Travel: Starry nights in the Sporades

Laura Ivill watches from the deck of her chartered yacht in the Greek islands as dolphins take their tune from Vivaldi
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The Independent Travel
It's midnight and the cicadas - the sound of the heat, as Gerald Durrell once wrote - are now silent. Above my head is a dazzling canopy of stars, unclouded by a haze of pollution or that modern curse of the stargazer - light. I am standing on the deck of a 32ft chartered yacht, Budelli, not in some far-flung backwater but, as the crow flies, 75 miles north-east of Athens. We are, however, just off a real desert island.

The minute natural harbour into which we slipped late in the evening was first found by our skipper 13 years ago. Then, too nervous of its exposed location, he longed, but dared not, anchor overnight. This time, with thousands of extra sea-miles and a much gutsier feeling for the weather under his belt, he's decided to stay.

Sailing in the early summer around the islands of Greece has to come close to the top of the list of what yachting claims for its own: freedom, the open air, peace, and a gracefulness of purpose. Life as it ought to be. Here, in the seas sailed by Ulysses and Jason and his Argonauts, modern-day Greek fishermen barely scrape a living; they wave a timeless slow hand in greeting as we cruise past.

In the 13 years since our skipper was here last, rather than returning to find a tourist honeypot, everything is exactly as it was. It's more a question of depopulation, as the young Greeks move from these isolated islands and scattered communities to the mainland. The only major airport, and the key to why the Sporades chain of islands remains largely pristine, is on Skiathos, to the south-west of us tonight.

It was in Skiathos harbour that we boarded Budelli for our two-week cruise. She was an Oceanis 320 yacht chartered from Sunsail, the largest UK yacht charter company. Sunsail operates flotillas all over the world. It also offers "bareboat" charters for the experienced, which meant we could just sail away, our only instruction being to get her back in time for the flight. This was fairly amazing.

The four of us turned up on the dockside, met the flotilla people who proceeded to hand over the yacht with a set of keys and then waved goodbye. The only time we saw them in the next two weeks was when we returned in order to collect a missing pulley.

We did sometimes listen in to the flotilla's radio traffic to determine where they were heading, not so that we could join up with them, but so that we could go to anchorages where we would be on our own - like the night on the desert island. However, flotilla-sailing is immensely popular because it is ideal for the nervous or less experienced. It means you are never far away from a helping hand should you get into difficulty. And some people stick with flotillas because they like the al fresco sociability which goes with it. You can even charter yachts with a skipper thrown in, so you have all the freedom and none of the responsibility - that's cruising!

At the northern end of the Sporades is the island of Yioura, said to be where Polyphemus lived. Just to its south is the island of Pelagos where we sailed through a winding, narrowing channel into one of the most spectacular natural harbours you will find anywhere - the caldera of a prehistoric volcano.

As we threw the hook overboard to anchor for the night, suddenly an inflatable came charging in after us out of nowhere. Cutting back the engine, the Greek official aboard swung it into a lazy arc as he passed. "You know this is now a national park?" he shouted. "Anchoring fine, but no fires ashore under any circumstance." And quite right, too. The roar of the outboard faded into the distance, leaving only the lapping of its wake against Budelli's sides. We were alone with the cicadas once more.

Next day, in a millpond sea, we decide to swim and snorkel. Once tasted, nude swimming is an elixir of life. It is the delicious movement of water all around that makes taking a bath suddenly seem like merely sitting in a puddle. Later that same day, sailing gently under mainsail and cruising chute, we are overwhelmed by a large and playful school of dolphins.

The skipper, to my great surprise, rushes down below, while the rest of us lean far out over the guardrails shouting and pointing. Then we hear a great swelling sound of Vivaldi and the skipper is back, and we have to restrain him from leaping over the side to join in the antics. Dolphins are now leaping in pairs all around the yacht responding to the vibrations through the water, putting on a magnificent show.

With a fair wind, we leave the dolphins behind - or rather they leave us, as they get bored with us quicker than we with them - and we head south for Skyros, to fulfil another of our skipper's 13-year-old desires. This one is to visit the grave of the First World War poet Rupert Brooke - or as one American tourist apparently once put it locally "Rupert Grave's brook".

This was the longest passage we made - it took all day - and was a stretchy sail. With the rising wind astern we made good time but the yacht rolled horribly. One of our crew sensibly took to her bunk early on and stayed there until we were under the lee of the island. Skyros has a reputation for strong winds; sadly, they were so strong that we anchored, but dared not go ashore using our oar-driven dinghy in the choppy spray-flung waters of the bay, at the head of which Brooke's grave lies in an olive grove.

We found out later that this area is a Greek military (and highly restricted) base. These islands are close to Turkey and we saw a lot of military activity. Indeed, on our tranquil desert island we came across thousands of scattered bullet-cases and dug-outs where exercises had been mounted.

But that was a rare intrusion on the peace we found everywhere. One afternoon, on passage between islands, and in a flat calm, we hove-to and all went swimming. I calculated it was the deepest water I had ever swum in - around a thousand feet or more - and, consequently it was deliciously cool. Our evenings were spent at anchor in as quiet a spot as we could find, or ashore in little ports and fishing villages, the yacht at anchor or moored alongside.

One evening we were able to moor in a tiny hamlet where we could step ashore, walk half a dozen paces and be at our taverna table. We'd called our reservation from the foredeck as we got ready, using the sun-heated shower- bath we put out each day as we breakfasted.

It had to end: on the last day we sailed right into Skiathos harbour, dropping our sails at the very last minute and jinking in, hardly a ripple as we came to rest.

Oh, and did I forget to say? Now it was me at the helm!

SAILING IN GREECE

SETTING SAIL

The cost of chartering a yacht for a sailing holiday varies greatly depending on the destination, size of the yacht and number of people aboard. This two-week holiday with Sunsail (tel: 01705 222222) on a 32ft yacht costs around pounds 1,000 per person in high season, including flights and transfers, based on a party of four sharing.

Any budding yachtsperson should first contact the Royal Yachting Association (tel: 01703 627400). It has 78,000 members and will put you in touch with sailing schools and provide information on courses. Attending a sea-experience short course will give you good basic knowledge and probably introduce you to future sailing companions.

If you know someone who has a yacht, ask to sail with them: yacht-owners are usually chronically short of crew. Or you could try the Cruising Association (tel: 0171-537 2828) whose members supply a register for those who just want to give it a go. You might find yourself signing up to a world cruise - it has happened.

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