Sparkling like expensive toys in the golden crescent of Marina Zea, west of the big port of Piraeus, Greece, are the yachts that make summer dreams come true -- dreams of sailing the Aegean Sea with nothing but a small tote bag, a bathing suit, shorts, sneakers and a good book that you just may never open.
J.P. Morgan's put-down "If you have to ask, you can't afford it" is the automatic reflex to questions about what it costs. But we're not talking here about owning one -- just about renting a yacht, living aboard and cruising from one sun-baked Greek isle to another at less than the price of a not-too-fancy hotel room.
Ours was named Doxa I, which suggests that there's a whole flotilla of others, and there are. More than 1,000 vessels are available for charter -- crewed motor yachts, motor sailers, sailing yachts and even bareboats (where you are your own skipper).
I was invited to join a party of nine others -- to be the 10th man, so to speak -- on a $1,000-per-day charter with a crew of four. Food and fuel are extra; but expenses split 10 ways (excluding air fare to Athens) were reasonable, I reasoned, especially when compared to a luxury cruise on an ocean liner. And the freedom is beyond price! None of this "if it's Tuesday, this must be Mi'konos." The trip was more like, "Today's Wednesday, where would you like to swim tomorrow?"
Doxa I is a two-masted, 85-foot motor schooner, with a wooden hull, Mercedes Benz engine and a cruising speed of 11 knots. Built in Greece in 1964 and refurbished in 1970, she is one of 200 belonging to Valef Yachts Ltd. She has four identical cabins forward, with what her owners describe as one double and one single bed each. (In each cabin the single bed is an upper berth over a wider lower, which is considered the double.) These four cabins share two bathrooms ("heads," we say in nautical talk). A stateroom "aft" sleeps six in two double and two single beds (if they know each other really well) with an adjoining private head. The crew of four is accommodated forward in a separate area.
The schooner has roomy decks where most of us slept by night or day, when we weren't out sampling the local beaches or exploring the vertical topography. Although it has a fitted "saloon" amidships, our meals aboard were consumed at a big round table on the cooler "after deck" in comfortable rattan armchairs, whose cushions also served as mattresses under sun or stars. The crew wastes no energy, and idleness is the sole and utter responsiblility of the passengers.
Greece has nearly 10,000 miles of seacoast and about 2,000 islands, many of them accessible only by yacht. We chose to head southeast among the Cyclades, the best known and the closest to mainland Greece. They are roughly arranged in a circle around Delos, the sacred island of antiquity, where the tourist brochure says that the god Apollo and the goddess Artemis were born. (The Greek word for circle is kyklos, and thence comes the name for this group of outcroppings.)
For an idea of what the islands look like, picture a dozen or so homemade muffins, carelessly arranged -- homemade, because no two are exactly the same size or shape. Each rises in a little mound, some higher than the others, from the Aegean Sea. Each has a small harbor where the boats dock, and along the waterfront there are tavernas with chairs and tables set out under trees. A mini-market, a souvenir shop or two and perhaps a little hotel may be a short walk from the pier.
Usually there are beaches on either side of the harbor and a town called Hora (which means "high town") at the top of each "muffin." Some kind of road leads up to the high town. It may be just a donkey path, or a narrow lane set with slate flagstones, or perhaps one asphalt-paved street.
The town's little whitewashed houses and churches are built so close together that you could almost walk into one from the other, except for the walls between. The goal was protection from invaders: Crusaders, Venetians, Turks. The Hora provided a kind of citadel for the few inhabitants, whose lives then as now were concerned mainly with fishing, tending the vines, their goats and growing some wheat, vegetables and olives in terraced plots on the hillsides. The doors of the houses are painted yellow, blue or green with sills, sashes and shutters to match. Oleanders and bougainvillea, not needing too much water, are tenderly nursed.
The Cyclades, more than a baker's dozen, include some that are well-known and thriving, like Mi'konos. One of them, Santorini, had the middle chewed out of it by a volcano eruption centuries ago, and the Aegean has come in and filled up the hole. None of the islands we visited is on the usual cruise ship route, except Santorini. Some are uninhabited, and some have a population under 2,000, except in the summertime.
Our crew was headed by Capt. Stamatis Katrachillis. Trim, tan and holder of a radioman's license as well as his captain's papers, he's probably no more than 35 years old. He could be working on the big "seeps" as a radio operator, he says. (Greeks have a hard time with the sound "sh" -- Americans have a hard time speaking any Greek at all.) But wherever he would go, "I would be stranger."" He prefers to be in charge, with full responsibility for his vessel.
Capt. Stam's crew worked together as harmoniously as a finely tuned lute. And they'd been together for only a month. The charter yachting season runs from June to October and this was July, the time of juicy peaches, sweet figs, watermelons and the meltemi (the north wind that makes the heat bearable but can turn the sea into a rollercoaster). In tribute to their skill, the meltemi never bothered us.
Odysseus, the cook, was the oldest of the men, in his 40s. He spent most of his time performing small miracles in the galley below decks. Vanghelis was our steward, who cheerfully carried out every required duty, from tending bar to throwing out the mooring lines. Gianni, the first mate, was a gentle soul whose poetry has been published in the Ki'thnos island newspaper. Ki'thnos is his home, and it was our first overnight stop after a late-afternoon swim off Cape Sou'nion. The Temple of Poseidon was our last sight of the Greek mainland.
