I want to start this post by saying what an amazing job Greece has done so far dealing with the Covid pandemic. There are very few cases and fatalities so far due to the early lock down and the populations’ adherence to the rules. Kalamata looked after us tremendously and the Marina was fantastic by charging us winter rates less 25% for the time we were in lockdown, even though the last 2 months should have been on summer rates.
I’ve already written about Kalamata in normal times. Our friends on Owl and Pussycat have written an amazing post which describes this winter’s activities here: http://www.sigasiga.co.uk/2020/05/27/over-wintering-and-lock-down-in-kalamata-2019-2020/
On the 1st of June 2020 yachts already in Greece were allowed to start cruising again but the borders would remain closed until the 1st July and only allow flights in from the 15th of July. We decided that this would give us a great opportunity to cruise the Ionian without having to contend with all of the charter boats and flotillas which in normal times fill up all of the harbours and anchorages.
We hired a car for the last week in May to enable us to go round the supermarkets and stock up with the heavier items (beer and wine) before getting ready to leave. At this time the restrictions limited the number allowed in a car at any time to 3 so Both Mike and I were named as drivers so that he and Claire could shop as well as Gill and I.
The time had come when we were itching to be able to leave.
We started the engine and slipped the lines to leave Kalamata at 09:35 on the first of July and motored 16 miles to Zaga beach, Koroni. We’d anchored off the town the year before but this time we anchored to the south of the premonitory, under the castle. It felt strange to be back at sea for the first time in 8 months and it took a while to get back into the swing of things.
We invited Mike and Claire over for a celebratory drink of Champagne (ok, fizz) and the rum and grape juice that Chris had given us for Christmas.
The next morning we took the dinghies ashore to explore the castle and walk over into town where we enjoyed a couple of drinks overlooking the harbour where other yachties who we’d spent the winter with had anchored. It was then time to go to the main street for what we believe is the best gyros in Greece.
Koroni is more of a locals / fishing town so although it was quiet, it wasn’t unusually so.
The next morning we motored 13 miles to Finikous and anchored in a bay a mile or so west of the resort of Foinikounta which we felt would be more sheltered from the forecast westerly winds. We’d intended going ashore for a BBQ but the beach was filled with cows and we felt uncomfortable about cooking their brothers in front of them so we decided to walk into the resort. We could have anchored off the town as the bay was sheltered and the swim buoys hadn’t been laid due to there being no tourists.
It felt very strange being pretty much the only people there. All but 2 of the tavernas were closed and the 2 that were open were almost empty. After a beer to prepare ourselves, we walked back and had a drink on Owl and Pussycat.
Next morning we motored all of 4 miles to the fabulous town of Methoni, guarded by an impressive castle and tower. This is somewhere I’d highly recommend spending some time and as long as Greece stays open we will visit on our way back to Kalamata.
Gill and I went ashore to get some bread in the town and then walk round the castle. This is a fabulous tourist attraction which had just been allowed to re-open but was pretty deserted, indeed we only saw 4 other people all of the way round and everyone was keeping their distance.
The fort was built over a period of time starting with the Venetians in the 15th century and being completed in 1715. The standout was the tower at the seaward end built on Mothon rock
We then met Mike and Claire in the town square for a frappe. We happened to be sitting next to a table of British ex-pats (immigrants?) who were complaining that other ‘ex-pats’ or holiday home owners were coming out now that they could drive to Greece and making them feel very nervous and un-safe.
We noticed that when we go to any of the bars the first question is a nervous ‘where are you from’ with the attitude being much friendlier when we explain that we’ve spent the winter and lockdown in Kalamata. Although the tourist money is needed, there is a lot of understandable nervousness.
There is a great (deserted at this time) beach at Methoni which we decided would be ideal for the BBQ that we’d missed the day before.
We were forecast strong winds the next day so we couldn’t stay longer in Methoni but would be able to find shelter 9 miles round the coast at Pylos. Mike and Claire and been warned by a Swiss sailor that the winds were forecast and that he was going to move across the bay at Methoni and see it through.
We anchored just to the north of the town of Pylos and the winds duly hit the forecast 30kts and it was no surprise to see the Swiss sailor come round and join us.
The anchorage was pretty sheltered which is good because although Pylos as a decent sized marina, there is no room for visiting boats because of the number of derelicts that are permanently moored there because no charges are made. We dinghied into the harbour for coffee in the town square and to visit the (yes another) castle. The town square was full of locals who were relieved that they could again meet for their ritual morning coffee and chat, albeit served by masked and visored staff.
After coffee it was time to head up through town to the castle.
