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Cruising the Ionian on flotilla with Neilson

by Sarah Heron 12 Feb 13:00 GMT
Moored in Kioni © Neilson

Clear turquoise waters, tranquil anchorages, peaceful fishing villages and great food...it's easy to see why the Ionian is much loved cruising destination.

Sailors return year after year for the easy, line of site sailing, consistent breezes, sheltered bays and breathtaking natural beauty, not to mention the stunning landscape steeped in history, ancient harbours and bustling quaysides ringed by family-run restaurants.

Having visited the Ionian islands in 2022 on a bareboat charter, we were keen to explore more of the area and give our children (11 and 13) some experience in handling bigger boats in forgiving conditions. We are confident bareboat sailors, but the idea of joining a flotilla led by an experienced crew with plenty of local knowledge and help with mooring and departing sounded very appealing, not to mention avoiding the race to find a mooring or anchorage each afternoon because your crew have already arranged it all!

Flotilla favourite

Step forward Neilson who have been operating flotillas from their dedicated marina at Vounaki Beach Club since 2015 and have a fleet of Dufours and Oceanis from 32' to 40', all maintained at their base by their team. You can take the helm yourself or opt for an on-board skipper, and you can also gain sailing qualifications during your flotilla week.

Neilson Beach Clubs' Vounaki base is about half an hour from the airport and overlooks the stunning bay of Paleros. We were late arrivals so the Neilson team kept the restaurant open for us, and after some mezze and glass of local vino we strolled down to the Marina where we were shown to our home for the week, a clean and well-kept Dufour 405 named 'Sue', which had more than enough space for the four of us. Having the marina at the Beach Club means you avoid the hassle of queueing up for your boat in a hot and crowded port and provisioning is easy thanks to the in-resort mini-supermarket who delivered our essentials for the week.

Vounaki to Meganissi

After a peaceful first night in the marina, we assembled bright and early (10am!) at the Marina Office for the week's briefing. Our lead crew were Izzy the skipper, Millie (first mate) and James (engineer) who talked us the through the week's route with hand-drawn maps. Bursting with enthusiasm and brimming with local knowledge, they told us we were all free to explore on our own during the day, but they would give us a time we needed to be in by so they could arrange the moorings. Each morning there would be a quick daily briefing about our destination that night with plenty of info about the approach, how we'd be moored, must-do's of the local area and suggestions on where to eat, whether with the other flotilla guests or as a family. The Neilson crew would arrive early each afternoon with their easy to spot Neilson battle flags flying.

We slipped our lines at about midday and set sail for Meganissi, in about 10 knots of warm breeze. The sea was a dark indigo and so deep our depth gauge gave up trying.

The Neilson crew had arranged moorings and dinner at Karnagio, a taverna with its own tiny beach and pontoon, where we'd be stern to with lazy lines along a wooden pontoon. The crew's top tips for Meganissi included beautiful anchorages, snorkelling over the wreck of a sunken plane and Abelike Bay, a stunning spot with two tavernas. That evening, once everyone was safely moored, we joined our fellow flotilla guests for 'GnT on the Quay' before a delicious supper at Karnagios Taverna fuelled with local wine.

Stormbound on Meganissi

That night, the wind built steadily and the forecast was for more. Izzy was understandably nervous about us heading out into winds up to 35 knots so the plan to sail to Kastos was abandoned. The team had chosen Meganissi to be stormbound as there's plenty to do on this pretty island. We were a stroll away from the small town packed with quayside restaurants and a marina where you could hire quad bikes and mopeds to explore. We walked to Abeliki Bay where Minas Restaurant served up fabulous courgette fritters and burgers for the children. After a chilled afternoon swimming and relaxing, we headed back to our pontoon at Karnagio where the Neilson team had set up a SUP run which kept the children occupied while we enjoyed a sundowner on Karnagio's private beach.

Little Vathy to Big Vathi

Keen to get going, we slipped our lines with the help of the Neilson crew and headed toward Big Vathi. This was one of the longest passages planned for the week and it was great to put our Dufour 40 through her paces. With a gentle south westerly due to reliably veer west later, we motored into the Meganissi Channel, keeping an eye out for the Cheiromitis Shoal, marked by two white buoys (sometimes!) near Skorpios Island.

With stunning views of Lefkas and Meganissi's coastline and dotted with small beaches and a couple of tiny coves, the sheltered Meganissi channel has some beautiful anchorages. We found a spot off Desimi beach and enjoyed a couple of peaceful hours snorkelling and enjoying the warm, clear waters. After an early lunch, we hoisted the sails at midday and with 15 knots of breeze enjoyed a reach towards Vathy ably helmed by our 13 year old who was keen to take the wheel in such perfect conditions. We spotted the gaping jaws of Papa Nicolas' Cave and the tiny islet of Alcudi as we sailed past.

