Although getting a taxi from the airport to the youth hostel was easy enough, the taxi driver didn’t like the looks of our two giant rucksacks or our even larger couple of bags containing our Feathercraft folding kayaks. He reluctantly took us under his wing and whisked us through warm, dusty, traffic-choked Athens. The landscape, traffic and architecture reminded me very much of La Jolla, a suburb of San Diego. The city, with its smooth, rendered stucco structures and wrought iron balconies, bougainvilleas and scrubby, dry vegetation all set against a glistening sea could have easily been southern California if it wasn’t for the funny alphabet on the shop windows and billboards.
After a frustrating and torturous drive through pedestrianised walkways, our taxi driver found the youth hostel. Our room was to be on the fifth floor, so I crammed myself and one-half of our luggage into the extremely tiny, ancient elevator and went up to the wrong floor. I finally figured out after nearly not being able to get out that floors are counted from top to bottom! Our room had two nice girls who obligingly shared one bunk while we took the other.
That afternoon we visited the Acropolis, Temple of the Nymphs and the Parthenon. I was most intrigued by the steps leading up to the Acropolis. The steps of smooth marble were polished solely by the millions of people visiting the site over dozens of years, and I was so intrigued by them that I repeatedly stooped down to touch this amazing white marble. The Acropolis was truly overwhelming with its columns several stories high and set on the highest point in Athens. Athens looked really vibrant with its lovely white dwellings overlooking the sparkling Aegean Sea.
The next morning we rose early and caught the ferry to Andahmos on the Cycladean island of Milos. Our first mission was to buy food and find a place to camp near enough to the sea to set off in our kayaks. We found a willing taxi driver even though he told us we had “too much stuff”. The first organized campsite we came to was empty, not very inviting and several hundred metres from the water. He drove us further on across to the other side of the island where we found a nice little sandy beach nestled against a steep, dry rocky cliff. Most of the beaches in the Cyclades are of this type – small, sandy or pebbly coves with steep, scrubby hills all around. Even though the Mediterranean Sea does not generally have big swells or surf compared to open ocean coasts, nearly every beach we camped on had steeply sloping beaches that created one to two feet of noisy, dumping surf.
Compared to the hot, sweltering nights of the British Virgin Islands, sleeping here was bliss. The temperature at this time of year (late September) was an absolutely perfect 17 to 20 deg and there were no biting insects.
We settled on a campsite on a nice sandy beach under a tamarind tree. There were still a few sunbathers about, including a young, inquisitive Greek couple who were intrigued by my 17-year old North Face Bullfrog tent.
Day 1: Milos to Provatas Beach to Klefticos to Provatas Beach.
We rose, ate, and packed at a leisurely pace noticing the unexpected swell from the South even though the winds here usually prevail from the northwest. My introduction to the Aegean soon after setting off was a good hit in the chest from a three foot wave while Stew lost his water bottle. My husband, being big, hairy and sweaty requires an enormous amount of water each day. We had purchased about 12, 1.5L bottles of water from the supermarket the day before and fortunately he had one right behind his seat. According to the chart, we had passed one small beach with no landing for another hour to hour and a half of paddling. We rafted up in the swell and I just barely pulled the bottle out and gave it to him to place on his deck. The heat and swell must have affected us and we both became very queasy and nauseous. This can’t be happening, I thought, after only one hour into a 10-day trip! We found the next beach ate and drank, put the sea bands on my wrist and the queasiness settled. The rest of the afternoon was beautiful as we weaved in and out of a very scenic area of caves, white chalk arches and stacks. Winds were light and the swell eased as we returned back to Provatas Beach.
Day 2: North Provatas to Appolonia.
A good 15 knot wind and an entertaining choppy sea were the order of the day as we rounded the steep headland up the east side of Milos. We pulled up to a sheltered harbour, and had a lunch break on a sheltered beach in the white-washed village of Appolonia. We couldn’t always get a weather forecast so we found a diving outfitter who told us the next day would be Force 5 (17 to 21 knots). We headed back south 1km to a smallish beach amongst unusual limestone rocky tors and realized we were on the edge of an active quarry. I quite liked our “Mad Max” campsite; it had nice views and didn’t require any long carries to the water. That evening and for the next two days we were stormbound in strong winds of around 25 to 30 knots.
Days 3 and 4: Appolonia.
We must have been investigated over the next two days by at least four quarry workers in pick-up trucks who must have wondered what we were doing there. Only one of them actually spoke to us and seemed to understand that as soon as the wind eased we would move on. I became, nevertheless, a little nervous at the thought of the poor plane-spotters who were thrown in jail for merely taking pictures of planes. Would we suffer a similar fate for trespassing on a quarry site?
