Harmonicas, Haute Cuisine, and Letting Go: What’s It Like To Travel The Greek Islands on a Private Yacht
Taste & Travel7 Minutes Read

Harmonicas, Haute Cuisine, and Letting Go: What’s It Like To Travel The Greek Islands on a Private Yacht

June 6, 2024 Share

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From Island Hopping to Harmonica Serenades: Discover the Unexpected Joys of Yachting in the Greek Islands on a luxury catamaran.

I’ve always wanted to hear the harmonica being played live. It may seem a strange way to begin a piece about island hopping in Greece, but the first time I experienced live harmonica music was at one in the morning, in the middle of the Mediterranean Sea in (you guessed it), Greece. I was on board a crewed catamaran organised by our yacht broker Helm, surrounded by the sea and docked a few hundred metres from the coast of Athens. The night wasn’t a particularly starry one, but a stillness enveloped us, a rarity in bustling cities. It was the first of four nights on a luxury catamaran charter holiday, and some of us lingered on the upper deck, savouring the thrill of being at sea and reluctant to retreat to our cabins. Silence reigned, punctuated only by the soulful strains of a harmonica, played by none other than very our own captain.

Image courtesy of @laugs14.2
Image courtesy of @laugs14.2

Listening to live music in the midst of the night made me think of a phrase I may have very well made up. “Life is better on a boat” – said someone, somewhere, surely. It sounds like one of those “live, laugh, love” signs plastered on a corner café of your local coffee shop, but that despite cheesiness sometimes ring true. But after four days in the coast of Greece, here’s my two cents on that made-up phrase: Life is even better on a 52ft luxury catamaran.

For reference, 52ft is about the size of a bowling alley. This is enough to fit 5 ensuite cabins and a cabin crew, a kitchen and arguably 4 different outdoor spaces. In other words; It’s pretty big. While I don’t suffer from severe claustrophobia, the prospect of being confined in close quarters at sea with eight other people did make me queasy. But as I was quick to find out; if you crave privacy, on a boat like Oneida, you’ll find it. And if you don’t, you can always retreat to the sanctuary of your own cabin.

Think of your cabin as a compact luxury catamaran hotel, complete with everything you would expect of a five starred accommodation (including an impressive number of towels, vanity packs and artwork on the timber cladded walls). Each cabin contains an ensuite bathroom and shower, which depending on the cabin can range from a full sized space to a more compact arrangement. It’s better than most people’s accommodation in London – and it certainly has better views

And unless you’re a Michelin-rated cook, your holiday on board probably has better food too. 

Image courtesy of @laugs14.2

Here’s the thing about renting a charter that people tend to overlook; it’s a foodie’s haven. I have come to compare it to having a private chef cook for you in a hotel, with spectacular views out onto the sea. Except you don’t have to fight off the couple beside you for a clear view of the ocean. Nor do you have to listen to music you’re not keen on, or scour the menu for something you don’t like. On board a luxury catamaran charter, the chef and the team has already been briefed by the brokers, who assist you from the initial process all the way to the end. In other words, your chef will remove the capers, ensure he has stocked up your favourite bottle of Sauvignon and religiously offer you that espresso you crave after every meal. 

Even if you gave your broker very little information about your likes and dislikes in your preference sheet (which is essentially a guide which helps the team cater the experience specifically to you), you are likely to indulge in some of the best food you’ve ever had. In our case, greek bacon (according to the chef, a less fatty version of italian guanciale), or scrambled eggs dotted with black garlic and truffle. Or fresh-caught fish. And for dessert? A chocolate cake I’m still daydreaming about a few weeks later.

Image courtesy of @laugs14.2

I have to be honest, I wasn’t expecting much from the food – and not because I doubted the chef’s abilities. The moment we arrived at the remarkably late hour of 3am on the first night, he had left behind some smoked tapas, which were enough of an indication that we certainly wouldn’t go hungry by the end of this trip. But I had seen the catamaran’s tiny kitchen. It was small, yet as I soon found out, mighty. Equipped with practically everything you’d expect in its regular sized replica (except for countertops – the boat didn’t have many of those), our chef, Kostas, was prepared.

I spent a lot of time watching the chef do his thing – partly out of curiosity, but mostly because I flock around food like pigeons around crumbs. Watching someone with a passion for cooking ply their craft feels akin to witnessing a dancer in motion. And as one of our accompanying guests aptly mentioned, “music is the food of love.” But on board, a more fitting reinterpretation of the phrase started making the rounds: “Food is the music of love.” Let’s just say that after four days on board, I found myself applauding Kostas’ culinary orchestra of chopping, stirring, and plating.

