Anyone who has ever nursed jet-lag after merely "crossing the pond," knows that sometimes travel is easier said than done. Such is the case with "island hopping," a term that suggests a buoyant bouncing from place to place, but which actually involves hours at sea and either a good dose of planning or absolutely no time or money constraints. Island hopping is tricky, but completely worth it. It requires a Type A strategy, and a willingness to cut it some serious Type B slack.
At least one ferry sits in every port, dwarfing the cars, buses, bikes and smaller buildings around it. Where and when that ferry will move into action is usually scrawled on a marker board placed outside one of many ferry offices. The routes are always the same, but the schedule thins out drastically in the off season. Basically, this is my ideal sort of travel. I was the kid who sometimes wrote her history report in the form of a song, but would be absolutely paralyzed without an assigned topic. Island hopping in March equals creativity within a framework. It's a lot like one of those Choose Your Own Adventure books.
The ferry horn signals its proximity. People emerge from stores with packages they need to send off. Waiters collect coins and cups left by their customers, all waiting for the boat, all leaving at once. Napping bus drivers arise and start their engines for the load of arrivals coming in. Cars are returned to, bags are picked up. There's a very short amount of time for loading and unloading and everyone's gotta be ready. In Syros, men from the bakery sprinted on to sell candy to ferry passengers and, admirably, made it back off before the door closed once more.
These have been our first experiences as ferry walk-ons, having had our car with us on previous ferries. All crowded together, on either end, people recognize and greet one another. It's fun to guess how long someone's been traveling by what they have with them. A bag of newspapers and magazines was probably just a day trip onto a bigger island. A number of people carry sleeping bags, preferring to snag a spot in the lobby than pay for a private cabin on an overnight trip to Athens.
Ferry travel in Greece has changed a lot over the past decade. The ferries are faster and fancier, more expensive but more convenient. A recent conversation we had with a young gourmet shop owner named Achilles really got me thinking about how the culture of the islands must be affected by it all. We told him we'd gone to the Fourni Islands and he was amused/aghast. "They are crazy there!" he said. I immediately felt protective of Toula and Niko and all the rest, but understood where he was coming from. Fourni is remote, it's a backwater. Until recently, people probably rarely left their little island. Nowadays, students leave for school, to shop, to spend an afternoon out on the town in Samos. The characteristic 'craziness' may be dissappating.
There are a number of different ferry companies, but they're all basically the same, as the prices are fixed by the government according to distance, season and time of day. Still, it's fun to notice the difference in staff uniforms, docking procedure, refreshment options, decor. Here, on a SuperFerry, a separate walkway was available for people who wanted to avoid the car ramp. The high marks they got for this were offset by the on board Goody's and its wafting fast food smell. Our Blue Star boat had framed newspaper clippings near reception showing the vessel's special mission to Lebanon to pick up French refugees in 2004. They also had a self-service restaurant and didn't allow dogs. To each their own.
A port town looks its loveliest from the deck of a ship. Framed by the ship's solid lines and angles, an island's gorgeousness is magnified. Only from the water can you see the whole picture, the buildings piled on on top of another etched into the side of a cliff or scattered across rolling hills. It feels bigger and more three dimensional than your on foot experience had been and then it seems smaller and flatter as the boat pulls away from the port.
Watching the land fall backwards as you set out to sea stirs up a lot of excitement and tinge of sorrow. You're saying goodbye to a place you've called home, the solitary land mass that's been your solid ground for a few days or a few hours disappears before your eyes. And then it's back to the blank slate of the ocean and the anticipation of the next island's impression.
We sprung for a cabin on our overnight to Syros and were impressed with our location. Right at the front looking out over the prow! This wound up being unfortunate on account of the choppy seas. Our drawers slid open and shut, being vertical wasn't an option, but it was a heck of a lot more fun than airplane turbulence.