Albania

After more than 4 weeks in Corfu we had to get out of Schengen, so Albania, Greece’s closest neighbor was the obvious choice. We had been intrigued by the sound of this country which had been pretty well shut off to the world until the last 20 years. We had heard mixed reports and our memories from sailing by in 2009 were of reports of unexploded mines in the waters off the coast.

We are pleased to report that our current impression of Albania is very positive. We have thoroughly enjoyed the country, its friendly and extremely helpful people, the food and the spectacular scenery. At no time did we experience any feelings of insecurity.

Check in to Albania was in the large holiday town/port of Vlores, assisted by the agent Freddi. Fortunately there was no wind as Sea Cloud lay next to concrete and black tyres in the commercial harbour.

Vlore check in

Vlores, like all Albanian towns we visited is a massive construction site – new apartment buildings, new roads, and surprisingly, a very cosmopolitan feel. It has a string of beaches between the town and Orikum, the location of the only marina in Alabania 7 Nm further south in  the Vlores gulf.

Vlore

Orikum marina, set up in 1994 by an enterprising Italian, Luigi, only has about 6 visitor berths. The marina is very safe with laid lines, but has a horrifyingly shallow entrance – only just deep enough to cope with our 2.34m draft. (Shallowest sounding was 2.6m). The grand plan is for an 800 berth marina, but there are no signs of expansion at present although the barriers to such enterprises seem to be decreasing in Albania.

marina orikumorikum entrance

We rented a car to explore the Ancient sites and UNESCO listed towns scattered throughout Albania. The first at Apollonia, a Greek then Roman city, just north of Vlores.Aplollonia 2Left over from communist era (ended in 1992) are an estimated 700,000 concrete bunkers, scattered throughout the country including among the well tended, fertile farmed land, very typical of Albania.

bunkers

Driving is a challenge. It is no exaggeration to say that virtually every road in the country seems to be under construction or repair and potholes can be huge! There are main highways along the coast and to the capital, Tirana. We have never seen more Mercedes cars in one country – yet they share roundabouts with donkeys, horse and carts…

transport 3 transport1 transport 2Two donkey roundabout

Berati is an attractive village, set on the river, with well preserved white Ottoman houses nestled on the hill (of “a thousand windows”) to the citadel on the peak. The citadel, which encircles the top is still inhabited and has wonderful views of the nearby mountains and the village below.

BeratBerati view

During the communist era, religion was banned and most places of worship in Albania were demolished. Fortunately, the mediaeval churches and two mosques in Berati were classified as being of historical significance so were preserved. One of the churches has a very impressive collection of icons by the 16th century Albania painter Onufri.

mosque Berati

The town has a very Ottoman feel – as can be seen in the Ethnographic Museum (C 1810).

museum BeratiThe pedestrian mall along the river is lined with cafes; full but remarkable for the lack of women in them. It is the focal centre of the town, with all the locals promenading here each evening.

Berati promenade

Hotel Osumi, was typical of our accommodation in Albania – friendly people, good simple clean and comfortable accommodation and great breakfasts. All for about half the price of anywhere else.

Hotel Osumi BeratiTirana, Albania’s capital is a bustling, mainly modern city with an interesting mix of old and new architecture.

Tirana modern

Hotel Opera, where we stayed had only been open since January this year. Its location next to the National Museum and within walking distance of all the sites, was in a great location. The view from our room is very typical of Albania – old buildings being surrounded by construction.

National museum

Tirana old and new

= For Sale

= For Sale

Korca, in the east of Albania was our next stop. The town, which has been recently modernized has some lovely old restored buildings in its very cosmopolitan feeling main street.

Korce mall

Its pedestrian mall ends in a rather strange tower, which provides a great view of the town.

Korca

We lucked out here. A highlight of Korca for us was the opportunity to attend an intimate concert in the local arts centre. This was sponsored by the Italian ministry of culture who funded 2 highly accomplished Italian musicians to give a master class for the local kids followed by a concert performance comprising Concerti for guitar and viola including works by Schubert and Paganini. It was quite surreal, being surrounded by teenage men with mohican hair cuts riveted to this lovely music.

Korce concert

Parking, as in all these towns is a challenge in incredibly narrow (yes – two way) streets. You can see why rental cars check for scratches on return! This small guest house had the BEST breakfast.

