The magical destinations best discovered by boat

From the Greek island of Ithaca to the wild tributaries of the Brazilian Amazon, there are places in the world that still show their best side from the water. Lydia Bell reports

The True North exploring the rugged prehistoric region of the Kimberley in northwest Australia
The True North exploring the rugged prehistoric region of the Kimberley in northwest Australia | Image: Mark Stothard, True North Adventure Cruises

In the crowded Mediterranean summer, special delights await those lucky enough to travel by sea. A hilly little slash of vivid green cast in the haze of the bluest Ionian, Ithaca was the realm of Odysseus. In Homer’s epic poem, it was from here that the hero journeyed to Troy, leaving Penelope behind, finally making it back two decades later. The tiny island is lovely today. It has very little sand to speak of, and no airport – the net result of which is that its coves and bays remain unspoilt, beloved of yachties and foreign arrivistes who value seclusion, beauty and a simple topographical palette (among them Marc Newson, who collaborated on the design of the Apple Watch). The best houses come with boats: Villa Ithaca 1J, a gem in the Five Star Greece portfolio, has an RIB speedboat with waterskis, a sailing boat as an add-on and a private pontoon to make it all come together. It also has Ithaca AA, an estate extending over a 100-hectare peninsula, which, on top of its team of staff, helicopter pad and little farm and vineyard, has a floating dock with a skippered Riva, speedboat and multiple water toys.  

The Kimberley’s ancient Bradshaws cave art
The Kimberley’s ancient Bradshaws cave art | Image: Getty Images/Lonely Planet Images

From Ithaca you float around the archipelago that rings the island (it includes Atokos, Skorpios – still owned by the Onassis family but leased to a Russian – and the Echinades, six owned by the Emir of Qatar) to the magical blue grotto on Meganissi, or up to the tiny fishing village of Frikes for fresh whitebait at the taverna. The best beaches are reachable by boat – sometimes only that way. On a calm day, there’s Afales, with its white cliffs and blue, blue water. Tucked away in a break in the high coast there’s To Steno, its cerulean-still depths lapping the flat white pebbles on the beach. 

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Then there’s the Aegean isle of Hydra, beloved of the late Leonard Cohen. It eschews cars as well as new construction, and its best beaches and tavernas are accessible by foot, mule or taxi‑boat alone. Thus, a strong charter industry keeps these waters plied with pleasure boats for those who reject the sumptuous mansions it is known for.

Villa Ithaca 1J’s terrace overlooking the bay of Kioni on the Greek island of Ithaca
Villa Ithaca 1J’s terrace overlooking the bay of Kioni on the Greek island of Ithaca

When Jules Verne was looking for an end-of-the-world destination for his wandering hero Hector Servadac, he chose the lighthouse at the far end of La Mola on the teeny Balearic isle of Formentera. The island was once a place defined by escape, a tiny offshore redoubt for mega-dropouts. These days, it is an epicurean destination in its own right, with a rich seam of food-as-high-art restaurants. “There is still nothing like doing Formentera by boat,” says Serena Cook of Deliciously Sorted, the Balearics’ most connected concierge service. “You can explore the small coves and deserted islands that ring Formentera and are accessible only by boat, then retreat to any number of restaurants right on the water.” Her favourite: Es Molí de Sal, for the seabass baked in salt. The restaurant is on the Playa de Illetas, an understated nook of tranquillity near the more famous Juan y Andrea – the kind of place at which Kate Moss has shared boozy lunches with Philip Green. A house tender whizzes over to collect guests who moor right offshore, buzzing them in for pink champagne and marked-up prawns. Illetas has expanded: at Beso Beach further down, after the second service they push the tables away for dancing in the sand with mojitos in hand. On Migjora beach, restaurant 10.7 proffers Asia-meets-Med dishes; and the Blue Bar is made for sailing in for sunset cocktails. The news this season is the old Gecko Beach Club, whose stock has ratcheted up a notch since a redesign, courtesy of the man behind Cap Rocat on Mallorca, took the ambience back to the glamour of the 1950s. All is technically accessible by car; it’s just built to be far better by boat. 

