We have been on holiday this month – our holiday within a holiday – a complete contrast with last month's more serious distances and intensive sightseeing. The weather has, apart from one glitch, been settled and fabulous as we have spent our time lazily island hopping from one idyllic anchorage to the next. We have travelled 328 miles to arrive 130 miles further south, mainly in very short distances. The Ionian Islands have a restful character, with forested mountain slopes – cypress, pine, oak and ancient olive groves. The buildings are in warm pastel colours, their architecture shaped from Venetian rule for over 450 years, creating a mellow Italianate ambience. The wind is moderate and reliably pipes up in the afternoons. It has all been very gentle.
We had been warned not to be in the Ionian during August because it is impossibly crowded at that time, but on the whole we did not find this too much of a problem. There were certainly huge numbers of boats around, but our preference for anchoring meant that we were not jostling for space on town quays although occasionally even anchorages could get a little over-crowded. We were struck by the large numbers of Italian boats – it is only a short 'hop' across from the heel of Italy to Corfu. Many had families with children on board which was lovely to see. However, their concept of personal space in anchorages was not always quite the same as ours! There were also large numbers of flotillas – some obviously complete novices – which gave us great entertainment watching them arrive into harbours and being laboriously guided in. And then there were the enormous flashy motor-yachts, which would arrive, anchor, and spill their water toys – speedboats, jet-skis, towing rings, kayaks, diving gear and suchlike, all later to be put away by the long-suffering crew. The most impressive of these by far was the gigantic craft – all 408 feet of her - which we later discovered is owned by the Emir of Qatar! Chris' attempts to engage the crew in conversation when encountering them at a quay elicited only a discrete 'Yes, she is a very big boat'. Their equipment included a helicopter and a 'beach' area at the stern.
After arriving back onboard Aremiti in the marina in Corfu from our brief visit home, we set off southwards, spending a couple of nights at Petriti – an extremely picturesque and serious fishing harbour. We were there during the period of the 'super moon' which meant that the boats were not going out (the light night sky during full moon overpowers the lights they use to attract fish to the surface) - however, there was a great deal of net mending activity going on. We learned that though the fishing boats are Greek owned, most of the crews are Egyptian and appeared to live on the boats, which were a constant hive of activity.
We woke from our final night in Corfu to dense fog, delaying our departure for a couple of hours. This was to the Sivota islands off the mainland, which were rather crowded. Then on down to Paxos. The harbour at Gaios – the main town – is gorgeous and so of course attracts huge numbers of visiting yachts. We managed to find a place to anchor just outside the harbour – not an ideal anchorage in that the bottom was strewn with huge boulders for the anchor chain to keep wrapping itself round. However, in the settled conditions it was fine for a night and gave us the opportunity to explore the colourful and picturesque little town – its crescent of waterfront beautifully protected by the tree-covered islet of Agios Nikolaos. Next to tiny Antipaxos – which we circumnavigated - all of 8 miles – finding incredible rock formations around the west coast. We anchored in an idyllic bay on the north-eastern side, though again, suitable only in settled conditions.
We then moved back over to the mainland to explore the Gulf of Amvrakia – an inland sea about 20 miles long by 10 miles wide, entered through a 700 metre wide channel between Aktio and Preveza. Evidently its charms appeal more to the British character given the preponderance of British yachts there and hardly an Italian in sight. The gulf is quite shallow, and its shore is broken by numerous marshes and river estuaries making it warmer and less salty than the Ionian. It is rich in fish and we were thrilled to spot our first dolphins for a very long time.
We first visited the town of Vonitsa – a friendly Greek holiday town overlooked by a large and impressive Venetian castle. We also encountered a flotilla one of whose crews had managed to bring its mast down by over-winching the genoa! The next day we sailed eastwards to the far north-eastern end of the gulf where we anchored in splendid isolation off reed beds and bird life. We then sailed back west to visit the ancient site of Nikopolis – the city built by Octavian (the first Roman Emperor) to celebrate his victory over Antony and Cleopatra in the naval battle of Actium in 31BC. The impressively mighty remains are scattered over a wide area of agricultural land – providing us with much needed exercise as we covered several miles on foot.
