The author: Scott Klug is a novelist, former U.S. Congressman and an Emmy award winning reporter who is a seasoned world traveler.
I’m awakened by the distant sound of bells on shore. As I push back the curtain on my cabin window I can see a handful of goats working their way down the side of a rocky outcropping on the coast. Nearly every morning on my cruise through the Greek islands it’s been the same story. As the sun rises the countryside comes alive. One morning church bells from a monastery woke me. Two days later roosters greeted the dawn. Another day, small, brightly-painted fishing boats chugged out of the harbor.
For the past week I have been on a Turkish gulet, a cross between a motor yacht and a sailboat, winding its way through the Dodecanese, a chain of a dozen Greek islands in the Aegean Sea, far less visited than the Cyclades chain and the famous ports of Santorini or Mykonos. In contrast to the massive cruise ships that can only dock in major harbors, the 120 foot Aegean Clipper is small enough to anchor in small coves off tiny islands like the one this morning, which literally has more goats than people.
I searched for months before I could find a cruise that combined my passion for sailing with my lifelong interest in ancient history. Our destination today is the Greek island of Kos and the ruins of a massive, terraced temple dedicated to the Greek god of healing. The most famous practitioner at the site, Hippocrates, is often credited as the Father of Medicine.
The two week trip is organized by Peter Sommer Travels, a small British company, which since 1996 has specialized in intimate archaeology tours around the Mediterranean. Sommer has personally trod and sailed most of the routes on his company’s trips in his former life as part of a BBC television crew, which produced award winning documentaries on ancient history.
“Usually when you tour these kinds of sites you check in and out of hotels, pack and unpack, climb onto a bus, or rent a car. Here you just unpack once, and grab a glass of wine on the deck as you sail to the next island,” said Jerry Warner of London.
The tone was just right for me. We had two archaeologists traveling with the 15 passengers. All of us are history buffs, but thankfully there are no mandatory reading assignments or ponderous lectures over dinner. We discuss the sites and museums, spanning the age of the Trojan War to the Crusades, as we hike through them.
“The challenge is to make the archaeology accessible. This isn’t a college lecture course. We want to give our guests a sense of place and history,” said Heinrich Hall, a guide on these trips since 2009. “My goal is to make the place come alive by telling stories about people.”
His command of the subject matter was impressive and his speech pattern was entertaining. A German native, he spent a dozen years studying at university in Ireland. Suddenly in the midst of a presentation featuring a Frankfurt accent, would appear this Irish lilt like a moment out of “Finian’s Rainbow”.
The atmosphere is casual. Shorts, not ties, are mandatory. All of us are barefoot on the boat. My cabin, as you might expect, is tight, but manageable. A duffle bag with clothes slid under the bed, my head rest was stacked with book, sunglasses and sandals.
The ship with its smartly polished wooden decks thankfully features a series of awnings, allowing us to read or catch a nap away from the hot Greek sun. While many of the meals are served on board, we also often grab lunch at a waterside tavern, or dinner at a family owned restaurant usually perched high over the harbor with killer views.
“I was expecting sort of this cliché Greek food: heavy moussaka, octopus and smelly anchovies, but the meals have been marvelous,” said Ann Simpson, an art curator from Edinburgh. “We’ve had lamb stew, beef roasted with cinnamon, whole grilled sea bream, fresh prawns. Every meal has wonderful fresh bread from local bakeries and handmade desserts. And each day when we dock, the crew buys the produce from the local market.”
The conversation over the meals was as good as the food. My traveling companions included a member of the House of Lords, a Canadian doctor and the one-time owner of an Australian winery who provided a running download on the local wine of the night. It was hard to beat the spy stories from a retired British intelligence officer who handled KGB defections in the Maggie Thatcher era.
Americans are a rarity on these trips which are dominated by Brits. Two of the passengers, to put it mildly, are repeat customers. Jane Jones from New Zealand has been on six of these trips. Jim Cleary from London has been on eight. His favorite was a combination sailing and land trip exploring the routes travelled by Alexander the Great in Greece and Turkey. “Great fun, a week of hiking, three days on a boat, and the museums and ruins were amazing,” he said.
As always the best moments on any trip are unexpected and unscripted.
One morning on the island of Patmos I head out early on my own, walking the traditional pilgrim route to the cave where St. John wrote the Apocalypse. The Holy Monastery of the Apocalypse built in the 11th century, now envelopes the cave. When I arrive after a brisk 30-minute hike up a steep path, I am delighted to discover an early morning Greek Orthodox mass underway, and just feet from where the Apostle slept I watch a baptism ceremony with the beaming proud family. As I respectfully tip toe out, I light a candle for the little boy.
When I return to the boat, the captain gives the orders to unfurl the sail. As the ship pulls out of the harbor the engine is off. The dominant sound is the wind whipping the towering, 30-foot sail, but when I listen more closely I can hear the bells from the monastery high up on a ridge overlooking the city of Skala. I say farewell to Patmos. Ahead days later is Rhodes, once home to the long toppled Colossus, one of the Seven Wonders of the World. I lean back, beer in hand, watching the port fade in the distance. Sea spray keeps me cool in the 85 degree heat. Indiana Jones never had it so good.
The two-week trip through the length of the Dodecanese islands is scheduled next year from September 19-October 3 2015. The trip left in and out of Turkey. I flew through Istanbul and then connected to Izmir near the southwest coast. If you’ve never been to Istanbul you are missing one of the world’s great cities. Give yourself a few days in transit. The cost of the cruise itself which included all meals and shuttles to and from the airport was about $6000. I didn’t spend anything else except a few dollars for mementos along the way and a few drinks in harbor. The guides were terrific and the service outstanding. The company offers other gulet cruises in Greece, Turkey and Italy. Given the company’s profile most have an archaeological bent, but there are a few focusing on food including a “Gastronomic Tour of Sicily.” More information is available at petersommer.com