Genevieve Leaper and partner Aleko discovered a wealth of birdlife and fascinating monasteries during an off-season Greek Island cruise

Arriving in late March at my partner’s home in Greece, I was expecting a few days at the house before sailing. But with a period of southerly winds forecast – unusual enough to be worth making the most of – the skipper was itching to get going.

Having been east and south to the Dodecanese and Cyclades in recent years, we had decided to head north for a change. Aleko had been preparing Beduin, his Nicholson 32, before I arrived.

From our base in Milina in the Pagasetic Gulf, we were soon out through the Sporades, passing between Skiathos and Skopelos. An early start on the third day saw us passing Gioura by sunrise. It was a long day (62 miles) to Limnos but we enjoyed a good sail once the wind picked up, with Scopoli’s shearwaters our constant companions all day. Bow-riding dolphins and a loggerhead turtle completed the day’s wildlife.

Aleko has sailed Beduin for more than 35 years, here in home waters of the Pagasetic Gulf (Gulf of Volos), Thessaly, Greece. Photo: Genevieve Leaper

Natural wonders

We anchored in a small bay in the northwest corner of Limnos. With a shorter distance to Samothraki, there was time to go ashore in the morning to investigate the bizarre rock formations. Samothraki, the most northeasterly of the Greek islands, is steep-sided and lacks anchorages, so there isn’t much choice but to stay in Kamariotissa harbour. Having enjoyed a lovely walk up a river valley on a previous visit, I was hoping to stay for a few days, but the weather was cold and wet. At least the wind was still favourable to press on to Alexandroupoli.

The enormous outer harbour at Alexandroupoli is enclosed by a mile-long breakwater which shelters the commercial port and a large naval base, where tugs were fussing around a French frigate.

A skete (monastic settlement) at the southern end of the Athos peninsula. Photo: Genevieve Leaper

The tiny inner harbour is overlooked by the lighthouse that stands incongruously within the town. Most berths were occupied by resident yachts but we squeezed onto the end of a pontoon.

Aleko has taken Beduin through to the Black Sea but had never visited this part of the country. As soon as the weather improved we hired a car for an excursion inland to Dadia National Park. The park is renowned for birds of prey and we saw vultures and eagles on a walk in the hills, enjoyed close views of nesting storks from our hotel and visited the impressive petrified forest at Lefkimi on the way back.

Beduin anchored off Penna, an uninhabited islet in the Singitikos Gulf as a thunderstorm approaches. Photo: Genevieve Leaper

From Alexandroupoli we headed west along the mainland; a low, unremarkable coastline backed by the Rhodopes mountains. With the prevailing wind offshore, the long sandy beaches, for once, gather more seashells than plastic rubbish. There always seems to be some swell through, and no sheltered anchorages, just a few small fishing harbours.

At Makri the breakwater was breaking up but Maroneia was a pleasant little harbour. Many cats were hanging around the quayside and a bold black and white tom cat leapt onboard before we’d tied up. Despite our attempts to chase him off, he was joined by a lady friend. Our uninvited guests only left when a fishing boat came in late at night.

Beating into a light breeze next morning it felt like we were getting nowhere – the lack of progress was only explained when we passed a small buoy, which showed a significant current. And no wonder we felt cold; looking back I realised the bank of white clouds over distant Samothraki was actually fresh snow on the mountain top. We later heard that it was the coldest spring for 60 years.

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Our spirits were lifted by a pod of bottlenose dolphins who kept us company for more than an hour. As well as the usual shearwaters and gulls I was surprised to see seabirds from northern Europe; black-throated divers and skuas on migration.

Porto Lagos was our favourite harbour. Situated between the channels connecting Lake Vistonida to the sea, it is approached by a buoyed entrance channel across a shallow bay. This part
of East Macedonia and Thrace National Park is fantastic for bird-watching.

Beduin had been suffering from gearbox problems so the cockpit floor came up and the tools came out. Feeling slightly guilty about leaving Aleko working, I went for a bike ride along the lake shore, stopping first at the walkway to the monastery and chapel which sit picturesquely in the lagoon next to the town.

