We sailed into Naxos in the middle of a hot sunny day and tied up in the port which is right in the middle of town, a mass of yachts, inter-island ferries and fishing boats fronting the main square which is lined with cafes and bars furnished with large colourful couches for the weary traveller, and offering dangerously cheap cocktails. Large octopus hang in rows on ropes outside restaurants, drying in the sun. The town is built on a steep hill around the Kastro, a ruined Venetian castle, and is apparently wholly devoted to tourism, with endless interesting jewellery shops, bars and restaurants on the wide esplanade, in narrow arcades built into the cliff, and clambering up the hill to the Kastro.As evening fell I walked, as custom demands on Naxos, along the causeway and up to the Portara, an arch which was the entry to the Temple of Apollo, built about 500BC, to watch the sun set in a blaze of scarlet and orange behind the Portara, across the sea which at this time of day does indeed look “wine-dark”. We rented two cars and drove around Naxos, which is the largest, greenest and most fertile island of the Cyclades. There is so much to see, scattered in villages around the island; in Halki we strolled the streets of candy-coloured houses, ate ice-creams, and visited the citron distillery to taste the Kitron which is distilled from citrus leaves and is definitely NOT to my taste. We walked up to the Temple of Demeter near Sangri, which looks over fertile fields appropriate to the goddess of grain. We strolled through an orchard to see fallen incomplete statues, abandoned on the hillside when they were damaged while being dragged down from the marble quarries at Menares, which is believed to be the first place in Greece where marble was quarried for architectural material. We walked down into a village, inaccessible by car, where we had lunch in possibly the prettiest restaurant I have ever seen, table scattered over stone flagging under dappled shade of trellised vines, with a fountain which provides the village water. For a few euro we had three courses of wonderful food in quantities ample for twice our number, and wine and chilled water. I am ashamed to say that I can not recall, or find despite extensive googling, the name of this village or restaurant, which should be a must-see for every visitor to Naxos. That night we followed the trusty Junior through tiny winding paved alleys almost impassable with diners seated at tables spilling into the footpaths. The smells of garlic, fish, and charcoal grilled vegetables filled the arcades, but we straggled behind Junior because the shops were so fascinating that one or another of us kept being lost to a treasure house of jewellery, ceramics or clothes. In such a tourist spot I would not expect heaping platefuls of such delicious simple foods, and for rock bottom prices, but I was yet again proved wrong. The quality of the food at every restaurant was generally very good to outstanding, and extraordinary for the price. We were to have visited Mykonos, but strong winds made it unpleasant to continue across the open sea from Naxos, so Junior used some discretion and we circled back around different parts of Amorgos and Schinoussa, which spared one of our crew who was a little afraid of the heeling of the yacht in strong winds. I think most of our number enjoyed being in the bays and ports more than long stretches under sail in rough weather. On Amorgos we hired cars and drove to Panagia Hozoviotissa, a monastery wedged like a limpet into a cliff over the sea, and reached by rough and irregular stone steps climbing an agonising 300 metres. The monastery was built to protect an icon dating from 812AD, and strict dress codes apply. Women must wear a skirt, not trousers, and have covered arms; men must wear long trousers and a shirt. The view is as staggering as the climb. Visitors are given a small glass of liquor made by the monks, and then the stairs must be braved again. To recover we drank cocktails in a small bar looking over a windmill to the sea at sunset. The Chora (main town) of Amorgos looks very boring from the road, and I wondered why Junior was taking us there, but as usual he knew what he was doing. It is an exquisite inward-looking village with narrow curving paths joined by staircases running between blindingly white houses, doors of every shade of bright blue, fascinating shops that I wanted at least a day to explore, and lovely terraced restaurants. Of all the towns we visited, this is the one to which I would most like to return. On our last day we had a long passage down to Santorini which was a glorious sail, but unfortunately we had a mechanical problem with the rudder which could not be fixed at sea, so it was a difficult and slow trip back. This did not inconvenience us except that we had not bargained on not being able to get lunch somewhere, so it was a good day for the figure, and made for a hearty dinner that night. NOTE TO SOLO LADY TRAVELLERS: G Adventures does NOT charge a single supplement (Woohoo! I hate those), which makes the cost of travel with them much more accessible than for most tour operators. They also guarantee departure once you have paid, so you do not get stuck with airline tickets and nowhere to go because not enough people booked on your trip. Any negatives? we did have problems with two of the three toilets, but that might have been due, or partly due, to landlubbers not understanding how to use them.
