A route plan from Craig

Some fantastic ideas of where to head on your next sailing holiday in the Ionian

 

With bright azure skies, lush greenery surrounding remote bays and the deep sapphire seas, the Ionian Sea of Western Greece boasts ideal sailing conditions, delectable Greek mezes and welcoming local folk in charming traditional villages.

Famous all over the world for the exotic beaches, Lefkada island is where I find myself working as an RYA sailing instructor for family run yacht charter company, Sail Ionian.

After growing up in Lancashire in the north of England and having lived in various places overseas since leaving school in late 2000, it’s no surprise that 6 years after discovering this gem of a place I have no plans to go anywhere else anytime soon.

Sail Ionian have been operating out of Vliho Bay on the east coast of Lefkas for the past 14 years. Not only are Sail Ionian an RYA recognised training centre offering practical RYA courses from Competent Crew through to Coastal Skipper, they have a fleet of over 40 sailing yachts – of which over 80% are less than 5 years old – which operate on a skippered and bareboat basis.

Lowen, our Hanse 495

Entering my 7th year skippering and teaching sailing in this blissful area, I have come to realise the key strengths needed to enjoy a relaxing sailing holiday. I have experienced and witnessed a lot in my time which have proved the fundamental areas to be proficient in are without a doubt: anchoring (sounds simple), long lining (not so simple) and mooring stern-to. For anyone reading this that has sailed in the Mediterranean and in particular the Southern Ionian – a very popular sailing area for a number of reasons – you will be familiar with the term ‘harbour cinema’, the act of smugly sitting in a harbourside cocktail bar sipping on a cool beverage, admiring your yacht safely moored up to the town quay and laughing at the attempts made from other yachts to do a similar thing. It seems that parking a boat is not quite as easy as parking a car – at least I hope these people don’t park their cars like this! Mooring stern-to however is not something to be fearful of and I, along with the other skippers at Sail Ionian, happily offer a free parking clinic at the beginning of your holiday to help you avoid stressful sticky situations at the end of the day.

A good route also helps form a memorable sailing holiday and part of that is, in my opinion, avoiding the run-of-the-mill flotillas. Although flotillas can provide entertainment to a certain extent, they are not to my liking. Give me a secluded bay here and there, a traditional Greek fishing port on route, along with one or two must-visit harbours and I’m in my element.

Our guests at Sail Ionian arrive usually mid afternoon on a typical Sunday turnaround and naturally, after a scenic transfer from the airport, they are chomping at the bit to get out sailing. Company director Neil and I sit down with guests in the café to have a quick chat about their planned route for the week. We discuss the weather too and give advice on our favourite places to go. After a comprehensive boat handover, our guests are ready to really start their holiday.

So it’s 4pm and with the sun setting around 8pm, there is plenty of time for a swim stop and to get slightly further afield than Meganisi. Don’t get me wrong, Meganisi is lovely in its own right but for those looking to get slightly off the beaten track after a long day of travelling, then try Palairos.

Palairos is located north east from Vliho and although home to a large flotilla company, free swinging on anchor off the beach is perfect. The bottom is sandy and being just off the beach provides good shallow holding.

You can swim off the back of the boat in the clear turquoise shallows or I recommend Varko bay, or Goat bay as it’s known locally. It’s on route to Palairos from Vliho and is located also on the mainland. The water is out of this world blue, I can’t put it into words, but you just have to go there to see for yourself. It’s an alternative overnight anchorage too if you have provisions to cook onboard.

Varko Bay

Palairos is one of the only west facing ports in the Ionian so head to one of the waterfront cocktail bars to relish your first mojito and sunset of the holiday.

There’s a great taverna up the hill slightly out of town with no menu. If you’re after a real Greek experience to kick proceedings off, then head here. You will feel like you are sitting in someone’s house and there seems to be a never-ending supply of food and wine – it’s amazing.

Head back to the yacht by dinghy and enjoy a sound night’s sleep ready for tomorrow’s adventures.

Kalamos is ideally situated as Monday’s port of call. Port Kalamos, on the east coast of Kalamos island is a small, picturesque little fishing harbour with just 2 tavernas, a shop and a bakery at the top of a steep hill.

Kalamos Harbour

On your way over to Kalamos, pop in to Abelike Bay on the north western corner of Meganisi. With it being sheltered from the prevailing wind, it’s the ideal spot to tuck in to and long line against the shore for a quiet swim.

Unofficial harbourmaster and owner of George’s Taverna, George will be there to meet you as you approach the harbour to give your mooring instructions and help with the process. He then proceeds to tell you where his taverna is…

George is a great guy, eager to help when it’s windy which is great for anyone not on a flotilla as you still get that support mooring. He does however have a tendency to cross anchors particularly well and in the morning when you are after a hand to uncross your anchors, you are more likely to spot a pod of dolphins in the harbour than find George so don’t expect help uncrossing anchors! Anchoring outside the harbour and taking the tender ashore is my preference – the biggest upside being able to swim off the back of the boat and not having any neighbours.

There is also a secret taverna south of the harbour on the beach next to the Venetian windmill. You can free swing outside and you will likely be the only boat there – if you are looking to escape the crowds then this is bliss. Just don’t tell George that I told you!