We docked just before 10 p.m. in the little harbor of Merihas. Ki'thnos is one of the least spoiled of the Cycladic Islands, but probably not for long, as the other "unspoiled islands" are discovered and holidaymakers keep moving over to the next one. For now, at least, Ki'thnos is a quiet, hospitable place, 54 nautical miles from Piraeus, with erratic ferry service that discourages casual visitors.
One of the two mini-markets on the quay specializes in rubber thongs, sun hats, postcards and 27 drachmas stamps (for sale at 30 drachmas) among the cans of evaporated milk, toothpaste and envelopes of Nescafe'. We could have embarked with no luggage at all and would have been able to outfit ourselves adequately at the first stop.
The drachma was up to 130 to the dollar. A room for two at the Hotel Possidonion at the southern end of Merihas harbor could be had for 1,800 drachmas ($13.85). Breakfast of juice, coffee, bread, butter, honey and jam came to 170 drachmas per person. (Yogurt or cheese were a few drachmas extra.) Clearly, Ki'thnos' days are numbered.
At about 8 o'clock the next morning fishing boats were tying up alongside the Doxa I. Some displayed a haul of small swordfish, already beheaded and cleaned; and the fishermen were doing a brisk business with the locals who had been waiting for them. I asked Capt. Stam if it would upset our schedule if we bought a fish and if Odysseus would cook it. Stam cautioned me that it might be expensive; but if the passengers were willing, he would send Gianni to handle the negotiations. "Always I do the best for you," he said. "Never I like to change your glad."
My shipmates were agreeable and so was Odysseus. The 4,000-drachma swordfish made a wonderful lunch, which we consumed that afternoon in the bay of Livadi on Se'rifos, 16 more nautical miles away.
Every area in Greece has a local hero or heroine. Se'rifos is the mythological setting for the story of Perseus and Medusa. Perseus, you remember, was the son of Zeus and the husband of Andromeda. Medusa was the monster with a head full of snakes. She could turn people to stone with a single glance. Perseus did Medusa in and became famous.
Some of my mates hiked up to the Hora, which in Se'rifos is crowned by the remains of an old Venetian fortress. I went to the beach, the only logical diversion considering the heat of the day. Taverna owners along the bay are exceedingly hospitable. Chairs and tables under sea pines are for whomever would like to sit down, whether you buy food and drink or not. One table was occupied by a black-clad grandmother, the vital and powerful yiayia of some Se'rifos family, without whom life would be much more difficult. She was absorbed in crocheting a panel of white lace.
Another table was taken by a Norwegian family that included two blond little boys. The father had heard of Se'rifos from a friend; he liked that there were no tennis courts, no golf courses, nothing to do. Everyone you meet has an expression of peace, a serene look of "we know something no one else knows." They pointed out a beach, up some stairs beyond sight of the quay. I followed a man in a bikini who was walking toward a path to the right of the cemetery. Sure enough, spread below was the cleanest, most deserted stretch of copper sand edged with a ribbon of foam that bordered a sea, wavering between turquoise and cobalt. It was downhill from the steep, rocky path. Dotting the beach were colored tents.
We spent the day exploring Sifnos, six nautical miles south, and docked in I'os early that evening. I'os is summer madness. Every college kid in the world who didn't make it to Fort Lauderdale for Spring Break (and some who did) can be found on the one narrow street of the Hora in I'os between dusk and dawn when school is out.
We never would have discovered this mecca for modern mermaids and men if two of us hadn't been elected to shop for gifts for the men of the Doxa I. We were staying overnight, but sailing early next morning for Santorini. There we would disembark and continue our island voyage by plane.
At the I'os Information Office at the end of the pier, a young Englishwoman was in charge. "How may I help you?" she asked. It sounded like Harrod's Department Store. We told her our mission. She directed us to the bus. Get off at the first stop just past the church, she said; go up the hill, and take the right fork. Just follow the crowd.
"Couldn't we take a taxi?" we asked in our ignorance.
"Well," she said, "there is just the one taxi driver in all of I'os, and he drives the bus."
I'os by night is as mobbed as a New York subway at rush hour. Tables and chairs outside crowded tavernas are completely obscured by the crowd. But none of the international pretty young things in search of each other seems to be going anywhere. The only folks in motion are inside the discos that line the crooked main street of the I'os Hora. The last bus down to the port leaves the peak at 11:30 p.m. -- empty.
Music continues until at least 3 in the morning. There's no fee for admission and no minimum. Michael Jackson is out. Bruce Springsteen is in. Bartenders serve concoctions based on tequila, the most popular spirit with this year's under-30 group roaming the Greek isles. How did tequila get this far? No one cares.
We made our way past "Frankie's Fast Food," the "Why Not?" and the "Who's Who?" (leather sandals made to order, as well as leather BIC lighter holders to wear around your neck or beer can carriers to wear on your belt), and we finally found the "Puzzle Boutique," just beyond the newsstand that sold magazines from everywhere and USA Today. We passed every kind of haircut, accent and earrings (single and in pairs). Disney characters and bawdy sayings were on T-shirts worn by one and all.
We arrived in Santorini with heavy hearts (and heads). Not that Santorini wasn't going to be exciting. We were sad to leave the Doxa I. We presented our gifts to the crew: a dancing Mickey Mouse shirt for Gianni; "No Problem" on a sleeveless number for Vanghelis; "Don't Touch" for Odysseus; and a crossword puzzle shirt with the names of all the islands, vertical and horizontal, for the Captain.
They made sure we were safely ashore with all our duffle bags and then pulled away from the dock. A short distance from shore, they stopped and put on their new shirts. Capt. Stam blew one long and two short whistles (a yacht's greeting to a friend). We waved them out to sea, and we will well remember them.