Growing up in a country which is sculpted by the sea, it has always been a dream of mine to sail among the numerous islands. In my mind crossing the islands with my own boat would offer me a shift in perspective, revealing – both literally and figuratively – new viewpoints. A few years ago, I experienced my first sailing trip and I can say there is no better way to explore the Aegean Sea than a sailing holiday.
Travelling with a boat offers an unparalleled sense of freedom and connection with nature. A way to enjoy the pure beauty of the islands far away from roads and crowds. Imagine waking up in the early morning and find yourself anchored in a small, pristine cove. Take a swim in the crystal-clear waters and then disembark to explore the inland before set sail again for another destination. The boat offers access to places that are hard or impossible to visit otherwise. And what a boat! Our sailing boat was a gorgeous, hand-built, wooden, double-mast, 32-meter long Turkish gullet equipped with all necessary conveniences, able to accommodate 14 people and a crew of four to look after every need.
We chose to visit Dodecanese complex of islands which are probably the most distinctive and remote in Aegean Sea as they are hidden in the very South- East corner of Greece and hugged by the Turkish coast. Although its name implies there are only a dozen of them (“dodeka” being the Greek word for “twelve”) the Dodecanese Islands consist of fourteen main islands and numerous other islets long familiar to Mediterranean seafarers. The area holds a key- position in the middle of the trade routes between East and West since the antiquity. Time and again all the naval powers of the time fought for their dominance. Today, the footprints of everyone, from Greeks and Romans to crusading medieval knights, and from Byzantine and Ottoman rulers to 20th-century Italian bureaucrats, are found here. And beyond the better-known Rhodes and Kos, tiny, unspoiled islands wait to be explored.
Our first stop was the island of Tilos. An island with rugged, mountainous, green hills and plains where grow four hundred species of flowers and herbs, home for numerous species of rare birds. Away from mass tourism, Tilos is an alternative destination with pristine, untouched beaches, beautiful hikes and small, picturesque villages. We disembarked to explore the island, hiking from the port across the coast and then uphill to the inland. The landscape alternates between the endless blue sea and the green terraced hills while on the top of that the trail drove us to the deserted, Mikro Chorio village. The old, ruined houses, the striking, whitewashed church that dominates the valley and the only building which is still functioning – a bar – create a unique atmosphere and make Mikro Chorio the most interesting sight of the island. However, the highlight for me was the swim in Lethra beach. A pebbled beach with crystal clear waters and red cliffs set the ideal spot for swimming!
The next day found us in Chalki island, one of the smallest and least inhabited islands in the group with a population of fewer than 300. Its harbor town, Emborio, a wide bay with colorful 19th-century Neoclassical houses is an astonishing sight. The whole island is a stark limestone mountain totally bare and barren. People from Chalki weren’t lucky to have fertile land as were Tiliaki (people from Tilos), to make a living they had to engage in the very dangerous occupation of sponge diving. This made Chalki one of the three centers of sponge-diving and sponge-trading in the Aegean (the others were Kalymnos and nearby Symi) bringing great prosperity and a surge in population in the 19th and early 20th centuries. After a stroll in the tiny alleys of the town we headed uphill to visit the castle of the Knights of Saint John. From this vantage point we were able to look over to the massive bulk of the island of Rhodes and enjoy glorious views of Chalki’s curvaceous coastline. Our boat, anchored in a tiny bay with azure waters, “waited” us to the other side of the island with a delicious meal on table.
The first sight of Symi’s harbor, framed against an amphitheater of hundreds of pastel-colored, Neoclassical houses with tall windows and doors rising on all sides, is unforgettable. The wealth of this small and rocky island is hard to believed but Symi was the absolute center of the international sponge trade and commerce. Before the arrival of the modern artificial sponges, just a few places where able to provide this rare and highly desired product, creating a near-monopoly. Thus, Symi became that economically strong to absorb cultural influences from European powers as Italy and also to express them. We walked around for hours, enjoying the unique beauty of the town and shopping at the numerous boutiques. The perfect end of the day was dinner at Pantelis’ local tavern with fresh sea food and excellent wine!
Apart from the scenic traditional town of Symi, the island has even more to offer. It has a number of truly magical beaches inaccessible by land, which makes this sailing trip and the access it offers to the beaches particularly worthwhile. I loved Ai-Giorgis beach, probably island’s most impressive one. This natural bay is surrounded by sheer cliffs and it has gorgeous waters, small pebbles and a little church that gave it its name. We, also, enjoyed a spectacular hike, a crossing from the main town of Symi to another lovely beach in the other side of the island. Of course our “house” was there equipped with wine and delicious food, well prepared to spent the night all alone in this serene, isolated cove.
Last but not least was the island of Nisyros. This small land mass in the Aegean is also Greece’s youngest active volcano and one of the few anywhere in the world that can be easily visited.
You can actually walk inside the crater and in that moment, it feels like you are walking on the moon. I just had an affection for this unique, lunar landscape. On the edge of the volcano’s crater are perched two white- washed villages Emporeio and Nikia, both with stunning views overlooking the volcano. From the crater we hiked up to the village of Nikia. The trail an ancient cobblestone path which climbs up across the volcano walls, rewarded us with extraordinary views while in the picturesque square of Nikia we tasted the famous volcano chocolate cake! Mandraki, Nisyros’ harbor town is completely different from Symi and Chalki. Simple but elegant, Mandraki revives the old Greece: bougainvillea-adorned alleys, whitewashed churches and houses, elderly ladies knitting on stoops, and dozens of cats living large. Above the town stands the imposing 7th century BC Dorian-built fortress of Paleokastro, the ideal place to enjoy sunset.
Before saying goodbye to our boat and its great crew who took great care of us for a week, we did a small stop in the uninhabited island of Gyali opposite of Nisyros, to enjoy a last swim in the exotic, turquoise waters of the island. And this was the perfect way to finish one of the most adventurous, calm and fun vacations in my life. Luckily, this was not the last time to experience it. This trip became the motive to establish a boat- hiking tour in Dodecanese complex of islands and since then I am coming back to my dream boat every summer to show this secret part of Greece to my guests!!
Written by Nefeli Papageorgiou