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Korca has a great local produce market in the original Ottoman market area.

Korca markets

The roads between Korca and Permet were a not to be repeated experience! They were very challenging with the 160km through the mountains taking about 8 hours – rarely getting into 3rd gear. The good news is they are rebuilding a lot of the roads, and the views were fantastic.

roadsroads2 mountain roadsmountain passWe had made a very last minute booking to join a 3 day hiking trek through the Zagoria mountains staying with local farmers, organized by Zbulo, or Discover Albania (http://zbulo.org).  We would highly recommend this company which has established great travel adventures for tourists in conjunction with local Albanians.

Unfortunately, a wrong choice at a roadside restaurant the day before meant we missed the first day of the hike.  The bowl of what was billed as “chicken soup with meat balls”, comprised tripe and pieces of liver floating in a lukewarm milky broth. Although this sent alarm bells, but we were stupidly polite and suffered the consequences. This was our only bad food experience. The food overall is simple, fresh and delicious – definitely Albanian, but with Greek, Turkish and Italian influences. As we were tied to a hotel bathroom for the first 12 hrs, Endrit from Zbulo tours arranged for our host for the first night, Mani, to pick us up in his 4 WD and drive us to the village late that day. Seemed fairly easy, until we realized the isolation of the village and the roads these people have to negotiate to get to town. The amazing views were well worth the bone rattling drive up to and over the 1200m pass to the valley behind.

mountain top

valley viewMani and his uncle

Mani and his family live in Limar, a small village of 5 or 6 sheep farming families high in the hills.

Limar

Manis houseAs well as teaching the 5 local children in the village, Mani and his father milk their flock of 200 sheep twice daily. They grow their own fruit and veg and honey.  During spring and autumn, Mani and Marguerite host small groups of walkers to supplement their income. We were treated to wonderful food and Albanian hospitality, but did decline the traditional Raki to kick start the day.

Mani's mother bee hives

Cimi, our local guide and Robyn a co-hiker from Canada, were great company. Cimi spoke enough English to communicate his love and knowledge of the mountains and the way of life here as well as the wealth of herbs and edible vegetation along the route.

Cimi and Robyn

The trek from Limar to Hoshteve took us 10km, through villages and mountain meadows. The paths have recently been signposted with the assistance of Cimi. trail signs

Day 1 orchidsRobynBridgeAfter a rainy walk we arrived in the small bar in Hoshteve for Raki and a local beer in front of the fire. We were transferred by 4wd to the Duli Guest house in Sheper, where we spent the night hosted by Anetta and Edmond. Mani had transported our bags to Sheper by donkey – he was heading back on the 3 hour journey in the rain after meeting us for a drink.

Dinner was in the cosy lounge room in front of the fire. It was strange to be sitting there watching Spiderman on TV with Albanian subtitles!

BreakfastSheper Anetta andCimi’s brother arrived with his horse accompanied by its 4 week old foal to transport our luggage. It was incredible how the foal coped with this trek, which it had first done in its first week of life. Both mum and foal remarkably sure footed on some very steep scree slopes.

preparing luggagehorse transfer

We trekked up to the Dhembeli pass along ancient caravan trails which are still used by shepherds to move their stock from southern Albania (over 10 days walk) to these lush alpine pastures.

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resting huts

A lunch break overlooking the town of valley was much appreciated before the 1250m descent back over rocky scree slopes into Permet.Albania 288 Albania 287 Albania 290

We passed through a small village of Leuse, which has an Orthodox church with the most lovely frescoes.

frescoesThe walk was the most wonderful experience – an absolute highlight of our Albanian visit.

Leaving Permet, we had a leisurely drive back to Sea Cloud over decent roads.
Permet town

post trekWe stopped in Gjirokaster, another UNESCO town with a castle (used as a prison until recently), cobbled streets and attractive houses.
Gjior best castle gjiro

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The following winds en route from Orikum to Saranda, the southern most port in Albania, gave us the opportunity to continue to refine our poled out headsail and boom preventer so necessary for the weeks of continuous downwind sailing we will be experiencing later in the year.

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Saranda is a bustling touristy town only 7Nm from Corfu.

