For the sake of Penelope’s beauty!
Text: Pierrick Garenne
Ulysses, Penelope, Telemachus, Calypso, Nausicaa, Circe… Difficult not to dive into the most beautiful pages of Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey when island-hopping on the crystal blue waters of the Ionian archipelago. Impossible not to think about Ulysses’ return from the Trojan War, rediscovering his island Ithaca after a decade of adventures and fighting. Mythology captures our imagination and casts a spell on our daily routine, with the help of Minotaurs and other Centaurs. And although for many, sailing round the Greek Islands suggests whitewashed walls, bright blue-domed chapels and yellow fishing nets drying in the warm Meltemi winds, sailing round the Ionian has nothing to do with the famous Aegean and Cycladic clichés. Embracing the West coast of continental Greece, the Ionian Sea is the South part of the Adriatic Sea which stretches to the North towards Albania and Croatia, to the South towards the immense Peloponnese. The Ionian Islands, or Heptanisi as they are called here, form an archipelago of eleven different-sized islands. The six largest are Zakynthos, Ithaca, Cephalonia, Lefkada, Corfu and Paxos. The smaller ones are Antipaxos, Erikoussa, Mathraki, Othoni, Meganisi and the Strofades archipelago. While Ulysses remains the main attraction, the area has lots to offer. A real historic melting pot since Homer’s Odyssey, with colonization by the Peloponnesians and the Euboeans, a Roman occupation, a 500-year long Venetian dominion, a short French occupation between 1807 and 1814, a British Protectorate and finally, unification to Greece since 1864. All these influences have obviously left their mark, from architecture to gastronomy.
In Jackie’s steps…
Mountainous Lefkada will be our first island. Separating the island from the mainland and hourly opening the way to sailors coming from the North or from Corfu, its 5-mile channel is a godsend. Lefkas, the main harbour, is an ideal stopover to start an Ionian voyage: a superb old town and a well-equipped marina. Watch out, it is not easy to find fuel and water in a number of islands.
Therefore you will be well-advised to anticipate and fill up when you can. Sliding towards the South is tempting and sailing along the island is a very pleasant experience: Greens hills, small traditional harbours and then, a vision, or rather an echo…Skorpios is a stone’s throw away and one itches to catch sight of Jackie Kennedy. The private island of the Onassis family is indeed very close to the port of Nidri. One starts imagining America’s late First Lady coming down to swim on her private beach and enjoying the sunset from the annex Aristotle had built for her. One cannot help but think about their marriage in 1968 on this island which name has since become world famous. One also imagines the magnificent Christina O, the shipping magnate’s yacht, anchored just off the little private port. And as the island is still private, it isn’t accessible from everywhere, and if you observe carefully you’ll see the guards walking up and down the coast. The night will be under control, as the winds decidedly die out every night. Don’t forget to have long mooring lines at hand -50m minimum- for mooring ashore around trees or rocks. Also check your mooring because your anchor may slide, as some of the sea bottoms may not hold properly. Do not hesitate to dive and check for yourself with a mask, snorkel and flippers. We continue sliding southbound. We leave Meganisi to port and enter a narrow channel. Vassiliki, a small harbour south of Lefkadas, will be our last port of call on the island. We will leave in our wake the 72m white chalk Leucadian cliffs, dear to Sappho’s myth. According to the legend, the poetess jumped off the cliff for the love of Phaon: to get cured from lovesickness, one would jump off the Leucadian cliffs into the sea. If you survived, you were cured. Tempted anyone?
