Most of my kayak trips are self-guided and involve backcountry camping, so a guided expedition with hotel/guesthouse stays was appealing. Hot showers, real mattresses and restaurant meals are luxuries by my kayaking standards, and focusing only on kayaking, in the Greek islands, no less, sounded idyllic. As it turned out, this Ionian odyssey to seven islands turned into a little journey of self-discovery.
Away from the Aegean touristy islands, the Greek islands in the Ionian sea are quieter, greener and wilder. They are the backdrop in Homer’s epic poem the Odyssey, form the setting for the novel Captain Corelli’s Mandolin and their flip-flopping ownership over the centuries makes their recent history interesting.
Fiscardo, at the northern tip of the island, was one of the few towns to escape the full force of the 1953 earthquake that flattened Zykanthos, Kefalonia and Ithica. It is worth a visit and not just because it’s a picturesque port. The drive from Argostoli to Fiscardo climbs over the mountains, offering spectacular coastal views along the way. I’d show you except that none of the three of us in the car wanted to stop. We were trying to catch a van carrying all the other kayakers. We weren’t sure of the meeting spot in Fiscardo and we didn’t want to hold up the others who were itching to kayak. The van left 15 minutes before us because some of us had been slow in getting our luggage sorted. In actuality, the van left but was waiting for us a kilometre from the hotel. After 40 min they gave up and set out for Fiscardo, meaning our racing was all for naught; they were miles behind us. We all arrived later than scheduled, not a good way to endear yourself to the guides and guests on day one. Fortunately, we still had time for an afternoon paddle along Kefalonia’s rugged coast.
Fiscardo, once a quiet fishing port, now attracts yachts from all over the world. In the high season, the many shops, tavernas and cafés lining the harbour are hopping.
The channel between Kefalonia and the island of Lefkada is wide and busy so the next morning we boarded the ferry (kayaks and all) to begin our island-hopping odyssey from there. Despite being a large island with a small bridge to the mainland, it is surprisingly quiet. We paddled past colourful breccia and sandstone cliffs to the village of Sivota where we spent the night.
The natural bay in which Sivota sits, lovely water-access-only beaches nearby and pretty vine-covered shops and tavernas lining the harbour make it a preferred destination for boaters.
We paddled to Meganisi next, where we lunched in Papanikolis cave, a limestone/marble cave and the second largest sea cave in Greece. It’s deep water is thought to have provided safe harbour to the Greek submarine, Papanikolis during WWII, after its attacks on the Italians.
It was calm when we entered but an hour later we faced strong winds that hit us broadside as we circumnavigated the island. After an hour of trying to stay upright, we reached the leeward side of the island. It was the only windy day of the trip and it was in the subsequent calm-sea days that my restlessness became apparent.
Our destination for the next two nights was the village of Spartahori, which we found perched high on top of the cliffs. If you arrive by ferry make sure your accommodation will pick up your luggage as the walk up to the village is steep. The trick here though, was finding our guesthouse again after dinner because the narrow winding streets are a complete maze.
We spent a morning circling Skorpios. The island was owned by Aristotle Onassis and it’s where he married Jackie Kennedy. His granddaughter and sole surviving heir, recently sold it to a Russian billionaire, who, judging from the signs, cameras in the trees and armed guards, doesn’t enjoy company. There is little to see, as the buildings are cloaked in trees. I began a fast pace (although I wasn’t sure why) while the rest cruised behind me staring at the trees. They were probably thinking I should chillax.
Onassis ensured the keeping of a small public beach and it’s where we ate lunch and then practised kayak rescue techniques (ie climbing back into our kayaks in deep water). Our two experienced Irish kayakers demonstrated kayak-rolling techniques.
On leaving Meganisi the following day, the group hugged its indented coastline, inspecting the rocks and trees. It was a lovely coastline but I admired it from afar as I kayaked by. My brain practically reasoned my course of action this way:
- Fact: we had 22 km to cover that day with a 9 km open water crossing, and sampling every bay and cove added unnecessary time and distance;
- Fact: I have inspected a lot of rocks and trees because I live in a country that is pretty much just rocks and trees, and trees and rocks, and rocks and trees, and trees and rocks and….water;
- Fact: headland to headland was the straightest, hence fastest, route around the island;
- Fact: I find peace in the quiet of paddling alone in calm water with only the “dip, dip and swing” of my paddle
- Conclusion: 22 km could provide a good workout and a peaceful paddle if I set a good pace
- Behavioural response: optimize my route and then paddle from point to point around the island, quickly.
