THE DAY-TRIP to Hell was cancelled due to lack of interest. 'It's off,' said Thomas with a quick Hellenic shrug. 'No space for my bus on the ferry.'

Thomas, Paxos's Mr Fixit on holiday matters, never liked to admit he was beaten; his wife, Effy, later confided to me that there was plenty of space on the ferry: the problem was that Thomas couldn't find enough holidaymakers who wanted to pop over to Hell for the day.

The trip to Hell was an unnecessary distraction. So, as it turned out, was the rat in the wardrobe. Which turned out not to be a rat in the wardrobe but something much more terrifying.

I needed no distractions: I was on Paxos to learn how to sail. The problem was that, from where I stood, Hell beckoned.

Our villa was perched high on a cliff on the east coast of Paxos, with a grandstand view across to the Greek mainland, about 10 miles away. Directly opposite us, according to the map, almost permanently wreathed in a suitably mysterious mist, lay the river Styx - which, in Greek mythology, marked the edge of Hades: the Underworld. Only ghosts could cross the Styx, by paying Charon, the ferryman, to take them (for this reason, it was traditional in ancient Greece to place coins under corpses' tongues).

To be so close to Hell and not to be able to nip over for a quick look-see was a disappointment. On holidays, most day-trips are hell; a day-trip to Hell would have been quite a novelty. However, you couldn't blame people for not wanting to leave Paxos, even for a day-trip. If Hades is Hell, Paxos is at the other end of the spiritual spectrum. Just seven miles long by two and a half miles wide and with a population of 2,000, Paxos is a perfectly proportioned holiday place. There is no airport - the normal method of arrival is the daily two- hour ferry crossing from Corfu to the north - and few cars.

Wandering around Gaios, the main town, or the other fishing villages of Loggos or Lakka, you encounter the sort of Brits you run into at home in Waitrose or Ikea: earnest, cheerful, polite, chatty, cultural, enthusiastic - in short, probably a bit of a pain in the neck. One evening at a waterside taverna in Lakka, for example, an eight-year-old boy was loudly complaining about something to his Posy Simmonds parents: 'You can't force me to do that. I'm too sensitive.'

Bad behaviour on the island (by Brits or anybody else) is largely impossible because everybody knows what everybody else is up to. When my hire car got a puncture in Loggos, it was rapidly engulfed by a crowd from the nearby taverna - Brits and Paxiots - who had the new tyre on in the sort of time Alain Prost would expect from his mechanics. They also diagnosed a slow puncture in another tyre, a waiter dashed off for his foot- pump and in minutes the tyre had enough air to get us home.

When I walked into Effy's office in Gaios next morning (she and Thomas handle the car-hire franchise), she already knew about the flat tyres ('Somebody phoned me,' she explained). In fact, the whole of Gaios seemed agog ('Bad luck having two punctures like that,' said a stranger in the post office). Thomas came to our villa on his scooter with two tyres later that morning. I suggested it was a bit dangerous lugging the things around on the back of his scooter: 'Sometimes dangerous,' he admitted with rare candour. 'Sometimes they just pop off the back and roll away down the road. . . .'

Thomas was still brooding on the Hades question. 'I'm thinking of running the trip on Thursday. I'll let you know tonight,' he yelled over his shoulder as he put-putted off.

I WAS nervous: not so much about learning to sail, but about whom I'd be learning to sail with. Based on an extensive study of Howards' Way, I expected the sailing instructors to be young men with bleached hair and a testosterone overdose, keen on bedding the female clientele. I imagined the female clientele would be languid young, unattached Sloanes called Camilla and Zoe on holiday from their interior-design consultancies.

In fact, nearly half the instructors were female, and the majority of people in my beginner's group were over 45 and of mixed social backgrounds - not a design consultant in sight. So much for Howards' Way.

After a brief session at the blackboard explaining the theory of sailing (that theory in full: the wind blows, the boat moves), we beginners were each given a Topper boat and sent out into the bay to put this theory into practice. It might have been all right if the wind had blown consistently in one direction, but the wind kept shifting and my boat more or less went where the fancy took it.

It immediately blew straight into a large German yacht parked across the bay. Like a gnat striking a Rolls- Royce, my tiny plastic Topper pinged off the side of the massive hull - but this caused wholly disproportionate consternation on board. A woman dashed to inspect the site of the collision with as much alarm as if she had just observed a midget submarine attempting to sink the Bismarck. 'Sorry,' I said. 'You may be sorry, but you damage the boat, you know,' scolded the German lady.

