Looking for a Greek idyll

Sailing: Steve Crawshaw fails to find the Greece he's seen in the movies, but it's a great escape.

Things did not ­ let us be frank ­ get off to a perfect start. In my mind, I had convinced myself that a sailing holiday in Greece would be an unblemished idyll.

Things did not ­ let us be frank ­ get off to a perfect start. In my mind, I had convinced myself that a sailing holiday in Greece would be an unblemished idyll.

In the past, as I watched pristine white yachts glide gently into port, I had been consumed with envy. A holiday on a yacht in the Mediterranean would, I felt sure, make it possible at last to get a taste of the easygoing elegance of The Talented Mr Ripley, Chet Baker soundtrack and all (though preferably without the dead bodies). The planned itinerary for our holiday was around the coasts of Cephalonia and Ithaca, the islands of Captain Corelli and Odysseus respectively, which reinforced the mythic expectations.

When reality kicked in, it was rather more earthbound. Our first day on the water began with a tangled anchor, and we found ourselves humiliatingly marooned in the middle of the harbour for what felt like an eternity. Then, before we had jettisoned our sailors' L-plates, we were reminded of the admittedly unsurprising fact that if you go sailing it is possible that you may encounter Real Wind, perhaps even a Brisk Wind.

Our first onboard picnic ­ what became the daily diet of tomato, feta, and olives, sprinkled with oregano, drenched in olive oil and accompanied by a glass of chilled retsina; in short, pure bliss ­ was abandoned in a chaotic hurry when the sea became alarmingly rough, at a time when we were far from confident that Lady Pisiou (our boat's name was interestingly chosen) was under our control.

Then came the navigation problems, when we found that the number of specks of rock that we could see from the boat was greater than the number marked on the navigation chart, which left us confused as to where we might be. Winding down a window to ask the way did not seem a practical option.

Finally, and most crucially, there was the small matter of how to haul up the mainsail properly. Despite our best efforts, the sail remained gathered in crumpled confusion some way from the top of the mast, and refused to move a millimetre further. It looked wrong, and flapped wronger. Apart from acknowledging our own joint ignorance ­ accompanied by an energetic dialogue between the two co-skippers as to who had done what wrong ­ we both realised that we had no idea what to do, as we limped towards the port where we were due to meet up for a taverna evening meal with the rest of the flotilla.

All told, it was an exhausting experience. A few more days like that, and phone calls to divorce lawyers would probably have figured high on the agenda. Only an early visit to our boat by Nick, the unfazable flotilla skipper, helped to restore a semblance of calm below and above decks.

After inspecting shackles and halyards, Nick, an ex-army officer with a piratically tangled red beard, pronounced that the boat had been handed over to us wrongly rigged. Gloriously, therefore, it was not our fault. After the requisite changes, the sail glided without resistance to the top of the mast. Our other crises were soon forgotten, too.

Navigation became easier when I made a more concentrated effort not to confuse landmark A with landmark B. A generous wind and a sharply tilting boat came to seem a source of pleasure not alarm. By the end of the second day, it was clear that a flotilla holiday could indeed be a way to relax, even for almost-beginners.

I had sailed dinghies as a teenager; my partner had sailed on a yacht in the Baltic Sea; more recently, we had jointly crewed on a yacht in Poland's Mazurian lake district. But neither of us had taken responsibility for a boat before. Even after a two-day skippering course during the first week of the holiday ­ in a Club Med-style holiday village on the island of Levkas, north of Cephalonia ­ we felt less than confident. (And I'm still not sure if the man-overboard practice was intended to instill confidence or fear.)

In the circumstances, there was, on the one hand, the comforting omniscience of Nick and his team, and on the other hand, the all-important radio. In the event, Lady Pisiou's radio was only used for boat-to-boat teenage chat, and for arranging the unmissable lunch-and-swim rendezvous with friends. But it was comforting to know that it was there, in case of ignorant customer-careline questions and genuine emergencies alike.

Most of those in the flotilla were in the same boat (as it were). Indeed, the only yacht crew who eagerly boasted of their extensive experience were also the ones who managed (a) to drop anchor into their rubber dinghy instead of dropping it into the water while mooring, the definitive idiot's action, which we had repeatedly been warned against, and (b) to foul other people's anchors because, unlike the rest of us ignoramuses, they did not need to follow anybody's instructions when mooring. (For some reason, can't think why, the word Schadenfreude comes to mind.)

The destinations varied. Sometimes, we were moored in an empty bay ­ moon, stars, barbecue, and us. Sometimes we spent the night in busy little ports ­ like Fiskardo, the picture-postcard charming little fishing town on the northern tip of Cephalonia. The Venetian lighthouse at the harbour entrance is a reminder of the different rulers, from Normans and Turks through to the English, who passed through Cephalonia until the union with Greece in 1864. There is a reminder of more recent occupations, too, in the massed copies of Captain Corelli's Mandolin which, in a clutch of different languages, weigh down every bookstand.

In Fiskardo, the brightly painted fishing boats jostle alongside expensive yachts; and the magnificence of the grilled fish served in the quayside tavernas is matched only by the magnificence of the distinctly un-Greek prices. Stories about Steven Spielberg and friends dining here may have been apocryphal, but in Fiskardo, they seemed believable.

