I had just arrived at the Peligoni Club, a British-run watersports centre on the Ionian island of Zakynthos, and I had never sailed or windsurfed before. Zakynthos may be one of Greece's leading package holiday destinations, but its remote north-eastern corner remains virtually undeveloped. The club sits on a hillside beside the small port of Agios Nikolaos, looking across the sea to the mountains of Kefallonia.
I sat on my balcony that night marvelling at the clearest night sky I had ever seen. I woke to a chorus of cicadas from the olive groves and a breakfast of yoghurt and wildflower honey. I walked down to the sea and plunged into the warm water, then swam out to a pontoon where sun- tanned female staff sunbathed topless and pallid teenage boys pretended not to look. By lunchtime a light breeze got up and it was time for a windsurfing lesson. We began on the land-based simulator, learning the language of deck plates and centre boards, how to adjust the boom and how to tell which way the wind is blowing ("yes, I know you can feel it in your face," said Rick, "but look at the sails on the boats.")
Everything went swimmingly - on land. Real waves and real wind were a different proposition. Out on the water, I fell in 10 times and emerged covered in bruises and with a mouth full of salt, fantasising about a large pot of tea and a slice of chocolate cake. And guess what was on the menu that afternoon?
On other holidays you wake up and look for the sun; life at Peligoni is dictated by the wind. Most days it gets up around midday, giving ideal conditions for beginners, by late afternoon it is a Force 4 or 5, just right for the experts. Mornings are mostly calm, perfect for snorkelling in the deep waters or pottering around in a canoe.
Early morning (which in Peligoni time means before noon) is also the best time for water-skiing. On day two I joined the three Pringle boys, whose father, Hamish, had strategically broken his leg playing football and was forced to spend his holiday on a sun-lounger, reading and painting. None of us had ever skied before. "Remember the three rules," said Dan. "Knees bent, arms straight, and ... what's the third?" My mind went blank and all I could think of was the hokey-cokey. "The lavatory position," he reminded us. "Skis tucked under your bottom. And remember, the hardest part is getting up. If you can do that, everything else is easy."
Tristan, aged eight, was a natural - he was "up" and around the bay in minutes. Benedict, aged 11, was just as good. Sebastian, aged 13, stumbled briefly but was soon away. As for Tony, aged 35, well, you can guess what happened to him. "It's much easier the smaller you are," said the boys' mum, Vivienne, sympathetically.
Surely there was something I could do? Later that afternoon, after a quick session at the white board, Nicki took me for a sail in a Laser dinghy. I learned to control the main sheet and guide the tiller, how to tack and jibe and the difference between a beat and a broad reach. I was starting to enjoy it until we suddenly jibed and the boom clobbered me twice in the middle of the forehead (boom! boom!). The next morning a Force 7 was blowing, which was exhilarating for experienced sailors, but dangerous for novices, so I hired a car to explore the island, with its cypresses, olive groves and hilltop villages where locals sell honey and watermelons beside the road. The south coast resort of Laganas, where turtles nest on the beach, was a depressing mile-long strip of English bars; but a drive up the wild west coast, where tall cliffs drop sheer into the sea, brought me to the village of Volimes, where the local boys were beating the Peligoni Club at basketball.
This was the only village on the island to survive the 1953 earthquake, with the result that the houses appear unusually old and picturesque. The locals make a living by selling embroidered rugs, which hang from dusty railings along the main street. "Come in, my friend, where are you staying?" people cried, in the manner of desperate shopkeepers the world over. "Peligoni? Vanessa? Then special prices for you." Everybody in northern Zakynthos knows Vanessa. Vanessa Goldie and Johnny Alexander stumbled across the island in 1981 and bought a cottage to indulge their twin passions for sailing and Greece. "When we arrived there was no road, no water and no electricity," Vanessa told me, "and we had a nine-year wait before we could get a telephone." He worked in advertising, she in interior design, but the lure of Greece took hold and before long they were moving to Zakynthos full time with their three young daughters. Vanessa battled with local bureaucracy in fluent Greek; Johnny persuaded British friends to restore local houses (including a fabulous old olive press) for their guests to rent. The couple now live apart but they still run the club together and the whole place oozes their personalities.
"It's like an enormous houseparty," one guest told me - though the worst excesses are avoided by staying away from the club, so that you can opt in and out of activities as you like. Most people stay in the hills, but if - like me - you don't want to drive every day, there is a guest house just up the road. In August, when I was there, the emphasis is on families and at the evening meals (barbecue one night, Greek buffet the next) the tables are separated so that the grown-ups (a bookbinder, an artist, a Tory MP) can discuss school fees and how terribly well Tony Blair is doing while the teenagers drink beer and the children tuck into Mars Bar sundaes. "It's like having a dinner party every night without having to cook," said David Sauvens, which is not, it has to be said, everyone's idea of a holiday.
