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.

Kythnos

It’s after midnight when we pull into Kythnos, the only island in the Cyclades to get its electricity entirely from either wind or solar parks. The harbor of Loutra in Kythnos has the ghostly glow of an empty department store parking lot. Marina bars blare music, but there are few eager revelers.

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.

Serfios

Our next stop is Serifos, where a proposal to erect a massive 87-turbine wind farm is being opposed by locals who fear it will tarnish the simple, unobstructed island views tourists want. Serifos is one of the few islands in the Cyclades where the dazzling white crown of the hilltop hora, the medieval city that features prominently on many of the Greek isles, is visible from the main port. A 30-minute hike up a wildflower-strewn footpath gives way to the winding, white steps of the village. At the very top of the hora there is a square of cafes, clustered in front of a striking, blue-domed church. As tempting as it might be to sit down and order a freddo, the Greek frappucino, I already feel a tug for the sea.

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?

Sifnos

Including Sifnos on our itinerary is a compromise. In recent years, the island has been discovered by tourists, so it’s not as far off the beaten path as our first two stops. On the other hand, Sifnos is more lush than the other islands. Age-old cultivation of the land helps produce not only the signature ruddy clay but also the verdant valleys where tomatoes and chickpeas grow fertilizer-free.

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

No three people have come to the Greek islands less qualified to tie a knot or lower an anchor than we were. Gradually, we’ve turned into bona fide pros. “Raise the head sail!” Vaggelis barks. Once we tie the sail rope to the cleat, he rewards us with a, “Well done, girls,” then turns off the engine and sighs blissfully. We’re finally becoming sailors.

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.

By sea

Companies that offer catamaran excursions include Sailing in Blue (sib.gr), Apollonia Yacht Charters (apollonia-yachts.gr), Istion Sailing Holidays (istion.com), and DMS Sailing (dms-sailing.gr). For more information about sailing in Greece, also visit sailingissues.com. Expert Diederik Willemsen will lead you through the chartering process, and requests for price quotes forwarded by Willemsen tend to get quicker responses. Also ask Willemsen about companies that plan on using the Lagoon 420 Hybrid, the first boat of its kind available with gas and electric propulsion. This system—which experienced hiccups in its infancy—recharges a cabin’s batteries via propellers that turn while you sail.

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

Kythnos: Sofrano Taverna, Loutra, 30-22810-31436. Leave room for the fresh grilled octopus, which is simple, clean, and exquisite.

Health Spas of Kythnos

Loutra, 30-31217-31460 

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.

En route

Skip Santorini. This Disneyland for honeymooners is lousy with T-shirt vendors and restaurant barkers. Adding this far-flung island to your itinerary will cost you a good two to three days of sailing and limit your opportunity to explore more authentic Greek islands. Instead, consider the romantic island of Amorgos, on the eastern end of the Cycladic loop. At the port of Katapola, you’ll find the Elichrisos Gallery jewelry store, perfect for picking up precious-stone necklaces designed by local artists and komboloi, traditional Greek worry beads. There might not be any five-star restaurants on the island, but just off the dock, you can dine on fresh grilled fish at Mouragio. The fisherman who caught the evening’s special will probably be sitting at a table next to you. 

Story by Jennifer van der Kwast. This article originally appeared in Plenty in July 2008.

Copyright Environ Press 2008