My ideal route would then head south to Ithaca, home to Odysseus – the hero of renowned Homer’s epic poem. Odysseus famously took 10 years to return home to Ithaca after the fall of Troy. On his journey, he was twice shipwrecked, and encountered a cyclops, the spirit of hi mother and tempting Sirens before finding his back home, where he found his wife Penelope surrounded by a host of suitors who has invaded the royal palace.

If I was Odysseus, I would have sought shelter in the serene Number 7 Bay on the south-eastern tip of Meganisi island. With only enough room for a couple of yachts to long line, it’s worth shooting over to this must-see bay before the lunchtime rush to get a good space protected from the prevailing wind. The water is crystal clear and the scenery breath-taking and conveniently the bay is en route South.

Without a doubt one of the most beautiful harbours in the Southern Ionian is Kioni. The windy afternoon wind makes for difficult mooring so if you are a little nervous about stern-to mooring or long lining, I suggest arriving early afternoon to beat the rush and before the afternoon breeze really takes hold. The town is particularly traditional, built amphitheatrically on the slopes of a mountain, with little tiled roofed houses overlooking the charming port with small fishing boats are quietly moored. It’s hard to believe that even in the 1600s the island was mainly uninhabited, and the Venetians had to pay people from neighbouring islands to live on Ithaca!

Today, this little paradise has grown into a modern tourist resort, with the many cafés and tavernas lining the port. Don’t let this put you off, the mixture of old and new really suits this place. You can enjoy amazing cocktails on the rooftop terrace overlooking the harbour as well as one of my favourite tavernas in the Ionian – a multi-level taverna growing each year up the mountain side. There’s also a fantastic homemade jewellery boutique which the ladies particularly enjoy – word of warning guys, mind your wallets!

Spending the following morning in the bay of Pera Pighadi an hour south on Ithaca’s more rugged coastline is breath-taking, easily mistakeable for the set of Jurassic Park. The steep cliffs of Ithaca rise sheer from the sea, the high rock slope is called Koraka, corresponding to the Korax of the Odyssey, the ‘Raven’s Rock’ where the Fountain of Arethusa flowed – and there is actually a spring here so perhaps this myth is not just the result of an elaborate storyteller!

As you head south towards the bay, it is entirely possible to pass through the narrow channel between Ithaca and the small low-lying island. Keep an eye on your speed and depth sounder but mainly enjoy the amazing scenery. As I like to venture to quieter places for my swim stops, especially during the calm of the morning, the bay is thankfully big enough not to feel overcrowded, but not too big to feel vast.

Next stop – Assos. A tiny port based around a small hamlet snuggling itself into the hillside. Its location on the west coast of the island of Kefalonia is the reason why it’s generally not host to a charter yacht. Although jaw-droppingly beautiful, it is open to the Ionian’s prevailing North Westerly wind and the weedy holding is not good at all. I’m not trying to put you off going but conditions must be absolutely spot on to make the journey round to Assos – there are no alternative bays or harbours to slip in to if Assos is not looking good so it’s quite a commitment. These days I only go to Assos when the forecast is especially calm, and I try to get stern-to on the small mole. With room for only a few yachts, the chances of getting on the mole are slim but worth a try. Make sure you reverse hard on your anchor to make sure it’s holding through the weed and stay around 2m out from the quay to avoid the shallow rocks. Other than that, the tavernas are fantastic and making the effort to hike up the fort on the hill on the outside of Assos is awesome – especially at sunset.

Foki Bay, just south of Fiscardo

A short hop around the northern tip of Kefalonia brings me to Fiscardo, a Venetian style village protected by law as it is one of the few villages that remained untouched from the major earthquake of 1953 that destroyed the rest of Kefalonia and surrounding islands. I’d say Fiscardo is a cosmopolitan harbour with a great atmosphere, it’s a must-see place with a great gin bar and a few nice cocktail bars. It’s a classy place to be with a selection of excellent tavernas and shops nestled amongst the brightly coloured buildings. In the peak of the summer, this is probably where you will see the rich and famous swanning around on their mega yachts. Known among some as the St Tropez of Greece, Fiscardo is not for everyone but it’s so different from anywhere else in the Ionian I would not miss it if I were you. Mooring can be tricky here, not because of the poor holding but more the sheer volume of boats attempting to moor. As I am usually teaching, I arrive later than most but there is always room for one more. Top tip – if you arrive just as the ferry is leaving, you can moor on the ferry quay. If you are feeling brave, moor on the far left of the ferry quay as you look at it and the ferry will gladly squeeze in next to you.

But again, if you like swimming off the back of the boat then long lining just away from the madness of the harbour outside a taverna called Panaromas is the way to go. Out of the carnage inside the harbour but close enough to take the tender right in to the town, or to a small beach and take a leisurely stroll in – ideal.

There are limited lunch or swim stops between Assos and Fiscardo, with depths in the range of hundreds of metres, I’m not convinced the anchor will hold! So my advice would be to get in Kefalonia early afternoon and spend the rest of the afternoon, either watching the mooring drama unfold (trust me there’s a lot of it!) or take the tender 5 minutes south to Foki Bay which is home to a huge cave, spectacular fir trees lining the bay and sometimes even turtles!

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