The high prices are a reminder of the extent to which Cephalonia ­ once "a half-forgotten island which rises improvidently and inadvisedly from the Ionian Sea", in the words of Iannis, Captain Corelli's doctor-cum-historian ­ has recovered from the devastating earthquake of 1953. The earthquake destroyed 90 per cent of Cephalonia's buildings, and triggered huge emigration. Now, the success of Louis de Bernieres' novel has helped to turn the trickle of visitors in recent years into a flood. The release of the film will no doubt encourage yet more crowds to visit Cephalonia, where "the light is like mother-of-pearl" and where "the island smells of pines, warm earth, and the dark sea".

Even now, some corners of this part of the Ionian Sea remain undisturbed.

For our one night off the comforting but restrictive flotilla leash, we stopped off the coast of little Ithaca, to the east of big-brother Cephalonia, in glorious solitude. Despite the island's rugged charm and Odyssean fame, mass tourism is non-existent here. A long breakfast under the trees in the dreamily quiet, gleaming-white port of Kioni becomes the perfect antidote to the frenetic buzz of Fiskardo. After endlessly prolonged coffees, we sail across to the tiny island of Atokos ­ where just a single fisherman's house overlooks the sheltered bay ­ for yet another swim. (As Byron is reported to have said, on a visit from Cephalonia to Ithaca: "Let's have a swim. I detest antiquarian twaddle.")

We then speed with the freshening winds north towards Levkas in the afternoon. In the words of Ionian, the guidebook bible which contains everything you could want to know about cruising in this part of the world, and a little bit more: "The wind gets up at midday, blows through the afternoon, and dies at night. A perfect gentleman's wind." And so it proved.

Holidays are about creating a perfect illusion: fenced-off tranquillity, untouched by the dimly remembered chaos of the life that has been left behind at home. If the holiday can hint at borrowed luxury ­ luxury under false pretences, so to speak ­ then so much the better. In that respect, a holiday on a yacht is perfect: the ultimate great escape. And, if you succeed in getting the mainsail up, it can even be quite restful, too.

Getting There

The summer season of charter flights began this month, which means it is relatively easy to reach most popular destinations from a range of UK airports ­ for more obscure places, Gatwick and Manchester are the most likely starting points. High Street travel agents can find charters and packages; on the internet, one of the best sources is www.thefirstresort.co.uk. For a charter to a Greek island the cost will be about £150-200 return, or more during the school summer holiday; to Paphos or Larnaca in Cyprus, and Dalaman or other Turkish airports, you can expect to pay around £25 more ­ partly because of the extra distance, partly because of higher Air Passenger Duty for non-EU countries.

 

Getting Around

Greece

The best source of information on water transport around Greece, plus connections to Cyprus, Turkey and other destinations in the Eastern Mediterranean, is Greek Island Hopping 2001 by Frewin Poffley (Thomas Cook, £12.99). Steve Crawshaw travelled with Sunsail Holidays, (023 9222 2222 www.sunsail.com). A one-week flotilla holidays in the Ionian Sea costs from £400 (based on six sharing in May) to £1,400 (based on two sharing in August); two-week holidays, with the first week spent at a beach club and the second week in a flotilla, vary from £500 (six sharing in May) to £1,600 (two sharing in August).

Kristina Ferris paid £986 for a family week at Sunrise Village with Argo Holidays (020-7331 7070, www.argo-holidays.com).

Cyprus

For more information contact Cyprus Tourist Office, 17 Hanover Street, London W1R 0AA (020-7569 8822; www.cyprustourism.org)

 

North Cyprus

All countries except Turkey regard the northern part of Cyprus as illegally occupied. There are three ways of entering the zone: by air or sea from Turkey, or across the Ledra Palace checkpoint in Nicosia (Lefkosa). The first two options are regarded as illegal points of entry; at the checkpoint in Nicosia, you can travel across only for a single day.

 

Turkey (Lycian coast)

Dalaman and Antalya airports are both within easy striking distance of the region. The nearest ferry crossing for mainstream island-hoppers from Greece is the daily hydrofoil service from Rhodes to Marmaris ­ although you can also enter Turkey from the lesser-known island of Kastellorizo, only 45 minutes from Kas. However you travel, you'll need £10 sterling to hand to buy a visa on arrival.

Linda Cookson travelled to Turkey with Tapestry Holidays (020-8235 7777, www.tapestryholidays.com), which offers a wide range of accommodation in the region, and particularly in Kalkan. A two-week stay for two people in a mid-range hotel or modest self-catering apartment in Kalkan, with flights and transfers included, costs £500-£700 per person.

For independent travellers, a good place to start in Kalkan is Pasha's Inn (00 90 242 844 3666), which is a small guest house owned by a 1970s Turkish rock star, situated bang in the centre of the old town, and which has a lovely roof-top terrace for breakfast and evening meals. Room prices are from £10-£14 per night, inclusive of breakfast, for two people sharing. In Kale the Mehtap Pension (00 90 242 874 2146) is positioned high on the hill overlooking the harbour.

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