The boat sailed well and is clearly well maintained by the Neilson crew, the sails on Sue were new and the lines all immaculate.

Millie had briefed us about the approach to Vathi, the largest port on Ithaca, which can be hard to spot. It's a popular place for yachts so an early arrival is a must. We arrived at around 3pm, motoring past a tiny island with a miniature church (there's safe swimming between the church and the mainland) and anchored in the pretty bay surrounded by pastel houses and the green hills of Ithaca. As the afternoon wore on, more boats started piling in and the Neilson crew were kept extremely busy finding spaces for everyone. Izzy buzzed over to let us know she'd found us a good spot near the town square, and the crew jumped aboard and moored for us - we were starting to get quite spoiled by the service as we poured ourselves another glass of Robola...

Vathy to Kioni

Keen to escape the bustle of Vathy's busy town square, we set off early to Kioni. Milly had briefed us on the route the night before at the group supper at Kantounis Taverna, pointing out 'Super Yacht Bay' along the way. Sure enough we spotted Jeff Bezos' $500 million yacht Koru alongside two smaller super yachts as we rounded the coast of Ithaca. Kioni had already been mentioned as one of the crew's favourite destinations, and it really is stunning.

Three ancient windmills line the cliffs as you approach the horseshoe-shaped bay, where there's a small stone quay with a handful of restaurants and whitewashed buildings with sunbleached terracotta roofs.

The Neilson crew sorted out our long lines with their customary speed and we headed off for supper at the smart Lizzies for a fabulous tuna tartare and fresh pasta.

We also learned that if you want to avoid the Greek wasps it's best to start supper later than 8pm!

Kioni to Sivota

We woke to the certainty that our anchor was crossed with our neighbour's, not a problem as the Neilson crew jumped in their dinghy and untangled the spaghetti of anchor lines at speed! Sivota, our next destination, was around 11 nautical miles away, and en route the children were keen to visit Foki Bay on Kefalonia, round the corner from Fiscardo where there's a huge cave and a legendary out-crop of rock, ideal for daredevil cliff-jumping. If you're not mooring in Fiscardo's ancient harbour, Foki Bay is the only nearby sheltered anchorage but it can get quite busy. After a couple of hours of jumping, swimming, snacking and snoozing, we set sail for Sivota. Along the way, our fellow flotilla-guests sailed past Atokos, also known as Pig Island, where black porkers snuffle their way around the shingled beach.

Sivota is a bustling, pretty town with wooden pontoons and a long quay lined with shops, restaurants and the renowned Sivota bakery Once we were all safely tied up, the Egg Game commenced! Each boat creatively wrapped up their egg, before James shinned up the mast and dropped each egg-parcel, promising that if the egg didn't break the children were allowed to break them over their heads. Needless to say the crew were gleefully pelted with eggs by the younger members of the flotilla...

Our girls also discovered the best place to relax with a great view of the harbour before we enjoyed a group supper at Delfinia's, a short stroll from our pontoon.

Sivota to Vounaki

Our last day dawned with very little breeze. We drifted while the children took turns jumping in, then once the wind reliably kicked at about 3pm, goose-winged in about 6 knots, motor-sailing past Skorpios islands towards Vounaki. Milly had mentioned a couple of anchorages on the approach along the coast on the approach to Vounaki, but the children were keen to get back to the base and explore the beach club.

Neilson Vounaki Beach Club

We were on a late flight back to Gatwick so had the whole day to relax and explore the beachclub and take advantage of the facilities before a group supper with our fellow flotilla guests. The children had been eagerly discussing the Beach Club all week and it didn't disappoint! In the words of my 11 year old...

'There was volleyball, we swam in the sea, we went on a giant paddleboard, we went on a catamaran, I canoed with my sister and did trapezing with Daddy....it was the best thing ever!'.

With dinghies, Hobie cats, canoes and paddleboards ready to go, there's plenty to do and the beach staff couldn't have been more helpful, helping launch dinghies and sorting out canoes so Martha and I could explore the coastline before chilling out on a sunbed. It was the perfect end to a great week.

Sarah Heron and family were guests of Neilson. A week's flotilla for a family of four on a Dufour 405 is £1,490per person including flights from Gatwick and transfers.

This includes fuel, damage waiver and marine insurance, with no security deposit required. All yacht skippers on Flotilla are required to hold the ICC (International Certificate of Competence).

Less experienced sailors can opt for on-board training. An RYA-qualified skipper aboard is £1295.

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