Sparkling like expensive toys in the golden crescent of Marina Zea west of Athens' port of Piraeus are the yachts that make summer dreams come true. They are dreams of sailing the Aegean Sea with nothing but a small tote bag, a bathing suit, shorts, sneakers, and a good book that you just may never open.
We're not talking about owning one, just about renting a yacht, living aboard, and cruising from one sunbaked Greek isle to another at less than the price of a not-too-fancy hotel room.
Ours was named Doxa I, which suggests that there's a whole flotilla of others, and there are. More than 1,000 vessels are available for charter--crewed motor yachts, motor sailers, sailing yachts and even bareboats (where you are your own skipper).
I was invited to join a party of nine others on a $1,000-a-day charter with a crew of four. Food and fuel are extra, but expenses split 10 ways (excluding air fare to Athens) were reasonable, I reasoned, especially when compared to a luxury cruise on an ocean liner.
Doxa I is a two-masted, 85-foot motor schooner, with a wooden hull, Mercedes-Benz engine and a cruising speed of 11 knots. Built in Greece in 1964 and refurbished in 1970, it is one of 200 belonging to Valef Yachts Ltd. It has four identical cabins forward, with what her owners describe as one double and one single bed each. (In each cabin the single bed is an upper berth over a wider lower, which is considered the double.)
These four cabins share two bathrooms ("heads," we say in nautical talk). A stateroom aft sleeps six in two double and two single beds (if they know each other really well), with an adjoining private head. The crew sleeps forward.
But most of us slept by night or day on the roomy open deck when we weren't out sampling beaches or climbing the topography.
We chose to head southeast among the Cyclades, the best known and the closest island group to mainland Greece. The Greek word for circle is kyklos, from which comes the name for this group of outcroppings.
Each of these islands rises in a little mound like a muffin, some higher than the others, from the Aegean Sea. Somewhere at the bottom of each is where the boats dock. Along the harbor fronts are small tavernas, with chairs and tables set out under trees. There may be a mini-market, a souvenir shop or two, and perhaps a little hotel a short walk from the pier.
The High Town
Beaches usually are on either side of the harbor and a town called Hora (which means "high town") is at the top of each muffin. Some kind of road leads up to the high town. It may be just a donkey path or a narrow lane set with slate flagstones, or perhaps one asphalt-paved street.
Our crew was headed by Capt. Stamatis Katrachillis. He's probably no more than 35 years old, trim and tan and smart. He has a radioman's license as well as his captain's license. He could be working the big "seeps," he says. (Greeks have a hard time with the sound "sh.") But wherever he would go, "I would be stranger. My wife and 8-year-old boy would prefer I stay in my country."
Odysseus, the cook, was the oldest of the men, in his 40s. He spent most of his time performing small miracles in the galley. Gianni, the first mate, is a gentle soul whose poetry has been published in the Kithnos island newspaper. Kithnos is his home, and it was our first overnight stop after a late afternoon swim off Cape Sounion. The Temple of Poseidon there was our last sight of the Greek mainland.
A Quiet Place
We docked just before 10 p.m. in the little harbor of Merihas. Kithnos is one of the least spoiled of the Cycladic Islands, but probably not for long. For now, at least, Kithnos is a quiet, hospitable place, 54 nautical miles from Piraeus, with erratic ferry service that discourages many visitors.
One of the two mini-markets on the quay specializes in rubber thongs, sun hats, post cards and 27-drachma stamps (for sale at 30 drachmas) among the cans of evaporated milk and envelopes of Nescafe. We could have embarked with no luggage at all and would have been able to outfit ourselves adequately at the first stop.
At about 8 o'clock next morning fishing boats were tying up alongside. Some displayed a haul of small swordfish, already beheaded and cleaned; and the fishermen were doing a brisk business with the locals who had been waiting for them.
I asked Capt. Stam if it would upset our schedule if we bought a fish and would Odysseus cook it. Stam cautioned me that it might be expensive, but if the passengers were willing, he would send Gianni to handle the negotiations.
"Always I do the best for you," he said."
My shipmates were agreeable and so was Odysseus. The 4,000-drachma swordfish made a wonderful lunch, which we ate that afternoon in the bay of Livadi on Serifos, 16 more nautical miles away.
Some of my mates hiked up to the Hora, which in Serifos is crowned by the remains of an old Venetian fortress. I went to the beach, the only logical diversion, considering the heat of the day.
Under Sea Pines
Taverna owners along the bay are exceedingly hospitable. Chairs and tables under sea pines are for whomever would like to sit down, whether you buy food and drink or not.