I turned the boat around. It then flew right back across the bay and into a large rock in the carefully marked danger area next to the sailing school. 'You found the rock then,' observed the chief instructor drily as he pulled me back into the bay.

If the wind hadn't shifted, I might have whizzed straight back across the bay for Sink the Bismarck II (the Germans were by now out in force on deck - they probably already had me targeted with a domestic version of the Exocet missile).

But slowly (very, very slowly), the business of sailing began to make some sense. I have to be honest and admit that it was often hard work. Irritatingly, the boat would sit stranded, refusing to move in any direction: either because it was facing into the wind, or because there was no wind at all. In films, people lick their fingers and can tell instantly which way the wind is blowing. I licked my finger and all I could tell was that I had a wet finger.

The boat has a boom that is supposed to swing out to catch whatever breath of wind there is; all the boom ever did on my Topper was to swing out and bonk me on the head with a heavy clunk. 'Watch out for the boom,' observed the chief instructor drily (for such a wet job he displayed an extremely dry sense of humour).

Occasionally, there was too much wind. It would delight in whooshing up to catch you unawares, tipping you straight into the water. Once you had learnt capsize drill, this posed no problem beyond that of modest public embarrassment. Our little Topper group soon established an esprit de corps, united in incompetence and mutual sympathy for each other's numb bums (the result of sitting for hours on end on the hard plastic of the boat sides).

The bay at Lakka is wonderfully picturesque: at one end the harbour, at the other the open sea; on either side, high, wooded slopes. The sun shone endlessly, the water was warm and God was in His heaven.

Enthusiasm, however, was not boundless. 'What time is it, Frank?' one woman would ask every time our paths crossed on figure-of-eight trips around the buoys. When I told her, her face would fall: 'Oh Gawd]' she would moan in a Gloucestershire burr. Her husband said he wanted to learn to sail because he was fed up with lying on a beach. Stuck in the doldrums, he called: 'I wish I was on a beach now, eating a Mars bar ice- cream.'

Joan, in her sixties, wanted to learn to sail because she wanted a holiday with excitement. Before our first outing she whispered to me anxiously: 'Do you think it's deep out there?' 'Deep-ish,' I estimated sagely. 'Are you worried?'

'Well, I am a bit. I can't swim,' she replied. 'You mean you can't swim very well.' 'I mean I can't swim at all, except in a vertical sort of direction.'

Soon, zipped up in her life-jacket, smothered in sun cream and wearing a floppy hat, Joan was proving to be a natural sailor. 'This is marvellous,' she would sing whenever we passed.

Each sailing session - morning and afternoon - began with a mini- tutorial that involved a lot of talk about close hauling and training runs. During one post-lunch explanation, I succumbed to the heat and the gentle lapping of the blue water. I dozed, just as I did during boring afternoon lessons at school. 'Frank, what's a beam reach?' The instructor's voice pierced my slumbers. 'Something to do with mal de mer?' I suggested. I was almost made to stand in the corner.

Days settled into a comfortable pattern of life afloat. Rigging and sailing, de-rigging and relaxing. As well as pottering about Lakka bay, the school organised two 'day-sails' down the coast of the island, during which recently acquired skills could be given a thorough testing. There was thankfully little in the way of apres-sail organised activity: there was a dinner in a Lakka restaurant on the first evening and a barbecue on the last night - attendance was not compulsory, but everybody went to both.

And then there was the rat in the wardrobe.

THREE o'clock on Monday morning. 'There's something in the wardrobe,' hissed my wife. Hmm, I replied. 'A rat.' Uh-huh. 'Go and look.'

The question of whether or not I would have looked was rendered academic (for the record, I wouldn't have). Instead, the villa seemed to think it was time to give itself a shake. Without warning, the floor and walls of our bedroom began to vibrate, slowly and inaudibly at first but then louder and with more violence.

By the time we realised what was happening, it had stopped. The sensation of actually being in a earthquake - albeit a mild one (the only visible damage was a light-fitting falling loose in the lavatory) - was more exhilarating than alarming. Twenty minutes later, when the wardrobe again began to think about shuffling around on its legs, we knew not to expect the appearance of a rodent.

'An aftershock,' I announced as the room once again buzzed like a bee. 'The professor of seismology speaks,' commented my wife.

The by-now-very-nervous professor of seismology suggested an al fresco cup of tea in case of further aftershocks. We sat under the bright light of the moon and the stars sipping Typhoo amid the fireflies. There were no more aftershocks.

'If there was an earthquake, why didn't you wake me?' complained my son bitterly the next morning. 'It was only a small earthquake,' I said.