Beduin approaching Kamariotissa harbour on Samothraki, the most northerly Greek island. Photo: Genevieve Leaper

Next came a shallow lagoon with a flock of flamingos. On the shore of the main lake (one of the largest in Greece) a herd of water buffalo grazing reinforced the feeling of being in a different country. I saw many unfamiliar birds and was startled when two golden jackals burst out of the bushes and dashed across the shallow pool where I was photographing waders and egrets.

Exploring historic sites

There was only one other cruising yacht in the harbour. James and Diane had found Lagos a good place to spend the winter, but now had a problem. Having rescued three abandoned puppies, they were desperately trying to get them re-homed so they could leave for Turkey.

Somehow they had managed to carry a moped on deck and were generous enough to lend it to us so we could go further round the lake and up to Xanthi. There is no car hire in Lagos, so Kavala, 70km further east, would be a better base for exploring inland. But we were heading straight for Thassos, with one more stop in Avdira, and missed out the Gulfs of Kavala and Strimonikos.

Like Maroneia, Avdira was a far more important place in the past. This coast was a major trade route in ancient times. The many ruins, which date from the 7th century BC to Byzantine times, range from properly excavated sites to crumbling walls half hidden in the undergrowth.

Looking down on Nisos Diaporos, off the Sithonia peninsula in the Singitikos Gulf, Greece. Photo: Genevieve Leaper

Thassos is another mountainous island but the most conspicuous feature was the ridiculous number of ferries coming and going from Kavála and Keramoti. I counted 10 at once, but thankfully they berth outside the large new harbour where there was plenty of space. More ancient ruins were scattered throughout the modern town and a short walk led up to the amphitheatre (closed for renovation) and a hilltop castle with fine views.

Secluded anchorage

As we headed down the east coast, a ship coming up from the south unexpectedly altered course across our bows to load at the marble quarry. Most of the bays were taken up by tourist resorts with names
like Golden Sands, Paradise Beach and Blue Dream Resort – probably not my sort of place.

But Aleko has a rare talent for finding an anchorage from the slightest hint on the chart, this time a small shallow patch in the bay behind Akro Stavros. It felt good to be on our own again and get the paddleboards out after so much time in harbours.

It felt good to be on our own again after so much time in harbours. Photo: Genevieve Leaper

Tall masses of cumulus were building over the mountains again as we continued to Limenaria. The harbour is not particularly pretty, but quiet with no ferries. We hired a moped and took a short ride up to Kastro, a small village where the houses are roofed with heavy flat stones. It felt like a different island to the touristy coast as we walked down through the pine forest and then upstream beside a dry riverbed with enormous plane trees. Further up there was water in the river and we ate our picnic by a beautiful waterfall.

Mount Athos is one of the most imposing features of the northern Aegean. When the weather is clear we see the snow-capped peak from the Sporades, 60 miles away and it had been in view most of this trip. The mountain lies at the southern end of the 50km-long Athos peninsula, easternmost of three ‘fingers’ of Chalkidiki and an autonomous region, governed by the monastic state.

Small fishing boats in the harbour on the mid Aegean island of Agios Efstratios. Photo: Genevieve Leaper

Now we were finally going to this place I had long been curious about. Not that I could go ashore, all females being banned!

At the northern end of the peninsula, the town of Ierissos lies just outside the monastic state. But Aleko had heard that anchoring is tolerated at Ormos Plati, just within the boundary, which would save us a few miles. We started early for a long day of sightseeing. After several miles of wild forest, the monasteries started with Esphigmenou.

A white stork (Ciconia ciconia) on a nest in Soufli. Storks also nest in the villages around Lake Vistonida. Photo: Genevieve Leaper

Then came Vatopedi, with extensive terraced gardens and vineyards, a harbour and helipad. At least the monks have prevented tourist development of the peninsula so it is still largely wild and unspoiled.

At the southern end, behind Megisti Lavra, the oldest and largest monastery, clouds were swirling round the peak of Mount Athos which rises abruptly to 2,033m. We had intended to carry on around the peninsula but it was getting late and eight monasteries were enough for one day. As we set the asymmetric spinnaker and headed away towards the Sithonia peninsula, the clouds parted to reveal the summit.

