There are blessed moments in every life that are so wildly out-of-the-ordinary, it's as if one has floated free from reality. This past summer, I had one of these rare experiences when I woke up one morning aboard a gorgeous, 60-foot sailboat, Arianna, which was moored in a secluded cove off the Greek island of Rhenia.
Was I still dreaming? I couldn't completely believe my good fortune, as I crept up to the deck, dropped my towel and dove into the still, chill waters of the Aegean Sea, naked as the day I was born. My partner, James; my brother, Douglas; our friend, Alison; and our captain, a 24-year-old half-French and half-Greek man named Niko, were still asleep aboard Arianna, so I had the whole wide world all to myself for a few magical minutes.
This dip was the dazzling beginning to a week spent sailing from Syros to Santorini, primarily through an archipelago named the Cyclades. Cyclos (pronounced "kee-close") is a Greek word for circle and the Cyclades ("Kee-Clah-days") are arranged like a ring around the sacred island of Delos. According to Greek mythology, it was on Delos that Leto gave birth to Apollo, god of light, and the fruit of her union with Zeus, father of all gods.
I'd learned about Leto on my flight to Athens, since I had taken along The Echoes of Greece, a book written by the esteemed Greco-Roman scholar Edith Hamilton that offers a fascinating summary of how the then-radical idea of democracy suddenly kindled in fifth-century Athens. Hamilton's point is that true democracy requires people to be completely free in thought, word and deed, but voluntarily limit themselves through moderation, self-control and love of neighbor.
The paradox of liberty bounded by implicit rules is, I learned, quite similar to what exploring on a sailboat is like. One is free to journey where one likes - but only if the wind, water and one's shipmates all agree.
My brother discovered Arianna was for hire by visiting the sailboat's excellent Web site (sailcyclades.com). As I made arrangements with the ship's owner, Soren Stammers, he offered helpful advice on arranging an itinerary, as well as ways to prepare my expectations.
"A sense of timelessness oozes out of Greece. These people have been through it all for over 7,000 years. They are very modern in their outlook, but are wedded to their mythology," Stammers said. "Greeks have figured out the values of life. It's not about acquisitions, but about joie de vivre. On even the humblest island, you find a sensibility that is incredibly elegant."
Arriving in Athens in early September, we took a high-speed ferry to the island of Syros, and were happy to see Niko waiting for us in the harbor. He showed us about Arianna, which has four cabins with baths, surrounding a comfortable dining area and small, but serviceable kitchen. Niko had his own captain's berth up front.
Above, the decks were teak and the cockpit roomy enough to have two banquettes on which to sunbathe. There was a dodger, or weather covering, about the upper deck, providing shade for those who'd had enough sun.
After a good night's sleep - we were all shocked that the hubbub of the tavernas and bars along Syros' waterfront didn't keep us awake - we began our leisurely sail south. Days would begin with a breakfast of strong coffee, fruit and fresh Greek yogurt. Then, we'd pull up anchor and off we'd go.
September is the season for meltemi winds, which blew strong all day.
Douglas, by far the most experienced sailor among the passengers, claimed to be miffed that the winds were "broad reach" or right into the sails all day, so he couldn't practice his nautical technique by tacking back and forth. Since all the Cyclades lie fairly close to each other, we were never out of view of land - another slight disappointment for my brother, but something that delighted James, Alison and me, the landlubbers. We felt nestled and safe by always being able to see our destination on the horizon, and knowing exactly where we were headed.
Days passed slowly and pleasantly as I sunbathed and caught up on my reading. I'd also brought along a watercolor set and, to my delight, found myself so inspired by the pure clarity of colors in the sea, sky and horizon, that I was soon busily painting away with a focus I hadn't manifested since art classes in college.
Usually, at about 1 o'clock or so, Alison and I would go below to the kitchen to rustle up a Greek salad for lunch. Nothing could be easier, as the ingredients we'd find in produce stores each afternoon were locally grown and tasty. Tomatoes, cucumbers, green peppers, fresh oregano, feta and black olives - chopped together and served with crusty bread - made an excellent lunch.
We would sail for no more than four hours, till we arrived at our next island. Usually, I could convince my shipmates to explore by going for a run, which was punishing as the Cycladic islands have rocky, hilly coastlines, and the road away from the beach often went up, up, up at a heart-pounding incline. The exercise always had its rewards, however, and it was awe-inspiring to stand on a windswept summit, survey the coastline in all directions, and see how the sea's vibrant azure color close-in melded into shades of green, navy and, yes, wine-dark purple, farther out from shore.