Image courtesy of @laugs14.2
Image courtesy of @laugs14.2

As I watched and spoke to Kostas whilst he skillfully prepared the delectable dishes, I was reminded that yachting isn’t just about traversing landscapes; it’s also a journey into the lives and narratives of those who call the seas their home. Yachting involves a lot of the things you can expect even if you have never set foot on board a boat in your entire life – sails, the sea, spectacular sunsets… but if you let it, it is also a great way to experience a destination through its people. Unlike a hotel, where there is a certain distance between you and the waiters at the ground floor bar, the size of a vessel alone means you will be in much closer contact with the crew – people who know the area you are visiting, and the sea, like the back of their hand. And whilst they will interact with you as much or as little as you wish, I cannot recommend enough that you get to know them.

You might discover, for instance, that the chef’s father was a renowned pastry maestro, and the dinner he served the night before was an adaptation of his grandmother’s famous Makaronia me Kima (a Greek dish akin to Bolognese). Or that the chief steward has a commendable, yet eclectic music taste that manages to please your disparate group simultaneously. Or that the captain is remarkably skilled at playing almost any instrument you hand him, and is as passionate about board games as he is about sailing.

Image courtesy of @laugs14.2

These unexpected discoveries about the crew went beyond their talents. The captain, a man who breathed salt air since childhood, patiently explained even the most mundane details of sailing to my curious (and admittedly, sometimes pestering) self. Given my lack of sailing knowledge, these questions were awfully frequent – and his excitement unwavering.

Among the many conversations we had, I became particularly fascinated by the sails. I learned that while the sails appear white, they take on a black hue when folded due to the thick black border fabric, which protects against sun damage when rolled up. Yet, when unfurled, the sails shimmered in brilliant white, prominent wind catchers that, despite slowing the boat’s pace, imbued the experience of sailing with an entirely different meaning.

Image courtesy of @laugs14.2

I’ll be honest; it took the open sail for me to finally get it; to fully understand why people are so passionate about sailing. Whilst hard to put into words, opening the sail on the boat (a mighty task if there ever was one, I must add), and switching off the boat’s motor welcomed an unusual silence and tranquility. The gentle sway of the vessel, propelled solely by the wind, instilled a profound sense of peace and connection with the vast, azure expanse that surrounded us. It was a feeling I would happily get used to.

That feeling of tranquility and passion was instilled throughout the trip, not just by the crew but also by the catamaran’s charter broker, Helm. Charter brokers are key players in the yacht industry, leveraging their extensive knowledge and industry connections to curate exceptional experiences tailored to each client’s desires. They act as matchmakers, pairing boats and clients seamlessly. While there are many players in the game, I have a feeling few exude the level of passion, expertise, and care that Helm provides. Not to mention the patience, and the unwavering dedication to make sailing accessible to more than just those in the know.

Helm was set up in 2015 by two passionate sailors, Peter and Simon. Armed with years of experience as skippers, captains and sailors, the pair are at the helm (pun intended), of a very experienced team of brokers which excel at what they do. With a simple system in place, they hand-hold you through the intricacies of holidaying on board. This goes from choosing a destination (which could be Greece, or Thailand, or any of the other 13 locations they work with), to choosing your dream activities and even what kind of boat you would like to set sail with. Once that is determined, the team gets to work in searching through their extensive list of boats, which is hand-selected to ensure only the highest quality vessels make the cut.

While many have turned away from cruises due to their commercialised nature, few realise that there are alternative ways to explore the world at sea, particularly through personalised yachting experiences. Because here’s the real kicker about these trips; what you do and where you go is (almost) entirely up to you – albeit weather dependent. For us, it meant departing from Athens and docking in various sun-drenched bays, with occasional stops at some of Greece’s most charming little islands. We visited the picturesque Poros where we savoured homemade Greek liquor and feasted on freshly caught fish. Another day we strolled through Aegina, munching on pistachios and dodging the locals on their scooters, our fingers crossed, wishing the trip would never end.

Image courtesy of @laugs14.2
Image courtesy of @laugs14.2

Let’s be honest, yachting requires a surprising amount of surrender. As a self-proclaimed control freak, this wasn’t exactly my forte, But I was quick to embrace the joys of letting someone else do the planning, cooking, and organising – void of all the usual travel stresses. Yachting just may be my new favorite way to discover the world, one sun-drenched coastline at a time.

Oh, and on a completely unrelated note, I recently acquired a harmonica. Let’s just say the captain’s midnight serenade was particularly inspiring. 

A full week charter in Greece with Helm including yacht, crew, all food and drink and VAT costs around €25k (£21k). You can find out more here, or try Helm’s personalised yacht search here.
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Author: Laura Scalco
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