The sun sets over Santorini. Photo: Getty Images
Sailing the Aegean Sea, Susan Bredow finds beauty in the simple things.
The Greeks took to boats for practical reasons. To get to almost all of Greece's thousands of islands, the only way to go is by sea. But there is no better way to admire this country than from the water.
No Greek island is the same and there are no bad Greek islands. On this recommendation from a friend who has sailed the Aegean Sea for seven seasons, we start at Aegina near Athens and hop between a dozen islands to Rhodes.
Tony's Tavern, Nisyros. Photo: Getty Images
For two weeks we live a dream that exceeds all expectations. We float on a sea of the most beautiful cobalt blue past bays the colour of bright turquoise.
Wherever we go the locals are warm and generous hosts serving fresh, tasty food, the secret of which seems to be sticking to recipes that have worked well for at least 1000 years. With every meal there is something free; a dessert, a liqueur, an extra main course, another bottle of wine. There are many surprises - all good. In a country known for its many cats, we find a parrot that meows.
The sailing is an occupation in itself, but there is plenty to see and do on each island. There are magnificent ruins, a still-smoking volcanic crater, well-made nature hiking trails, and stone villages reduced to rubble by earthquake and abandoned. On scooters and in little cars rented for about $25 a day, we tootle around to picnic at deserted beaches. A cliffside staircase leads to a stunning Byzantine monastery and we venture across a rocky plain to the place purported to be Homer's grave.
A seafood grill on Santorini. Photo: Getty Images
For the first days aboard our Bavaria 49, a big comfortable yacht commonly used for charter in the Aegean, we rely on Alex, our Greek-based Italian skipper, to show us the ropes.
Although it is late September and no longer the high season, Aegina's little harbour is packed. During summer it's not always possible to get a berth in popular harbours, which means anchoring in the nearest safe bay and coming ashore by dinghy. Being tied stern-first on a town dock provides a ringside seat to life ashore and easy access to the local tavernas and markets. At most ports, for about $15 a night we connect to power and water.
At Aegina, a short ferry ride from Athens, daytrippers stream off the wharf onto the main street lined with the crumbling facades of Venetian mansions. We swim at the local beach and loll on sun lounges. At €5 ($6.50) for the afternoon, it's a comfortable position from which to watch the world pass by in its swimming costume.
Skipper Alex leads away from the busy tourist strip to a back-street taverna where we share a Greek salad, plates of fried and grilled calamari, and little sardine-like fish called gavros.
Under the tables, the local cats are fed by diners faced with plates laden with food so good they don't want to be seen to have not savoured every last bit.
We have set a schedule and in the morning sail to Poros keeping the Peloponnese peninsula to starboard. We pass through a school of gavros and one lands on our deck. The wind is directly behind and pushes us along at just less than seven knots.
From the water, the land has an ever-changing profile, rocky and rugged in greys and browns with muted-sage greens. Copses of ever-willing eucalypts cling to shores. Dust-dry junipers are buried between the rocks.
The colours change as we approach Poros, a hillside town of small buildings in the softest pastels, watched over by a pale blue clock tower. The hill is worth the climb up whitewashed steps for the view, and for attractive boutiques found along the way.
Once safely tied up, it is a spectator sport for settled crews to watch other boats come in. The trick to mooring stern-first is to make sure the anchor is dropped in the right place, and that it goes down in front of your boat without running across anyone else's anchor line. We watch, pleased that the worst we manage is to drop the anchor too soon and run out of chain before we arrive at the dock.
At 7.30 each evening, the smell of the sea is overridden by the smell of grills warming. It's the same smell everywhere and fires up thoughts of where to eat. But not before 8pm, which is when the locals start coming out. We eat meze - small plates of fish, calamari, stuffed eggplant, fried shrimp and tender pork ribs - and Greek salad.
On weekends, Poros is a party town and the music stops at 3am. At 5am the carousers still finding their way home meet the early risers starting the day. It's time to lie looking up through an open hatch at the stars decorating the black sky.
We cast off early for Hydra knowing that competition for a place in the tiny horseshoe-shaped harbour is intense. On the way we stop at a perfect turquoise-coloured bay behind a tiny islet off the tip of the island of Spathi.
We squeeze into Hydra and sit on deck watching donkeys trot past loaded with all manner of goods, including televisions, fridges and large mattresses. There are no cars on Hydra. There's no charge for us to berth here but there is no water or power, either.
Away from the harbour, tiny laneways overhung with wisteria and bougainvillea provide shade. Around the corner from the harbour is a swimming beach, and when the sun has gone down we head to the museum, which has much on Hydra's involvement in the Greek war of independence.
But Alex has caught wind of a more current struggle on the island. A few days earlier locals tried to prevent from landing police sent from Athens to pursue a local restaurateur accused of avoiding taxes.
Alex leaves us in Hydra and we head off early for our longest day at sea, an 8½-hour passage to Serifos.