The nearby village was a pleasant 45 min walk along scrubby cliffs and I’ll always remember the wonderful scent of the wild oregano and marjoram shrubs as we brushed past. We passed a herd of poor goats that each had one front and back leg tethered to stop them running away or leaping off the cliffs. I wondered how they had enough to eat in this barren landscape. In town, after a nice meal in one of the tavernas, the owner remarked how unexpected was this “strong Force 6” as he put it. I began to be a bit concerned that winds this strong could appear unforcasted. My barometer hadn’t budged and indicated high pressure and the sky was bright and clear. I did remember reading in the Greek Waters Pilot that these summer winds called the “Meltemi” were thermal-induced and grew in strength as the day progressed. They would typically reach Force 5 to Gale 8 (17 to 40 knots) and could last from two days to two weeks, dying down altogether by the end of September. This is why we chose this time of year to go, and hopefully, the Meltemi we were experiencing would be the last one for the summer. Will we have to spend our entire two weeks on Milos?
Day 5: Milos (near Appalonia) to Peliagos.
Sure enough the winds eased considerably and we awoke to a clear, cloudless day with a light breeze. The sea had settled down quickly and we had a very enjoyable paddle with a small crossing of a few kilometres to the island of Peliagos. Colourful stacks dotted the cliffy coast. Our campsite was on a delightful shelf partway into a cave facing southeast towards our first big open crossing of 19 km to Folegandros, and far away indeed, it looked. The moonlight was magical, but I slept well as if I hadn’t a worry in the world.
Day 6: Peliagos to north Folegandros.
I insisted we set off on the water at dawn to avoid the strongest winds at mid-day, and this was to be the pattern for the rest of the trip. It wasn’t easy and at times I had to drag my 16 stone husband (pure muscle, of course) by the ankles out of the tent while still snoring. Again, we were unable to get a forecast on our VHF and instead relied on a yachtie we saw the previous day who gave us the forecast of “Force 2 to 3” in a strong German accent. Perfect. We made our dawn launch and headed towards a mist-shrouded Folegandros on a calm, quiet sea. How insignificant, vulnerable and small one feels so far from land. For a time we lost sight of both the island we left and the island to which we were paddling. We encountered a container ship not quite on a collision course, and I was glad we were too early to worry about the high-speed ferries. Soon Folegandros came into view and after three hours we had completed our first big open crossing. I wasn’t tired at all, just hungry. A few kilometres later, we found a narrow beach and set up camp. After a swim in the very salty sea, (Stew could even float his big hairy frame on it), we found a trail and walked up the steep hill to the village of Hora.
It felt like a medieval ghost town with nobody about in the mid-day sun. Stew was very thirsty and sweaty and we walked for what must have seemed like hours to find a tavern with ice cold beer. The houses were a dazzling white and olive vineyards lined the dry, terraced hillsides. We found our taverna and each ordered a cold Heineken. The taverna owner looked puzzled and asked us a couple of times if we each wanted a bottle. Well, um, “yes”, we replied. Stew had two more and after his third, a group of four local Greek guys sat a couple of tables away. They cheerfully ordered “a” bottle of Heineken with four glasses and split the bottle between them! Stew looked aghast and I thought the whole thing rather funny. We were starving, but since the only course offered was fried liver, we left. Fortunately, down the road we found a small, old-fashioned cafe with a couple of tables. We had a nice meal with a huge Greek salad, fish and potatoes. Everything you eat in Greece is smothered in olive oil, which I love. I expected the toilet here to be the squat type, but this bathroom was scrubbed clean – floor, ceiling, walls and toilets – with what must have taken an entire bottle of bleach. Happily full of food and drink, we staggered back down the hill past the goats and the donkeys to our little camping homestead.
I had gotten used to the sound of the small but explosive dumping surf of our last few campsites, but as I was dozing off, the sound of the surf seemed to grow slightly louder. Later, I was awakened at about 1am and could swear the surf was becoming louder and more explosive and encroaching on our small beach. After about an hour lying awake, listening to the ever increasing, loud, pounding surf, I stepped out of the tent. To my amazement, the entire beach had disappeared, and the waves, now a good three feet high were hitting the foot of our tent and sterns of our kayaks. I awakened Stew, who was blissfully unaware of this alarming situation, and we quickly broke camp and dragged the kayaks and gear up the cliff past the large, awkward boulders well away from the menacing surf. We found a couple of rare, narrow, flat ledges on which to place our thermarests and slept out in the open under a windless, bright, moon-lit night. It was like trying to sleep with someone shining a flashlight in your face, but I dozed off wondering how on earth we were going to launch through that wretched, dumping surf in the morning.
Day 7: North Folegandros to south Folegandros.
