My first visit to Greece was an unplanned pit stop. I was heading from the Suez Canal to Malta on a windless Mediterranean Sea and burning up fuel like an SUV. When the gauge needle neared the empty mark, the southern coast of Crete wasn’t very far away. My large-scale chart of the Mediterranean showed a little cleft marked by the name “Loutra,” just east of the sizable town of Palaiokhora. It seemed like a clear shot with plenty of deep water all around. Sure enough, on the approach, there were no navigational surprises and Loutra ended up being the quaintest cluster of buildings nestled at the foot of some pretty steep Cretan real estate. After something like a week at sea, I anchored in the light-blue shallow water near a beach covered with young sunbathers and looked around. Umbrellas advertising different brands of Ouzo shaded the tables in front of tavernas and rooming houses teeming with bodies—July in Greece.
Having just emerged from the entirely different world that lay on the other side of the Suez Canal, I inflated the dinghy and threw in the diesel jerry cans, eager to do some European people watching. I wasn’t disappointed. Plunking myself down at the first table, weather-worn, bleached out and salty, I watched the latest fastidiously maintained fashions parade by, and ordered up a plate of sautéed string beans to satisfy a craving for fresh vegetables. The innkeeper was very chatty, curious about where such a scruffy creature had come from and where I was headed, which led quickly to the fuel question. As it turned out, Loutra’s main attraction was that it was only accessible by ferry. No roads led to the cove, therefore, no cars. Obviously, this was a romantic ideal for tourists, but for me it was absurdly inconvenient. No cars meant no fuel, and after a brief respite in this oasis, I motored over to Palaiokhora and filled up there before pointing the bow to Malta.
My two-day Cretan sejour is a blip on the screen of memories of that trip, a reintroduction to a world completely different from the Middle East and Asia I had just left in my wake. Eight years went by before Greece came back onto my radar, and stayed there, when I started working with a sailing school that organized overseas trips. Greece has been a favorite destination for as long as tourism and travel have existed, for good reason. From the get go, I was hooked.
Stepping off the airplane from New York, in Athens, a throng of smokers yelling back and forth and hugging each other surrounded me in a cacophony of sound, smell and energy. So began my relationship with the high passions, the contrasts between beauty and ugliness, and the fierce love of life that is Greece. With this first week-long flotilla, I sailed to Poros, Hydra, Spaetsai in the Saronic Islands, and Monemvasia on the Peloponnesian coast. Between the food, the harbors that were central to everything, the people, the Mediterranean mooring challenge, and the weather, I returned home knowing that the surface of something wonderful had been scratched, and I wanted more.
Fortunately, I am not alone. Greece calls a song that others respond to, so for many years, I have been lucky enough to go back with flotillas to revisit the vastness of choice that is available there for the sailor. Making the decision to permanently move aboard and cruise isn’t an option immediately available to everyone, including me. Greece offers the occasional sailor one of the best destinations in the world for one or two-week long charters because of its different possible itineraries, and variety of islands and anchorages, each with its own distinctive character. I love showing off the place, sharing what I have learned, and being able to still discover something new with every tour.
I had already done several Greek trips when I went back to school and spent a semester exploring the foundations of western literature. It all started with the ancient Greeks, on the mainland, and among the islands of their melting pot nation. Argolis, Sparta, Achaia, Rhodes, Kos—these were all names I recognized from poring over the charts, not just mythological places. I read tragedies that started in Corinth, philosophy that was first explored in the agora of Athens, drama from the Peloponnesus, poetry from Lesbos, and the adventures of Odysseus who wandered all over the map just to get back to his faithful Penelope.
In the Saronic Islands, there is the island of Aegina, named for a nymph who eloped with Zeus. When her father pursued them, Zeus turned himself into a rock, her into the island, where the temple of Athena was built. An island further south in the Saronics, Hydra, shares a name with the nine-headed swamp thing Heracles had to kill as one of his labors. On the passage from Athens to Kea in the Cyclades, boats can pass directly beneath the temple of Poseidon. Dhilos, in the Cyclades, still has the ruins of a trading civilization, from a time when the island was considered the center of the Mediterranean and Aristotle was proving the earth is round. A stone throw away from Dhilos is Rhinia, birthplace of Apollo and Artemis. Epidauros, on the Peloponnesus, has the ancient amphitheatre where, throughout the ages, these stories have been playing on the stage, from Euripides to the performance of the Greek diva, Maria Callas. Further south on the peninsula, there is Monemvasia, a medieval village carved into and perched on a rocky hillside where everything is still functioning, mostly in its original capacity.
In almost every port, the roads wind, intertwine and double back on each other as they lead up from waterfronts, designed to get invaders hopelessly lost in the land that also is home, by no accident, to the most famous Cretan labyrinth. This is the thing about Greece. Invaders, Odysseus, Theseus, Helen of Troy, and so many other familiar names with stories that still influence us today, are characters who got around by boat, in fiction and reality. For thousands of years, in times when not too many other people dared to confront the unknown, the adventurous and bold Greeks have been sailing the Mediterranean, in between their islands and beyond. Since boats need to park when they get to land, Greece, over millennia, has been uniquely organizing itself and arranging its culture to accommodate sailors and their craft.
Still now, the islands and the mainland are linked together with cruise ships, high-speed ferries, and hydrofoils, and they all need docks. Every single island (if it isn’t just a pile of cliffs sheering away from the water too steeply for anything but sheep and goats) has a harbor. And it is a safe harbor with a jetty for tying up to, a substantial breakwater for protection from Aegean winds, fishermen with fresh catches, grocery stores, and tavernas on the waterfront, because sailors have always been a hungry and thirsty lot.
When you step ashore, day after day, you are greeted by the sights everyone recognizes from the postcard and calendar pictures of a land stereotyped by whitewashed homes, blue doorways, temples and donkeys. The ruins and museums that lay everywhere are reminders of a history that documented and instructed the human experience through art and words. The expected is there, alongside perpetually unfinished buildings with rebar sticking out of the walls and roofs, the litter, and the chaos, which, to me, is the beauty of Greece. This contrasting combination makes Greece feel real, an honest marriage of human passions and flaws that can transcend and strip away the veneer of the ages, and still embrace life for what it is today. I know of no better way to visit and participate in the Greek experience than to bridge the centuries by following in the wake of an established tradition of sail. It is a tradition that brought me by chance to my first Greek harbor 15 years ago, to a tourist harbor with no facilities for any transportation but a boat. September 2003