At another table was a Norwegian family that included two blond little boys. I asked if they spoke English. "Yes, of course," said the father. He had heard of Serifos from a friend who had been there the summer before. He liked the idea that it has no tennis courts, no golf courses, nothing to do. Everyone you meet has an expression of peace, a serene look of "We know something no one else knows."
"Lovely beach," I say. "Yes," they agree. "But you should see the one on the other side of the pier up those stairs. It's where the younger kids go with package tours and camping tents."
They asked me if I came from California. (I was wearing a UCLA shirt over my bathing suit.) "We used to live in California near San Francisco," he said, "in Palo Alto with Hewlett-Packard."
The beach the Norwegians pointed out was invisible from the quay. The hike up the concrete stairs leads to a hillock that blocks the beach from view, almost as if the stairs come to a dead end.
Sure enough, spread below was the cleanest, most deserted stretch of copper sand edged with a ribbon of foam that bordered a sea, wavering between turquoise and cobalt. Colored tents dotted the beach.
Three girls from Denmark told me that they had planned to go to Ios, and had already been to Sifnos. They had returned to Serifos, with their backpacks and one tent. A ferry to Livadi port brought them from Athens; they carried all their gear up those steep stairs and down the breakneck path onto the beach, named Psili Amos.
No problem. "You will want to come back," they say.
We spent the next day exploring Sifnos, six nautical miles south, and docked in Ios early that evening. Ios is summer madness. Every college kid in the world who didn't make it to Fort Lauderdale for Spring Break (and some who did) are on the one narrow street of the Hora in Ios between dusk and dawn.
We never would have discovered this mecca for modern mermaids and men if two of us hadn't been elected to shop for gifts for the men of the Doxa I. We were staying overnight, but sailing early next morning for Santorini. There we would disembark and continue our island trek by plane.
At the Ios Information Office at the end of the pier, a beautiful young Englishwoman was in charge. "How may I help you?" she asked. It sounded like Harrods department store.
She directed us to the bus. Get off at the first stop just past the church, she said; go up the hill and take the right fork. Just follow the crowd.
"Couldn't we take a taxi?" we asked in our ignorance.
"Well," she said, "there is just the one taxi driver in all of Ios, and he drives the bus."
Ios by night is as mobbed as a New York subway at rush hour. Tables and chairs outside crowded tavernas are obscured by the crowd. But none of the international male and female pretty young things in search of each other seems to be going anywhere. The only folks in motion are inside the discos that line the crooked main street of the Ios Hora. The last bus down to the port leaves the peak at 11:30, empty.
The Ins and Outs
Music continues until at least 3 in the morning. There's no fee for admission and no minimum. Michael Jackson is out, Bruce Springsteen is in. Bartenders serve concoctions based on tequila, the most popular spirit with this year's under-30 group roaming the Greek isles.
We made our way past "Frankie's Fast Food," the "Why Not?" and the "Who's Who?" (leather sandals made to order, as well as leather BIC lighter holders to wear around your neck or beer can carriers to wear on your belt), and finally found the Puzzle Boutique just beyond the newsstand that sold magazines from everywhere and USA Today.
We passed every kind of haircut, accent and earring (single and in pairs). Disney characters and bawdy sayings were on T-shirts worn by one and all. The least outrageous of the naughty bits carried the legend: "Sex 30%, Love 25%, Relax 45%. This is Greece 100%."
We arrived in Santorini with heavy hearts (and heads). Not that Santorini wasn't going to be exciting. We were sad to leave the Doxa I. We presented our gifts to the crew: a dancing Mickey Mouse shirt for Gianni; "No Problem," on a sleeveless number for Vanghelis the steward, and a crossword puzzle shirt with the names of all the islands, vertical and horizontal, for the captain.
They made sure we were safely ashore with all our duffel bags, and then pulled away from the pier. They stopped a little bit away from shore and put on their new shirts. Capt. Stam blew one long and two short whistles (a yacht's greeting to a friend). We waved them out to sea, and will remember them with love.
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Bareboats, mostly power sailers from 30 to 53 feet long, rent for $130 to $500 a day, depending on the size and the month. Rules for bareboating require that two of the charterers must hold a skipper's license or equivalent certification. A professional skipper can be hired at an additional $60 a day.
For additional information, contact Valef Yachts Ltd., 7254 Fir Road, Ambler, Pa. 19002; phone (215) 641-1624 or (800) 223-3845. Ghiolman Yachts & Travel, 7 Filellinon St., Constitution Square, Athens, Greece; phone 32-33-696 or 32-28-530. Greek National Tourist Organization, 611 West 6th St., Los Angeles 90017; phone (213) 626-6696.