After a night in an unnamed bay we paid a brief visit to Sarti harbour, as we were running low on diesel. We had the folding bikes out ready to pedal a mile into the village with cans when a fuel truck drew up next to one of the fishing boats.

Monastery of Agios Nikolaos and chapel of Panagia Pantanassa, Lake Vistonida, Lagos. Photo: Genevieve Leaper

The Singitikos Gulf turned out to be a lovely area. A short downwind sail brought us to Diaporos island. As we came between two rocky islets into the shallow waters behind the low-lying island the outcrops of rounded pink granite flanking sandy beaches vaguely reminded me of the Scillies or North Brittany.

Continuing a circuit of the gulf, we spent a couple of days around Ammoulliani and its off-lying islets, where yellow-legged gulls nest among purple flowers. We had a brief stop for shopping at Ouranoupoli which boasts an impressive mediaeval tower but no real harbour, and then it was another day of monasteries.

They are all different, some grim and fortress-like, and the Russian monastery of St Panteleimonas is more like a palace with its green domes and gold crosses. There were still clouds around Mount Athos but they didn’t hide the fresh snow on its slopes.

Aleko paddleboarding around Akro Stavros on the east coast of Thassos. Photo: Genevieve Leaper

Last-minute diversion

Again it made sense to cross to Sithonia for the night, this time to Ormos Sykia. It was time to head back – the Kassandra peninsula would have to wait for another time. The most direct way home would have been straight back to the Sporades, but having missed Agios Efstratios on the way out we took a zigzag eastwards. This peaceful island is a favourite as well as a useful stepping stone when crossing the Aegean.

Back in the familiar territory of the Northern Sporades we realised the season had started. After weeks with hardly another yacht to be seen, suddenly there were sails everywhere, and Patitiri harbour on Alonnisos was full of charter boats.

We fitted in a beach-cleaning session on Peristera and enjoyed a couple of lazy days before reluctantly returning to Milina, where everyone else was busy getting their boats ready to go.

Beduin anchored off Nisos Diaporos in the Singitikos Gulf with its unusual granite outcrops. Photo: Genevieve Leaper

Essential information for exploring the northern Aegean


In summer the prevailing wind is northeasterly, but the Meltemi in the far north is less strong and less regular than elsewhere in the Aegean. Along the mainland coast and around Samothraki there can be many days with no wind and, when there is no Meltemi wind, a southwesterly sea breeze often picks up in the afternoon.

From autumn to spring, winds blow most frequently from northeast or south. The climate is cooler than in central and southern Greek waters. Winter comes earlier and can be cold and wet.


The pilot books disagree regarding the general direction of currents along the mainland coast. The current in the Thassos strait (Stenon Thasou) depends on wind direction and can reach 3 knots. East of Thassos, the currents flow in the opposite direction to the wind and tend to be stronger in spring. Athos is best avoided in bad weather, with currents of up to 6 knots and violent gusts from the mountain.

Pilot books

Greece, Sea Guide Volume 2 Evvoia, Sporades, North Aegean,by Nicholas D Elias, Eagle Ray laminated pilot charts from
Greek Waters Pilot A yachtsman’s guide to the Ionian and Aegean coasts and islands of Greece by Rod and Lucinda Heikell, Imray 13th Ed 2018


Mount Athos has been listed as a World Heritage Site since 1988. The mediaeval monasteries house a rich collection of rare and ancient artefacts. For men it is possible to visit but numbers are restricted to 100 Greeks and Orthodox plus 10 non-Orthodox visitors per day. Permits must be obtained in advance. Women are not allowed to enter at any time. Yachts are not allowed to anchor or approach within 500m of the shore.


Although less well known than other parts of the Aegean, there are plenty of options for chartering in northern Greece.

Boats are available from Thessaloniki, Nea Skioni (on the Kassandra peninsula), Kavala, Keramoti and Avdira – all within reasonable distance of the major international airport at Thessaloniki. Kavala (which also has a small airport) is probably a good bet.

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