Saranda Saranda veiw

It has a small, very secure yacht harbour adjacent to the ferry dock. Including Sea Cloud, 3 out of the 8 boats had Aussie flags. In recent weeks, not a day has passed that we haven’t been anchored near Australians. Our agent (compulsory) in Saranda was the lovely Jelja Serani (Saranda summer holidays; info@sarandasummer tours.com). She and her husband were extremely efficient and friendly, made the check in/out process very painless; renting us a car and providing us with information about the local area.

Saranda yacht harbour

We visited the Roman ruins of Butrint much of which have been excavated in the past 10yrs.Byzantine church mosaic Butrint lake Butrint amphitheatre Butrint 2

The Blue Eye about half an hour north of Saranda where the pure spring water gushes up to the surface from a cave hundred of meters deep, is the most beautiful colour. The dark centre and blue “iris” give its name.

Blue Eye

A very rainy few days ended our time in Saranda, doing jobs on Sea Cloud before our next adventure, heading north to Croatia.

Back in San Stefano, the season has definitely started – we were the only boat here 2 weeks ago, last night there were 8! Summer also seems to have finally arrived…..it has been very slow coming this year.

San stefano

Corfu

With just one day in Athens, we made sure we had enough time to visit the Archeological Museum which houses treasures from the many islands we have visited over the past few years.
Archeological museumOf course we made time to have our first Mythos of the season in one of the very smart cafes close to our hotel.

first mythos athensBack in Preveza, we were please to see Sea Cloud had been very well looked after at Ionian Marine. Within 2 days she was cleaned, launched and we were on our way to  Gouvia Marina in Corfu where we planned to spend a few weeks getting her ready for the season. We couldn’t complain about our view in Gouvia- what a lovely spot.

Marina view 2We shared our pontoon in the marina with the Sailing Holidays flotilla, so there was lots of action during the day, with all the crews busily preparing boats for the season. We spent some time with Barrie (a Kiwi) and Heidi, the owners of the business which has 160 boats in the Ionian.

full marinaHaving seen these flotillas of in previous seasons, we had been always been very impressed how their young and cheery skippers and crew managed a fleet 10 or so boats of keen sailors, who were often complete novices.  Allan Berwick, a mate of theirs down to help for the season is the author of the RYA rigging book, a well thumbed book in our library.  Allan was very generous with his time going over Sea Cloud’s rigging and providing many helpful suggestions for setting her up for long distance cruising.

Roly poly rigger

While in Gouvia, we’ve had a few very hectic, sometimes frustrating weeks. Luckily, there have been other cruisers to meet – sharing meals, usually at our local favourite, the very good (and cheap) Zorbas. The only issue is the meal size, in one word, huge! We have met up with 2 lovely couples from Melbourne, living the dream as we are, Jan and Terry (below) on La Qunita who also plan an Atlantic crossing this year, and Jane and Stuart on Epicurius, who are heading east towards Turkey.

Terry Jan

Spending time with Andy, Nina Too’s skipper has been fun. Andy, a rambunctious Scot, about the same age as our Andrew, regaled us with stories on his voyages to the Antarctic and through the Pacific on Infinity (check out Infinity’s blog, they visit some incredible places!).  During dinner he was trying to talk Ian and I into taking Sea Cloud to Antarctica…

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Greek Orthodox Easter is the time to be in Corfu. The island is well known for its music and Easter celebrations, which attract thousands of Greek (and other) tourists to the island’s capital. Local people of all ages are involved in the local bands and processions through the town on Good Friday, from early in the afternoon, until late in the evening.

processions parade viewyacht club

Each church has a procession through the town, with singing, a band and groups of small children carrying Easter baskets, high school children and unexpectedly large groups of boy scouts and girl guides.

paradeGood Friday is a very somber occasion, with hauntingly beautiful music played by these wonderful local bands. We were thrilled to see our electronics whiz Spiros who was part of his church procession.

SpirosWe retreated to an Italian restaurant for dinner. Our corner table was a great spot for viewing one of the parades.

Copy of Corfu dinner parade 2038dinner paradeparade and dinner

Processions continued, in front of very large and well behaved crowds, all enjoying the spectacle, well almost all. This teenager sitting on a box in front of us looked pretty unimpressed.