No open crossings today, but the surf did ease somewhat and the winds were light and out of the southwest. We ate breakfast perplexed about why our beach disappeared the night before. We were well above the tide line, the tidal range on the Greek Islands didn’t exceed a couple of feet, and the winds were light the previous day and all night. We soon found out after launching through the two-foot dumpers and upon leaving our small bay that a very entertaining swell had been building all night. There is no land between Folegandros and Crete, and with cliffy Folegandros orientated in a northwest to southeast direction, it was in a perfect position to take a direct hit from a distant southwest swell. The sea was glittering and I really enjoyed the bouncy, jostling, confused swell. We finally rounded the last headland after three hours and entered a calm, sheltered cove with an inviting beach for a relaxing lunch.
After a very mellow paddle, we ended up in Livadhi which was supposed to have an organized campsite. The campsite was dusty, deserted and a good couple hundred metres from shore. We headed a further kilometre along the coast to the main part of the village and pulled up to a nice beach right in front of a tavern and had a couple of ice cold Heinekens, again! As we discussed our camping options, I noticed a naked Greek god sunbathing on one of the beaches and suggested to Stew, “Why don’t we camp over there?”, hoping the Greek god would stay a while so I could get a good gawp. No chance. We walked to the nearby Coast Guard station to get a weather report and the grumpy young officer mumbled “Force 4 to 5 from the south.” That was a bit strong for us for the 12km open crossing for tomorrow so we planned for another dawn start. We found a nice sandy cove one kilometre from the village where a couple of young Greeks had a party which centred around a large candle while they probably shared “a” bottle of Heineken between them.
Day 8: South Folegandros to Sikinos.
We left at dawn with winds that started light but strengthened as the day progressed, and paddled along a chain of skerries and small islets. A moderate 15 knot wind accompanied our crossing but assisted us with a helpful push from behind. There were Mare’s tails developing in the sky, but they were short-lived and didn’t seem to develop into bad weather. We pulled up to a very beautiful sandy beach with cliffs of green and copper-coloured rocks.
Day 9: Sikinos to Ios.
After a leisurely open crossing, we landed on Ios early and en-route to the supermarket, as we passed many yachts; we were recognized by the German yachties we met on Folegandros. They were island-hopping by yacht the same islands we were hopping by kayak. They were amazed that we covered the same daily distances, although at only 3knots. When we went back to our kayaks with our provisions, a Greek fisherman found it incredulous to find a deck-mounted compass, and when we explained that we were headed for Santorini (20km open crossing), he said, “It was not possible.” We camped on a nice shingle beach that night where a couple of Greek families had tethered their boats for a picnic. That night we could see the lighthouse on Santorini 20 km away and took a bearing and put coordinates in the GPS.
Day 10: Ios to Santorini.
We set off in darkness with our flashlights lighting our compasses, pointing our bows on the bearing towards Santorini. As we paddled into the darkness, a ferry passed on a parallel course many kilometres away, lit like a Christmas tree. At dawn we noticed a small fishing boat puttering slowly along about 500 metres to our beam. He was clearly curious to see how far out to sea we would travel, but eventually turned around. At daylight, we still couldn’t see Santorini because of the morning mist, but we continued on our bearing. Within an hour a 10 knot breeze began from the southwest turning our calm sea into small choppy waves. We adjusted course slightly and eventually, as the heat of the day built up, the clouds on the horizon parted and we began to see Santorini. Santorini is a volcano with the middle blown out from a previous eruption which created a spectacular crescent of mountains surrounding a seawater-filled caldera. White-washed houses dotted the ridges and colourful boats in the harbour greeted us after a tiring crossing of four hours and forty-five minutes. We camped after carefully negotiating a rough, bouldery beach with dumping two foot surf. The sunset was magnificent and the night would’ve been quiet and peaceful if it wasn’t for the pack of wild, barking dogs that later ran past.
Day 11: North Santorini to Ferry landing south Santorini.
This was a short, easy paddle and we marvelled at the unusual, scooped-out volcanic seascape. We landed near the ferry terminal and as I was contemplating the problem of our lack of booked accommodation, a very scruffy, persistent, but very polite man offered to take us to his B&B with transport included for a very tempting price. We took the risk and stayed at beautiful, bright yellow B&B in a prime location near the town centre.
The next morning, as promised, he shuttled us to the ferry back to Athens. On the ferry, we experienced the first thunderstorm of the trip and even watched a small waterspout. Our timing to squeeze our trip between the end of the summer Meltemi and autumn thunderstorms had worked well and were happy we had safe open crossings.
Our taxi driver in Athens became excited when he realized we were from Scotland and wanted to tell us that Scotland had beaten France at football in the Euro qualifiers the previous day, and this was the first news we had heard since being away on our amazing island-hopping trip. We were looking forward to going home to the luxury of our own bed, shower and television.