Cephalonia is located south of Lefkada. To get there you just have to cross the channel that separates the two islands. Beware, you can get caught in sudden winds. Always watch for forming white horses and keep the reefing line at hand to quickly reduce your mainsail should you need to. Also watch out for the ferries sailing across to the islands. Assos is our first stop on Cephalonia, the largest of the Ionian Islands. The haven is not one of the safest, but by calm weather Assos is a must-see. A superb small village nestled into the hillsides, this village is quite touristic and mooring on its small stone quay is an unforgettable experience. You have to climb up to the ruins of the Venetian fortress and once there admire the views. Magnificent! The green of the cypress and olive trees blend with the turquoise blue water, the two-stroke engines of the fishing boats give rhythm to the cicada songs. If you come across deserted, half-derelict houses, it’s because of the terrible earthquake that happened in 1953. The West coast of Cephalonia is wonderful to sail along. You will discover incredibly blue waters, like frosting sapphire. Our 36-footer glides upon colorful salty waters that seem to belong to the realm of the unreal. Unfortunately, there are very few moorings on this coast. With westerly or north-westerly winds, you’ll have to take refuge in the capital Argostoli, a nice cruising destination to anticipate. Argostoli is a large port and a large city, where you can get fresh supplies and refuel. From there on, superb wild moorings follow one another until the South end of the island. You will sail along on a broad reach, the swell pushing forward, the miles flashing by. You then start sailing back up towards the North and Ithaca. Aim for Cape Andreou, a small, hitherto untouched bay, known to those who love virgin spots that are still free from hotels and beach resorts. It’s a beautiful place on the hillside. Coves and small harbours will be our daily routine, sailing between Ithaca and Cephalonia, to and fro. Aghia Eufimia, Kalo Limini, Ormos Kakogito, Ormos Dhaskalio, Stavros, Ormos Afales, Frikes… Just be careful with this katabatic wind that can come rushing down the hills some days and nights and can give you a great fright. Just imagine: you are at a mooring and suddenly within seconds your boat will keel over under the gust. The anchor chain in the davit makes ghastly sounds and your tender flies over your head. Therefore: if katabatic winds, beware! But Ithaca is a fantastic sailing spot with sumptuous coves and bays. Up till now quite secretive, Ithaca will unveil her charms to whoever makes the effort to discover her. Impossible then not to think about Penelope waiting for her man. A man who fought Sirens, a Cyclops, son of Poseidon’s, Circe the magician… and a man who killed, dressed as a beggar, all of the Queen of Ithaca’s suitors. This incredible legend suddenly makes sense at the sight of this natural theater set upon this deep blue sea.
Meganisi, for Epicurians
Your cruise will be a delight, whether you start or finish it in Meganisi, with its alcoves in the shape of deep, well-sheltered bays. And mooring will be a real treat, made fast around olive trees in Port Atheni, Ormos Abelike or Ormos Kapali. Transparent waters unveil sea-breams and other sea urchins and sea cucumbers. One dives to go ashore, to check one’s anchor or walk through the island to reach Vathi, the main town and harbour. Among your best memories, you’ll have an oven-baked slice of feta, a grilled sea bream, a drink to accompany your Greek salad with its unforgettable flavour, before going back on board, enjoying a midnight bathe… Epicurians who love secluded moorings know this feeling, and the Ionians really do the job. Meganisi is quite touristic so you should find a mooring early in order to have a good spot, but nevertheless, your main neighbours will be colonies of cicadas. They say an odyssey is a voyage from which you come back strengthened. Well yes we confirm, the Ionians teach you to play with the elements, the sea, the winds, the crowds and the solitude, the simplicity of the small restaurateurs on Vathi’s quays as much as the busy, organized Fiskardo, Cephalonia’s little St Tropez. The Ionian Islands are all of this together… not forgetting the legend, as Ulysses follows you along this surprising journey.
When to go?
Between May and September, the prevailing winds are from North-West to West, usually around 3 Beaufort. The wind starts blowing around 12:00 and drops as the sun sets. Depending on the area, you also get quite a lot of sea and land breezes. The sailing conditions are rather easy and predictable, except when the Maestro (N to NW) blows in summer. It can surprise you and blow over 6 Beaufort. Beware of the Venturi effect in the channels and the small forming waves.
Sunsail’s base in Vounaki in Greece, on the Adriatic coast, is ideally located to make the most of the Ionian Islands in a week or a fortnight’s holiday. The base is combined to Sunsail’s beach club offering many activities. Flotilla sailing available. There’s a grocery store as well as many others in the village situated a 20mn walk away. Boats: You’ll be spoilt for choice with Sunsail’s offers at Vounaki: a monohull fleet from 30 to 50 feet, catamarans over 35 feet, all entirely equipped (Chart plotter with GPS, Autopilot, dinghy, windlass, battened mainsail with lazy jack and lazy bag, hot water, sheets and towels…). An Oceanis 373, will cost 1845€ for a week early July, A Sunsail 42i (Jeanneau Sun Odyssey 42i), 2770€a week, and a Lagoon 384, 4340€. Contact and information: www.sunsail.fr
Considered to be one of the best masterpieces of literature, Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey is a must onboard. Iliad is about the Trojan War, Odyssey talks about the building of the Trojan Horse and the city’s siege, but above all it tells the return of Ulysses to Ithaca. His voyage will last ten years and Ulysses will face the Sirens, Calypso the Nymph, Nausicaa the Princess, Circe the magician… For navigation, take with you the Imray Greece-Ionian Sea guide. Moorings, opinion and advice, it’s all in there. Now, do not hesitate to rummage through the web to check cruising reports and blogs on the area.