From the portside chaos to the throb of the engine, from the rocking of the waves to that thrilling first sight of land, there's a drama and a magic to boat travel. And there are few better places to enjoy it than the Greek islands, where short hops of a couple of hours can take you from a beach-fringed islet to towering cliffs.
Island-hopping was one of the highlights of many happy holidays I spent in Greece as a child. The drama of Piraeus, the screech of seabirds, the yell of porters, the clang of heavy boxes loaded and unloaded, the industrial machinery in all its gaudy mystery, the craft of all sizes coming and going, and the magic of the boat itself. The fast, noisy, bright-yellow catamaran on which we embarked from Momemvasia to the pretty island of Poros. The big ferry to Santorini, where we picked up stones puffed to Rice Krispie lightness with ancient air in the shadow of the volcanic cliffs…
My son was three the first time we went to Greece, the same age I was when I first left England. It was my first visit as a parent, his first visit as a child, so, of course, we were going to be riding boats. We hopped to Crete, the long narrow island where Theseus killed the Minotaur and bull dancers leap on the crimson walls of Knossos. It was early enough in the year for the scent of wild oregano to rise from the crushed greenery beneath our feet.
From Crete we headed for Santorini, where white and blue houses topple down a volcanic caldera, the shattered remnants of an exploded island transformed to cliffs of picture-postcard beauty. On Santorini we took a sailing boat, a real live sailing boat, out to near the hot springs that warm the sea and turn its pebbles ferric gold, and swam to them. We hopped between beaches of magically different hues in little boats.
It's a cliché that travelling with kids teaches you to see the world anew. But it is cliché precisely because, for most of us, it is true. As a parent, you look for your destination appearing on the horizon, so you can call the first sight of land, just as, approaching the harbour, you yelled out the first sight of the sea. How many child-free adults would explore the different level of a ferry with the excitement of a three-year-old? How many adults would stand, mesmerized, watching the gears, the ropes and the chains that strain to lift the ramp and seal your steel craft against the waves?
Every parent turns into their parents from time to time. You hear your mother’s voice and words come out of you, your father’s. Revisiting the scene of family holidays over two decades past, I found myself quite often becoming my father. I explained the names of the various islands and islets on the horizon, with his patience. And watching my little boy in his Spiderman suit discovering the Greece I loved so much myself as a child, I revisited my own childhood, too.
Read more about family holidays in Greece, including the best family-friendly places to stay.