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The finale of the evening was the 360 strong Corfu band marching through the streets of this beautiful town.friday night procession

Easter Saturday is another really big day in Corfu, where thousands of people come out to see the smashing of pots in the main square and streets of Corfu town.

pots for saleRed flags are hung down from the buildings showing where pots will be thrown..

Red flagsCrowds move in closer to the middle of the square to miss the water being thrown to indicate the landing place for the pots. Throwers ready themselves, then at 11am, it begins.

readygoThe finale of really big pots is preceded by a countdown, then everyone stands back…

pot smashingthen scramble to souvenir the pieces when it is all over

souvenirsAustralian OHS would have a fit, one mis-thrown pot could be a bit of a disaster!

Easter CorfuA great time to be in Corfu, most memorable was the wonderful music and atmosphere on the evening of Good Friday.

Ian’s birthday (Easter Sunday) was celebrated with the traditional dish of the day, lamb, in Taverna Elizabeth in the small rural village of Doukades.

Easter birthday

Followed by a drive to the Sunset Bar at Longos beach at the top of the island. Spectacular spot, but full of 20 somethings and very loud music, so we didn’t linger.Longos Beach sunset barAfter 4 long weeks in the marina, we finally dropped our mooring lines and left Gouvia, having our first night at anchor in San Stefano on the north east of Corfu. We’ve just left there after a coffee in the local taverna where we planned our next adventure, Albania!

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Rome

We felt rather guilty planning a 4 day stay in Rome when we had so much to do to get Sea Cloud ready for our 2016 adventures. It was worth a little guilt,  Rome was fabulous – a great time to forget about the rush of the past few months. Our 8 months back in Australia flew. Life was very busy preparing the house for rent, finding tenants and moving to the island, spending time with friends and family. We have a big year planned on Sea Cloud, as we hope to explore Croatia, the western med and then cross the Atlantic to the Caribbean at the end of the year.

We settled into our small hotel near the Piazza Campo de Fiori and headed off in the lovely spring weather to explore Rome.

hotel

The hotel is in a great location, within walking distance of the main sites and only a few blocks from the Piazza Navona and Pantheon.

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The only real crowd we saw was at the Trevi Fountain… April is a great time to be travelling.

IMG_2675The last time we had visited the the Forum was in 1998 when a then 9 year old Andrew had surprised us by being so enthralled this ancient site.

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IMG_2686 IMG_2680The Palatine Hill with ruins of old palaces and roman baths has wonderful views over Rome.

IMG_2697 IMG_2689 IMG_2686The Capitoline Museum had been renovated and expanded since our last visit, with new areas to display the museum’s many treasures.

Michelangelo's Marcus Aurelius

Michelangelo’s Marcus Aurelius

A real find was the cafe and terrace of the museum – inexpensive with great views of Rome.IMG_2728Trastevere, across the bridge was a great find. It is a lively area, with lots of interesting small streets and plenty of restaurants.

IMG_2734 IMG_2778The rather grand church Santa Maria in Trastevere has the most beautiful mosaic floor.

IMG_2782Our third day in Rome was described by Ian as our baroque and Bernini day. Santa Maria della Vittoria with Bernini’s beautiful Ecstasy of St Theresa was our favourite.

IMG_2737A visit to Rome can’t really be complete without a visit to the Vatican. We managed to coincide our visit with Sunday mass with the Pope.

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From the Vatican we walked through the small streets and parks high above the banks of the Tiber. Obviously a popular spot for locals out on their sunday stroll enjoying the beautiful views over Rome.

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We stumbled across Palazzo Corsini, a beautiful building, the site of a great collection of art.

IMG_2771 IMG_2770 IMG_2777Back to the Piazza Campo de Fiori’s daily market for some specialty provisions to take on Sea Cloud.IMG_2736

The Saronic to the Ionian

John left us in Poros where we picked up Tine and Gordon, Danish cruisers we met in Pittwater. Having sold Ansoba, their lovely Island Packet  in Australia, they are keen for more sailing experiences.

The big excitement was the arrival of our daughter, Emily who hadn’t been on Sea Cloud for a couple of years. P1040223Emily, unlike us, loves cats. This one was pretty cute

P1040229Tine enjoyed being back in the sun

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and Emily the swimming in our first bay in a small island off Angistri. It was incredible to have a bay hours from Athens all to ourselves in early July.