By now it was the 6th of June and we moved 2 miles further in to the bay of Navarinou. This is the site of the famous battle of Navarone and the bay is littered with shipwrecks.
After a swim we decided that we needed more exercise and set out to walk to reportedly the best beach in Greece – Ormos Voidokoila. After walking by the lagoon under some pretty impressive cliffs (and by the signs saying the path was closed due to rock falls) we spent 30 minutes walking through sand dunes to come across an admittedly pleasant beach but possibly not the best in Greece.
Another attraction here is Nestor’s cave which is halfway up a steep hill. Of course we had to scramble up to see it.
In Greek mythology, Heracles slew all of the sons of the king of Pylos except Nestor who became king of Pylos. Nestor appears as a sage elder in the Iliad and the Odyssey. Legend also has it that this is the cave where Hermes hid the 50 cattle he stole from Apollo.
We decided to stay in the bay of Naverinou for an extra night but this time move the mile to the upmarket resort of Gialovas. This is obviously where the young come to be seen in some very chic bars.
It was time we started making some miles north if we were to see the Ionian islands while the borders were still closed.
For a change, the wind gods were in our favour and we were able to sail most of the 51 miles to Katakolo. The anchorage behind the huge breakwater is shallow and very sheltered from the prevailing winds and swell. The small town now gets most of its income from tourists who come to the town on cruise ships to visit nearby Ancient Olympia. The breakwater and quay were built to accommodate these ships but there were only a couple of mothballed ferries in their berths. We were able to see from the transponders that ships now have that they’d been there for months and usually ferried visitors from Italy.
The town was pretty much deserted and we ate in a taverna with at least 60 tables, with just 2 tables taken all night. You have to wonder how much these people are losing because they have to have bought in supplies to be able to open.
The next morning we sailed 25 miles to Keri on the south of Zakynthos. From May to October most of the bay is off limits to boats because it is an important nesting site for turtles. Why they think anchored boats disturb the turtles more than the extensive onshore nightlife and hotel complexes that line the beach is beyond me.
The thing I completely agree with is the 6kt speed limit throughout the bay so that the turtles have time to get out of the way, or we are able to spot them and go around them.
Keri was a very pleasant town which was very slowly starting to open. The only place open was a coffee shop when we first arrived but within a couple of days a restaurant and gyros bar opened up, along with a beach kiosk. It was still pretty much deserted though.
On our way in we’d passed several turtles swimming around and they continued to visit in the anchorage.
During the walk to Nestor’s cave, Gill had hurt her hip so we decided not to join Mike and Claire when they went for a walk. Followers of the blog will know that if there is a windmill I have to visit it so I was somewhat challenged when Mike sent me a picture of them having in drink at a windmill which had been turned into a bar. Challenge accepted, Gill and I headed along the seafront and around a lagoon which is filled with natural tar which oozes to the surface and used to be used to seal the bottom of boats. You can imagine my (and Gill’s) relief to find an ornate windmill in a garden, thus negating climbing the hill to the one Mike had found.
After 3 days we decided to move a little further on to Porto Roma on the 14th of June. The pilot book we use advises against visiting due to the noise from the hotels and the constant jetski and banana boats that weave through the anchored yachts. This year the hotels was closed, the banana boat didn’t have any customers and we were the only yachts there. One beach bar was open though so we helped the local economy out once more by having a couple of drinks – Just the one would have been rude J
One night was enough and the next morning we headed for another new island – Cephalonia, or Kephalonia as the Greeks spell it. It was 24 miles to the resort / anchorage of Kato Katelios. We went ashore for a drink and again were asked where we were from, with the friendly attitude restored when told ‘Kalamata’. The only people there were locals in what should have been a bustling holiday resort.
2 ex work colleagues and friends have been following us on Facebook and the year before had asked if we would be around Cephalonia as they were holidaying there for the second time. Unfortunately we were in the Aegean so couldn’t meet them. I dropped them a note asking where they had stayed and coincidence has it that the first year they were in Kato Katelios and the second year in Agia Effima – our next stop.
Agia Effima is 22 miles from Kato Katelios and we set off quite early because the channel between Cephalonia and Ithaca is notorious for channelling the prevailing northerly wind and making a light wind seem ridiculous. We motored in next to no wind, following Owl and Pussycat who had left 30 minutes before us. We rounded the corner and headed north with a slight chop against us but no wind. Just 5 miles ahead, Claire messaged me to say they had over 25kts of wind against them. It’s hard to credit the difference a couple of miles can make and the effects of the topography on the winds.
The wind hit us and our speed dropped from 6 kts to just over 4. We motored into the wind for what seemed like ages before turning at Ak Dhekali into the bay past Sami and into Ag Effima harbour where we anchored in 8m just inside the breakwater.