I kept up the pace as we crossed to the island of Kalamos. Half way we jumped in for a swim to cool off and again practise our climbing-back-in skills.
Once at Kalamos, the limestone cliffs and cave structures were, admittedly, more impressive and yes, even I engaged in recreational rock and tree inspection.
I marveled at the height of the cliffs and even pondered the insignificance of mankind (for at least a couple of moments) before the headland to headland purposeful paddling bug hit again en route to the village of Kalamos.
The restaurant in the village of Kalamos was full of the yachting set chatting about their ports of call. Two of us stayed for after-dinner drinks but returned to find our guesthouse gate locked. When cursing didn’t solve the problem, we decided that while the pointy fence looked like it could cause real damage, scaling it seemed the only solution.
We managed it (just) by climbing up and over the archway roof, only to find out the next morning that if we had put our hand through the gate and opened it from the inside, it would open easily. I didn’t think of this at 11:30 pm because my brain had used up all its practical reasoning ability just getting here.
We left very early the next morning, inspecting more of the Kalamos coast and I again conformed when I saw this big, beautiful sandstone monolith.
A den of monk seal pups in a cave and an angry mother outside took the group away from the cliffs. Everyone’s pace picked up a bit.
Kastos and Atokos
After crossing to Kastos, an island with only a handful of residents, the Café Traverso bar was an unexpected find. It’s one of a few cafés and bars here catering to the boating set, which surely we were now part of, despite our tiny craft that could fit between the pontoons and underneath the catamaran in the harbour. (I considered trying it as I approached but the guides (and boat-owner) might not have been impressed).
Then it was on to One House Bay on Atokos for lunch at an abandoned church. Atokos is empty and privately owned by a shipping magnate but, unlike Skorpios, it is accepting of visitors.
In Cliff Bay, at the south end, we loaded the kayaks onto a water taxi and headed across the busy channel to Vathy on the island of Ithica.
This was my favourite stop, maybe because Vathy’s a pretty village and I was in the best hotel with a cool and cosy little room with whitewashed stone walls. The others were scattered through less-charming hotels. Ithica was supposedly the home of Odysseus. His wife Penelope remained there while he was at Troy fighting Trojans and building fake horses.
Venetian cannons, installed in 1807 during the second French occupation of the Ionian islands, sit above the town.
The islands have a turbulent history. In a nutshell: Venetian rule from the 14th to the late 18th centuries, French occupation first in the late 1700s until the Russo-Ottoman empire nabbed them. The French took them back in the early 1800s until Napoleon resigned and the British ousted them. Then they all played cricket and drank tea until 1864 when the British tired of them and handed them to Greece.
Back to Kefalonia
Our final morning stop was in a tiny cove on Atokos before we crossed back to Kefalonia.
I and two others locked in our pace on the crossing, until the lead guide paddled up to tell me I needed to paddle slowly with him. Apparently, he didn’t want to lead the group, he just didn’t want me paddling ahead of him. Then after 15 minutes of this, he happily let others speed ahead. When we arrived on Kefalonia minus one person, he was unconcerned that she remained out at sea messing about. My reprimand was puzzling after a week of allowing me (and a few others) to paddle madly offshore in a zone of our own, while some lingered behind and others were glued to the coast. Regardless, we had a nice final picnic lunch on Antisamos beach.
The Irish rolling experts told me in the airport the next day that the area in which I’d been reigned in is where they occasionally see dolphins, and the guide wanted to slow everyone down to increase the probability of spotting one. I suppose I was the instigator of the “let’s go” attitude. If he’d just said “slow down so we can look for dolphins” it all would have made sense. We did see the fin of a dolphin in the distance, so I guess it worked out.
I realise now that I need to create a purpose for paddling. This time it was the exercise and anticipation of new destinations and new experiences. At home, it’s tripping preparations, route planning, exploring access-limited remote areas, end-of-day eating, drinking and laughter with friends around the campfire, and falling asleep to breaking waves and the haunting call of the loon echoing over the lake. Kayaking is simply a vehicle to things that make me happy.
My Ionian odyssey shone a light on the fact that it’s the purpose that motivates me to paddle, not the paddling per se.
So if you see me in my kayak one day, I won’t be pottering about; I’ll be headed somewhere for a reason or just trying hard to stay fit. And as I read to my children many a time….
“You have brains in your head. You have feet in your shoes. You can steer yourself, any direction you choose”
“Somehow you’ll escape all that waiting and staying. You’ll find the bright places where Boom Bands are playing”
“You’re off to great places, today is your day. Your mountain is waiting so…get on your way!”
– Oh the Places You’ll Go – Dr. Seuss