After a couple of nights in the marina at Preveza – a pit-stop to stock up, take on water, clean the boat, etc. etc. - we continued south, through the Levkas canal. This separates the island of Levkas from the mainland and was originally constructed by the Corinthians in around 600 BC. After negotiating our way around a sandy spit, and past a Venetian fort, we had then to wait for the bridge to open – on the hour. Supposedly dredged to 6 metres, but seeming in places shallower, the channel then proceeds southwards through a lagoon and salt marshes. It is extremely narrow – as evidenced by a yacht going aground just ahead of us having strayed just feet from the marked channel.
A whole new area of the Ionian then opened out to us – the 'gulf' which opens up between the mainland and the island of Levkas and southwards. This is an enchanting cruising ground with a myriad of islands and bays. Meganisi, the largest of these islands might have been designed with yacht cruising in mind, shaped like a complicated coral with an enormously long indented coastline of bays and coves. Here we had a rendezvous with cruising friends we first met on the Algarve in 2011. Though we have met Peter and Sally many times since then (ashore in Bristol), our boats have not crossed paths since – our engine breakdown in 2012 had put them way ahead of us until now. We spent an idyllic five days with them in this area – thoroughly enjoying cruising in company for a change.
Time to move on, we left this beautiful area, sneaking between the two Onassis owned islands of Skorpios and Skorpidhi en route just for cheek, and headed south-westwards for the islands of the southern Ionian. First Ithaca – island of Odysseus, during whose time 3,000 years ago, the island was at its peak of importance with a population of great navigators and explorers. We anchored in the main town Vathi, situated in a wonderful natural harbour completely protected from the sea – though not the wind for which it has quite a reputation. Our first night there lived up to this – a trip ashore and back in the dinghy involved a complete drenching. We liked this little town, but sadly didn't get to grips with the history and myth of the island generally, and later regretted not having spent longer there - it will forever remain shrouded in mystery and myth for us.
Next Cephalonia – largest of the Ionian Islands. This, along with the other southern Ionian islands, was devastated by a series of 3 major earthquakes in August 1953. Cephalonia was raised by 60 cm. and most towns and villages were flattened. There are very few old buildings now standing and a significant part of the population emigrated from the islands. Earthquake activity continues – there were two in January and February this year – evidence of which is clear to see in the buckled waterfront in Argostoli and elsewhere. We spent nearly a week on Cephalonia mostly in the main town of Argostoli – sadly depleted of its former grand buildings but bustling with activity - fishing boats selling their catches on quay, turtles flopping around in the harbour, English voices and trendy cafes in the square. While there, the up-until-then entirely reliable and settled weather went through a blip, bringing unwanted southerly winds, thunderstorms and torrential rain. However, this did not spoil Argostoli and as the weather gradually improved, we hired a car, taking a spectacular route around the island - our mileage was considerably increased by being thwarted several times by road closures in the terribly unstable terrain of the island and sights closed due to damage. The highlight was the high level mountain road to Assos with stunning views out right across and beyond Ithaca.
Finally Zakinthos - most southerly of the Ionian Islands. As time was beginning to press by now, we gave it rather short-shrift. We reckoned that the east coast beaches and town of Zakinthos might be a bit too 'Ibiza-ish' for us, so decided to travel down the rugged west side of the island after a night on the northern tip of the island. Good decision – awesome scenic coast – limestone caves galore and 'Wreck Bay - apparently the most photographed bay in the Ionians or even Greece – fabulous turquoise water, beach with said wreck, all framed by mighty limestone cliffs. We anchored overnight in a bay on the south-western tip of the island. The fact that both our stops on Zakinthos – at the extreme ends, chosen to get away from the crowds – were far more built up and busier with tourists and trip boats than we had expected suggests that it was not really the place for us. We were particularly horrified at the overwhelming beach tourism all over the main breeding ground of the Mediterranean for the Loggerhead turtle – a classic ecology v tourism clash.
Now we're setting off for the mainland and a more serious passage-making final stage of this year's voyage during September as we head towards Crete. We're hoping we might even find some useful wind!