Hayley Lawrence takes a look at an alternative way to see Greece's most remote islands
So, what’s a girl like you doing drinking in a place like this?” asked a man sporting only a pair of swimming trunks.
“Just a bit of island hopping,” I replied nonchalantly as I necked the contents of my bottle and swiftly prepared to leave. Admittedly, treading water between two remote islands was one of the strangest places I’d stopped to cure a thirst, but there were still a couple more kilometres to swim to the next island.
I threw my empty onto the tailing yacht and paddled on. Below me dropped a deep-blue abyss and, ahead, our destination was a mere speck on the horizon. What was a girl like me doing drinking in a place like this?
By my previous understanding, the term ‘island hopping’ had conjured up scenes of sun-drenched decks in exotic locations, or perhaps kayaks and deserted shorelines at its most adventurous parameters. At the very least, I was sure some type of vessel was necessary. So the idea of swimming between islands had snagged my imagination somewhere between total disbelief and uncollared enthusiasm.
My friends were sceptical: “In medical terms, that’s got to be a piss-take,” remarked one. But promises of balmy water and the support of a luxury yacht had brought me here – somewhere between two of the Little Cyclades – and I was now completely at the mercy of the ocean.
After crossing a sea of white horses on the ferry to Antiparos I had been inclined to agree with my more sensible acquaintance but, seduced by a view of white-washed villages toppling into the ocean, I stalled any immediate plans to escape the speedo-and-swim-hat institution I’d landed in. Being surrounded by a group of people spanning 40 years in age, and ranging from budding triathletes to an arthritic retiree with steely determination, proved I wasn’t the only candidate mad enough to ‘hop’ between six islands in nothing more than a swimsuit.
And, though it was somewhat begrudgingly that I donned the compulsory yellow swimming cap and smothered myself in Vaseline, I obediently followed the procession of swimmers wading out beyond the fishing boats.
Paddling towards Paros we stayed in shallow water, a bed of seaweed, sand and sunken dinghies reassuringly visible beneath us. Less reassuring was the fact we were swimming in a ferry lane – aside from the obvious dangers, it earned us some curious looks from the disembarking passengers as we docked alongside them at Pounta.
Unwittingly, I’d assumed the Cyclades were well trampled by tourists, so was relieved to discover their exoticism still intact as our bus creaked up precipitous hillsides sign-posted in the unfathomable Greek alphabet. As we picked a trail across the island on foot we were further rewarded for our eco-friendly modes of transport, stumbling upon traditional charms that lie hidden from the bustling hub of Parikia.
The grape-stained track (evidence of the ingredients used for the potent local retsina) wound past olive groves and crumbling homesteads until it could barely fight through the tangle of cactus flowers, wild herbs and sun-burned terrain. Led by a strapping lifeguard carrying a torpedo buoy we looked like we’d taken the wrong turning off a Baywatch set. But there were no beach babes in sight – just a few mules batting their lazy eyelids at us as we gorged on freshly-picked figs and viewed the coastal panorama from the courtyard of a hillside church.
Although Simon, our guide and the founder of Swimtrek, insisted that the ‘trek’ component of the company name was secondary to the swimming, it seemed the more appealing part from our perch on Filitji – a rugged outcrop clinging to Paros by a spit of rock. As Aeolus (the wind god) threw a force-seven tantrum, the five-kilometre stretch between us and the mist-shrouded peaks of Naxos looked more like a scene from The Perfect Storm than the millpond I had been expecting.
Mercifully our plans to swim across were abandoned, so we clambered aboard our pitching vessel and sailed to a sheltered bay where we explored intimate rock pools and playgrounds of coral. After an arduous coaching session on ‘spotting’ and ‘streamline’ swimming techniques, I felt like a fully-qualified mermaid and was ready to confront Aeolus and his mood swings over the next few days.
