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Oh Que Luna in Greece’s Aeolian Islands

Athenian sunset

Athenian sunsetThe sunsets couldn’t have been prettier during our charter off the coast of Athens. It was also fascinating to see just how different the Greek charter market is from other destinations.

The 85-foot motoryacht Oh Que Luna is a sure bet  for a big, fat, Greek siesta

By Kim Kavin

It was about 10 p.m. in Portocheli when I realized I had succumbed.

Because the wind was kicking up in the Saronic Gulf southwest of Athens, our captain had decided to move the 85-foot Oh Que Luna across the strait for the night, into the harbor of this quaint mainland town. It’s not a destination on the typical charter itinerary; it’s the kind of secret place the locals go to do exactly what the tourists think it is they’re doing in the islands. There are a few shops on the waterfront in Portocheli, but none with the name of the place painted on everything for sale. The tavernas serve real Greek fare, not just the omelets and salads the ferryboat passengers find at each new harbor.

My sister Michelle, a local friend and I were indulging in a late-night snack of small fried fish served popcorn-style (heads and all) along with a carafe of ouzo, the favored nightcap in Greece. The joint was swilling with dark-haired men in polo shirts, all spinning worry beads through their fingers and letting out the occasional whoop toward the soccer game on the rabbit-eared television. I looked down at the skinny stray cats with wide eyes begging for supper on the sidewalk, then looked back up at Michelle. She let out a cavernous yawn.

“No wonder you’re tired,” I said with utter, ridiculous sincerity. “You didn’t get your second nap today.”

Our local friend laughed and poured another round of ouzo.

“It’s gotten hold of you,” she giggled, raising her shot glass for a toast. “Here’s to the Greek sleeping sickness.”

I rarely get one nap a day back home, let alone two, but the pace of life is so serene in these warm, sunny islands, it’s impossible to cling to the speed of America. Here, where simple white houses cascade down the mountainsides and mules still serve as a major form of transportation, existence is more simple. It’s more primal. You eat. You sleep. You eat again. You sleep some more. You don’t have a drink while waiting to do something else; you have a drink because it is the thing to do. Conversation is the dominant sport. Café is a verb.

And boats are the only chariots to this paradise. From Athens, a city that sprawls like a dusty puddle of short buildings, dozens of ferries and high-speed hydrofoils depart daily for the scenic Saronic Gulf islands. All are within a few hours’ cruise, navigable almost by sight, moving at speeds that slacken the farther and farther you get from shore.

It’s soothing to become immersed in this dreamy culture, for sure, but it’s downright decadent to succumb while being pampered aboard Oh Que Luna, one of the finest charter yachts in all of Greece.

The Greek charter market has long been an entity unto itself, a closed sector in which foreign-flagged yachts were not allowed to carry paid guests. As in any marketplace that lacks outside competition, the players had the luxury of occasionally choosing profit over performance. This led to the existence of a Greek charter fleet with more than a hundred crewed motoryachts, but with only a few dozen that offer the quality and service the worldwide charter industry demands.

Today, Greece’s laws are changing. The first foreign-flagged yachts going through the paperwork process should have been registered for legal charter in time for the 2004 Olympic Games in Athens. With them, these yachts will bring a level of competition destined to bury the lesser performers in the Greek fleet.

On the other hand, a few Greek charter boats will thrive—those that have spent the past few years preparing for the onslaught with refits, crew training, and the adoption of Western business practices and contracts. Within this select group, Oh Que Luna is widely regarded as among the very best. She offers everything you would expect on a yacht in her price range in virtually any port worldwide, along with a crew that uses local knowledge to make the most of each charter.

The boat carries five crew to tend to eight guests. These are not the Colgate-smile kids so often seen washing hull sides in the Caribbean; these are hardworking, middle-aged men with wives and children who consider yachting their careers. Only Capt. Vangelis Alexakis and steward Rudy Punongbayan speak English, but everyone working aboard Oh Que Luna knows how to smile and say, “Is okay?” The chef asked us this after almost every meal. We were always pleased, but if he didn’t get a wide grin in response, he became sad and promised to work harder for us the next time.

All meals are served family style, which is nice because it allows you to try new things in varying portions. You might recognize the feta cheese slices and grilled octopus tentacles on your plate, but the tasty sadziki salad (yogurt, cucumber, and garlic) and mousaka main dish (like eggplant parmesan) will surprise any taste buds unaccustomed to creative cooking.  Lunches, in keeping with Greek tradition, are huge, with smaller breakfasts and dinners.

We were more than filled as we docked to explore each island. First was Aegina, best known for its soft, salty pistachios. It houses the Temple of Aphaia on its acropolis. Built in the early fifth-century B.C., the temple is quite well preserved. Even standing outside the ropes protecting it, I could easily discern the layout of its interior and ponder how it had been used in centuries past. I didn’t realize how precious this experience was until a few days later, while touring the Parthenon at the acropolis in Athens. The Temple of Aphaia is smaller in scale, but so is the number of tourists. The serenity of the place makes it much easier to appreciate than its scaffolding-marred sister on the mainland.

After leaving Aegina, we visited Poros, which has a picture-postcard harbor, and Spetses, a bustling resort destination. Both are full of spirit, lined with cafes and shops. Hydra is between them on the chart, but Oh Que Luna’s captain wisely saved it for the last stop of our trip. It is a finale worth waiting for. Read more

Coming into Hydra harbor, I felt much as I do when arriving by boat in Portofino, Italy. The quay is a tapestry of color and sounds and smells. Tangles of small local boats are tied up amid sleek visiting motoryachts. Rows and rows of nicely dressed tables beg to be used as grandstands for anyone who wants to watch the parade of life go by.

There are no cars allowed on the island, so mules, donkeys, and ponies are the main transportation. They carry people, supplies, even cement for houses being built in the mountains. They are taxicabs and pickup trucks with big, floppy ears. When a few are roped together, they almost look like freight trains.

We watched the entertaining scene from Oh Que Luna’s aft deck, waiting aboard with cold drinks until the day’s swarm of ferry passengers headed back to Athens. The tension left Hydra with the crowds, like air set free from a balloon. Once all was quiet and sunset was near, we jumped into the place with the energy of children who had found a new playground.

While we had seen visitors riding sidesaddle atop mules to the top of the island, we found our way up on foot. It’s not a climb for the weak of heart or sole, but the sloping alleyways and endless stone steps have a romance to them much like the old fortresses on the French Riviera. We got lost wandering to the summit, as invading forces used to while trying to track down Hydra’s residents. We smelled juicy fruit in the markets, alongside locals buying the night’s supper. We met a painter with thin gray hair and thick black glasses who signed his prints before rolling them delicately for us to take home.

After the red sun sank below the horizon, we climbed on tired, wobbly legs back down the dozens of flights of stone stairways to Oh Que Luna. We were hungry. We were thirsty. We were enchanted, and we were charmed.

And of course, we had well earned our third nap of the day.