The winds are favourable, and under sail we average a little more than seven knots. Sailing as we are from island to island feels like we are flowing with nature while remaining in control of our destination. Eventually the whitewashed town of Hora, clinging to a mountaintop, comes into view.
As is typical in most harbours, there is a relaxed, friendly atmosphere among the international community of sailors at the town berth. We share stories with Poles, Swedes, French, Germans and an American war veteran who is alone on a charter yacht. The sun sets, leaving its light a little longer on the pristine hillside town we will climb to for breakfast.
At our next port, Sifnos, we take our first rest day and rent a car to drive around the island. The old capital, Kastro, is navigated only on foot via vertiginously steep steps.
The island of Ios is famous for crowds of partying young people who are over the hill from the harbour at Mylopotas Beach. We have washing, which for less than $25 we arrange to have picked up at the boat and delivered back fresh and clean a couple of hours later. The rental car guy tells us how to do that.
Ios has an excellent archaeological site, which gives insight into life in the prehistoric city of Skarkos.
The bareboat sailors' bible, the Greek Waters Pilot, tells us the marina at Santorini is badly silted. Its maximum depth is 1.8 metres and we draw 2.5 metres. As there is no safe alternative, we cannot sail there.
We catch a ferry across and stay with friends in their apartment built deep into the hillside and overlooking the whitewashed, blue-roofed houses down to the ocean-filled volcanic crater below. It's like being on the cover of a perfect travel brochure.
Not far away, Santorini's main town of Thira is crowded and touristy and given the quiet, almost rustic feeling we have after almost a week on our boat, we feel a little overwhelmed.
Also in Santorini we meet up with a family who are to join us for the remainder of the trip. We update our crew list with the local coast patrol in Ios and cast off for Amorgos.
Here the moon we have been watching grow each night is full and we sing, "when the moon's in the sky like a big pizza pie, that's Amorgos", though not as well as Dean Martin might have.
Amorgos's simple harbour disguises great beauty beyond. Best is the Monastery of Hozoviotissa, built into a sheer cliff in the 7th century by monks from Palestine. After the long steep climb to the top we are rewarded with a glass of raki. On Amorgos, the usually sharp-tasting raki is sweetened with honey and flavoured with cinnamon.
We buy a bottle as we pass back through the pretty town.
Astypalea is shaped like a butterfly, and its rugged coastline once sheltered pirates who raided passing ships. The town harbour is closed for renovations so we tie up at a nearby commercial wharf and dine at a taverna on the beach, our chairs sinking into the sand.
At the top of the hill are seven renovated ancient windmills and a crumbling Venetian castle with a Greek church built in the middle. This island is rare in that it has an airport and is a favourite among holidaying Athenians.
Dolphins welcome us to Nisyros, which has a giant volcanic crater. Visitors clamber down into its hot sulphurous centre. Our next island, Symi, has pretty coloured houses as a reminder of the Venetians who once built ships here.
Each morning, ferries disgorge tourists on day trips from nearby Rhodes. They are gone before sundown and, soon after, the heat goes. We settle in to enjoy the peace and the beauty.
In Rhodes, we climb about the walled old city next to the harbour and drive to the ruins at Lindos, 50 kilometres down the coast.
Reluctantly our odyssey ends here. A dirty harbour, our first less-than-extraordinary meal, and the sounds of sirens signal it is time to re-enter everyday life.
We are reassured, though, that our friend's observation of there being no bad Greek islands is accurate. But we will come back to check some more islands, just to be sure.
1. There are many yacht charterers in Greece so shop around. Prices depend on the season, and there are good deals to be had in such a competitive environment.
2. Research each island before you arrive. You may only be there overnight so you want to make the most of everything it has to offer without wasting time.
3. Restaurants in guide books are often crowded and not necessarily the best. Talk to locals and follow your nose.
4. Mooring Aegean-style (rear to dock) can lead to crossed anchor lines and short tempers, but don't panic. This is a common occurrence and easily fixed if you stay calm.
5. In high season, small island harbours are packed. Plan to arrive about noon, when yachts are leaving, or be prepared to find safe anchorage outside and row to shore. Always have a plan B — before you get there.
Getting there Emirates has a fare to Athens for about $1985 low-season return from Sydney and Melbourne including taxes. Fly to Dubai (about 14hr) and then to Athens (5hr 25min); see emirates.com. This fare allows you to fly via another Asian city and back from another European city. Australians do not require a visa for tourism for a stay of up to 90 days in a six-month period in the Schengen states.
Sailing there Charterers need an internationally approved skipper's licence to rent a yacht in the Aegean Sea. Some yacht charter companies also require a second crew member to declare their sailing competence.
Depending on the size of yacht, time of year and pick-up/drop-off point, bareboat yacht charters start at about $750 a week. High season is July 21-August 24.
A skipper costs about $190 a day plus meals and, if necessary, the return fare to base. Most charter companies can recommend a skipper.