The scent of pines drifting across the wine-dark sea; the odour of grilled octopus rising from the quayside at Siros. Travelling the Greek islands by ferry can't be matched,writes Marc Dubin, in the first part of our series about modes of transport round the world
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The Independent Culture
IT WAS an episode worthy of Odysseus on a bad day. On my first traumatic voyage round the Greek islands in 1978, I'd managed to get myself to the island of Paros without incident. Then, leaving on what I thought to be the 3pm ferry for neighbouring Naxos, I discovered I'd boarded the 2.45 for Piraeus by mistake - non-stop. Three Scandinavian girls had made the same mistake, and the three of us watched helplessly as the proper boat sailed by; they, and very nearly I, burst into tears at the realisation.

But chivalry, of a sort, was (and is) not dead in Greece; the ticket collector had pity on the sobbing girls, and they sailed on to Piraeus free of charge. I fumed, and had to pay up. We joined forces and shared a room in a creaky, backstreet hotel that night, leaving as early as possible next morning to escape the bedbugs. We took the first boat out - to anywhere - which meant Siros, and a long, boring layover before taking a midnight ferry to more interesting isles.

We were wrong to misjudge Siros in this way. Its port town, Ermoupolis, proved an elegant surprise - it is now a UNESCO heritage site - and a day at the beach passed quickly. At a dockside cafe, I had a drink with the owner of a truck full of island cattle, being shipped further down the archipelago. I spent another sleepless night curled up on deck in a sleeping bag, but at least the air was fresh - which is more than can be said for most stuffy ferry cabins, invariably shared with snoring, dirty-socked strangers. I watched the sunrise on Folegandros, with no proper jetty in sight, and was rowed ashore in an 8ft fishing boat shared with an enormous refrigerator that threatened to capsize us.

Ferries are an integral part of Greek travel, since only Indonesia and the Philippines have a higher proportion of their territory as islands. Greece's extensive network provides vital civic glue between the 100-plus inhabited islands and the two dozen mainland ports serving them. Journeys range from the three-minute blink of an eye between Galatas (in the Peloponnese) and Poros, to the 28-hour marathon from Piraeus to Kastellorizo, the country's most south-eastern outpost. My Paros misadventure would now be hard to repeat; gone are the days when three rival boats showed up within an hour, with nothing else going in the same direction for the rest of the week.

Many Greek ferries are Scandinavian fjord-cutters or English Channel- crossers, put out to pasture in the Aegean. Their former names and registries are imperfectly painted over, their safety instructions in French, Danish or English never removed. These craft seem slightly down-at-heel by day, with painters struggling to hide the rust stains around the anchor slits, but by night they are magically transformed into stately lightning bugs that materialise suddenly at the harbour entrance, fresh out of an Art Deco poster advertising transatlantic travel.

An altogether stranger transplant are the Soviet-built hydrofoils, Jules Verne contraptions resembling praying mantises on fire as they rear up on their twin pontoons and trail a diesel plume. Though twice as fast - and twice as pricey - as conventional ferries, they were originally designed to cruise the placid Volga and the Don in Russia, not the choppy Aegean. Even in the best of circumstances they are incapable of overnight journeys, though their twirling roof beacons suggest they might be.

I now live part of the year on the east Aegean island of Samos, an 11- to-13-hour journey from Piraeus depending on the boat and the number of halts at smaller, intervening islands. It's a fairly representative itinerary, with a mix of daytime and overnight departures. Samos is served by three domestic shipping lines, G&A, Agapitos, and Arkadhia - just a few of the two dozen or so companies plying Greek waters.

Since it is often the first stop out of Piraeus on G&A's route, I still see a fair bit of Siros; the distinctive odour of grilling octopus wafts up to meet those crowded at the stern rail, surveying the Ermoupolis quayside. Sellers of halvadhopita - a sweetmeat sandwiched between two pastry discs the consistency of communion wafers - storm the boat and sell off their wares before departure. The dairy cattle, surprisingly numerous on such a bare island, are still there too, pissing either out of fear or stubbornness.

More decorum prevails on the dock of Tinos, home to a pilgrimage shrine that makes it the Lourdes of Greece. In past decades of small, slow, non- nocturnal ferries, Tinos was about as far as a boat could travel in a day from either Samos or Piraeus. Samian friends remember the crew of the Kolokotronis (Greek revolutionary heroes were for a long time in vogue for ship names) deliberately scheduling an overnight stay here, rather than at nearby Mikonos, so passengers could troop ashore and pray at leisure. Now calls are prosaically brief, as in any other port. At Mikonos - as well as Paros and Naxos beyond - the dockside mayhem is not of the picturesque Siros variety; touts besiege disembarking passengers with glossy photo albums and placards depicting accommodation of every sort, enticing them with mini-vans or trike-trucks ready to transport luggage.

Beyond Mikonos and Naxos sprawls (more accurately, heaves) the Ikario Pelagos, or Ikarian Sea, the roughest patch of the central Aegean. Once the wind reaches Force 8, sailings in any direction are cancelled by law. The bad news is announced by the limenarhio, the port police station found in every significant port. Nobody would choose to be on a ferry in such extreme conditions anyway - even Force 6 has a number of passengers leaning over the railings, feeding the fish. In the calmest of weathers, the galley food is unlikely to appeal: grey, gristly, overcooked, overpriced "snitsel" (sic) and pork chops predominate, though the ferries to Crete are an honourable exception.

