Santorini, Ios and a final farewell to Greece

Greetings from sizzling Turkey, where we are officially on the final leg of our trip for the 2013 European summer. Here in far western Turkey it still feels like deep summer with 30-degree days, breathless nights and clear, endless blue skies. One could not fathom being here with the boat during the scorching mid-season. Hosting our dear Canadian friends on board – Mike’s best friend from high school Jay and his girlfriend Deanne (the most beautiful soul you’d ever hope to meet) – has easily been the highlight of our journey this year. We simply cherish their company and they’re already penciled-in to visit again this time next year. There have been many laughs and memories to treasure. I will blame their welcome distraction – and the VERY lousy Turkish internet – for the delayed time between posts.

My last blog post left us in the flawless Little Cyclades Island group, soaking up some rare Greek high-pressure system calming goodness. Next was an anticipated return to the infamous party island of Ios – where Mike and I had wasted away a boozy summer back in 2002 as impressionable 21-year-olds still in our first year as a couple. We were slightly disappointed to find, that despite it still being (late) August, the party season was quickly winding down with several bars already closed and a mere fraction of the party-crowd capacity swaggering around the late-night village stroll. Though we relished in the cheap 2-4-1 cocktails and slammer tequila shooters: where you pay a premium to don a helmet, skull a shot and be bonked over the head by a bar stool, skateboard, milk crate, fire extinguisher – you name it. Dad was the first one to front the bar and after each person in our group of six had been bonked, there was soon a line up of other eager patrons paying for a whack over the head with their shooter.

The quieter-than-expected village didn’t stop a nostalgic walk down the familiar laneways (including Mike’s old work The Bulldog Bar) or a mandatory afternoon poolside under the sun at Farout Camping on Mylopotas Beach. Entertainment included the weekly wet t-shirt competition. Where you can always count on the Aussies, Kiwis and UK sheilas – full of free slurpee cocktails – to get their kit off for a chance at prize money that would keep them partying or travelling for another month. This was the biggest concentration of Aussies we’d seen since arriving in Europe over six months ago. I think it was safe to say the Ios Greek island summer tradition continued to live on amongst our audacious country folk and, likely much to the despair of the quiet resident community, will continue to do so for decades to come.

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A short two-hour downwind Parasail took us south from Ios to the unmistakable topography that was Santorini (Thira). Once a large, roundish landmass, in around 1600 BC the island was torn apart by one of history’s biggest known volcanic explosions and following 35 metre high tsunami, that also decimated the Minoan civilization in the entire region. Several earthquakes and eruptions since, including as recently as 1956, have continued to evolve the incredible landscape. A landscape that comprised a flooded caldera (crater), harden molten lava core-come island, towering 300-metre high cliffs and black sand beaches on the outer extremities. The fertile volcanic ash soil allowed farming of cherry tomatoes and grapes to flourish in the contrasting plains and valleys away from the tourist zones. When you’ve last seen a travel promotion for Greece, bought a Greek picture calendar or simply conjured up images in your mind, it’s highly likely those were scenes of Santorini – the country’s tourism poster child.

With unpredictable gusts and wind shadows as we entered the flooded caldera, we snuffed the Parasailor and motored around the base of the towering cliffs, dwarfed by their sheer grandeur. Whitewash buildings of Oia and Santorini’s main Chora clung high above. Over 100 metres deep even at the edges, whilst mooring buoys were available for tour boats; it was no place to spend the night. We motored and then sailed to the far southern end and safest mooring on the island at Vlikadha Marina. Rafting alongside Dominos (in the very last spot for visiting yachts), it was more of a fishing port than a marina, but a sheltered location to leave the boat for a day of sightseeing. The port was also home base for 10+ day-tripper catamarans that were jostling for space at the same time we arrived – during their mid-afternoon changeover of guests. And made for quite the spectacle when they all sailed home against the sinking orange-red disc of the setting sun.

