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Sunday, November 28, 1999 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Islands In A Dream Of Life

Special To The Seattle Times

GREECE A trio of young women on a chartered sloop drift through the Greek islands on a slow, sun-bleached cruise. Abandoning the haste and hair dryers of home, they, like the Greeks they meet on the way, learn simply to `be.' -------------------------------

I panicked.

What would I do for seven days on a small boat in the Greek islands. I'm as white as aspirin, Irish and redheaded. I don't own a bikini or deck shoes, and I don't know port from starboard.

But I need to relax.

My overdue vacation had started two weeks earlier that spring, in southern France with my mom. It was a romp of medieval castles and Roman ruins from Carcassonne to the Pont du Gard. My usually lively passion for archaeological antiquities needed a nap by the time I flew into Athens.

In France I had become accustomed to ambrosial wines, cheeses, and cherries. I loved the comfortable hotels and all the olive oil-soaked perfection of Provence.

Now I found myself in retsina country, stepping off dry land for a whole week with my friend Debi Eagan from New Orleans and her friend Karen Pierner from Green Bay into very close, turbulent quarters.

Without hair dryers.

Saturday morning in the hot commotion of the Athens marina we loaded our seven bulging suitcases onto the Libero. Debi, the designated trip planner, had found the charter company on the Internet. The 46-foot sloop had looked larger in the glossy brochure back in New Orleans.

The captain, Spyros Karayannis, came with the boat. He put on his Ray Bans, listened to our concerns, retrieved extra towels from the dock, and prepared the Libero to sail, never changing his serious expression. I drew the short straw for the small cabin, a closet with two bunks where you couldn't turn over without hitting your head on the ceiling.

As we moved slowly out of the Athens marina, I tried not to throw up. The captain looked at my white skin and said in a heavy accent, "The sun is your enemy." Even on relatively calm seas it was impossible to read or sleep or even go below for very long (where you risked being thrown into a wall).

So, squeezing into a sliver of shifting shade, I sat and watched the horizon. I had no idea where we were going, one of the thousands of islands out there.

The drifting hours offered the company of a hollow gray sea and mounds of my life to contemplate. Like the passing islands, two years of neglected thoughts took shape, drew close, exposing cliffs and crags, then turned away.

Without meaning to, as the boat bounced hypnotically on, I relaxed.

In mid-afternoon we anchored off Poros Island in a velvety bay and cradled by the mountains of the Peloponnese. Spyros raised a canopy for shade while Debi and Karen spread tomatoes, cucumbers, olives, onions, feta cheese and caviar for our lunch on deck. All three bottles of French wine I had hand-carried from Chateauneuf-du-Pape for a special occasion seized the day.

After lunch, I changed into a bathing suit and dove into the shocking cold of the Mediterranean. The dust of Athens washed away.

Rosy-fingered dawn

On the first morning, Homer's rosy-fingered dawn came in through the white square of mesh stretched over a small window in my roomlet. The pink breeze carried singing from a church in the 19th-century hillside town of Poros. It was the Feast of the Holy Spirit. I went back to sleep and dreamed the music until we set sail for Spetsai.

Vacationing Greeks in the islands for the long weekend of the religious holiday crowded the boutiques and restaurants stacked along the meandering shoreline of Spetsai's Old Harbor.

Beyond the waterfront traffic of horse carriages, a labyrinth of paths and pebble mosaics lead uphill to rounded white houses with pink oleanders drenched in undiluted sun.

By Monday it seemed I had always sailed, as if every night of my life I had docked in moonlit harbors alongside bumpered fishing boats piled with yellow nets. It seemed I had always slept, rocked by the black ocean, and awakened surrounded by steep, red-roofed villages.

We spent our days in the sun and wind, Spyros standing at the helm focused on the distant horizon. In our honor, a little American flag flew from the mast below the big blue and white stripes of Greece. Between the rugged islands, it was easy to imagine Odysseus out there somewhere held captive by Calypso or straining against the ropes toward the deadly ecstasy of the sirens. We listened to Puccini, Nat Cole, and Robert Cray while we sailed.

We didn't miss our hair dryers.

Debi and Karen sprawled, lotioned and sunning, while I sought the shadow of the boom. But my skin got redder every day, my clothes saltier. And all of us got happier. The books I brought to keep me from getting bored stayed stacked in my cabin. I didn't want to be taken away from Greece, even by fiction.

Sailing with Spyros

Customarily, passengers invite their skipper to dinner on the first and last evenings of a charter. But Spyros rarely left our side. His placid countenance and broken English became a part of every day that flowed into the next as we sat at sidewalk cafes looking out on ancient harbors. His soft conversations in Greek on his cell phone accompanied us as we walked on cool nights.

