First-day sightings of playful dolphins close to our boat may have been a message from sea-god Poseidon that a seven-day sail through the South Ionian islands on the north-west coast of Greece would be a smooth passage through gentle waters. There were few other vessels or tourists for company during a very early season visit.
The seven-day skippered bareboat charter aboard Globemaster, a beamy eight-berth Bénéteau Oceanis 473, along the beautiful jagged coastline of these islands took us past rugged mountains, some with low dense cloud clinging to them, and lush wooded lower slopes. Sunsail’s modern 90-boat marina at Vounaki was the start of the cruise after a flight to Prévéza airport.
Greece has 7,000 miles of coastline, more than any other European country. It has plentiful sheltered anchorages though some commercial and fishing harbours can be exposed to direct winds from several miles leaving moored boats pitching in the swell. Most crews travel quietly in the mornings and catch the moderate winds as they pick up in the afternoon before berthing stern-to for the night. Night sailing is unnecessary because distances between ports and islands are small.
The islands are verdant, more akin to southern Italy than the bright Aegean area, with hot-climate plants such as cactus thriving beside forests with a rich mix of trees that would not look out of place in northern Europe’s slopes on good soils churned by volcanic activity. Visitors can watch roving goats and sheep on the hillsides close to quiet villages of whitewashed and brown-roofed houses, some with Venetian architectural influences, and all blending with sandy beaches and pebbly coves.
With few marinas, mooring costs are very low though boats need to be self-sufficient in electricity and may need to top up tanks with the help of a “water man”. Navigation is mainly line-of-sight with little buoyage, no tides and magnetic variation of about 3 degrees.
For a large yacht, some harbours can be tricky. The helmsman can find the bows nudging the sand on the seabed or even be forced to abandon an initial approach, as we did in our search for a mooring at Sámi. We discovered a few boat-lengths into an inviting channel that the marina on our starboard side was too narrow and shallow to manoeuvre in although other yachts had made it further and local wooden caiques bobbed comfortably on their mooring lines. Eventually we found a mooring in the main harbour, past a Greek naval vessel and a floating crane where divers worked to repair earthquake damage to the quay. The coffee stop gave a chance for a stroll along a cliff-top road surrounded by fine houses, wild flowers, lemon groves and vines.
Our route of about 170 miles took us to Levkas, a mountainous island of dense groves separated from the mainland by a near straight three-mile canal; Kefallínia, the largest island in the group; small and rugged Itháca; Kálamos and Meganissi. First stop was at Sivota, passing Skorpidhi, once the home of the Onassis family and now for sale, then Vasilikí, a fishing village which is one of Europe’s best windsurfing locations, before reaching Fiskárdho, the only town on Kefallínia to survive the 1953 earthquake.
The approach is dramatic, with ruined Norman towers and lighthouses leading the way with a backdrop of Mt Enos (1,520m) this island gives a sense of isolation once away from the villages, with fir forests, olive and lemon groves, currant and grape vinyards and Robola grapes growing in small walled gardens. We visited Agía Eufimia, on the east coast, before our stop at Sámi.
The next island stops were on Odysseus’s mythical home of Ithica, at Váthi and Kioni, then on to the green mountains and deep emerald bays of Fríkes with tiny harbours and creeks on the way. Meganissi’s port of Váthi huddles round an indented bay of winding roads and tavernas.
In the next bay to the west is Spartakhori where an uphill walk to the whitewashed town is rewarded with extensive views over the Ionian and a glimpse of traditional village life. An elderly woman is said to sometimes entertain visiting flotilla crews here by dancing with a wooden table on her head.
The rural lifestyle continues among olive and cypress trees reflected in clear waters and the strait between Meganissi and Levkas is one of the loveliest channels in the region.
Heading north-east we travelled up the Levkas canal to Levkas Town, the island’s capital set on a headland of a salt lagoon with a busy marina and large swing bridge at its head. The town has interesting backstreets and in the main square a 17th century church with rare metal towers.
From here a challenging sail to Préveza, a commercial port and typical Greek town, gave a taste of its buzzing bar life in the evening before the return to base via Palairos, just beating an electric storm that had threatened to break hallfway through the week.
One of the delights of the trip was the low-cost dining at tavernas with shared starters of tzatziki, taramasalata, aubergine or feta salads, small fried fishes, kalamaris and beans in tomato sauce then main courses of souvlaki, stifado, kebabs, or pastitsio. Baklava pastries or a souflé to follow.
The area is ideal for cruising at a leisurely pace and in the uncrowded second week of the season was a challenging open sea for our mixed ability crew. The elderly Greek men we watched launching a restored traditional caique in a scene that could have come from Last of the Summer Wine probably found our attempts at mooring in the swell equally amusing, but they and us were making good use of GMT - Greek Maybe Time – to follow our leisure pursuits.
Simon Greaves is FT.com’s yachting correspondent
Reading: Ionian, by Rod Heikell, 5th edition, Imray; Greek Waters Pilot, Rod Heikell, Imray.
Sunsail is offering bareboat charters in the Ionian this July on an Oceanis 473 for seven days. Sleeping upm to eight people their offer costs £665 a person, including flights and transfers. www.sunsail.com