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With little public transport available from our southern port of Vlyhada, the Dominos crew and we packed into a weathered transit rental van to tour the island. Santorini’s Chora was crammed, overly touristy and slightly rundown from what I’d remembered of our previous 2002 visit. Yet the vistas down the terraced homes, hotels, restaurants and across the caldera were sufficient enough to wow even a seasoned traveller.

A consensus would agree the highlight of our Santorini stay was a not-to-be-missed sunset at the northern-most perch of Oia (pronounced ee-a). It was a must to arrive at least an hour before the sunset, in hope of finding a wall to balance on amongst the hundreds of other tourists who flocked there every evening for the nightly ritual. Grab some takeaway beers from the jolly market shop owner, your friends and loved ones, and wait with a few hundred other new buddies to savour the everyday spectacle of Mother Nature that we rarely stop our busy lives to appreciate. Wolf whistles and applause as the last tip of the sun disappeared below the hazy sea horizon was surprisingly uplifting and refreshing. Sure it was the touristy thing to do, but a visit to Santorini would not be complete without it.

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A Santorini marina berth was expensive so we didn’t linger long – next taking our guests on their first rough, windy sailing passage, six hours and 50nm ENE to Nisos Astipalaia. Days like that were inevitable, with 20 gusting to 25-knot winds and uncomfortable confused seas, but an essential introduction if they were to be exposed to the realities of our new sailor lifestyle. It certainly ain’t all azure bays and sunset cocktails! The last of the Cyclades islands on our itinerary offered the final chance to captures images of the unforgettable white cubism style that made the region so endearing. After a morning meander around Skala town on Astipalaia, the Meltemi was blowing so we sailed a solid beam reach across to the western tip of Kos Island. Anchored off Ormos Kamares – the sweetest looking restaurant on the waterfront strip was called Sydney – so that’s where we took our dear mummy darling to dinner for her birthday. Happy Birthday Pammy!

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Our arrival to Kos placed us in the Dodecanese family of islands, where the barren landscapes and simple whitewash buildings of the Cyclades gave way to greenery and Roman, Italian, Turkish and Byzantine influences. Kos Town was a hectic, commercial port with an abundance of sunburnt English tourists crammed into massive package hotels and onto day-tripper boats. Popular also with visiting yachts, a few quick phone calls confirmed both Kos’ marina and the old harbour had no space for us. Given the winds and swell made anchoring unfeasible, we fortunately squeezed into the last available mooring spot off the busy ferry wharf.

As Kos Town was located just 10 kilometres from Turkey, we found ourselves sandwiched between two gorgeous wooden Turkish gulets. Snuggled in close allowed us to peer into their fore and aft-decks and admire the incredible wood and stainless steel workmanship. Kos’ Castle of Knights was built in the 1300s and stood majestically alongside the harbour. It was there that we also visited the tree and ancient sanctuary of Hippocrates: the famous Greek founder of modern medicine was born and raised on the island.

After restocking with groceries, duty-free booze (alcohol was significantly more expensive in Islamic Turkey) and ordering one last gyro, we ran the disjointed gauntlet of harbour master, port police and customs to clear out of Greece and bid adieu to another magic country that has made a glowing impression on our sailing adventure. Apart from the strong Meltemi sailing winds, stunning scenery, characterful villages, clear blue oceans and some of the most spectacular beaches we’ve ever visited – it will be the warm hospitality of the Greek people and their cheeky humour to leave the greatest impact.

Crossing the short 10-kilometre stretch of ocean and sailing into a brand new country was best described through the eyes of our visitors. Forgo the stress of an airport arrival into a new country – bright artificial light after a long weary flight, customs line ups and critical questions, hustling crowds, foreign language and signs, lost baggage, and pesky accommodation and transport touts on exiting the arrivals gate. Not to mention next trying to find your way out of the airport to your hotel or the city centre.

