From the moment I had heard about Khalkidhiki I had wanted to go there.  Three fingers of land hanging down from the mainland of Greece into the northern Aegean Sea, the third of them being a peninsula of monasteries and holy to all eastern orthodox Christians.  At its isolated and somewhat desolate end sits Mt Athos.  Over 2000 metres of imposing windswept, mountain falling directly into the sea.  It creates its own weather and the winds that rocket down from its peak are renown amongst sailors because they accelerate substantially as they flow down towards the water.  Many boats give it a very wide berth.

We left Thasos aiming directly for Mt Athos as the whole peninsula is the province of men only and women are not allowed within 500 metres of land, so this meant sailing past but not making a landfall there, instead heading up between finger 2 and 3 to the wonderful anchorages we had heard so much about.

We’d had a great sail over in strong breeze and zero swell.  Pretty much perfect sailing conditions. The boat was well reefed so we wouldn’t be overpowered if we went close to shore ignoring the warnings about the wind acceleration zone of Mt Athos so we decided to get a good look close as we could to shore.  This was the first time I had really wished for a good camera with a telephoto lens as getting good photos of the Monasteries and especially of the small cells that monks sometimes inhabit for decades were almost impossible from the distance we were away from land. The monks sometimes live in these tiny spaces for their whole adult lives often without leaving.  They receive supplies in wicker baskets, sometimes transiting the indented coastline by flying fox, and dedicate their lives to prayer, contemplation, and isolation.  I can highly recommend reading this and checking the amazing photos if it interests you: The end of the peninsula on the slopes of Mt Athos were wild and isolated apart from the odd helipad and mobile tower serving to keep the monks connected to the modern world.

Yes, we were hit by the strong winds with the boat registering a gust of over 40 knots, but we sailed safely past craning our necks at a glimpse into such a different world.  As we sailed up the inside of the peninsula, we saw many monasteries including one that looked as if it had been transported directly from Bhutan or Tibet so alike in building style was it. After we got to the large and very garish Russian monastery, we decided we’d had enough and headed towards the island of Ammouliani and a well-protected tiny cove on the west of the island. We anchored there overnight watching the snorkellers pass us by and the small hire boats come and go.  At night the tiny fishing boats went slowly by catching squid and underwater lights marked the passage of octopus divers. I wondered about the monks and what time they would rise for morning prayers and if they thought about the rhythms of summer and the comings and goings of holidaymakers going on just a few kilometres away from them. 

We headed off the next day deciding not to stay another night after a charter yacht dropped their anchor way too close to us. Any changes in wind direction could have resulted in a collision. We were on a hunt for gas for cooking as we had a leaking cylinder and it had run out way more quickly than expected lasting only 10 days rather than 4 weeks as per normal. No luck at the first two places we checked so we decided to move on to catch the rise of the full moon and spend the night anchored off the town of Ouranoupoli. This town is a take off point for the ferries that supply the peninsula and take pilgrims to the Monasteries. There are many shops selling icons painted by the monks at huge prices and local products such as honey and olives as well a jewellery stores selling rosaries and crosses. There were no shops selling gas, however!

As expected, up inside the ‘fingers’ there was lot less wind.  None in fact, on the day we headed west to the island of Diaporos. This is a tiny island dotted with just a few villas in close proximity to the mainland of the second finger. It was September now and although the season was coming to an end, there was an almost continuous stream of little self-drive hire motor-boats circling us at every anchorage.  I can imagine just how busy it must be in the height of the season.  On our initial arrival we nosed our way into the so called ‘Blue Lagoon’ to see if it looked possible to anchor there for the night. We counted 3 Blue Lagoons on the island, and I suspect there are 1000’s worldwide.  We’ve certainly been to a few! It was hard to see the water amongst the boats.  It was largely too shallow for us in there, so we took a quick look and headed around the corner to a different anchorage with just a few yachts in it.

