Barefoot in search of the Hellenic ideal
It wasn't exactly gold-plated. I was sailing past Skorpios, the Greek island owned by Aristotle Onassis. Still, it looked nice enough. Should we drop in for cocktails to see if the younger generation had changed Jackie O's decor? No, the wind was in the wrong direction and I was having far too much fun steering my own 51ft yacht, the Lou Cagnard, across the south Ionian Sea. Well, I say my yachtI it really belongs to Peter Cliff, an all-round adventure sportsman, and his wife, Gilli, a cordon bleu chef. I was just one of a group of five they were taking for a week's sailing around the Greek islands of Kefalonia, Ithaka, Lefkas and Meganisi.
The most sailing I had ever done was an afternoon in a dinghy. Forgotten were the pre-trip worries. Had I really spent the previous week wondering whether or not I needed deck shoes? Here's what you need on a sailing holiday: swimsuits, shorts, T-shirt, hat, sunglasses, suncream, towel, footwear for walking over pebbly beaches to collect wild herbs for dinner and maybe a couple of shreds of clothing so you don't frighten the natives when you go ashore to eat in a taverna of an evening. Here's what you don't need: deck shoes.
After our skipper met us at Argostoli airport and taxied us across to the quiet port of Sami, way past Kefalonia's built-up holiday strip, we learned the first rule of sailing: bare feet on board, please. Although Peter has the well-being of his guests close to his heart, I had the feeling that the Lou Cagnard (its name is Provencal for "place in the sun") has snuck in even closer and he doesn't want any scratches on its beautiful teak decks.
We stowed our bags in our cabins. There are four - each a definition of the word shipshape, with cunning little lockers and a double bedspace, and each having its own private bathroom complete with basin, loo and freshwater hot shower.
Then, while Gilli served drinks from the galley, we slid into the banquettes around the big dining table in the saloon to start planning our week. Within reason, and guided by Peter's experience of 35 years' teaching sailing, we were free to go wherever the wind took us. And if there was no wind, the yacht has an 80hp engine to ensure sailors make it to a safe anchorage before nightfall. Soon we were gliding out of harbour to begin our odyssey. Sometimes we would wake in a silent bay, with not a road or house in sight, and slip into the clear water for a dip with the bright little fishes before breakfasting under the bimini (the shade over the cockpit) on eggs, bacon, toast and jam made on board. Other times we tied up in a busy harbour alongside seafarers from far and wide. In Fiskardo, we met a French fox terrier who has crossed the Atlantic three times (not single-handed, of course). Many mornings we were free to explore ashore, buying postcards and souvenirs or going with Gilli to stock up on supplies.
In Spartahori, we bought apricots that grew on a tree by the grocery door, while Gilli collected local nuts and honey to teach us how to make baklava.
It was relaxing to know that there was no absolute necessity to do anything - especially first thing in the morning, as those tavernas can be awfully convivial. Peter, who has qualified as a Royal Yachting Association yachtmaster, can sail Lou Cagnard single-handed with just a little assistance from Gilli, who has added an RYA day skipper credit to her cooking expertise. But when we did show interest, he was keen to explain the radar and GPS system, discourse on the meaning of clouds and show us how to navigate, steer, reef the sails and help drop anchor.
I was the only complete beginner - even 12-year-old Lottie had more idea what to do with ropes and sails. In fact, Lottie was entrusted with piloting the inflatable back to the yacht after our champagne beach barbecue on the final evening. Even the most experienced sometimes found the lure of lying in the sun on the foredeck preferable to plotting at the chart table.
Yet sudden gusts of wind can dispel languid calm in an instant, and I saw why Peter had drilled us so thoroughly in the rules of safety on board.
Suncream and paperbacks had to be safely stowed at once, and everyone obeyed the skipper without question. And the obvious seaworthiness of the boat, which meets the safety standards of the British Maritime Coastguard Agency, means these moments pass without anxiety, the adrenalin rush serving only to highlight the calm idyll of our week under sail.
The Lou Cagnard will be sailing in the Ionian Sea between May 3 and October 8 this year. The price of pound;750 per person per week includes all meals on board, wine, beer and soft drinks on board, harbour dues, diesel and water. Flights, transfers and three evening meals eaten ashore during the week are not included. In groups of five or more, one person goes free.
Details: 01347 822386; www.yachtsafaris.co.uk