Mules replace cars on the Aegean island of Hydra
Mules replace cars on the Aegean island of Hydra | Image: Louisa Gouliamaki/AFP/Getty Images

Across many swathes of Latin America, having a boat can splice open landscape and culture more fully. By boat is how Bill Gates chose to explore the lesser-known parts of Colombia’s Caribbean coast this Easter, bringing his megayachts Romea and Global in secrecy to discover lush Tayrona National Park and sailing all the way up the coast where verdant forest segues into golden sand dunes and the remote desert of La Guajira peninsula, before reaching Punta Gallinas, where Colombia touches Venezuela. Gates got well and truly off the beaten path, interacting with the local Wayuu tribe of this windswept northernmost corner of the country. A specialist bespoke operator, such as Amakuna, can organise similar on-shore experiences for guests visiting by yacht, with activities ranging from day-long to four-day hikes, exploring the coffee farms of Minca or tearing across the vast sand-dune desert of La Guajira in 4x4s – always with the comforts of a fully staffed yacht awaiting offshore.  

A member of the Wayuu tribe dancing in the desert of La Guajira in Colombia
A member of the Wayuu tribe dancing in the desert of La Guajira in Colombia

Once, one explored the Amazon from circuits of rustic-chic lodges. Now, those in the know are choosing the adventurous possibilities of the upmarket liveaboard. Amazonian jump-off points like Manaus in Brazil and Iquitos in Peru are heaving with populace. Luxury boats are creeping into the market and being met with enthusiasm: Anakonda Amazon Cruises’ Anakonda, in the Ecuadorian Amazon, is the latest riverboat drawing travellers back to the mainland from the Galápagos. But less aspirational options can still bring the magic and atmosphere of that Márquez-esque landscape: if you exclusively charter the Tupaiu in Brazil, yours will be an unshowy (if, inside, extremely well-appointed) riverboat. But it delivers a charming private charter experience, undilutedly conquistador-like in feel. There are no phone signals, no technology – the coordinates don’t allow for it – but there is the privilege of being one of the few to ply the Arapiuns and Tapajós rivers in the thick of Brazilian Amazonia. Their white-sand beaches match those in the Maldives; their village communities are unvisited, and their ecosystems pristine. You’ll see no other boats. A private chef, guide and crew lead the way. (An added bonus: these are blackwater rivers, so no insects drawing blood.) 

The lush forest of Colombia’s Tayrona National Park leads out to golden sand dunes
The lush forest of Colombia’s Tayrona National Park leads out to golden sand dunes | Image: ProColombia

An excursion to the deep Chilean fjords similarly breaks open the epic, roadless landscape of the Pacific Patagonian coast, where vast distances and basic accommodation mean a boat is de rigueur. Australis’s three- and four-night expedition cruises sail between Ushuaia (Argentina) and Punta Arenas (Chile). Aboard the 100-cabin MV Stella Australis, various routes are possible: you can retrace Darwin’s route, for instance, through the Fuegian Archipelago, following the fjords of the southern edge of Tierra del Fuego, all the while on the lookout for whales, penguins, condors and elephant seals. In 2018 Ventus Australis will launch – a new state-of-the-art 210-passenger ship, its shallow draft allowing extreme manoeuverability in narrow waters other cruise ships cannot reach. Again, that magic equation: immersion in the thrill of the wilderness, then retreat to cosseted comforts. 

The Ocean House hotel’s elegant Aphrodite yacht once ferried Hollywood stars around
The Ocean House hotel’s elegant Aphrodite yacht once ferried Hollywood stars around | Image: Ocean House

