LOCATION: Greece & Turkey BOAT: Southern Cross Timer DURATION: 8 Days
From out here in the harbor, I can see the Aegean sun turning a miniature domed Orthodox church into a golden inspiration. I can even hear its bells tolling, as if ushering me to the rarely visited Dodecanese isle of Kalimnos. But our 62-foot Turkish gulet is anchored out in the harbor, so I approach Muhammet, our boat captain, and ask him to run me ashore in the Timer’s dinghy. Not because church is starting, but because I can also spot a taverna on a cliff above the beach. It’s a laughable request on most cruise boats. But not to Muhammet.
“Just stand up and wave your arms when you want to return to the boat for dinner,” Muhammet says. He drops me off at a dock and heads back to the Timer, which now sits, stately and magnificent, sails furled, 200 yards away from me. I can barely make out the other five cruise passengers eating hors d’oeuvres. Turning toward the taverna, I’m flush with empowerment. On a Greek island. Calling my own shots. Under no curfew.
I climb a path up to the bar and sit outside at a rough table painted cornflower blue. Below me, dusky shadows creep down the rocky walls of the harbor and slide into the emerald-clear water.
The owner of the taverna strolls over. He’s the spitting image of Benicio Del Toro, all tan and brawn — Greek-ishly handsome. “Nickolas,” he says, gesturing toward a man sitting in a corner, “wants to buy you an ouzo.” Nickolas does not look like Benicio Del Toro. With a sun-ravaged face, he swaggers over and sits down, clearly the village BMOC.
Nickolas speaks rapid and fluent English. He knows I’m new to the island but would be surprised to learn how I’d arrived — if he weren’t so busy offering up his own credentials. “For many years I was a famous sponge diver, but now I am a schoolteacher,” he says, pulling from his pocket a magazine article from the 1980s about the sponge diving in Kalimnos. In the story he’s shown wearing a mask and fins. “Machine harvesting,” Nickolas says, “finished my free-diving career.”
The handsome proprietor pulls up a chair and joins us. There’s another round of drinks. Tavernas are the heartbeat of Greek culture, and if you stay long enough, it’s almost inevitable that the owner or an affable local will join you.
The men talk faster, louder and friendlier with each ouzo that’s poured. They’re surprised when I stand up and wave my arms in the direction of the Timer, which is in plain sight. After a suave hand-kiss from the sponge-macho and a handshake from Benicio, I walk down to meet Muhammet in the dinghy, and we motor back to the gulet.
My island encounter has a footnote, because the next morning Vural, our shy first mate, raises the Timer’s anchor and finds a bag of sponges tied to it. A note from Nickolas is attached: “For Amanda.”
Four hours later we dock at Lipsi Island. The white domes on the houses contrast against blue shutters. People ride donkeys around town.
“I’ll be back later,” I tell Muhammet.
“We hold dinner for you,” he says. “I must go to town and buy more wine. Your group has drunk many bottles.”
Lipsi is humming with locals taking their volta — the evening parade on the cobblestoned waterfront. Middle-aged couples stroll arm in arm. Fishermen smoke their way to the bars. Clutches of portly women, with the eyes of traffic cops, sit in rickety chairs and watch it all.
A jaunty man in a bright red chef suit leans out his blue window on a back street. He introduces himself as Manoli and calls me inside. “Try my food,” he says. When I tell him I’m eating on the gulet later, he waves a hand. “You must taste my lamb. For free. Come in.” I’m unlikely ever again to be on Lipsi Island with an offer of free lamb, so I relent. It turns out to be more than a taste of spiced lamb. Manoli plies me with forkfuls of pork lasagna and stuffed peppers merely to see my reaction. I begin to wonder how anyone in the Dodecanese makes any money. They’re happy to share, freely and without motive.
Two days later we’re on Pserimos, an island that, beyond its abandonment of togas and addition of a few cars, seems stuck in a previous millennium. I hike up a barren hill to a solitary church. Greek Orthodox churches, no matter how poor the town, are elaborate places with chandeliers, paintings of saints and gilded candelabras. The door is unlocked, so I push my way in. Out of nowhere, an older woman materializes, wearing baggy stockings to cover her legs. I brace myself for a lecture about trespassing. Instead, she hands me a beeswax taper and indicates that I’m to light it and place it below a beatific picture of Mary. The church, I find out, is a gilded escape from the hard subsistence life on this rocky island. It’s a daydream for islanders, or for a wandering cruise passenger.
Heading downhill toward the dock, I pass a shepherd driving his flock home. Without a word he stoops, picks a sprig of wild thyme and hands it to me. Then he and his wards amble off. Chivalry has clearly not died in these islands. Back on board, Muhammet announces that tomorrow we will hoist the sails and head to Leros, an island with a Venetian castle and ancient windmills.
“But I’d like to spend the morning here, taking pictures of the fishermen,” I politely tell Muhammet. “No problem.” And in un-cruise-like fashion, he adds, “We leave when everyone is ready.”