Who said you had to be Abramovich to voyage in sumptuous style? Jeremy Lazell and family sail Greece’s Ionian islands on a rarefied odyssey by yacht
I quite fancy being a Russian oligarch. Pootling about on my superyacht, motoring ashore for cocktails and calamari, securing pipeline deals on deck, while staff top up my drink. Trouble is, I don’t have a superyacht, there are no pipeline deals, only an ever-expanding overdraft and 27 years left on the mortgage. But two things happened recently to change all that. First, my mother died and left us some money, simultaneously wiping out the overdraft and reminding me that life is too short for ‘What’s the sensible thing to do?’ Second, a fellow boat-nut told me about Argentous — a four-cabin, 20-metre yacht based in the Greek islands that bridges the gap between no-frills skippered yachts and all-frills Abramovich-level superyachts. It’s long been a fantasy of mine to island-hop in private luxury, so we weigh everything up, convince ourselves it’s what my mum would have wanted, and fly out en famille to Corfu.
We are picked up at the Corfu Imperial Grecotel, skipper Charlie scooping us up from the hotel’s beach in a mini speedboat that later packs away like something out of Thunderbirds into — those reading this in the hope of improving their yachting vocabulary should look away now — the ‘boot’ of Argentous. Speeding out across the bay, my 11-year-old stares at the sailing boat, which gleams like an Aston Martin among a fleet of Trabants. ‘People must think we’re millionaires’, he says, stifling an enormous grin.
On board, the grins get bigger. And it’s not just the kids. Upstairs (above-decks?), the area beyond the steering wheel (helm?) looks like the VIP chill-out zone of an uber-hip Ibiza nightclub, with wraparound slate-grey sofas we instantly earmark for sundowners. Beyond that, slung between a towering 27-metre mast and spinnaker, a hammock beckons just back from the bow. Half of me instantly frets about the havoc my kids will wreak on the pristine decor; the other half is happy sipping the welcome drink brought by our host, Joy.
Because although Argentous costs at least twice the price of most skippered-yacht charters on the Med (which, incidentally, generally require you to cook for the skipper), it also comes with the aforementioned host, who cooks, cleans, tidies your room, makes your bed and generally spoils you to within an inch of your indecently privileged life. ‘What time would you like canapés?’ Joy asks as we bounce on the sofas and giggle.
The plan is a five-day sail around Paxos and Antipaxos, with Charlie, a Royal Yachting Association instructor, eager to let us help out or — in our case — let us lie back as the mood dictates. Before coming, I’d pictured my three boys pulling on ropes and clambering up rigging, blinking at the horizon and turning into men before my eyes. However, not 20 minutes into our first sail across the Corfu Channel, all three disappear below deck to watch a DVD. For about seven seconds the wife and I wonder whether we mind, then sink back on to the sofas and gaze at the waves.
That evening is a strange one. We drop anchor about two hours south of Corfu town in a secluded bay. We play Uno over canapés, Joy serves us a delicious dinner above-decks, a warm sea-breeze drifts in below a pulsing smear of stars. We are living the family holiday dream. And yet, the problem is we’re on a boat. Yes, it’s a seriously nice boat. Yes, the bed in our master cabin is bigger than our double at home. But it’s still a boat. It rocks, it creaks, it wakes me up with urgent noises from the en-suite. Some time around 4am, $13,000 suddenly feels like a lot of money to spend on a week of no sleep, with three kids who’d rather watch Harry Potter DVDs than learn to sail.
‘At 6am I go up on deck. It is a scene of almost ludicrous beauty’
At 6am I give in and go up on deck. It is a scene of almost ludicrous beauty, like the British Virgin Islands circa 1950. We are all alone below a rocky, uninhabited island, the water slack and glassy, the only signs of life a pair of gulls painted pink against a vast, rising sun. I step down to the back of the boat and dive in. It is sunrise in the Mediterranean, I am swimming on my own, drifting round the boat — my boat. Climbing back on board, I found it utterly impossible to remember what made me so grumpy the night before.