Tessa and David Sauvens were on their fourth visit with their four children. "We know we'll have a good time because the children find others to play with and we can relax or go off sailing," said Tessa. "We can come down at 11am and not see the children again until 11 at night," added David. Kids are not regimented - no Barracuda Clubs here - though there are plenty of optional activities such as water-polo, table-tennis, rock-jumps and boat trips to sandy beaches. Mostly they just seemed happy to find others their own age and the parents were happy knowing that they were safe, albeit running up huge bar bills for Coke and ice-cream.
Even the teenagers had smiles on their faces. But I would think twice about taking a toddler as there is no beach or paddling pool and the water is very deep. Annie Macmillan, aged 12, was on her first trip with her parents. "It's so free and easy," she said. "There's lots to do but you're not tied down to anything."
This deliberately laid-back atmosphere is both Peligoni's strength and its weakness. If you just want to learn to sail, there are more structured (and cheaper) options, with full timetables of tuition and bigger fleets of boats; but if you want a relaxed Greek holiday, with watersports available and lots for children to do, and you don't mind being surrounded by Brits, Peligoni is ideal.
One night Vanessa led a sunset walk to an abandoned monastery, pointing out wild thyme and walnut trees on the way; we drank beer and ate olives as the sky turned pink and the sun slid into the sea. The next morning there was a boat trip on a 75-horsepower inflatable, riding the waves and whooping with joy on our way to the Smugglers' Cove, dominated by the rusty hulk of the Panagiotis which, built on the Clyde, was shipwrecked here in 1982, and placed on the beach as a tourist attraction.
My windsurfing slowly improved (I managed to stay afloat for two minutes), I got up on water-skis (for all of 70 ft), but what I really wanted to do was to sail a dinghy single-handed. I could pull in the sails, I could tack and steer, but I could never do everything at once. With one day to go I got my baptism of fire, thrown into the weekly race as crew for the supercharged Laser II. Okay, so all I had to do was hold the jib sheet and lean out into the salt spray as Dan did all the work, but after tearing around the bay at a terrifying 15 knots I was ready for anything.
On the final morning I went out one last time on the Laser with Will. He sat beside me for a while, then slipped into a rescue boat and watched me drift out to sea. I stayed out for an hour, all alone, enjoying the sunshine, the breeze and a feeling of accomplishment, and I have rarely felt more elated. When I came in to moor Will was standing on the quay with a large grin across his face, waiting to shake my hand. Cheers Will. Have a Retsina on me.
zakynthos fact file
Holidays at the Peligoni Club can be booked through Tarific Holidays (01243 511499, mornings only, or brochure line 01243 513661). Exclusive of flights and car-hire, a family of four with teenage children travelling in high season would pay pounds 300-pounds 450 per head for one week and pounds 580-pounds 860 per head for two weeks. For a family of four with younger children (7- 12 yrs) would be about 10% cheaper. For a couple travelling in June or September, one week costs from about pounds 200 - pounds 300 per head. All prices include unlimited use of sailing, windsurfing and snorkelling equipment plus tuition.
There are charter flights to Zakynthos from Gatwick and most regional airports. Book through high-street travel agents or Peligoni's recommended agent, Haslemere Travel (01428 658777).
For most properties it will be necessary to hire a car. Costs range from about pounds 190 per week for a Fiat Cinquecento in low season to pounds 475 for a seven-seat minibus in high season. Mopeds are also available for pounds 50-pounds 65 a week.
Food at the Peligoni Club is international with a Greek emphasis, plus vegetarian and children's specials. Full board (excluding breakfast) costs just over pounds 100 a week (less for children) if booked in advance, or you can pay locally on an ad hoc basis (around pounds 5 for lunch, pounds 10 for evening meals). With the strength of the pound these days, this represents better value, especially if you like eating out. Bar bills are kept on a slate and paid at the end of the holiday - approximate prices include beer pounds 1.30, Retsina pounds 1.50, mineral water/Coke 75p, Lac des Roches wine pounds 5 a bottle.
Optional extras: approximate prices water-skiing pounds 10 a session, boat trip to Smugglers' Cove pounds 9, sunset walk pounds 4.
A Peligoni Club video is available for a pounds 5 hire charge, returnable when booking or if returned.
Equipment and safety: sailing dinghies include two Toppers, a Wayfarer, several Lasers and a Hobie catamaran. There is a large selection of buoyancy aids which children and beginners are required to wear. There are always at least two boats in service whenever anyone is out.