IMG_2378 Gordon loved getting behind the wheel of Sea Cloud and helping Ian sort out many technical issues.

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IMG_2376A sail to Epidaurus, then a tour of the ancient theatre

P1040232We anchored just off the entrance to Corinth canal, ready for an early morning start through the canal which was even more spectacular than usual in the calm early morning.

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P1040270Galaxhidi was a good base for visiting Delphi and an enjoyable place to revisit.

P1040283 P1040281 P1040277Under the  Rion bridge,

IMG_2390then on to Patras Marina, where we were to pick up Sam drop of Tine and Gordon.

P1040313 P1040320Sam’s 29th Birthday was celebrated at a rather quirky local restaurant

P1040327Navpaktos with Sam and Emily

P1040337 Sea Cloud 2015 July 042 Sea Cloud 2015 July 037

 

Downtown Patras was lively and attractive, with some lovely old, but many derelict buildings and many small bars 

IMG_2415 IMG_2416Emily and Sam headed for Istanbul, Roumania and Berlin, we spent a night chilling out at the beautiful Mare Dei resort overlooking the Ionian. It seemed very empty for mid July – but understandable as it was the week of the Greek referendum when some serious economic decisions had to be made by Greece. The owner said she hoped that the tourists would come back..

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IMG_2428Leaving Patras, we headed back up the Ionian. The Lefkas canal was very beautiful in the early morning light.

IMG_2462This scene could easily be in Australia….

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The Peloponnese

After a dawn departure from Milos and then a brisk 60Nm  sail, we made landfall at Monemvasia a spectacular town on the southeastern coast of  the Peloponnese.

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IMG_2162IMG_2163IMG_2166We rounded the notorious Cape Maleas in absolute calm and headed for Yithion (aka Gythion). This was reported to be a harbour infrequently visited by yachts, but a safe place to leave a boat while exploring the Mani peninsula and the town of Mystras. The harbour is currently being converted into a cruiseship port so is rather dusty, noisy and dirty. We squeezed Sea Cloud in between  a fishing boat and a small motor boat and set off to rent a car to explore the Mani Peninsiula.

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This was the first place in Greece where they would not accept an Aust drivers licence, so those plans dashed and we caught the local bus to Mystras, a Byzantine town set in hills high above Sparti.

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Ian loved the church named Peribleptos (translated as looking good from every side)

P1040159 IMG_2198 IMG_2202Back to Yithion for what had become our usual dinner – marinated anchovies, horta (local cooked green veggies) and grilled sardines.

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A treacherous place to work – waiters have to cross the road with our dinner, and not so relaxing for us. Luckily there was the sea on the other side of our table.

P1040148With strong winds predicted, we headed back around Cape Malea, stopping for all too short a time at the lovely Ormos Frangos, on Elafonisos Island.

IMG_2224Sea Cloud was the only yacht in Sabatiki a small fishing  harbour. It was beautifully calm after the boisterous sea outside. The local fishermen were friendly and the meal at the only taverna surprisingly good – a great find.

IMG_2245After a night at Astrous, a lovely town with a newly completed marina, we sailed to Napflion at the top of the Argolic Gulf where we met John Dent who joined us for 2 weeks sailing. The Peloponnese is a region of market gardens and fruit trees. The Napflion saturday market was one of the best we have found in our travels. Beautiful fresh fruit, veg,  and the best citrus honey Ian has found anywhere, and believe me he is always buying or tasting honey.

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We managed to squeeze in a quick trip to Mycanae before John arrived – another must see ancient site in this area.

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IMG_2273 An attempt to anchor in Hydra, a beautiful island we had visited by ferry a few years ago almost ended the marriage. All we wanted to do was get out of the Saronic  (so full of selfish charterers) and back into the much less crowded Aegean.IMG_0020Despite a fishing new rod (thanks to Sel at Pruva Hotel in Gocek) and reel (thanks to John Bowyer), we still have yet to catch a fish. I’m not too heartbroken as I’m not sure I could cope with blood all over the teak. Ian continues to try daily…..