The same cliffs that had looked ominous from the boat became our private balconies where we toasted with ouzo the red performances of sunsets listing into the ghost-blue layers of distant mountains.

We drank excellent Boutari and Lazaridis wines and shared plates of Greek salad, tzatziki, taramosalata, octopus, lobster and whole fishes.

We barely noticed the parade of Greeks elegantly perched on mopeds or strolling on high-heels, as we - three American women and a Greek captain - talked about the world, life and, mostly, love.

Spyros said he chose a life at sea over a career as a concert pianist because sailing offers time to think. And he has thought. Whenever he spoke his words were erudite and certain, even if the English syntax and pronouns mutinied.

From Spetsai we sailed to the old pirate hideaway of Hydra. As we entered the harbor a stout, bearded Greek shouted at us. He cursed and gestured, while Spyros calmly maneuvered the Libero between boats and anchors to the dock. The raging Greek stepped aboard, and, to my relief, hugged and kissed Spyros.

Pantalis (called Pan, like the god of revelry) was the harbor master. He embraced us like old friends.

"Big Pan" was born in Hydra but lived in New York for a while and toured the United States on a Harley-Davidson. The T-shirt stretched over his prominent belly read "Loony Bin."

I slept late the first morning in Hydra and climbed up to find only Spyros and Pan on board. The harbor master asked if I would accompany them to breakfast and helped me into a tiny, blue rowboat. Feeling like Katherine Hepburn in The African Queen, I held Debi's tiger-striped umbrella while Pan rowed me across the harbor to the cafe so I would not have to walk the few steps in the sun.

We sat under a wide awning with foamy iced coffee and watched the morning activity. No cars or even mopeds are allowed on the foot-worn, marble streets of Hydra. Donkeys carried people and loads of bags and dragged flats of Coca-Cola from the dock up the slick white roads to the restaurants. A group of fishermen stood around a shark that lay bleeding on the dock attracting cats.

When I fidgeted and looked around for Debi and Karen, Pan barked, "Relax!"

Changing course

Under another perfect sky, Pan and Spyros talked about force-five winds causing a stand-still in the Cyclades, islands to the east of us. Even the giant ferries and hydrofoils could not run. For three independent women used to making decisions, the winds of Greece and the culture of sailors required an attitude adjustment.

Instead of the Cyclades tour we had planned, the gods and Spyros decided on the Argo-Saronics, a more protected group of islands hugging the Peloponnesian mainland.

Greece and its older-than-Old-World ways were freeing us to give in to the joys of the unexpected. Poseidon winked and swirls of phosphorescent plankton stirred around our oars in the night sea.

The charter company brochure said "In America, people live to do, while in Greece, people live to be."

We did do, though. We biked in the forested hills of Spetses. We water skied in Neorion Bay and swam into a cave on Hydra. We whispered in the acoustic miracle of the 2,300-year-old Epidavros Theatre and shopped in the fish market on Aegina.

But my favorite part was the being.

Debi, the official trip planner, got on Spyros' cell phone and called the charter office and arranged to extend our sail an extra day.

In the company of dolphins

Late one night in Hydra, we found Pan drinking with a group of old men by the dock. One scarred character held a whiskey and shook his head at an invisible antagonist, murmuring in English, "No, no, no, no. No."

He did this every night, Spyros said, and introduced us to the fellow, who struggled to stand and blew kisses to Debi across his open palm, saying softly "No, no, no, no. No."

The next white-blue day in full sail, a group of dolphins surfaced and dove, racing beside us. Spyros abandoned the wheel and knelt in the bow, whistling and reaching out, almost touching them. He said dolphins were the mortal lovers of Zeus banished to the sea by the jealous Hera.

On the edge of Aegina, moving along the same routes that carried merchants of the 7th century BC, we passed a man standing thigh-deep in the ocean, beating an octopus on the rocks.

We sailed back to the bay off Poros where we'd stopped for lunch the first day and spent a night anchored alone in a blanket of sky and sea. I fell asleep on deck watching the stars, in a glorious moment of favor with the fickle immortals, wishing I never had to leave this place.

The dream of life

Goethe said, "Of all peoples, the Greeks have dreamt the dream of life best."

We swam deep in that dream on our last night as we ate dinner on board. We were out of plastic cups so we drank champagne from coffee mugs and made plans to come back next year. Or forever.

Back home in New Orleans' French Quarter, I walked through a dark rain with a poet friend who said I looked different. "You are filling your skin," he said.

I think he meant that my soul had returned to my body.