'It was a tiny earthquake,' said Effy when finally she announced details of our trip to Hell. Thomas had admitted defeat: we were to be put into the hands of Nick the Greek and his sea-taxi. 'Very fast,' said Effy. Also very expensive: the round trip would work out at around pounds 120 - but we were going to Hell after all. And we would be home for lunch and an afternoon of sailing.

Thursday morning at 8 o'clock prompt, Nick the Greek picked us up at Loggos harbour. And we skimmed rapidly across the sea to the mainland. 'Dolphins,' indicated Nick, pointing to a school bobbing lazily ahead.

When Nick the Greek wasn't running his sea-taxi - taking emergencies across to the hospital at Corfu seemed to be his main source of business - he had a water-ski school and organised parasailing. He showed me his photo album in which he was juxtaposed with an impressive array of scantily clad women.

Within 40 minutes we were at Parga harbour, where Nick found Vassili, who was happy to take us on in his boat to the Styx. When Vassili wasn't combing his hair he was complaining that the local government was letting the Styx silt up. 'Talk, talk, talk - money coming - nothing happening,' translated Nick.

We slowly chugged up the Styx, which looked less like the river of Death and more like an idyllic stretch of the Kennet & Avon Canal. But as Vassili said, it was badly choked with wood and rubbish. 'Dirty river, dirty river,' moaned Vassili.

Progress farther up the river proved impossible. We stopped at a small collection of restaurants and shops and Nick tried to rustle up a taxi to take us on to the Necromanteion, the entrance to the Underworld. But no taxi would take us to Hell. 'Is nothing,' said Nick apropos the Necromanteion. 'One room, no gold, nothing.' That was our half-day trip: Almost to Hell and Back.

ON OUR first morning, Elena, the maid, had deposited a large bag of freshly laid eggs on our kitchen table. We greeted this offering enthusiastically. Elena rewarded this enthusiasm with regular egg deliveries. By the end of the week we had enough eggs to create the world's largest omelette. So as not to hurt her feelings when she came to empty the fridge, on the final day I dashed around to redistribute the eggs among neighbouring villas.

When I returned I was hot and exhausted. 'We shouldn't have been so keen on the eggs,' I complained. 'Elena was being nice - she wanted to give us something,' said my wife.

'Well, if you ask my opinion: 'Beware of Greeks bearing eggs',' I said. 'It's a joke,' I added. 'About as funny as a rat in the wardrobe,' said my wife.

FACTFILE

Packages: Greek Islands Sailing Club (0932 220477) is the main operator to Paxos. It has many villas and apartments (and one highly regarded hotel) as well as the sailing centre in the village of Lakka that offers RYA-certificated courses in sailing and windsurfing at all levels. At Paxos - and its other centre on Cephalonia - it has 'limited availability' for the July/August period, 'better availability' for September and October. Holidays in both centres cost pounds 798 for two weeks in August, pounds 710 in July and September, and from pounds 505 for one week. Prices include flights, accommodation, use of all craft and instruction.

At the Ithaca windsurfing centre it has availability all season. Two weeks in August: pounds 710; in July or September, pounds 680; one week: pounds 430.

Sovereign Sailing (0293 599944): the renamed Falcon Sailing programme of flotilla, dinghy and windsurfing holidays to Greece, Turkey and Sardinia also features dinghy-sailing holidays to Paxos.

Paxos outings: In conjunction with the Friends of the Ionian, GISC runs a programme of trips that offer an insight into local life on the island.

A couple of operators in Gaios run a weekly all-day tour up the Styx for about pounds 20 per person. If you fancy a quicker trip, Nick the Greek (Paxos 32444) will run you across.

Other sailing companies: Med Choice Sailing (071-439 3080) offers flotilla sailing, bareboat charter, and share-boat and skippered yacht charters in the Greek Ionian islands, the Saronic Gulf and the Lycian coast of Turkey. Minorca Sailing Holidays (081-948 2106) offers tuition in sailing and windsurfing as well as racing and sailing for juniors. Rainbow Sailing (0792 467813) features bareboat and skippered charter holidays in Turkey and the Caribbean. Sailing Holidays (081-459 8787) offers flotilla and bareboat sailing around the Greek islands. Sunsail (0705 210345) has a wide programme including Mediterranean sailing, faraway sailing (Caribbean, Bahamas and Thailand), Sunsail Clubs in Greece and Turkey, and the Emsworth Sailing School with RYA-approved courses for dinghy sailing and yachting. Top Yacht (0753 646636) has sailing holidays in Turkey and Greece.

Further information: Greek National Tourist Organisation, 4 Conduit St, London W1R 0DJ (071- 734 5997).

(Photograph and map omitted)

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