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Sounion, with its beautiful temple on top of the hill

IMG_0038 IMG_0040We managed to find the lion of Kea, something we had missed when visiting here with Andrew in 2009

IMG_0088Kea,  an important place for John (and his daughter Kea) has a charming chora

IMG_2286and wonderful traditional butcher, who,  not surprisingly seeing the size of his knife, was missing  half a finger…

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The lovely Sand Bar Bay in Kythnos, although  full of boats, was still delightfulIMG_2299IMG_2298Our old favourite bay Kavea was not so delightful as it is now a watersport centre. Having jet skis and people towed around screaming on large inflatables is not very relaxing. Luckily the high winds the next day prevented their fun and increased our level of enjoyment.

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Seriphos was our last Aegean island before heading back to the mainland.

IMG_2314 IMG_2325The local delivery man in the Serifos chora

P1040205 IMG_2329John and Ian looking pretty relaxed on our last night in Koutala bay – southern shore of Serifos – 3 boats only.

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South Western Cyclades

Sea Cloud 2015 travels so far – for those who want to know where we’ve been!

2015 Sea Cloud map

More detailed map of our trip through the Cyclades

Sea Cloud's route through the Cyclades 2015

Sea Cloud’s route through the Cyclades 2015

The anchorage of Vathy on Sifnos, with its all round shelter, lovely swimming , good tavernas and proximity to the local bus was an great place to anchor Sea Cloud while we set off to explore Sifnos. The well marked walking trails and lush green hillsides make Sifnos an ideal place for hiking.

IMG_1858 The walk from the Chora to Vathy has spectacular views.IMG_1881

Vathy anchorage - Milos and Kimolos in the distance

Vathy anchorage – Milos and Kimolos in the distance

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In Sifnos we witnessed the annual celebration of ‘the lighting of the towers’. In earlier times fires were lit in these towers (the ruins of which can be seen throughout the island) to warn islanders of the approach of pirates.

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With only moderate complaints from Ian, we hiked from the Chora to the monastery of Profitas Ilias, the highest point of the island.

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IMG_1922and then to the Kastro on the other side of the island – a wonderful defensive spot.

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The islands in this group are so close, especially when you are going downwind. We had a  brisk sail to Kimolos, then the following day to Milos, another volcanic island, with a huge safe anchorage. After negotiating the horrible sea to the north of the island (for which Milos is famous) we settled Sea Cloud on the pontoon in Adamas for a few days of touring, socialising with some Kiwis on another Hallberg Rassy and waiting out some big winds. Milos, another spectacular island, is a favourite of the younger set (how old do I feel when saying this) and Italians, who apparently love the many good beaches, such as XXX on the south of the island.

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The island’s capital, Plaka and Kastro at the top of the island provided great views of the rugged coastline being hammered by the strong northerly winds.

IMG_1950 Milos also has some some very quirky places, such as the brightly coloured fishing sheds at Klima

IMG_2026 IMG_2039and the tiny harbour of Mantrakia.

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Sarikiniko, on the northern coastline has some wonderful rock formations.

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Folegandros, an island further east has an anchorage that is not tenable in big winds. We were lucky enough to have a good sail across and back, and a few calm days to anchor and explore this beautiful island. At first glance, Folegandros is rather barren and inhospitable, but the green leafy (and very classy) chora perched on the top of the cliffs has the most incredible views down to the seas below.

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We found a small hotel, great for our usual freddo cappuccino in the morning and Ian’s favourite, a really good mojito in the evening.

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IMG_2078 - Version 2Although not as extensive as Sifnos, Folegandros also has some excellent walking trails, and beautiful beaches.

IMG_2094 The walk from the Chora to the other side of the island was rewarded by a swim and then lunch overlooking the most divine beach.

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On the way we found a great spot to stay, adjacent to its own almost private beach.

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The port of Karavostassis,  well connected to the Chora by bus, was a lovely anchorage – as long as you found a patch of good sand on the rather rocky bottom.

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Our last island before heading back to Milos and then the Peloponnese was Sikinos, a small island next to Ios. Uncrowded, with wonderful views and good walking trails, it would be a good place to spend a few days.

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Sea Cloud's route through the Cyclades 2015

Sea Cloud’s route through the Cyclades 2015