This was our first visit here and there was only one boat alongside at the quay and 4 other boats anchored in the harbour. Exchanging messages with our friends Catherine and John, they were amazed how quiet it was compared to when they were there with the harbour and quay crammed with sailing boats and others milling round waiting for a space to become available.
Catherine suggested an excellent bakery for croissants and coffee which fortunately was one of the few places open. Luckily the chandlers was also open as the hand pump for petrol on Mike’s dinghy had started to leak and a replacement required. I decided that a spare for us would probably be a good idea so I went for one and of course came out with 5 other items that we hadn’t gone in for! The chandler is highly recommended and very helpful.
After a couple of days exploring Agia Effima on the 18th of June we decided to head over to Ithaca to an anchorage that looked sheltered and offered a few options in the bay at Pera Pigadhi. On arrival we found that there was a boats anchored in the prime spot but undeterred we tried anchoring in 4 other places around the bay. We have an excellent and reliable anchor but I couldn’t get it to dig in and hold. There was no wind and Coriander wasn’t in any danger so I put on my snorkel and mask to see what was happening. It soon became obvious that the sand that we thought we were anchoring was in fact flat rock with a dusting of sand over it. There was no way I was going to trust it so we decided to lift the anchor and try our luck at an anchorage we hadn’t been to before because it is always packed with flotillas who were briefed to be there before 2pm – One house bay on the island of Atoko.
We sailed passed the anchorage at the south of the island where there was one yacht long lined and into One House Bay just as the only yacht there was leaving. We tried anchoring close into the beach in 5m but couldn’t find anywhere that was free of rocks, it was turning into one of those days. Lifting the anchor we moved out a bit and found some excellent sand in 10m and were solidly anchored. It was just as well because at 2pm the prevailing wind kicked in as always and it howled through the bay gusting well over 20kts until 8pm. We now knew the real reason the flotilla leads (mother duck) want their ‘ducklings’ in before 2pm.
One night was enough and we were pleased to have had the bay to ourselves. There is nothing on the island but the one unoccupied house so without any light pollution the night sky was outstanding.
We motored the next morning 9 miles to Ormos Sarakiniko back on Ithica where we anchored under some amazing cliffs in 15m of water just 100 feet from the shore. I put the snorkelling gear on and swam to check the anchor was securely in and was amazed at how clearly I could see it in the gin clear waters. Owl and Pussycat came round to join us but we seemed to have snagged the only bit of sand around. They left and moved to the next bay from where they messaged to say they had anchored in sand in 5m and there was plenty of room so we went around to join them at Filiatro bay.
There were 2 superyachts long lined in the opposite corner of the bay and the RIB that we assumed to be the tender off one of them turned out to be the Greek coastguard checking their papers. At this time the Greek boarders were still closed to visiting boats and we can only assume that they had arrived from Italy or somewhere while the borders were closed because the coastguard got on their radio and they both left. The sea temperature had warmed up nicely by now so I spent most of the rest of the day swimming and snorkelling along the rocks to the north of the beach.
There were strong winds forecast over the next couple of days so we went to the anchorage of Vathi (yes another one), still on Ithaca. We’d really liked it 2 years before but at that time there were 50 boats anchored and another 200 stern to the quays which surround the bay. This time there were about 8 boats on the quay and only a couple anchored. We went ashore with Mike and Claire to have a wander around the town and happened to be passing the yacht club when we spotted Gunnar and Anneka, a couple we’d over wintered with the previous year in Kalamata. They were in the bar with friends from Lefkas marina where they’d stayed this year. The quiet walk turned into quite a boisterous night!
This turned out to be unfortunate because the strong winds duly arrived but from a slightly different direction and at 6am we were woken up to being bounced around in 40kts of wind. Although it wasn’t really dangerous, it was very uncomfortable and as it wasn’t forecast to die down until the next day Gill and I decided to leave and go back to Filiatro bay for the night. We battled out against the 40kt winds and were relieved to be able to turn down wind and sail into the sheltered bay where the winds were a much more respectable 6kts.
The winds had died the following morning so we made our way back to Vathi. Mike and Claire had managed to anchor to the north of the bay where there was more shelter but we headed back to the town anchorage. Once we were settled, Mike called and asked if I’d mind giving him a hand by going up his mast to fix a couple of pulleys which hold up the lazyjacks – lines which control the main sail when it is let back down the mast. Up I went and after 40 minutes or so the job was done – time for a well-earned beer.