Heading east past Ikaria, the wind slackens slightly in the shelter of Asia Minor, though neither of the island's harbours is adequately protected; people body-surf (and occasionally drown) at Armenistis on the north coast. One July, the mooring rope of the Agapitos ferry broke with the noise of a hundred gunshots; fortunately, spares are always kept to hand.

If the wind is from the south, I know we're approaching Samos when the scent of thousands of pines and herb bushes drifts over the mile of water as I scramble on deck for the sunset view of Mount Kerkis, all 4,500ft of it. It takes another hour, coasting along the north shore with its hillside villages, to cover the distance between Karlovassi and Vathi; the details on land - including my orange van parked next to the farm I rent - are easy to pick out.

Small islets to the south of Ikaria and Samos are a favourite haunt of hydrofoils, reassured perhaps by the relatively short distance between harbours. They also belong to the realm of the agoni grammi ("the unprofitable line") subsidised by the Ministry of Transport, which often dictates that a particular company serve these remote outposts if it wishes to capitalise on more lucrative routes. Passengers bound for Samos paradoxically see more of Dhonoussa (between Naxos and Ikaria) from October to April, when the service is stretched by most craft being in drydock; it is a small, well-tended, roadless mini-Cyclades, high on my list of places to disembark. Fourni, between Ikaria and Samos, was once an occasional duty-stop for the big boats, but no longer: increased tourism, a proper jetty and the bounty of a large fishing fleet have put it on Samos-bound schedules several times a week in season.

Until the quite recent influx of EU funds, proper deep-water docks were not something to be relied on except at the larger and more populous islands. Standard practice was for the liner to anchor at a safe distance, while small launches shuttled passengers and goods to and fro. Whenever there was any kind of swell running, this was a precarious exercise; I have several times leapt unaided out of a ferry's waterline side-door, where a split second can make the difference between a safe foothold on the launch gunwale and an unceremonious bath.

A few such jetty-less islets still exist, though their number is diminishing yearly. Arki in the Dodecanese (population 39) is only a discretional stop heading south out of Samos on the Nissos Kalimnos, lifeline of the smaller Dodecanese. When I told the captain of my intention to alight, he looked me up and down to assess how serious (or sane) I was; islands like Arki were places of exile under the repressive regimes of the past, not holiday destinations. Satisfied, the captain tooted the ship's horn to summon the islanders' launch, which then barrelled towards us from where it had been waiting inshore, engines idling.

The term "horns" trivialises them; their impact, accompanied by a dropping anchor chain, is awesome - especially at 4am when the sound reverberates off the walls of some fjord-like limestone inlet invisible in the dark. Ferries are surprisingly noisy beasts, even from the shore; the thrum- thrum-thrum of their engines, filtered up through hundreds of metres of volcanic cliff to my troglodyte pension on Santorini, first intruded on my sleep back in 1978. Today, the hulls of G&A's fleet (made in Taiwan) transmit that sound so distinctively that I don't have to look up to know one is passing.

Dhiafani on Karpathos, at the other end of the Dodecanese chain, is the last major port of call where ferries must still "heave to" offshore, rather than docking, though a fully equipped harbour is approaching completion. Small-boat transfers, normal in the not-so-distant past, help explain the yellow chits marked "Porterage Dues" or "Harbour Workers Union Fund" attached to tickets today - even when no porters are to be seen. They can be found in the port cafe, drinking away their retirement.

The agones grammes received more than their fair share of dubious vessels, incapable of performing up to standard on more contested routes. The late and unlamented Cyclades, with its hopelessly ambitious schedule from Kavala to Piraeus via seemingly every isle in between, was nicknamed the fantasma (phantom) because it appeared on schedules, but never in reality at the appointed hour. But the most legendary ship of fools was the 1950s-vintage Miaoulis (named after another revolutionary hero) with its notoriously ill-tempered captain, whose motto must have been "Abuse women and children first". He was an incompetent skipper to boot; in 1979 the Miaoulis rammed the dock on the approach to Astipalea, slicing a great V-shaped wound on the bow just above the waterline. The local welder was summoned, and was lowered by ropes from the deck to make good the damage; ever after, until its decommissioning in the mid-1980s, the Miaoulis chugged about with a ragged, rusty smile that was never painted over.

And what becomes of Greek ferries when they become too decrepit, even by the standards of their thrifty owners? In an extension of the hand- me-down strategy by which most arrived in the Aegean, they may be sold to less developed countries with urgent passenger loads: the Alkyon, for instance, ended up in Lebanon, transporting refugees. A few are run aground or otherwise scuttled for their insurance salvage value. Yet the days of recycled, recyclable Greek ferryboats may soon be over. As of 1997, the local monopoly on Aegean sea journeys ceases, and Greek shipping lines will (in theory) have to compete against overseas companies newly entitled to operate in Greece.

Given the cut-throat ethics of the trade, such a venture seems foolhardy. Upstart entrepreneurs would risk the maritime equivalent of slashed tyres, or worse. With the threat of even notional competition, expect more purpose- built ferries from the Far East, creative routings, better food (maybe), and increased fares as government price controls and subsidies are phased out. Greek ferry travel may then have "arrived", but there will still be a few nostalgics like myself. We will remember - with fondness - island- hopping on barely seaworthy, pirate rustbuckets, and transfers ashore that were reason enough to light a candle in the nearest chapel of Saint Nicholas, patron saint of seafarers.

OVERLEAF, a guide to other holidays in

Greece, and on page 69, boating breaks