The best way to explore Ithaca, birthplace of Odysseus, is by boat. So when Jack Barker and his brood arrived at their island villa they eschewed a hire car and took to the water

Floating free, and conscious of the polite attention of a scatter of early lunchers from the waterfront restaurants, I nervously selected a very low speed, narrowly missed the edge of the pontoon and puttered out of port.

Rental cars might be convenient, but they're rarely fun. A boat, on the other hand, is entertaining and also eminently practical as daily transport around many Greek islands; in a culture that has, for so long, depended on ferries and fishermen, most shops and restaurants still cluster round small ports. Besides, a boat is by far the easiest way to track down a small deserted beach.

By definition, small deserted beaches don't have audiences to watch your landing, which soon turned out to be a good thing. We rounded the nearest headland and approached a small and not very sheltered strip of shingle with an old boat rotting, picturesquely I thought, in the shallows. The idea is to fling an anchor off the stern but it took me so long to work out how to open up the anchor's teeth I threw it out late. I'd also overcautiously stopped the engine too early, so the boat drifted to a halt so far offshore that when I jumped off I practically disappeared into the sea. Finally I splashed to shore to find featureless shingle and not even a weed to tie the boat to.

Wilf tried to climb over the side to join me and Nicky looked on with stony disapproval. I clambered back onboard and tried again, eventually parking up by a large rotting fish and a thicket of sea urchins. As part of her family education programme, Nicky found a stick and speared an urchin so we could all, rather soberly, examine its sturdy spines. It wasn't too long before we motored our way, cautiously, home.

Home was Hilltop House on Ithaca, with views across the Ionian Sea to the misty mountains of mainland Greece. With the walls of abandoned, ruined buildings on every side, it had something of the atmosphere of an archaeological site, but the villa itself was high ceilinged and airy, with polished floors and a library of books that blended holiday reading and timeless classics: Flann O'Brien's The Third Policeman stacked next to Gavin Lyall's Venus with a Pistol.

It also had a sunny pool, where Lucy could be distracted for hours by throwing a coin into the deep end while Wilf discovered first how to drown and then, with armbands, the delights of swimming and breathing at the same time. Despite its name, the villa wasn't too far above the action: it was a short walk down (though a longer walk back) to the small harbour of Kioni, where our boat was moored.

Day two and the Ithacans were complaining about the heat. Fresh from a wet and windy British May I did not feel sympathetic. Approaching my dinghy with complete confidence I headed out to sea and, once the engine had wound the mooring line around its propeller, stopped.

Blessedly distant from Georgos or any audience, we paddled, as if on purpose, to a floating platform where fishermen's nets were piled out to dry. While Wilf, Nicky and Lucy jumped off into clear, urchin-free waters, I dived off the back and freed the propeller.

Ithaca's capital village, Vathi, would have been an hour's drive by one of the ancient Mercedes taxis that wend their leisurely way along the narrow island lanes. Once our propeller was free it took us 25 minutes, surging across glassy waters with Lucy the six-year-old delighted to steer. We even parked with confidence, dropping anchor on time and neatly reaching the dock.

Leaving our bags on board we strolled like yachties around the regional shops. We found a butcher who minced beef and had just two chickens, so we bought the one that didn't look like road-kill. There was a museum, where Lucy wondered at plastic models wearing peasant clothes and wedding dresses, and we browsed a hardware stall selling an imaginative range of plastic and metal fishing lures that nearly hooked Wilf and did hook me. I bought two.

At 2pm shutters rolled down all around town so we settled for a long Greek lunch of prawns the size of telephones and cool local wines refreshingly free of the once-distinctive taste of retsina. On the way back to the boat we bought ice creams served on sticks. We piled onboard with our shopping and headed back, surging along at 25 horsepower, to home and pool.

The boat became a key part of our island experience. It allowed us to explore an uninhabited island where an unlocked church was rich with the atmospheric icons of the Greek Orthodox religion. It took us around to the bay of Frikes, a charming little port with fish being sold fresh off the boats on one side and a few yachts moored on the other. (In the winter, when the population drops to about 12, the locals jokingly call the town Freakey, and there was certainly something strange about our first mooring here, on a brand-new pontoon being built from the sea towards, but not yet reaching, land.)

The boat also helped us to find the beach of Loutas. Here a single local bar was set between the rocks where local fishermen hooked their lunch and a beach with enough sand for infants (wearing baseball caps with long neck-shades) to build castles in their shallows while their parents set up watchful camps a few yards inland.

The fact that Ithaca's beaches are almost all stony, rocky and urchin-infested is one thing that has protected its easy, unspoilt nature. Ithaca is naturally beautiful, if you're a goat. The island juts sheer from the Ionian Sea in two mountainous land masses, linked by a narrow neck of land. Although it's one of Greece's greenest islands every surface is steep and rocky. A mere scatter of olive groves hangs on to ancient stone terraces and a very few roads are narrowly pinned to precipitous slopes.

Ithaca's major claim to fame is as the island where Odysseus was born. His 20-year odyssey was structured around his determined attempt to return. There is little archaeological evidence of his existence yet The Iliad's fame alone is enough to spark interest. But not mass tourism: lacking the sort of sandy beaches that ring some of Greece's less mountainous islands, Ithaca remains free of summer hordes.

The island's more recent history was largely swept away by an earthquake in 1953, which destroyed almost all the buildings and scattered the population to the four corners of the world. Today's houses are small and built in character, with just a handful of villages hooked into highland clefts or elegantly draped around one of the many natural harbours.

Well off the cheap flights route, the island is complicated to reach: we arrived at our villa via a chain of coach, caique (local boat) and taxi. It retains an intrinsic friendliness, smoothed by a veneer of sophistication which is provided by the steady trickle of Ithacans returning, much like Odysseus, after a generation spent abroad.

Once you get to Ithaca, use of a boat is certainly a bonus. But not essential, as we discovered on our last two days when the early spring heatwave broke into a stormy, hot wind. Georgos folded back the boat's sun shade and advised against travelling too far. Lucy paddled in the shallows with Georgos's three-year-old daughter Alexandra, and Wilf became very excited watching fish from the dock. I perfected my fishing - though not to the extent of catching any fish - and we divided our time between the harbour restaurants and bars. We also made the most of our villa, where Lucy built a series of camps out of towels and sunbeds and we watched yachts tipping steeply in the choppy waters far below.

Lucy certainly appreciated the chance to drive our boat. Now, however, she finds it hard to understand why, at six, she can't borrow the car.

Jack Barker travelled as a guest of Greek Islands Club (020-8232 9780;, whose holidays in Hilltop House range from £510 per person per week, based on four sharing, including flights and transfers, rising to £765 in peak season. The company can arrange boat hire, which should definitely be booked in advance, from £156 per week depending on season and engine size