We ate out that night at a taverna called Niko’s. The food was excellent and as we were finishing up the owner (Niko) came over to speak with us. We had been his only customers that night and he said that he was working in the kitchen and his son had served us. In normal times he said he employs 8 more staff and would expect to be serving 250 meals or more and that people need to book ahead or queue on the off chance of a table. If you multiply that by the number of restaurants in Vathi or other tourist resorts it brings home the scale of lost revenue and jobs that are lost.
Having spent a few days in Vathi we left on the 25th, we went to Nisis Ag Nikolaou, an anchorage that we’d tried to get to 2 years before but couldn’t get near because 2 flotillas were there. This time there were 3 other boats and we had no trouble finding room to anchor. It’s an absolutely gorgeous bay with 2 beaches behind an island. The first night the other boats left and we had the bay to ourselves, the next night Mike and Claire came to join us and we went ashore for an ouzo or two at a small shack that a couple have opened as a beach bar. They say they have been there for 10 years, adding to it a little each year. Gill and I took the dinghy over to the island to visit the obligatory church and look back over the views of the bay.
Mid channel there is a reef marked on the chart so we took the dinghy over to find it – It looked amazing, just below the surface and in the perfect place to catch an unwary sailor. It would probably also make for a fantastic dive site, maybe on our way back.
Mike and Claire were keen to visit Fiskardo back on Cephalonia. They have fond memories of it as a bustling fishing harbour that they visited several years ago when they chartered a yacht in the area. It is also famous for being a favourite place royals like to visit, especially Prince Charles apparently.
It was one of the busier places that we’d been with the town quay full apart from a couple of berths that were a little shallow for us. There were 3 boats long lined at the north of the bay and we decided we’d join them. Owl and Pussycat went in first and when they were settled, Mike came over in the dinghy and took our lines.
We headed ashore and walked to the headland where there is a Venetian lighthouse and an early Christian basilica (yet more culture).
After that we took a walk into town and encountered our first real taste of tourists when 2 trip boats from Nidri disgorged around 100 tourists. The land borders had been opened mid June and there were a lot of Serbian and Bulgarian tourists in Greece. As an aside the border has since been tightened up and everyone wanting to cross has to have a certificate to say they have taken a negative C-19 test within the last 72 hours.We stood aside to let them passed and after an hour they were back on the boats. That evening we headed for a drink and meal and ran into Gunnar and Anneka again. We’d intended having a Thai meal for a change but the restaurant had still to open. We found a quayside restaurant that was open but very quiet like the rest of the time.
We left on the 27th for a great sail to one of Gill and I’s favourite places from 2 years ago – Vasiliki on Lefkada. We anchored outside the almost finished, but still closed marina just as the wind started to get up. Vasiliki is famous for windsurfing and the bay is crammed with watersport centres catering for the visitors. Every day around 2pm a westerly wind blows at around 20kts which the locals have named Eric. Today Eric blew a little stronger and the waves rebounded from the marina making it quite bouncy. Mike and Claire decided to take refuge in the marina but knowing it would die down later we decided to stick it out. It was quite fortunate that we did because a windsurf student had been caught out by the wind and was being blown towards the rocks at the marina entrance. Gill spotted him sitting on his board waving his arms and shouting for help. We were able to throw him a line and get him aboard Coriander. We tried phoning for help for him but in the meantime managed to attract the attention of one of the rescue boats who were able to take him to shore and re-unite him with his wife. Good deed done for the day.
We went ashore and joined Mike and Claire for a drink before they went back for a meal aboard Owl and Pussycat and we had a gyros. While making our way back to the dinghy we noticed Owl and Pussycat moving in the marina – The guard had been called to evict them as the marina really is closed. The rescue boat we’d called earlier said they only allowed boats to take refuge if the winds are over F8. Owl and Pussycat tied alongside the town quay and the next morning we moved in to join them for a couple of nights. This wouldn’t have been possible normally but this year it was free and we had the quay to ourselves.
We walked along the beach to fairly quiet water sports centres and ate at the recommended (by me) wood oven pizza restaurant the first night and at Penguin restaurant run by Gary and Mary, one of our favourite restaurants of 2 years ago.
We left Vasiliki on the 2nd of July to go back to One House Bay as Mike and Claire hadn’t been. Knowing where to anchor we dropped the hook and waited for Owl and Pussycat. Mike anchored but wasn’t happy so they decided to head for Kastos on Kastos. We had our second night alone in the anchorage and the next morning were delighted to see the pigs which we’d heard lived by the beach.
Of course even pigs have to cool down.
We motored the 7 miles to the Kastos anchorage the next morning. The harbour and town is very small, we’d walked around it in 10 minutes. The highlight was the walk around the headland to a windmill we’d seen on the way in that just happened to be a taverna with a fantastic view.
