In my mind’s eye, I have always seen Greece as whitewashed houses trimmed in bright blue, clinging to craggy shorelines in the light of a blindingly bright sun. Gorgeous, of course. But what I found when I finally went is that Greece is exactly as I imagined it — and yet much, much better.
We met Helios, a 115-foot Falcon motoryacht, in Poros, a tiny island in the Saronic Gulf that’s just a stone’s throw from the mainland. The waterfront there was studded with charming shops, and the hills as we passed through the channel to the sea were thick with pines. This island is believed to have been inhabited since the Bronze Age, and I was sorry not to have more time to explore. But we were on our way to the nearby island of Hydra.
Hydra also lies in the Saronic Islands. No cars, trucks or motorized vehicles (except garbage trucks!) are allowed here. The lovely town is wrapped around the harbor, so it’s easy to travel by foot, bike or donkey. Every drop of water that the island needs is imported (ironic, considering hydra means water), and despite its super chic ambience, it has a rugged, spare sort of beauty. Once a great shipping center, it was known as “Little England,” though of course both the food and the weather are much better.
We continued on to Syros (above), which is the administrative center of the Cyclades and an island that’s less visited by international vacationers, though many Greek tourists vacation here. Perhaps that’s why I immediately loved it — it had a bustling commercial center along the waterfront and a shy beauty that didn’t clobber me over the head like its postcard pretty neighbors. Behind the street that runs along the natural port of Ermopouli, though, we walked streets paved in stone and marble past ancient churches and up through the hillside neighborhood of Vaporia, which is studded with neoclassical captains’ houses overlooking a stunning sea vista. In the evening we strolled through the ancient hilltop streets of Anos Syros and stumbled upon a traditional taverna, empty except for the owner and a bouzouki player strumming rebetiko songs. Michael Skoulikidis, CEO of charter company Atalanta Golden Yachts and our host aboard Helios, explained that rebetiko is a form of folk music that focuses on the travails of working people — and in Greece’s current climate of austerity it is experiencing a real revival in popularity.
We got off to a late start on our way to Paros the next day because the port was closed due to high winds and rough seas. Eventually we were under way, and the beauty of Helios‘ twin MTUs became immediately apparent. Cruising at 23 knots, we barely had to alter our agenda. Aboard a sailboat, we would have been forced to skip ahead. (And trust me, you do not want to miss Paros!) Though I had always imagined myself cruising the Greek Islands aboard a sailboat, as thousands of lucky Europeans do each year, I would plan on that only if I had a couple of months to enjoy carefree, leisurely exploration, the fantastic line-of-sight navigation and the seasonal winds. On a typically pitiful vacation of “normal” length, the frustration of being able to see so little when there are more than 6,000 islands in Greece would drive me to tears.
Helios was an ideal yacht for our purposes. Incredibly comfortable in both ride and amenities, this 2010 build was furnished in a neutral, contemporary style that is elegant yet inviting.
The afterdeck has a dining table for eight. Glass doors lead to the main salon, which features a living area aft and dining area forward — and large windows all around never let you forget where you’re cruising! An en suite double cabin is forward on the main deck. There are two more en suite queens and two en suite twin cabins below. One nice note: Though the three doubles are not exactly the same (the master is the amidships stateroom), they are very similar in size, fit and finish, which is really convenient when you’re sharing the charter with friends. No one will ever feel shortchanged.
Outdoor space on Helios was lovely. My trip was in March, and though the skies were mostly clear and sunny, it was chilly. We couldn’t take full advantage of Helios‘ comfortable flying bridge, ample swim platform and abundant water toys.
But plenty of ouzos and mezes made up for that. The cuisine we were served aboard Helios was heavy, but charterers can request lighter, less “fancy” fare and I’m confident the chef would be happy to oblige. You couldn’t do better while in Greece than to eat the way the Greeks do … flavorful local vegetables and simply prepared fresh grilled fishes and meats. I could drink shots of the lusciously fruity olive oil.
The most unexpected aspect of Greece, for me, was the diverse character of the islands. I have to admit that I thought Poros was lovely, Hydra was enchanting and Syros was the best. And then we arrived in Paros. Let’s put it this way: It is here that I ran to the laptop to research how much a small Cycladic-style house in the waterfront town of Naoussa would cost. Sigh.
Paros is not undiscovered, alas. And why would it be? Cobblestone streets that wind between whitewashed houses wrapped in bougainvilleas, lovely chapels, charming tavernas … unable to stay, I am still determined to go back, again and again, to see the many beaches and towns of Paros we didn’t get a chance to explore. Its neighbor Antiparos is also reported to be beautiful and a favored retreat, apparently, of Hollywood glitterati.
Our last stop was Mykonos, which I was fully prepared to greet with limited enthusiasm, imagining that such an international hot spot must be, by now, devoid of authentic charm. Yes, it was touristy. But it was also impossibly beautiful. … A windmill stands guard above the harbor, where a row of houses and tavernas is built directly over the water. Whitewashed houses are trimmed in bright blue and cling to the craggy shoreline in the blinding sunlight. After four days of wonderful surprises, I had finally arrived in the Greece I had pictured in my mind’s eye. And yes, it was gorgeous.
FUEL: 5,019 gal.
WATER: 1,162 gal.
ENGINES: 2 x 2,285 hp MTU diesels
GENERATORS: 2 x 55 kW Kohlers
SPEED: 26 knots max, 23 knots cruise
GUESTS: 12 guests in 5 cabins
BASE RATE: High season: $100,000 per week (approximately); low season: $80,000 (approximately)
Charter Plans: Eastern and Western Mediteranean