Boats coming and going tthrough the Blue Lagoon

Diaporos and the surrounding islets and the small bays on the mainland were like I imagine the Aegean islands were many years ago. Public beaches, camping spots, little shacks built of tin and timber, more stylish villas and family compounds surrounded by manicured olive groves.  Green grass, white beaches and umbrellas and beach chairs left on the sand overnight as no one would dream of taking them. The hillsides are covered in pine making the whole area green and seasonal storms means there’s fresh water around all year. Apart from the little hire boats, which I actually celebrate as it means anyone can get on the water and have an experience like we are getting, there was a total absence of mass tourism and beach bars with loud music until the wee small hours.  Instead, it was a little old fashioned, chilled out and absolutely perfect for us. Plus the water was incredible.  We anchored in every place we could.  Sometimes going to 4 places in a day as we looked for the perfect spot for a swim or an overnight anchorage.  Friends had said they stayed 3 weeks here just getting lost in the environment.  I could see how. Even before we had to leave to head south to meet Ambar, I could imagine us coming back to this little gem of a spot.  We both couldn’t believe how much it reminded us of Tasmania.  I think it was the overall vibe rather than the landscape although the crystal-clear water and granite rocks was very reminiscent of the Bay of Fires in Tassie…just 15 degrees warmer for a swim! We also met some most excellent people, Nicky and John an expatriate English couple, who had spent every summer here for 40 years and knew everyone and pretty much everything about the area. We were enchanted when they invited us to visit their little whitewashed cottage nestled in a private bay amongst an orange plantation. Compelling reasons to return!

All too soon it was time to go south, and we left after the sun was up, on a beautiful morning in late September, after an unusual request the preceding evening.  An English guy had rowed his dinghy over from his boat to ask us to tow him out of the narrow anchorage in the morning as he had gearbox problems and there was little technical help available in the region.  Not only that, but the rocks lining both of the narrowly separated shores prevented them from safely sailing out. They felt their only choice was to hitch a tow out into open water and then sail back to Thessaloniki where they had a marina berth and access to reliable mechanics. So, we carefully and slowly towed them out and into the first zephyrs of wind before releasing them to sail homewards with cries of “Fair Winds”.

An early morning tow.

The trip south along the second finger shadowed by Mt Athos in the distance was uneventful until we rounded Cape Cassandra.  This is bottom of the second finger and due to the weather conditions, we had to duck around the corner to an anchorage in a fully protected bay called Porto Koufo. The short steep swell, current and the wind on our nose meant that even motoring at maximum revs we were only making 2 knots through the water.  It was super uncomfortable and our slowest headway of all time!  We really felt for the couple on their boat who had no option but to sail through it.  If fact, they hove to and spent the night in the swell waiting for the wind to change the next day as they could make no progress at all under sail.

After entering through an almost impossibly tiny keyhole into a blissfully well protected bay we anchored overnight ready to head for the Sporades in the morning.  Jumping onto that same wind the next morning we were now able to go with it instead of into it and we flew down to the chain of islands known as the Northern Sporades.  They’re a charter boat heaven with good breezes, many summer anchorages, town quays with great tavernas and rugged islands covered in pine forests. After being almost alone up north they seemed BUSY! The anchorage we chose that first night was on the island of Peristera. Suddenly in a tiny anchorage there were 6 boats and barely enough room.  The next day even more arrived but most people were pretty good about not dropping their anchor right on top of each other and making sure we all had enough space. It was a bit dark and rainy there that night but over the water we heard happy laughter from many boats and the surprising sounds of a well-played accordion accompanied by 6 elderly German men singing along to some traditional German songs then a few hits from the 70’s which had us laughing along with them. Tie a Yellow Ribbon, Why, Why, Why Delilah, Running Bear.  Perhaps they were from the ‘60’s?

The northern islands of the Sporades comprise Europe’s largest marine parks and boats are only allowed to visit and to fish with permits. On one small island where the endangered Monk Seals breed you are prohibited from going within a 5 miles of the shore. There is no commercial fishing in the park at all. The islands further south are more heavily inhabited and are famous, these days, for being where parts of the Mama Mia movie were filmed. Mama Mia themed everything splattered all over the islands but I think the award goes to bakeries for some odd reason. We saw at least 5 in the main town on Skiathos.

We visited the beautiful island of Alonissos, as we slowly headed south and hired a car to see both the island and the anchorages we couldn’t go to because the wind was all wrong.  It was also actually raining. A bit of a shock after almost endless months of blue skies with just the odd thunderstorm.

From a beautifully benevolent anchorage in the tiny harbour of Votsi, (one of our favourites for this whole year), we sailed down to Skiathos to meet our daughter, Ambar who was arriving for a week of her holiday with us and was flying into the only airport in the island group.

Happily we collected Ambar then whisked her off to an anchorage we had chosen that was well protected from the south.  The summer winds, as I have mentioned before generally come from the North and when they blow strongly its known as a Meltemi but obviously this is not the pattern all the time.  The problem with this in the Sporades is that most of the great anchorages are protected from the north wind leaving them exposed to the south.  We tucked in close to some cliffs on the north-western side of Skopelos and explored the local surroundings.  Recommended on the app we use to help us find great anchorages was a local walk.  We set off into a wonderland of chestnut and oak trees, wild cyclamens in abundance and a stream leading us to small waterfalls, olive presses, a water wheel for grinding and lastly to a monastery with a view. It was like being taken out of Greece and dropped into England or France for an hour or two. Upon returning to the shoreline we sat at the taverna for a truly lovely meal looking out over the green grass to our boat in the distance.

