The sun has just come up, but the Alimos marina in Athens, Greece is already bustling with activity. Some sailors are coming from the showers, while others are doing some last-minute shopping. Skippers and chartering agents are pacing excitedly up and down the pier. Dozens of boats are already on their way, while on other vessels, crews are still clearing the breakfast table.
One skipper, Bernd Junge, is in no hurry. “Let the others sail off. We’re going to have a quiet breakfast,” says the calm man from the northern German city of Bad Schwartau.
On deck of the Fani, a 14m-long sailing yacht, the air is barely stirring.
Junge takes one last sip of coffee before getting ready to head out to sea, to escape the Mediterranean heat.
That means the Saronic Gulf, the so-called blue lagoon west of Athens. Others on board are Bernd’s niece, her husband and their two daughters. “Let’s set the main sail,” he says shortly after the Fani has left the harbour under engine power and begins to pick up wind. Once the engine is shut off, everything is suddenly very quiet, the only sound coming from the waves slapping against the hull and sails flapping in the wind.
The Fani starts to pick up speed, and slowly, the Acropolis disappears beyond the horizon.
Junge also disappears for a moment and returns with a bottle of ouzo (a Greek aperitif). In these waters, it is customary to toast Rasmus, the wind god, to assure good sailing conditions.
After around 55km and some initial stops for swimming, we reach the island of Poros in the afternoon. A few hundred meters offshore of the town of the same name, we lay anchor in the picturesque bay.
The setting sun casts a warm and soft light on the whitewashed facades of the houses clinging to the slope that overlooks the harbour. A white clock tower sits atop the cliff, built in 1927, and a Greek flag waves in the breeze.
As dusk falls, the lights are gradually going on in the fish restaurants lining the harbour. On board our vessel we sit down to a dinner of spaghetti, salad and white whine. For dessert, there’s a panoramic view of Poros.
The island has captivated many celebrities over the years, including Hollywood film star Greta Garbo and American novelist Henry Miller, who once spent nearly nine months here.
Like most of the Saronic Islands, Poros is of volcanic origin. On the neighbouring island of Methana tourists can visit an overgrown crater.
Not a secret spot
Poros is by no means a hidden gem. But like the other islands in the Saronic Gulf, it is not nearly as overcrowded as places like Crete, Rhodes, Santorini or Mykonos, simply because the archipelago is not easily accessible without a boat.
The area is protected against strong winds by the Greek mainland and the mountains on the peninsula of Peloponnese, making it a top destination for sailors. While the powerful, dry “meltemi” wind sweeps across the Aegean during the summer months, it is usually calm around the Saronic Islands.
“On to the next island,” Junge calls out as he starts up the engine. After passing through the strait which separates Poros from the Peloponnese mainland, most sailors head to the island of Hydra where cars are not allowed. Goods and tourists alike are transported from the ferry harbour by donkey-drawn carts. Appearing like an island out of a picture book, Hyra’s marina tends to get pretty crowded during the summer months.
We, however, want some quiet and isolated bays. What’s great about exploring the Saronic Gulf with your own boat is that you can spontaneously decide where to head next. So as we leave Poros behind were are not, like the majority of yachts, heading to Hydra, but instead set course for the quieter island of Agistri.
Dolphins accompany the vessel for a while as Junge steers the boat towards the uninhabited south-west side of the island. The charter company had recommended staying overnight in a bay near Aponissos Beach, a spot protected from wind and waves by the small offshore island of Dhoroussa.
The emerald-green waters are crystal clear and you can spot schools of fish below. The scent of pine forests wafts over from the shore. We drop anchor and moor the boat to a rock. Then it’s time for some snorkelling, which here feels like hopping in an aquarium.
Two days later, the air is virtually dead still. Sails are useless, so our skipper revs up the motor and heads toward the Peleponnese town of Palaia Epidauros. A good 10km inland from the harbour awaits one of the most important cultural sites of ancient Greece, the Sanctuary of Asclepius dating back to the 4th century BC.
The temple ruins are a Unesco World Cultural Heritage Site and need not shy from comparisons with the ancient sanctuaries of Olympia or Delphi.
But besides fans of ancient Greece, it is also scuba divers who look for enjoyment at Epidauros. The underwater world here, with its beautiful grottos and sunken shipwrecks, has a great deal to offer, says Vicky Martin of the Scuba Blue Dream diving centre.
Barracudas, groupers, turtles and occasionally dolphins can be seen romping about here.
But most come to dive among octopuses and squid in the “Octopus Garden”. You only need a diving mask and a snorkel in order to explore the Sunken City of Ancient Epidauros from Gialasi Beach in the next bay.
Junge manoeuvres our boat as closely as possible to the submerged archaeological ruins. Just 2m below lie old amphorae and the foundations of ancient buildings.
Once back in Athens, a visit to the Acropolis is a crowning finish to any trip to Greece. But, amid the noise and turmoil of the tourist crowds, you will find yourself thinking back to the peace and quiet, the solitude, of the Saronic Islands. From the Acropolis, you can just about make them out on the distant horizon. – MANUEL MEYER/dpa