We have a mission. Two friends and I have taken it upon ourselves to seek out a greener side of the Greek isles via catamaran. Despite outwardly stark, barren appearances, the Cyclades, a group of rocky islands in the southwest part of the Aegean Sea, hold many secrets and splendors to explore. With no airports and limited ferry connections, these are the isles that have been forced to rely on local resources and to cultivate the land with mostly traditional farming methods. Hopping between sustainably attuned islands involves another ancient Greek tradition: sailing. When the conditions are right, we’ll cut the engine, hoist our main, and let the wind alone transport us to our next destination.
Three hours after we’ve left Athens, I’m sitting at the back of the boat with a glass of Sigalas, an organic white wine from Santorini. Behind us, the mountains of mainland Greece wear the gossamer negligee of dusk. When night falls, the horizon ahead glimmers like a strand of Christmas lights, our first glimpse of the islands that will be the site of our eco-adventure.
After we secure our boat at the end of the pier, Yianni, the fresh-faced, exuberant owner of Sofrano Taverna, welcomes us with kisses and joins us at our table for dinner. This type of friendliness, which can border on excessive, is distinctly Greek. But it also has something to do with the fact that Yianni has known our skipper, Vaggelis (aka Vagos or Angelo), for more than 16 years. Vaggelis, who is Greek by way of Australia, loves boats and cigarettes, but hates footwear. He sits at our table barefoot.
We let Yianni and Vaggelis sort out the details of our meal. In their hands, we kick off with rakomelo, a grappa liqueur spiced with clove and honey that Yianni lights on fire. After that, a symphony of homemade dishes arrive: eggplant with a creamy yogurt, classic Cycladic tomato fritters, grilled octopus, and, the big hit, goat cheese fried in ouzo. Yianni tells us that all but one grown ingredient on our menu is organic and from Kythnos. The only exception is the eggplant, which came from Syros, 22 miles away. Probably none of the ingredients consumed on the entire trip will have traveled more than 50 miles.
Two hours and several dishes later, we stroll around the marina to a hushed, honeysuckle-lined road that brings us to the Xenia Hotel. The hotel is home to the most famous attraction on Kythnos—the thermal spa, where people come to soak away aches and pains in the curative, iron-rich hot springs. It’s 3 AM and the spa is closed, but Vaggelis encourages us to take off our shoes and dip our toes into the deliciously warm runoff on the side of the road. The spring water drains to the edge of Schinari Beach, where a natural hot tub has been erected with a handful of well-placed rocks. Here, we submerge our legs knee-deep and imagine the little waves are whirlpool bubbles in a private Jacuzzi.
Back at the dock, an easy sailors’ camaraderie has formed. Conversation floats between boats. Serifos has revealed another secret of the sea: While at any whim we can hoist the sails and transform our boat into an eco mode of transport, we can just as easily turn it into a social hub of eating, drinking, and entertainment, where the stars are mini disco balls and the beating of the waves against the boat is our soundtrack. Who needs those party islands like Mykonos and Ios, anyway?
We arrive on Sifnos on Sunday, the only day local tavernas serve traditional revithia tou fourno, an oven-baked chickpea dish cooked and served in ceramic pots made from the local clay. There may be no better way to experience the unique flavor of an island than to savor a meal in which both the food and the cooking vessel itself are locally and organically produced. At the To Tsikali beach taverna, we make another important gastronomical discovery: Sifnos cheese—a softer, smoother, and, frankly, tastier version of feta that’s also local and organic—served with a Greek salad.
One of the benefits of traveling by catamaran is that we get to skip the frenzy of the ferry port at Kamares and spend the night in Vathi, a sandy clamshell harbor that is the prettiest on the island. A regular bus service runs from Vathi to Apollonia, the island capital, chock-full of bars and bougainvillea. From there, footpaths lead to the medieval village of Kastro, where it’s easy to get lost among lemon trees, tomato gardens, and sheep feces before finally arriving at the ruins of ancient fortress walls. At Dolci, an open-air bar, a European couple splays out on pillowed banquets reading paperbacks, their shoes kicked off under the table. We sit down and order mojitos garnished with mint leaves clipped from a bright blue, Sifnos-made planter, and take in the sunset.
Folegandros and Sikinos
Wind and water take us seven knots to Folegandros, an island we’re eager to explore because Vaggelis has told us it has “the most enchanting” hora in the Cyclades. But soon the elements betray us. The swells in the bay pick up, looping our boat around in circles. In search of safe harbor, we’re forced to weigh anchor and sail roughly ten nautical miles east to the island of Sikinos. Once we’re safely moored in the calm bay of Alopronia, we’ve spent a full ten hours at sea.
Often overshadowed by Folegandros, Sikinos is relatively new to the tourist crush. As such, it maintains a rare, undisturbed ecosystem where hawks, snakes, and endangered monk seals thrive. This is an island that attracts respectful and environmentally conscious travelers who’d prefer to snorkel, hike, and birdwatch than to party.
Despite the change in plans, this is by no means a bad day. In fact, it’s an ideal day. And herein lies both the problem with and the beauty of eco-hopping. It’s far too easy to do absolutely nothing—to let the gentle rocking of the boat cradle us into mid-day naps deep enough to content the undead; to read paperback novels in the sun; to get hungry and hop right off the boat and onto the wooden stool of a beach taverna in one fluid motion; or to drink white wine on the waterfront. All while not wearing any shoes.
Catamaran charter prices range from €3,600 to €6,500, depending on the company and season. As a general rule, peak season runs from July 26 to August 30; shoulder seasons, which have cooler temperatures but fewer tourists, run from May 17 to July 26 and August 30 to October 4. Low season is anytime before May 17 and after October 4. Remember to bring along extra cash for skipper, chef, hostess, and fuel and port fees.
On land, places to go and places to eat
Health Spas of Kythnos
The thermal spas are open June–October, 8 AM–2 PM.
Serfios: Thenalokion Bakery, Livadi, across from the jetty. Of the many bakeries in Livadi, this one is arguably the best. Order the boutgatzas or a deliriously flaky ham and cheese pie.
Taverna Takis, Livadi, 30-22810-51159. Enjoy standard but well-executed classic Greek dishes at a table right on the sandy beach.
Sifnos: Dolci Cafe & Creperie, Kastro, 30-22840-32311. Savor sweet cocktails and dessert crepes under a thatched umbrella on the airy outdoor patio.
To Tsikali: Vathi, 30-22840-71177. The busiest restaurant on the beach, with excellent Sifnos cheese, traditional chickpea dishes and—most surprisingly—what might be the best French fries in all of Greece.
Vathi, 30-22840-71119. It would be criminal to leave Sifnos without any of its signature ceramics. If you’re lucky, you can catch the old-school potter at his studio working on a foot-operated lathe.
To Tsoukaloudi: Vathi, 30-22840-71116. Stick to tradition and stock up on the simple white-and-blue painted handicrafts.
Story by Jennifer van der Kwast. This article originally appeared in Plenty in July 2008.