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You can understand why TV mogul Simon Cowell spends most of the summer – and, indeed, large chunks of the winter – lazing around on yachts. It’s the ultimate in holiday escapism. An indulgent three-hour trip with friends along the coast of a Greek island (as a 14th birthday treat for their youngest son) was instant proof to us first-time yachties of its seductiveness.
Protected from the blistering sun by a cotton awning, served lunch (including a birthday cake made to a Good Housekeeping magazine recipe) and then dropping anchor for a post-prandial swim in an unspoilt bay – yes, vain and deeply annoying Simon is on to to something.
Trips such as this (on a 55-foot, newly-restored 40-year-old boat called the Odyssey) are just part of what’s on offer at the Peligoni Club, located on the north coast of Zakynthos, the third largest island in the Ionian Sea.
Describing itself as a ‘boutique watersports club’, Peligoni is a magnet for those middle-class Britons for whom Ed Miliband has suddenly developed such a keen interest. Indeed, during our week we met some lovely Home Counties families, Cleveland weekend sailors and, perhaps fittingly, the daughter of a one-time Labour Cabinet minister.
Even so, the Sloaney-pony bar-speak can irritate. ‘I missed my ski sesh’ (in other words: ‘I missed my water-skiing session’)…’Let’s hit the Dolly Olly’ (that’s the club’s much-glugged pink wine, Chateau d’Ollieres, costing €43 a magnum) and ‘Is there any more Med Veg?’ (‘Mediterranean vegetables’).
But one of the many strengths of the club is the way the staff (mostly gap-year or university students, such as our boat-trip birthday cake-baker Ellie who was an English Literature student at Cambridge) mix so easily with guests. Indeed, the atmosphere can be summed up by the way Peligoni’s current (British) owner bought it after falling in love with the place years ago as a teenage holidaymaker.
As well as the ever-cheerful waitresses, there are the Bondi Beach wannabe sun-bleached Boat Boys who teach you to sail, water-ski, windsurf et al. For this is the attraction of this delightful spot: the chance to learn or develop water skills under expert guidance.
The all-day, just ‘turn up and set off’ no-booking system is a great idea. There are never queues and the only occasional problem is when the wind sometimes makes the sea too choppy.
As for our family – me, my wife, our 17-year-old girl-boy twins and their 19-year-old brother – we happily progressed from the level of ‘novice’ to ‘not-so-novice’ in just a few days. The instructors were wonderful – like helpful big brothers or sisters. As one of our daughter said: ‘Even Mum,’ learnt to windsurf after just two sessions.
The club itself forms the hub of your holiday – with a restaurant, bar, pool, tennis court, spa and whole areas just for younger children. Accommodation is in villas scattered less than a quarter of a mile away. So you can wake up, walk to the sea, swim and then have breakfast in your villa or go to the club itself, which can accommodate about 120 people. For DIY breakfasts, the local town café, which is less than a 15-minute hot walk away, sells freshly-squeezed orange juice for €12 a litre.
Everything at the club is so-oo chic. All pastel blues and whites to match the Ionian Sea. Woe betide anyone who breaks the unofficial colour code and uses a yellow towel that might clash horribly with the Price & Kensington blue and white stripe crockery. There are more Orla Kiely handbags here than on the streets of Notting Hill, and the clothes fashion is Jade Jagger-style kaftans.
In the evening, you can join in social events such as family quiz competitions (a magnum of wine for the winners) or opt out and explore other parts of the island.
Unsurprisingly, the area has inspired some of literature’s worst clichés. The acclaimed Michael Frayn should have known better than to have blathered in his latest, Greek island-set, novel: ‘The fishermen’s cottages along the waterfront…were as blindingly white and heavenly blue as the Greek flag stirring lethargically on the flagpole.’
Even the locals can get carried away. Among many recommended excursions from Peligoni are those to the ever-popular ‘Shipwreck’ in a cove that looks as if it has been created by Hollywood set-designers as the perfect picture-postcard vision of a Mediterranean bay.
The freighter (built in Glasgow in the 1930s) went aground in 1980 after a chase by the Greek navy which suspected it of carrying contraband ‘wine, tobacco and women’. But local wags say the wreck (whose image is used on most of the island’s promotional material) was washed away in a storm and was secretly replaced by another rusting hulk in case its absence affected trade.
Like the shipwreck, the Greek economy is still in ruins (with youth unemployment at 58 per cent and inflation running at minus two per cent) and, as a visitor, you feel that tourism is the only means of keeping many in pocket.
One of the countless victims of the country’s financial crisis is ‘Greek Night’ at a restaurant in Agios Nikolaos. To save money, the owners stopped the traditional plate-smashing celebrations and replaced them with paper napkin-burning.
Prices vary widely and there seems to be two parallel systems: one for tourists, another for locals.
For instance, the ubiquitous Greek Salad (cucumber, red onions, tomatoes, black olives and a block of feta cheese that looks like a piece of polystyrene packaging plonked on the top) can cost anything from €3 to €14.
While the Economist magazine devised its famous Big Mac index (a light-hearted guide to world exchange rates based on the prices of a McDonald’s Big Mac in different countries), we carried out a similar exercise with Greek Salads.
The cheapest we found was in the town of Volimes. One little family-run taverna (The Koskino) didn’t accept credit cards so we just showed the owner our total of €35 in cash and asked him to serve that amount of food.
The result: a cornucopia of salads, dips, moussaka, pasta dishes and fresh fruit … for five people.
Back at Peligoni, we marvelled at the patience of hunky Josh (a Durham University engineering student), one of the watersports boys. He really ought to have been cursing after being capsized for the hundredth time by yet another a learner-sailor.
But in the summer heat, as Simon Cowell knows, there’s nothing better than messing about in – and out of – boats.