and the very honeyed puddings of katefi and baklava.
Our journey up the Lefkas Canal between salt marshes was not a high-light and the quay at Lefkas was uninspiring. We had seen the com-mercial sprawl of Lefkas on the bus transfer and nearly dismissed it once again as we had years ago.
We were to be pleasantly surprised by the reality. The dust and poverty are gone, many new buildings sitting comfortably with the old. It was a revelation. The old part of the town has been restored bell towers are now built in metal alongside churches, so ensuring their longevity. It is now also a holiday resort town for the Greeks and has
a great atmosphere. We ate at The Lighthouse, a taverna favoured by yacht crews. And we had probably the best moussaka we have ever tasted in all our years of visiting Greece.
The following morning we quickly completed the canal passage, includ-ing the swing bridge. We were a little nervous of the depths on exiting, and carefully noted all the features in order to spot them on our return.
We had been warned of a chaotic harbour front in Gaios, Paxos' main village, and again despite a relatively late arrival we found a berth right by the town's centre. On shore, there did not seem to be many new buildings. But where was the square? It has now disappeared beneath the cafés' large permanent parasols.
The new day brought a southerly wind if we had dallied in the south, we could have sailed our relatively long passage of 28 miles instead
of having to motor. However, we did take advantage of the wind to sail up the east coast all of four miles where we found a delightful bay in which to swim where there were no other yachts and only a handful of people on the beach. Our visit to Loggos, the smallest port in Paxos, was like entering a time-warp. Little has changed over many years on the waterfront
and it is quite enchanting.
Our destination Lakka on the northern tip of Paxos was sheltered at the head of a large, shallow, sandy bay where we anchored off in four metres. There we checked out the parasailing
10,000 dr. (£18) for the trip and they take you right down the west coast past the caves. The whole experience takes about an hour, with 20 minutes airborne for one or two people. This is definitely to be recommended, so we planned to stay over until the following day.
Unfortunately, the wind changed and the mistral decided to blow vigorously from the north. So we lay comfortably at anchor, swimming and watching the antics of our fellow mariners particularly amusing was an elderly German gentleman who looked as if he had stepped straight out of Those Magnificent Men in their Flying Machines. Late
in the day we could not agree on a restaurant choice, so we plumped for a rapid sail back to Gaios to sample a different restaurant.
We remembered the approach to Gaios through the north channel as very special. The narrow channel had a simple road to the mainly east-ern side, but everything else was wooded. Turning the corner then revealed a Don Camillo like village there was nowhere else quite like it. New ferry berths at the channel entrance welcome you, together with yachts and local boats moored all along. Still attractive and spec-tacular, but not quite the same
that, you might say, is evolution.
We felt a little cheated that we missed the mistral for our return pass-age to Lefkas, and were concerned we would miss the canal entrance quite a daunting prospect on a lee shore in a good blow. However, we were able to sail on a broad reach for much of the way. I would obviously blame the guidebooks for lack of clarity. There should have been a photograph with an arrow pointing to the canal entrance! In print, it seems clear and obvious: a gap between the mountains, a fort and two windmills. No problem, but where was the fort and where did the
two extra windmills come in? We eventually found the gap without mishap or strong words (just!).
Next day Kalamos Island beckoned, but not before we spent a pleasant afternoon in Kefali bay on the north coast of Meganissi Island. Again, by mid afternoon we were the only yacht in the bay. There are usually great numbers of yachts around we had counted 40 underway just off Fiskardo. But, as our company in the bay was limited to wasps, we decided to move on.
We sailed around Kalamos Island, with its little bays and coves, until we reached Kalamo Port. This village is thriving. EU money has been spent more than lavishly to provide the village with facilities and the local people have responded by converting and building new houses. The setting is picturesque, both on the quay and in the main village up on the hillside. The newly extended quay will doubtless feature new bars and tavernas shortly. All the flotillas seem to feature it whilst sail-ing in company, except Sailing Holidays which cleverly recommends a visit during independent sailing as it is a very safe haven.
On the final passage back to our homeport we experienced a whole span of wind directions as we passed by the various islands. Over exuberance washed the saloon windows but nothing fazed Lysander. She, and the remainder of the 345 fleets in Greece, are due to replaced by new fleets.
Our own flotilla crew, the little we saw of them as we tend to be more restless than others achieved the right balance. Of particular note was Anthony, the skipper, an Antipodean with a good sense of humour and more experience and skills than most of his age. His intro-ductory talk gave comfort to the novices and the offer of freedom to the more
experienced. It worked well in practice. At the end of the cruise, we all had nothing but praise for our fellow sailors and the crew.
We inspected Sailing Holidays recently-acquired Beneteau 361s. Admittedly larger than the 345s, they benefit from a wide range of improvements to keep up with clients' expectations, such as hot showers and extra ventilation but why is there still nowhere to put glasses down safely in the cockpit? However, Sailing Holidays is all for making its own improvements. We also checked out the Jaguar 27s, the original flotilla yachts used by Flotilla Sailing Club in the Ionian. Quite a few changes have been made
they are probably on their umpteenth interior refurbishment as they still looked in good fettle and I still stand by their choice.
Navigation in the Ionian is normally simple 'eyeball' except on hazy days. There are a few hazards to note, but anyone who has sailed a dinghy and uses common sense would not have any trouble. The
flotilla format covers the safety and engineering aspects (if any of the latter) but people tend to book flotillas for the social side. This flotilla comprised charters for two people, where 25 years ago six or seven people would have chartered the yachts. During school holidays however, up to 20 young people can be found on the larger yachts.
So, more than a quarter of a century on, it's a very different story. The main ingredients are still there, with a now perhaps Mediterranean rather than Greek emphasis the vastly improved food for example. But you do not go to Greece for the food. It was a wonderful fortnight crammed with memorable moments of good food alone, exhilarating sailing, swimming in warm balmy seas, relaxed conviviality in delightful anchorages and harbours with superb vistas of sun-dappled islands. And not a drop of rain in sight.
Our verdict? Yes, Greece still has its magic. Tim Stevens
his family sailed with the family-run Sailing Holidays, who have the best selection
of flotilla cruises in the Ionian Sea. They can be found at www.sailingholidays.com
or by calling 0208 459 8787. Sailing
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