Only some parts of the Mama Mia movies were filmed is the Sporades but the scene I loved the most was the pilgrimage up to the church for the wedding (for those who have seen it). We decided to sail to the anchorage and climb it ourselves due to calm seas and a perfect day.  We arrived and dropped our anchor amongst many other boats all playing ABBA songs at high volume.  After the walk we headed off to the anchorage for the night, again struggling to find sheltered places for the southerly winds, but in the end I think we managed to schedule in the perfect amount of sailing time, time at anchor swimming / lazing around and exploring time and there was even a little bit of shopping in Skiathos town before Ambar left.

After Ambar was on her way home to Australia, we pretty quickly left the Sporades and headed into the Evia Channel.  Evia island runs mostly parallel to the Greek Mainland and is Greece’s second largest island. It was ravaged by bushfires several years ago and much of the pine forest is gone and townships and forests will be recovering for generations. En route we managed to snag some old fishing net around our rudder and propellor.  We both realised something was wrong when dropping the anchor.  I saw a 20 metre long ribbon of what looked like white raffia trailing beneath the boat and out behind us and Rick heard a change in the engine that he didn’t like. It was immediately clear it was attached to us, so Rick braved the local jellyfish and the cooler water and dived under the boat multiple times to cut away the debris wrapped around the propellor. He did a fantastic job and got all of it and we were able to sail away the next day with no damage.

We had a very exciting (read stressful) time waiting about halfway down the island at a bridge that only opens at night, anytime between 10pm and 4 am.  It’s a tiny bridge, only suitable for small boats and the water pours though this pinch point between the island and the mainland with each change of tide. The tide changes 4 times a day and can go as fast as 7 knots.  Way faster than some boats can motor. Kayakers often practise their white water paddling here against the tide as if it gets windy breaking standing waves get whipped up under the bridge. We were super happy to make it through a bit before midnight along with about 15 other yachts.

The following morning, we made our way South down the Evia Channel meeting up with an excellent couple, Theresa and Paul on their boat in a lovely anchorage called Eritria.  They’d given us lots of good advice about travelling through the bridge after doing it several nights before us.  We had a great few days with them while waiting out some strong breezes then headed south for Cape Sounion and the Temple of Poseidon before finishing our southbound route for this season on the island of Poros.

The temple of Poseidon was spectacular, and I am pretty sure I took exactly the same photos 35 years ago!

Poros was the real surprise.  What a beautiful island.  The island is very close to the mainland and the main town spills over to both shores with tiny ferries hurrying to and fro across the busy stretch of water in between.  The port is charming with many charter boats making a stop here which gives the town plenty of life even at the end of the sailing season when other places have already fully shut for winter. We met our dear friend Nicholas who sailed over just to meet up with us from his home base in Athens. It was a lovely reunion after waiting for 2.5 years to see each other again and another reminder that the gifts of sailing life are the people you meet along the way as much as the places you visit.

The short but windy trip Eastwards to Leros is all that remains of the story of this season and a short (I promise) blog remains but that’s for next time.

Posted by:cathmaddox

5 replies on “Making Our Way South

  1. Wow what an interesting account of your travels in this area. It looks so beautiful, but also highlights some of the tricky sailing skills required.

    You two are obviously very competent sailors, and it’s exciting you can use your expertise to explore such corners of the world that are unknown to most of us.

    Thanks for sharing. Julie x

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  2. Hi Cath & Rick – it’s always lovely to get your awesome travel updates & follow your wanderings on Google Maps 😍🤩👍!! I guess you are both returning to Tassie soon for the summer months? Maybe you’re back home already & planning to travel again in your camper van?

    Also an early Happy Birthday wish to Rick for this coming Sunday, 4 December 🥳🎉🎂🥂!! It will be almost 4 years ago that you two exited Saudi Arabia 😳!!

    Love 💕 & hugs 🤗 from Raleigh,

    Terry, Heather & Riley 😘

  3. Thanks for such an awesome message Terry. What a memory you have! Iv’e passed on the happy birthday wishes to Rick and we also cannot believe its 4 years since we left Saudi already!
    We return to Tas tomorrow…well it takes a few days but should be there Friday. Summer in the little shack with a few trips away in the van. Looking forward to that! sending love to you all xxxx

  4. I love your blogs. You really do write so well! I feel I’m part of it. Obviously this blog’s journey is a recent memory for me too.

    My winter reading is your Dodecanese blogs for ideas for us next year!

    It was wonderful spending time with you. Enjoy being back in your beautiful home.

    Theresa x

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