A cruise around the Dodecanese Islands allows you to discover the unspoilt charm of the region, says Lynn Houghton
As I soak up the sun by the private pool of my Spartan-white bungalow in Agios Nikolaos, I spot the three masts of the Panorama II coming into view. Within a few moments the sparkling, sleek sailing vessel has snuggled into this Cretan port within view of my beach location at the Minos Beach Hotel.
I’m joining the 49-passenger sailing yacht on a seven-night cruise around the Dodecanese Islands. Our itinerary takes in Crete, Karpathos, Lindos and Rhodes Town, Symi, Bodrum (Turkey), Kos and Santorini. There will be swim stops in tiny coves and remote beaches thrown in for good measure. It promises to be utterly blissful.
First impressions make a big difference and as soon as I step on board the Panorama II I’m greeted with warmth and enthusiasm by the crew and the Captain. As this is a circular cruise (guests can embark or disembark in different ports) passengers are already on board who have travelled from Santorini the night before – they will stay on until the day after tomorrow.
The yacht has room for a little library, sitting area and dining room. In my cabin, there’s plentiful storage and a good sized bathroom with an excellent shower. This ship is too small for balconies but there are large port holes that allow in plenty of light.
The cruise is half board allowing guests to try out the local cuisine ashore. Most meals on board are a buffet and very often feature fresh fish such as shrimp, calamari or even mackerel along with an entire table of salads and greens. But on my first evening there’s table service as it’s the Captain’s dinner and cocktails.
Our first call is Diafani, the northerly port of Karpathos. Here everyone takes advantage of the gorgeous beach and the quiet port town of only 400 inhabitants. We then visit one of the villages, Olympos, known for keeping traditional dress alive: the women wear white headdresses if they’re single or black versions if married, both colourfully embroidered. Our tour guide takes us to visit a traditional Karpathian one-room house owned by the local priest, or Papa. It’s divided in half between a multi-function living room and, on a raised platform, are sleeping quarters for the entire family.
I have a traditional meal at the family-run Olympos Taverna with fresh bread baked by the grandmother, followed by a Greek Salad loaded with vegetables plus Gialohorta, very similar to Samphire, which grows by the sea. This is all topped with the local feta cheese, finished with fruit and Loukoumades – sesame doughnuts with honey. Delicious.
Tradition and history are very much a theme of the Dodecanese Islands, which were dominated by the Venetians and then sold to the order of the Knights of St John. After many years of conflict with the Turks, there was a 400-year period of Ottoman occupation that left a significant imprint. In Bodrum, Turkey, we visit the amazing Bodrum Castle and minarets from the Ottoman era. There are two fascinating exhibits of pre-historic Bronze Age shipwrecks, which have lead to unique discoveries about the Syro-Palestinian coastlines of that period. One of the displays holds a tiny, golden seal of Nefertiti, part of the treasures brought back from Egypt.
The stop the night before was Symi. The architecture of this wealthy port, made rich by plundering the island’s surrounding sponge beds, is Hellenistic, pre-classical Grecian. Everything is freshly painted and beautifully preserved. Visually, this is by far my favourite port with its lovely bell tower and shops.
After Bodrum, we sail on to Amorgos, our tender drops us into the crystal clear water and within a few moments we are motoring up to the shore to swim in the clear cool waters of a remote spot. Back on board, we next sail to the main port just below Hora, and hop in a taxi in preparation for our next tour. Driving up a the hill, we round a corner to an astonishing view – below us, the cliffs of Agia Anna tumble down to the sea and the enormous expanse of deep blue water is astonishing. These cliffs are the precarious location for the Monastery of Hozoviotissa – dedicated to the Virgin Mary, protector of the island. This whitewashed church is quite literally suspended from a cliff and there’s a considerable hike to get there. It is run by an order of monks, and they are very welcoming to visitors, giving us access to the tiny sanctuary and a drink of raki and coffee as refreshment afterwards.
As we sit in the annex room of the monastery high above the sea, surrounded by pictures of a succession of Greek Orthodox bishops, I reflect on the isolation of these islands and how the lives of the people who live here have been dominated by the sea. How appropriate to visit in a seafaring vessel. I’d sail these waters again in a heartbeat.
Variety Cruises offer an eight-day Aegean Odyssey cruise on Panorama II through the Aegean Islands and Turkey, from £1,410pp, based on two sharing, departing 25 April 2014. Calls include Santorini, Patmos, Kusadasi, Mykonos and Athens. Visit varietycruises.com; call 0208 324 3114.
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