Seasoned sailor, Benjamin Sturges advises families to forget the obvious island hops and try Greek sailing vacations with kids on the Saronic Gulf. He did just that recently with his two little seafarers and it was an unforgettable experience, for all the right reasons.
When searching for a Greek island paradise one might think first of heading to Mykonos, Kos or Santorini or any one of the multiple outlying islands, often via the Athenian port of Pireaus to catch a ferry.
Athens itself is not an obvious starting point for amazing Greek sailing vacations. However, it turns out to be exactly that.
Athens gives Greek sailing holidays a head start
The Saronic Gulf just south and west of Athens, despite being right on the doorstep of the Greek capital, has an abundance of interesting and unspoilt islands that are largely bypassed by the majority of international tourists, and are instead, largely kept to themselves by the Greeks. On the east side of the mainland the Saronic Gulf enjoys similarly gentle sailing conditions as the Ionian sea while generally avoiding the very strong breezes that can blow up for days on end through the Cyclades.
Catch up on some classics on the way to the marina
Our children, Mollie aged 7 and Arthur aged 10, are now well-versed in the joys of a sailing holiday – they absolutely love them and the sense of freedom and adventure they bring. However, having previously enjoyed the relative comforts of sailing on a catamaran, now that they are a bit older we decided this was to be their first trip on a better sailing monohull, a bit more tippy but no less comfortable.
Athens Airport is a direct taxi ride to Alimos Marina. Alternatively, do as we did, and go via the heart of Athens to absorb the centuries of culture and visit the Acropolis and Parthenon enroute.
Alimos Marina sits right by Athens beach at the juxtaposition of central Athens and the sparkling sea beyond. If you plan to head out to the Cyclades and other outlying islands you can also charter from Lavrio Marina a little further out of town to the east.
Pretty Aegina is the first of our Greek islands
After meeting our delightful and highly experienced Greek skipper George at the charter base, and a rather-too-hot provisioning trip to the local supermarket – it is always worth paying the premium to have your boat pre-provisioned! – we set sail due west to our first overnight stop.
The spectacle of the Athenian metropolis nestled below the surrounding hills provides a seriously impressive backdrop as you leave harbor, heading out to the beautiful islands and cooler air that the locals enjoy right on their doorstep.
Don’t miss the snorkeling at Fyki beach
The pretty island of Aegina is around two gentle hours sail away. One of the biggest of the Saronic islands Aegina has a different experience on each side or corner depending on which way you sail round it and plenty of pretty bays to moor in or small towns to visit.
Our favorite was Fyki beach on the south west corner where there was great snorkeling off a long shallow sandy beach and where the nearby Psarotaverna serves wonderful seafood right on the shore. A perfect spot to enjoy a glass of wine and admire your yacht with the sun gently setting behind.
As is usual with these trips we sat down on the first night with a cold beer and mapped out a rough route with George ensuring we took in the key islands of Poros, Spetses and Hydra as well as some of the cultural sights like the ancient theatre at Epidavros.
On-board life quickly settles into a relaxed rhythm
Life on board quickly settles into a relaxed rhythm. Each night you can decide to moor in a pretty bay – and either cook on board or take the dinghy across to an ubiquitous Greek taverna nearby – or head into harbor for an often slightly calmer night’s sleep and easy access to the amazing restaurants many of these island towns offer.
When morning comes it’s generally a refreshing dip in the clear blue sea, a quick breakfast and then set sail for a different bay for lunch and an afternoon of swimming, exploring on the paddleboard or just relaxing with a book.
Wealthy Athenians love Spetses, turns out we do too!
Next stop for us was Spetses, a favourite destination for the Athenian wealthy. Although, serious speedboats aside, the Greeks largely eschew flamboyant displays of wealth, and the champagne-spraying of wealthy tourist haunts like Mykonos is entirely absent.
Instead we moor up in the characterful Old Harbour to the west of the island and take a horse and carriage ride along the beautiful cobbled seafront to one of the lovely waterfront restaurants between there and the working commercial harbor in the main town centre.
There are plenty of pretty beaches with crystal clear waters to explore around the island, either on foot a short walk from the Old Harbour or by sailing round to the west of the island. Spetses was the setting for John Fowles’ famous book The Magus – which is a must read on Greek sailing vacations.
An experienced skipper is a must on Greek sailing vacations
Moving onto Hydra and its unspoilt charms it is almost impossible to believe we are so close to Athens. There are no cars on Hydra and transportation around the marble cobbled lanes is provided by donkeys and mules.
Wonderful architecture, deep history and an impressive 18th century marble-quay-ed harbour make for an exciting arrival as you prepare to navigate the often packed harbor which can often raft boats 4 or 5 deep to the harbour wall. At this point we were extremely happy to have George on board to handle the protocol, which involved quite a bit of shouting and a mess of anchors and ropes!
We had dinner at Paradosiakon a picturesque Greek taverna down a back street followed by cocktails on the waterfront overlooking the lively harbor – an absolutely perfect finish to the day.
Drop into Russian Bay for the floating waterpark
Poros meaning ‘Passage’ is a picturesque island and town separated from the mainland by a long narrow channel which leads you through into a huge sheltered bay area with endless pretty anchorages. It is well worth dropping by Russian Bay where there is an old fort to visit and also a floating inflatable adventure park which the kids absolutely loved.
A visit to Epidavros is well worth a slight detour
The route from there allows a diversion to Epidavros back on the mainland, one of the most famous ancient theatres in Greece. The stadium is still in excellent condition and throughout the summer plays host to many live performances. Although it’s only a taxi ride from the harbour, make sure you check out the timing of performances online.
As we wend our way gently back to Athens it’s clear we’ve only scratched the surface here and barely have time to visit Agistri, a tiny island set in the middle of the Saronic. One of the most unspoiled Greek islands, surrounded by deep blue waters it’s a perfect spot to relax on the last day back enroute to Athens.
So what was the verdict on Greek sailing vacations?
The Greeks love children and our skipper George could not do enough for us. His local knowledge was invaluable in ensuring we got into the right harbors with minimal fuss. However, he was also brilliantly good humoured with the kids and spent many extremely patient hours teaching them the basics of sailing – we are hopeful some of it has sunk in.
As we contemplate our next vacation we ask the children what they think – a unanimous shout comes back ‘Let’s go sailing!’
How to plan Greek sailing vacations
How to get there
Several US airlines operate non-stop flights to Athens from Chicago, New York and Atlanta
Where to stay
4-cabin, Oceanis 51.1 Escape, sleeps 4, plus skipper.
Good to know
Benjamin and his family booked their charter through Helm Yachting, a UK charter company which also helps with logistics and arranges skippers. Plus, the friendly Helm team have a wealth of experience and knowledge, and they’re very happy to share, advise and give families any guidance they need.