It is the start of perhaps the best day in this family’s life. The original plan was for a three- or four-hour sail to Paxos, but Charlie, sensing we’re a lot less Ellen MacArthur than most Argentous clients, suggests we stay and play instead. Because as well as having its own mini speedboat, Argentous has more water-sports toys than you can shake a selfie stick at. For the entire day, the boys snorkel, windsurf, paddleboard, waterski, jump off rocks or scream as they hurtle behind the speedboat on inflatable tyres.
That night, Charlie runs us by speedboat to Sivota, a pretty seaside town on the mainland with a few modest tavernas and armies of friendly stray dogs and cats. We feast on calamari and kleftiko, and feed fish off the jetty between courses, sipping drinks in the balmy night air as the boys lick ice cream and cuddle kittens on their lap. ‘I love Greece,’ says the eight-year-old, a splash of freckles on his sunkissed cheeks. I know exactly what he means.
The next day we do sail to Paxos. I say ‘we’, but the actual sailing is, obviously, down to Charlie.
I’d love to reveal that, having fallen in love with the sea the day before, the boys are impossible to prise from the helm, but as it happens, they’re mostly back below-decks with Harry Potter. ‘Those box sets won’t watch themselves’, says the 12-year-old. Still slightly heady on yesterday’s success, it is impossible for me to get cross with him.
That afternoon we drop anchor in a preposterously cobalt-coloured bay, Lakka, beloved of postcard-sellers and yacht charters. We windsurf, paddleboard, and take selfies against the improbable blue, but somehow the magic is gone, crowded out by the yachtie hoi polloi.
‘How about a walk?’ suggests Charlie, delivering a masterstroke. He drops us ashore, then takes Argentous along the coast to pick us up in the next village, Longos, leaving us to follow a thyme-scented donkey track between beaches and abandoned watermills, olive groves and hamlets. I’m not saying there’s no moaning, but in between grunts the boys chase crickets, stroke goats and play Marco Polo in the shallows at Manadendri Beach. It feels like we’ve wandered off the tourist trail to glimpse a Greece that few people get to see.
What you don’t get on Argentous, we discover waking to a force-six wind the next day, is guaranteed good weather. But Plan A’s loss (we had been aiming for the indecently photogenic Voutoumi Bay on Antipaxos) is Plan B’s gain, as we divert to Porto Ozias, a one-taverna inlet at the eastern end of Paxos. Glassily calm and inexplicably free of other boats, the inlet is a gloriously windless shelter from the storm. For hours we windsurf and wakeboard, sunbathe and read, eventually sailing in for dinner in Paxos’s main town, Gaios, where our boys play football on the cobbles below the church.
So far, so Instagram, but don’t you get exactly the same memories — for half the price — on a bog-standard skippered-yacht charter? Well, actually, no. For one thing those bog-standard charters might occasionally have a mini speedboat to ferry you between boat and port, but with nowhere near enough horsepower to tow a waterski or wakeboard. Take away the water sports, and a yacht — for kids — is basically a floating prison.
‘It’s a catered villa, a luxury mobile home and sports resort all rolled into one’
But more than that, Argentous makes you feel like royalty. It’s partly just the sleek lines, the teak deck, the towering mast. As we pulled into Gaios, people actually got out of their boats (daubed in rental-agency logos) for a better look. But it’s also the service: no-frills yacht charters are hard work. You cook, you clean, you pull ropes, you shop: it’s fun, but you’ll need a holiday afterwards. With Joy below-decks and Charlie at the helm, the only finger you lift on Argentous is the pinky on your drink. It’s a catered villa, a luxury mobile home and sports resort all rolled into one.
On our last day, we sail back into Gouvia marina on Corfu, all five of us sitting silently on-deck in pre-emptive mourning. ‘You’ll just have to come back next summer,’ says Joy. Yeah, right. At $13,000 a week and without another inheritance on the horizon, it’s a ‘probably not’ from us. However, there were times on this trip — wakeboarding in that abandoned cove, swimming round the boat at dawn, playing cards on deck — when we felt so truly spoilt, so dizzyingly privileged, I knew it was worth every penny.
A year on, Argentous’s owners have added three more luxury yachts to their fleet. One, Aurous, is a five-cabin catamaran with a trampoline and sundeck. My advice? Nab it before my kids get wind of that trampoline.
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