Not all the islands we visited, of course, were remote or unpopulated. Mykonos, for instance, is a playground for sun and sin seekers from around the world. When we arrived, we rented a car and toured the island. Even though the high tourist season was over, the island was still hopping. We ate lunch at a place that someone had assured James was the "chic-est" spot on the island, Psarou Beach, feasting on grilled squid, fava bean spread and tarama (a salty froth of fish roe mixed with whipped cream) at a restaurant called Namos.
On the way back to our boat, we drove into the hora, or city center. There were all the gaudy souvenirs you'd expect at a seaside town, if more notably obscene, because of the celebration of nudity that's found in ancient Greek art. The doors of these sacred spaces were open and welcoming, so we wandered in to admire the silver figures and the brooding pop realism of the saints' portraits. We were not sorry to leave.
The next day, we landed at Delos, an island that reached its zenith in the classical period (5th to 4th century B.C.), when nearly all commercial activity of the eastern Mediterranean was centered there. Rich merchants, bankers and ship owners built lavish homes with terraces, courtyards and indoor plumbing. There were hardly any visitors besides us, and it seemed unimaginable that we were able to wander freely through these huge ruins, stepping across ancient mosaic floors, and running our fingers across marble work carved millennia ago.
Our sail continued to Naxos, Ios, Iraklia and Schinousa before we ended up in Santorini. On our final night, we decided to have a barbecue on the beach, and Niko arranged a circle of rocks - shaped like the Cyclades - in the sand.
While our eggplant blackened, and the lamb sausages sizzled, we lay back on the sand, watched the sun set, and then the winking, blinking arrival of the evening's stars. Jupiter was the first and brightest light to appear in the sky. In Roman mythology, it is Jupiter, not Zeus, who is the king of Heaven and Earth, and leader of all the Olympian gods.
So insistently and rashly did Jupiter (or was it Zeus?), shine forth his beacon over all below, as he had for millennia, that I felt quite mortal, quite aware of the brevity of life, yet quite happy to be there at that particular moment. And in that confusion of feeling, I suppose I also felt quite Greek.
IF YOU GO
To reach the Cyclades Islands, it's best to fly into Athens, Greece, and travel on via a high-speed ferry to the island of Syros. From Baltimore, multiple carriers offer connecting flights to Athens. To get from Athens to Syros, there are departures several times a day from Athens' Port of Piraeus aboard either GA Ferries (gaferries.com) or Blue Star Ferries (www.bluestarferries.com).
To call the numbers below, use the country code 30.
A brief Internet search will reveal many companies that rent sailboats either supplied with a captain, cook, staff (or any variant of personnel), or "bare boating," which means you are on your own. Check out sailcyclades.com to learn more about Arianna.
Sofokleous 26 and Klisthenous, Omonia, 210-524-8511; www.freshhotel.gr. A boutique hotel with small, well-appointed rooms, a rooftop bar and pool with views of the Acropolis. Rooms start at $195.
St. George Lycabettus Hotel:
Kleomenous 2, Kolonaki, 210-729-0711, www.sglycabettus.gr. At the foot of Lykavittos Hill, this boutique hotel has a rooftop pool as well as a luxurious spa center. Rooms start at $275.
National Archeological Museum:
28 Oktovriou-Patision 44, Athens, 210-821-7717; www.culture.gr. Extensive collection of sculptures, mosaics, pottery and jewelry from Greece's most important archaeological sites.
Corner of Leof Vasilissis Sofias and Koumbari 1, Kolonaki, Athens, 210-367-1000; www.benaki.gr. For nearly four decades, Antoine Benaki avidly collected ancient sculpture and Bronze Age treasures, and they're all on display here.
Delos island tour:
No visit to the Cyclades is complete without a pilgrimage to this sacred island, which is one of the most important archaeological sites in Greece. It lies just a few miles off the west coast of Mykonos. Day trips only, overnight stays forbidden.
The Echo of Greece by Edith Hamilton (New York, 1957). With marvelous concision and clarity, Hamilton brings to vivid life people such as Plato and Aristotle, Alexander the Great and the Stoics.