The next few days were forecast to be thundery so we headed for the Ionian ‘hurricane hole’ of Vlikho. It is very sheltered with great holding for the anchor which was a good job as the thunderstorms arrived allowing us to get the mops out and give Coriander a good wash. It was funny looking around to see most other boat owners in their swimming costumes doing the same.
We took a walk to the holiday resort of Nidri just a mile to the north and it was pretty much deserted. There are several boatyards on the way into Vlikho and they were still full of boats yet to be launched. Vlikho is also home to half a dozen charter fleets and these boats were all in port as Greece still wasn’t allowing tourist flights in. The only boats out had been locals or people like us or a very few charterers from eastern bloc countries.
In Nydri there is a statue to Aristotle Onasis. He owned the island of Skorpios in the approach to Nydri. On his death the island was meant to go to the Greek state but another member of the Onasis family sold it to a Russian oligarch. The island is now off limits and guarded by armed guards in patrol boats. The case is going through the courts.
While the going was still good we motored over to Ormos Abelake on Meganisi where we long lined next to the beach. Mike and Claire had been there before where they joined 30 boats at anchor, this time there were only about 5 of us.
We walked over the hill to the harbour town of Vathi – yes another one where I found what would probably be the ideal tender, if only we could transport it.
It’s a jetski that turns into a quad, or vice verse?
Vathi is a lovely little harbour town and it was great to sit in a coffee shop and watch the world go by. We returned to the yachts and spent the afternoon swimming before going ashore at the local taverna for a meal.
The next morning we took the dinghies round to the next bay – Port Atheni and went to the ‘Reggie’ beach bar. The trip back was pretty bouncy and we all had fingers crossed because the oil pressure warning light came on on our dinghy and Mike and Claire’s outboard started to misfire. We both got back ok and after checking the oil level we decided that it must have briefly been the angle the engine was at on a wave – it’s been fine since. We stripped the carb on Mike’s outboard and it too now seems to be running
Our next stop, and the one we thought would be our last in this part of the Ionian, ‘Two Tree Bay’ or Ormos Varko. It was fairly quiet when we got there and the beach and beach bar pretty deserted. We spent the day swimming and relaxing, while watching the workers ashore getting the beach bar ready for opening. When we were last here, the bar played music all day, before shutting down around 7pm, the beach was packed and around 50 boats were at anchor. There were 15 or so this time but around 9pm they must have got the sound system wired up and the beach bar blasted out ‘noise’ for the next hour. Thankfully then calling it a day. I guess they were getting ready for the 15th when the flights could start.
Not wanting a repeat performance, we decided to leave the south Ionian islands and head through the Lefkas canal and go to Preveza.
We’d calculated that it would take around 1 ½ hours to get to the ferry that was acting as a bridge while the bridge is being repaired (more on this in a future blog) and up anchored to make our way round.
All was going well, we got to the canal with Mike and Claire in the lead, then a catamaran that sneaked in front of us and then us. We proceeded along the canal but we thought that the catamaran was causing a lot of fumes as there was a strong fuel smell behind them. Having had enough we decided to overtake them putting us behind Owl and Pussycat. All of a sudden, Owl and Pussycat turned around and put up a sail to head back. Claire came on the radio to say that they had a fuel leak and the smell had been them unknowingly pumping fuel out of their bilge. They would try to sail out of the canal in the following wind to try to sort out the problem and see us later. We said no, we’d turn around and follow them. I asked Gill to prepare a tow line in case we needed it. Luckily we did because the wind went on the nose making it impossible to sail. We quickly came alongside and passed the tow line and proceeded to tow Owl and Pussycat to the anchorage at Lygia.
The problem was diagnosed as a leaking fuel filter but in finding that Mike noticed that one of the engine mounts had cracked. This was removed and Mike and Claire walked into Lefkas town and managed to source the required parts and get the engine mount welded.
We ate ashore at the excellent but slightly pricy Seven Islands taverna and the next morning Mike replaced the engine parts and we could make our way to Preveza.
Greece was about to open its’ borders to tourists. We’d seen a very different Ionian to when we were there 2 years before. There were no flotillas, the resorts were quiet, the locals reserved until they knew you and the anchorages empty.
The flip side was that there was unemployment, the tourist resorts were really struggling but they were very scared about what might happen. Many of the people we spoke to thought that they’d get a month to 6 weeks before things would have to close down again. Who knows, it’s been an interesting but sobering time.
As I write this Greece has been open to tourists for about 3 weeks and the cases have started to rise. Fingers crossed for whats next. Whatever happens It’s unlikely we’ll see the Ionian the same as we just have.