Maybe he was right, but my mind was still aboard the boat named freedom, on the gray sea, listening to Maria Callas. Vici d'arte, vici d'amore.

A few days ago, I called Spyros and found him on a charter in the Cyclades stuck in Paros for four days. No dolphins since we left.

"What will you do in Paros for four days?" I said, back in the world of impatience.

"Think my life," was the Greek captain's answer. ------------------------------- IF YOU GO

Sailing charters in Greece

On arriving in Greece, chances are you'll have to stay in Athens at least one night. Head straight to the Plaka, the oldest and most charming area of Athens and walking distance to the Acropolis.

We stayed at a decent, low-cost hotel in the Plaka, the Adams, $90 for three (fax 011-310323-8553). For more luxury, try the Deluxe: Grande Bretagne near Constitution Square ($295). Divani Acropolis ($195). AA Class, Esperia ($144). A Class, Titania ($117). Near the boat dock is the Phoenix Best Western ($105).

Between June 15 and mid-September is the high season. In spring and fall the weather is cooler, it is less crowded, and boat charter rates are more negotiable.

Charter companies

For a listing of charter companies search the Internet for "sailing charters" or "Greek sailing."

The charter experience ranges from the basic sailboat without skipper (bareboat) to a yacht with full crew, cook, and all the amenities. Our boat had a captain but no generator and came with nothing but sheets and towels.

We chose GPSC (800-633-4772; on the Web at www.gpsc.com) as our charter company because they are economical, American-based, and well-regarded. Ginny Heyser (Ginny@gpsc.com) was patient with our many questions. GPSC charges between $300 and $900 per day. Captain's fees are additional, about $140 per day, and are well worth every drachma since the Greek islands are hard sailing.

GPSC and most large charter companies have their own travel departments and can arrange air, transfers, hotel and land tours.

Provisioning

We chose to do our own provisioning because we didn't want the soft drinks and peanut butter. The morning we sailed, our taxi driver took us to a grocery where we found everything from local olives to beach towels. Every island port had stores with fresh produce, wine, cheese, bottled water and staples, and fabulous bakeries.

Special places

-- Sample the ouzo at Brettos, in the Plaka in Athens.

-- Eat souvlakia in the courtyard at Platinos in Poros.

-- Learn to ski at Passage, a professional water sports center under the direction of champion skier Sotriris Kyprios, on Neorion Bay in Poros.

-- Don't miss Hydroneta Bar just uphill from the harbor in Hydra for a sunset with classical music and sangria.

-- A short walk from Hydra's harbor in Kamina, Kondylenias offers whole grilled Sea Brim and a view of a 16th-century fishing port.

-- Take a horse carriage to visit Panos Berzovitis, wine connoisseur, at his wine bar/cafe, "The Balcony," in Spetses.

Information

-- Matt Barrett's "Travel Guide to Greece," on the Internet at www.Greektravel.com.

-- On his Web site, Barrett notes that booking ahead for a taxi can save an hour wait in line at the Athens airport, so we hired George the taxi driver to personally meet our flight ($30). Request Christopher if George isn't available. Fax George at 011-301-502-4482. (Note: When calling Greece from The States, dial 011-30 + local number. In Greece, phone cards, available everywhere, are the easiest way to call home.)

Island hopping by ferry

You can get around the Argo-Saronic Islands without a sailboat quickly and inexpensively by ferry or hydrofoil. Flying Dolphin has offices in every port and operates all around the Greek islands with regular and dependable schedules. Dolphins leave several times a day from Zea Marina in Athens for Poros, Hydra, Spetses, and other ports. You can get to Hydra in about 1 1/2 hours for less than $12; Spetses is about 30 minutes farther.

All the islands have a tourist office near the ferry landing that can help you find a hotel. You may want to book ahead during peak season.

The Kirki Hotel is a good value just off the harbor in Hydra (011-30-29853181). Also in Hydra, the Hyppocampos Hotel has a lush courtyard and good location; the owner, Sotiris Saitis (011-30-977410324), runs a tour office on the harbor.

In Spetses, Hotel Nissia (www.nissia.gr, 011-30-75000-11), a gorgeous resort a short walk from the dock, is worth every drachma if you want to splurge. Hotel Klimis (011-30-74497) is an inexpensive but handsome place in the heart of town.

In Poros, the Seven Brothers, near the dock, is inexpensive ($45 for a double) and comfortable; phone Nikos, 011-30-23412 or 011-30-932979680. ------------------------------- Kerri McCaffety and Deboarh Eagan live in New Orleans.

Copyright (c) 1999 Seattle Times Company, All Rights Reserved.

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