The fact that the Solo Lady Traveller was sitting on the bow of a yacht sailing from Santorini to Naxos was entirely due to Mamma Mia. I had been meandering aimlessly round the internet from one topic into another, as one does, and found myself looking for the location where Mamma Mia was filmed. There on a page about the island of Skopelos was an advertisement for a sailing adventure from Santorini to Naxos and Mykonos. It was very reasonably priced, with, remarkably, no single supplement charge. But of course I ignored it. Three months later we sailed into the lovely port of Agios Georgios. You remember that brilliant translucent aqua of erasers that you used to see in school pencil-cases, a translucent glowing green somewhere between spearmint lollies and turquoise jewellery? That intense blue-green of sea-water in sunlight over shallow sands which compels you, helpless, off the bow of a boat into that luminous sea? That is what the water is like in Agios Georgios. I had decided with mild trepidation to join a 12 day skippered cruise with G Adventures sailing from Santorini to Naxos and Mykonos through the Small Cyclades. I was not concerned about sailing, as had I lived on small blue water cruising yachts for 4 years in my twenties. However as a sole lady traveller of ‘a certain age’, I had a vision of the other 6 passengers all being cool couples in their twenties or early thirties. This concern vanished when, after a frantic sweaty canter around the Vlichada marina, reached after a desperate dash from the Piraeus ferry which had reached Santorini 45 minutes late, I finally found my fellow adventurers, a cheery group strolling along the wharf. Our trusty crew consisted of an American couple with 2 teenaged boys, myself, and two other singles, a Canadian man and an Australian woman, both in their early twenties. The boat came with Junior, a professional skipper, a wiry and charming Brazilian with an encyclopaedic knowledge of the bays and bars of the islands, who during our cruise would not only sail us safely to wondrous places, but also guide us to the best places to rent a car, to safe places to swim, o exquisite little restaurants in folds of the salt soaked hills, and bars with the best view. That first morning we had danced on an early morning breeze the short distance from our first port of call, Ios, across the glittering waters of the Aegean Sea, and into the calm of Agios Georgios, the main port of Heraklia in the Small Cyclades. Ours was the only yacht in the little cup-shaped harbour, although there were a number of open wooden fishing boats with yellow, green or blue hulls and crisp white gunwhales, and filled with neat mounds of pale green fishnets, tied up along the stone esplanade which trims the eastern side of the bay. Needle pines threw a heavy shadow over the narrow beach at the head of the bay, where a couple of families with young children swam. A tarred road curled up from the esplanade through the early heat to the village. A few simple white block houses sat on top of the hill, with little Aegean-blue terraces overlooking the bay, serving coffee, wine, chilled water, and local meals. One of these, Maistrali Hotel, lured us in with siren song of coffee and we sat dazzled and dazed by the view. Great rows of cherry tomatoes and rosemary bushes grew fragrantly just below the terrace. The Alexandria, our 50’ Bennetton yacht, lay beneath us in the bay; quartz and mica sparkled in the rocks enfolding the bay, and the Aegean sea stretched away towards islands famed in ancient tales, Naxos, Mykonos, Amorgos, all the Cyclades. Although it was only mid-morning, the sail over from Ios to Heraklia had left us hungry. Hypnotised by the air, the glitter, the aroma of tomatoes and rosemary, we ordered food, a pitcher of white wine, sparkling mineral water. The plates arrived heaped, mounds of grilled octopus blackened on the edges and shining with olive oil, Greek salad dashed with chunks of feta and leaves of basil. We ate dakos, a Cycladic speciality of barley rusks topped with the extraordinarily sweet tomatoes and oregano, one of those foods which sounds dull but which hits you squarely in the emotional centre of the brain. The meal was very inexpensive, a few euros for each plate. It was a picture perfect moment, that rare and exquisite moment in travel when everything that you imagined of a place comes true in a synchronised splendour of sound, smells, tastes, the brush of salt summer air, and pleasant company. Heraklia has a population of about 150, a couple of cafes, a general store selling olives, metal dishes, plastic flip-flops, bread, stamps, fishing lines and, of course, fetta, tomatoes and cucumbers. It has the lovely little church of St George, built in 1834, snow white and azure and bougainvillea-bedecked, its steeple stark against the sky. The island is only 18 km square but, due to its numerous springs and a rich vegetation of cedar trees and figs, and to being protected from wind by the larger Cycladic Islands, it has been inhabited since at least the 2nd Millennium BC, when it is thought to have been a Cretan Minoan settlement. Its tiny size has left it largely undisturbed by the waves of conquest and reconquest which have swept the Aegean, although there is evidence of taxes being collected by both Turkish and Venetian empires, and probably some pirate presence. That evening we walked up into the village and down to a little restaurant, just a few long tables in a tiny square tucked into a fold in the village. We were asked into the kitchen, where we were chose for our dinner two fat fresh fish caught that day. Village life went on around us in the very dimly lit square (obviously reflecting the extremely high cost of electricity), people drank wine or ouzo in the cafe, and 20 or so scrawny cats loitered expectantly, on low stone walls and the restaurant steps. While our dinner was cooking I went up 2 steep steps into an adjacent shop and bought silver bracelets and a heavenly shawl the colour of the sea. As darkness settled gently into the square we ate whole fish, greek salad (of course) and drank local white wine. We found to our dismay that the two whole fish cost us about $200, a short sharp lesson in asking the price before ordering! That was just the start of a truly paradaisical (if that is a word) 12 days, each one a gem scattered through the weeks like the islands on the bronze and pewter sea. Most nights we stopped in a port and had a cheerful dinner at a restaurant beside the water, a couple of times we anchored overnight in a remote bay and watched the night rise from the sea while we had a drink on deck and someone cooked dinner. Most days we were able to swim in a protected bay, and on Sikinos we swam over a sunken plane in about 4 metres of glass-clear water before a lunch of Greek salad and peaches. We drifted through the days via islands of Ios, Schinoussa, Koufonisia, Paros, Amorgos and Naxos, seeing windmills, waterside cafes, goats taking themselves for a walk, dry stony hillsides, tiny white bays with jewel toned water, and always the sea.