The summertime appeal of Greece—languid Mediterreanean lunches, charming white-washed villages, hidden swimming coves—can undoubtedly be spoiled by the crowds. But if you look beyond the well- trodden spots (and know how to navigate the Aegean) you’ll happen upon a smattering of tiny isles with all the spoils of the popular spots like Mykonos and Santorini, but without the tourists.
Looking to avoid those crowds, my partner and I booked one of the eight cabins aboard Sailing Cruise in Comfort‘s (SCIC) traditional wooden gulet—two-mast Turkish sailing vessels. Once used for fishing, these boats can now ferry up to 16 passengers for week-long tours through the southern Greek islands and Turkish coastline. The appeal is two-fold: Gulets give you greater access to the more remote islands, since their size allows them to dock in shallower waters, as well as spontaneity—the SCIC itineraries are dictated literally by where the wind blows. “Most other charters in these parts treat their sails as window-dressing,” explains Captain Oktay Yilmaz, “instead relying on their 360-horsepower Diesel engines.” The SCIC sails are raised to catch whatever gust is coming through, so you don’t necessarily know which islands you’ll end up on.
Our first gale (and Yilmaz’s skilled steering) brought us to the Nisyros, home to just over a 1000 residents and one brooding active volcano, Polyvotis. We docked in the sleepy harbor town of Mandraki early enough to watch the local taverna owners open up for the day, and drove up the island’s steep winding roads to the smoldering caldera. According to Greek mythology, Nisyros was once attached to Kos, but Poseidon split the isle in two when a battle between the Gods and the Titans broke out. These days the island is pretty tranquil. Along the crater, the brilliant white-and-blue houses and slumbering tabbys of the tiny village of Nikia serve as the postcard-perfect backdrop for sipping soumada, the traditional Greek almond soft drink served at one of the town’s two tavernas.
Life on board the mahogony Naviga 1 was equally laid back. Lunches were served around a large communal table and featured fresh caught fish like sea bass and octopus, as well as plenty of rosé. Soon enough we fell into a routine: mornings were spent exploring whatever island we docked at, followed by a swim in the many deserted coves, and then a long lunch. Post meal, we’d snorkel or kayak along the coastline of the tiny islets, or simply laze atop the sundeck on the boat.
During the course of the week we visited the tiny isle of Halki and the sprawling ancient Turkish archaeological site of Knidos—hard to reach by car but easy by boat—and the island of Symi. Here the cliffside houses are painted in shades of Italian peach following the island’s occupation from 1912-1948. On the southern end of the island is the Monastery of the Archangel Michael of Panormitis, where a small museum showcases the island’s religious artifacts as well as devout offerings—everything from body building trophies to a collection of messages in bottles that have washed up on shore. Make sure to visit early so you can buy a fresh loaf of olive bread from the monastery bakery, then eat it down on the waterfront before the hordes arrive on the ferry from nearby Rhodes.
Our journey ended where it began, in Kos Town. Here, the ruins of the ancient agora (marketplace) stand next to the modern-day equivalent, where locals sell thyme honey and powdery loukoumi (the Greek version of Turkish Delight). Kos is an easy enough town to explore on foot, with its winding cobbled alleyways full of trinket shops, and town square where the medieval Phoros Gate is stocked with perfumed Aubrieta flowers. Visit the Tree of Hippocrates, where the Greek physician taught his pupils, then stop at Aegli Cafe, the island’s first women’s cooperative. Everything served here is made on the island, including fresh fennel seed biscotti and garlicky tzatziki.
For our final evening, we dined at Broadway, a modern Greek restaurant run by a local family who spent several years in Queens. They serve up a new twist on classic Greek fare like sous-vide calamari and crispy pork belly gyros tucked into steamed buns. Full and content, we walked along the harbour wall to Naviga 1 for one more peaceful slumber at sea.
When to go
The sailing season in Greece and Turkey operates from late March through October. It’s worth bringing a sweater for the cooler evenings early and late in the season.
How to get there
SCIC cruises depart from Kos in Greece or Bodrum in Turkey, and itineraries are flexible according to the passengers’ preferences, with special themed charters including yoga, culinary and photography weeks available.
By: Imogen Rowland