New England’s historic ports and islands, with their gorgeous 18th-century villages and heritage hotels, seem to have been made for understated summer yachting fun. The new paradigm, done in a week, or a leisurely two, is to pick up a yacht in the sailing mecca of Newport, Rhode Island, and thence drift towards Martha’s Vineyard, on to Nantucket, and then up to the Cape (Cod). Alternatively, many of New England’s hotel icons offer stylish yachting excursions: Rhode Island’s grande dame, the Ocean House hotel in Watch Hill, has sweeping Atlantic views and has been meticulously reconstructed in sympathy with New England’s storied heyday of hospitality. Its best boat, Aphrodite, was launched in 1937 for Long Island financier Jock Whitney. Now sensitively overhauled, the elegant commuter yacht once hosted Fred Astaire, Laurence Olivier, Spencer Tracy and Katharine Hepburn for summer day cruises; Shirley Temple celebrated her birthday on it. After Pearl Harbor, Whitney offered Aphrodite to the government for war service; it ferried Franklin D Roosevelt to and from his home on the Hudson river. If you cannot wangle Aphrodite, Ocean House has an Andreyale 33, its natty design inspired by the American commuter boats of the 1930s; Trim Again, a classic catboat yacht; and the restored swordfishing boat Encore. The hotel has also handily partnered with Barton & Gray Mariners Club, which means a fleet of understated, beautifully stylish, crewed Hinckley yachts. You could head, say, to yachties’ mecca Newport, or across Long Island Sound to Montauk. 

The grand Ocean House hotel on Rhode Island, New England, offers a range of yacht trips
The grand Ocean House hotel on Rhode Island, New England, offers a range of yacht trips | Image: Ocean House

The elite, all-American isle of Nantucket, 30 miles off Cape Cod – the fabled setting of Moby Dick – has a hearty whaling past and, these days, a Ralph Lauren-advert-made-flesh feel. It has its coterie of picket fences, historic wharves and centuries-old handsome clapboard second homes, kissed by profusions of climbing roses. It also has one of the biggest marinas for miles: 240 slips sit smack-bang at the base of Main Street, and it’s so popular in summer that bookings open from October the previous year. But consider the context, says Christina Martin, director of marina operations: “We are a 50-year-old marina with wooden docks. This is not a brand-new, shiny, modern Miami Beach sort of place. But you get the full service – someone meeting you at the slip, and docking the boat. We have our megayacht berths, but also a nice mixture of fishing and sailboats.” A boat on Nantucket is a boon: you can find a deserted tranche of Coatue, Nantucket’s north coast wilderness: beach, moor, salt marsh and palest white dunes for a picnic. Nantucket Island Resorts, with five hotels, dispatches its Wauwinet Lady back and forth from the waterfront White Elephant hotel to sister property The Wauwinet, so guests can mix and match restaurants. 

The private-charter tender Whitsunday Bliss heading to a bay in the Whitsundays
The private-charter tender Whitsunday Bliss heading to a bay in the Whitsundays | Image: Explore Whitsundays

Back in the southern hemisphere, Australia’s Whitsundays are, similarly, a locus of heritage, national pride and natural beauty. Specks of forest and blinding-white sand between mainland Queensland and the Great Barrier Reef form a 74-island archipelago that is best enjoyed by boat alone, as many remain uninhabited (while others, such as buzzy Hamilton Island, boast world-class resorts and beach clubs, a marina, restaurants, a golf course and even an airport). The good hotels have boats of their own but the whole archipelago can only be accessed by a charter of at least a few days – gliding from white-silica Whitehaven Beach to Hook Island to admire sea eagles, kites and ospreys, and, below the sea-line, turtles, reef fish, dolphins, manta rays and humpback whales, via the enchanted spit reef at Langford Island. 

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If the idea of seeing another boat is anathema, the place to be Down Under is the beautiful outback of beyond: the prehistoric coast of the Kimberley, in northwest Australia, plied latterly by the cruiser True North. With its shallow draft, it’s built to access the jaw-dropping sights in the wilds of Western Australia: guests chopper to lost mountaintops for sunrise picnics, to secret falls for cocktails, to forgotten ravines and vast gorges. They can fold in a visit to the Bradshaws to see rock art that predates Aboriginal culture and is thought to represent the oldest paintings known to man; and thrum up the Roe River, with the Kimberley’s highest concentration of crocodiles, or the mythologised Hunter River – about as far away as you can get from man in Australia. Flowing with the current, experiencing this wilderness at the speed of nature, you’re not an intruder in this place, but a part of it. And this is the magic of arriving by water, anywhere in the world.

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