The training came in handy – the following day the sea decided to test us. “I think this may be a little too much freedom,” spluttered Jacquie, my swimming buddy, as she bobbed to the peak of one of a succession of tumultuous waves. Before being sucked back into a trough, I caught a glimpse of the distant yacht silhouetted against the midday sun. There were no beacon-yellow caps in sight and the next blob of land was disconcertingly distant on the bumpy horizon. Earlier we’d plunged into water as smooth as mercury, but now I was being force-fed more saltwater than a wide-mouth whale-shark.
“Just keep paddling for the middle peak on the island,” I gurgled back. Although I was displaying haphazard navigation skills without the lane-markers of the local pool, I was secure in the knowledge that the support boat would steer us back on course if we paddled astray. But while the swimming was tough it was also magical and, as I paddled, the sun’s rays pierced the bottomless blue and illuminated the eerie form of a passing jellyfish.
When the beauty of the experience was eventually usurped by the pain of exertion, my flailing arms dragged me around the final headland where I sprawled into a starfish pose on the yacht’s sun-deck. True to the rule that all toil should reap rewards, the simple treasures offered by the Little Cyclades were more than enough to eclipse the effort of the journey. This tiny cluster of islands exudes an air of authentic, laid-back charm with its winding cobbled streets, unassuming ramshackle villages and alfresco restaurants serving seafood that sees barely hours between the ocean and the plate. Wandering back to my room on Ano Koufonissi, all memories of jelly-legged exhaustion were drowned by the soundtrack of cicadas and braying donkeys that was playing under the cloudless, starry sky.
The following morning, stretching before the mirror-like water that spread between us and the island of Kato Koufonissi, we watched the passenger ferry depart ahead of us. The vessel seemed redundant now, and we were grateful for the flexibility of our more independent form of transport as we paddled to a coastline so remote that I could hardly believe it had been explored by the likes of Lord Byron more than a century before.
A poet and great open-water swimmer, Byron was the first person recorded to have swum across the Hellespont (the waterbridge between Europe and Asia) in 1810, and he swam around the islands of Koufonissi to further pursue his passion for the ocean.
Inspired by Byron, Simon Murie hired boatmen to accompany him on various swims worldwide and subsequently founded Swimtrek. Like Byron, we felt like pioneering explorers trekking around this deserted corner of Greece, but a few well-fed donkeys and weather-beaten houses showed signs of the small community lucky enough to be marooned here.
The four-kilometre swim to Shinoussa didn’t seem long enough, and the seabed was visible sooner than I’d wished as we beached alongside the faster swimmers. Once rested we reconverted our fins into feet and picked up the path into the sleepy town – so sleepy that we were obliged to stop for a beer while it awoke from its siesta.
Sipping a sundowner, overlooking our yacht from the balcony of a Shirley Valentine-esque guesthouse, the peak of Mount Zeus awaited in the distance – the final challenge of our multi-active week.
Compared with our swimming adventures and the exhilarating yacht trip back to Naxos, climbing a small mountain was one of the more average feats of the week. The wind god returned and whipped up a storm so severe that we sailed into Naxos harbour wrapped in bin-bags and rainbow-coloured pac-a-macs – a reality far from the sun-drenched boat decks I’d envisaged.
Hiking up Zeus’ barren slopes, gazing down over the scattered villages and sun-ravaged fields that ran down to the sea, we were reminded of our land-lubbing former selves. From the summit, the highest peak in the Cyclades, our aquatic course between the islands was concealed beneath the descending mist, but it was impossible to mask the uplifting sense of achievement our journey had earned us.
‘I plume myself on this achievement more than I could possibly do on any kind of glory, political, poetical, or rhetorical,’ Byron had quipped after his epic mission across the Hellespont.
“We’re all amazing,” rephrased one of my Kiwi co-swimmers.
I couldn’t disagree with either Byron or my companion from New Zealand and, rich with experiences kept secret from the throngs of regular tourists, I boarded the ferry – a reluctant traitor to the way of island-hopping I was now accustomed to.
Visit in April, May, June, September or October, when the weather is pleasant. July and August are busier and temperatures soar.
The author travelled with Swimtrek (www.swimtrek.com)