Instead we all gazed from any of the 360-degree vantage points around the boat as we inched across the seaborne border, taking in the surroundings, pointing out interesting sights including the imposing Bodrum castle, maneouvering between the dozens of Turkish flagged gulets at anchor before dropping our own pick and taking a breather to soak up the fresh air and sunshine. As the first haunting Islamic call to prayer pierced the afternoon air, we knew we’d received our official welcome. That said, the next steps for a yacht can be more complicated and expensive than an airport arrival. We were each billed the newly increased 45 euro for a three month tourist visa, plus 40 euro yacht cruising permit and 100 euro agent fee. The mandatory use of an agent in Turkey was required to guide us between customs, police and harbour master. An easy 100 euro for what was no more than 30 minutes work for the agent, but none-the-less a seamless process and we were on our way.

We didn’t stay long in Bodrum as it was hardly a representative introduction to ethnic Turkey, with tacky tourist markets, thriving kebabs houses and a lengthy string of waterfront bars that crammed the narrow beaches. The corridor of bars pointed to the granddaddy nightclub Halikarnas, and its Hollywood-style searchlights crisscrossing the night sky. I distinctly remembered that particular club from our visit there over a decade ago, though the number of additional bars and discos appeared to have grown exponentially. Including the insane floating nightclubs that encircled the bay into the wee hours. Lit up like Christmas trees and thumping Top 40 remixes, the MC blasted for his late-night party people to “make some noise” as his voice reverberated across the entire bay. Fortunately earplugs and the constant buzz of our bedroom fan afforded a reasonable night sleep despite the dance parties that surrounded us! I know, I know… some of you are probably questioning why we weren’t there getting amongst it.

Bodrum’s dominant feature was the Castle of St Peter. The fortress-like structure stood supreme above the sprawling markets and modern bars, and was flanked by the shoulder-to-shoulder wooden gulets that lined the harbour. Resident power party at the time, the Knights Hospitaller built the original structure in the 1400s. The castle fell into disrepair when their power was overturned and then further destroyed from shelling during WWII. St Peter’s has since been painstakingly rebuilt over the last 50 years and contains the Museum of Underwater Archeology, home to one of the world’s best collections of amphorae (tall clay jars for transiting goods in ancient times), all recovered from Turkish waters.

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Interestingly there has been almost as many American flagged and Wilmington, Delaware registered yachts and motorboats in Turkey, as there were Turkish registered boats. After spotting more than 100 Delaware boats in our first week, I finally cornered a skipper as he stepped off his yacht to ask of the Turkey-Delaware connection. As expected he was Turkish and had never been to Delaware. With a smirk he explained it was expensive to register a boat in Turkey, yet Delaware (specifically the river city of Wilmington) offered something along the lines of a cheap tax-exempt boat registration. A registration that, obviously, was also available to non-residents who had no intention of ever stepping foot in America. But no doubt those Turkish-owned boats in a faraway land had contributed to the building of many Delaware roads, schools and public services. That said I reckon you’d feel slightly ripped off to be a United States national who had legitimately sailed all the way across the Atlantic (or further the other way round) only to be surrounded by phony US flagged vessels diluting a yachtie’s pride and patriotism.

UPDATE: now three weeks into our Turkey trip there have been literally HUNDREDS of Delaware registered boats. Including all shapes and sizes from small monohulls, to tourist gulets schooners and mega motor yachts.

With less than a week remaining with our dear guests Jay and D, and after a number of hectic, windy days travelling, it was time to put the brakes on, slow down and relax back to sleepy vacation mode. The ideal touring grounds for this was the Gokova Korfezi Gulf that lay between Bodrum and equally frantic Marmaris. Water was so calm it often resembled a giant lake; majestic rocky hills were enveloped in greenery and lazy, steamy days ensued. It was the stuff that cruiser daydreams are made of.

We’ve since said farewell to Jay and D and are now cruising south along Turkey’s western coast with an old dear friend of dad’s from his Clearance Diving Navy days – John and his lovely wife Tess. We’ve still so much to share from our first 10 or so days in Turkey, but this entry is already too long and far too much time between posts. Promise to write more soon.

 

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