We would sail for no more than four hours, till we arrived at our next island. Usually, I could convince my shipmates to explore by going for a run, which was punishing as the Cycladic islands have rocky, hilly coastlines, and the road away from the beach often went up, up, up at a heart-pounding incline. The exercise always had its rewards, however, and it was awe-inspiring to stand on a windswept summit, survey the coastline in all directions, and see how the sea's vibrant azure color close-in melded into shades of green, navy and, yes, wine-dark purple, farther out from shore.
Not all the islands we visited, of course, were remote or unpopulated. Mykonos, for instance, is a playground for sun and sin seekers from around the world. When we arrived, we rented a car and toured the island. Even though the high tourist season was over, the island was still hopping. We ate lunch at a place that someone had assured James was the "chic-est" spot on the island, Psarou Beach, feasting on grilled squid, fava bean spread and tarama (a salty froth of fish roe mixed with whipped cream) at a restaurant called Namos.
On the way back to our boat, we drove into the hora, or city center. There were all the gaudy souvenirs you'd expect at a seaside town, if more notably obscene, because of the celebration of nudity that's found in ancient Greek art. The doors of these sacred spaces were open and welcoming, so we wandered in to admire the silver figures and the brooding pop realism of the saints' portraits. We were not sorry to leave.
The next day, we landed at Delos, an island that reached its zenith in the classical period (5th to 4th century B.C.), when nearly all commercial activity of the eastern Mediterranean was centered there. Rich merchants, bankers and ship owners built lavish homes with terraces, courtyards and indoor plumbing. There were hardly any visitors besides us, and it seemed unimaginable that we were able to wander freely through these huge ruins, stepping across ancient mosaic floors, and running our fingers across marble work carved millennia ago.
Our sail continued to Naxos, Ios, Iraklia and Schinousa before we ended up in Santorini. On our final night, we decided to have a barbecue on the beach, and Niko arranged a circle of rocks - shaped like the Cyclades - in the sand.
While our eggplant blackened, and the lamb sausages sizzled, we lay back on the sand, watched the sun set, and then the winking, blinking arrival of the evening's stars. Jupiter was the first and brightest light to appear in the sky. In Roman mythology, it is Jupiter, not Zeus, who is the king of Heaven and Earth, and leader of all the Olympian gods.
So insistently and rashly did Jupiter (or was it Zeus?), shine forth his beacon over all below, as he had for millennia, that I felt quite mortal, quite aware of the brevity of life, yet quite happy to be there at that particular moment. And in that confusion of feeling, I suppose I also felt quite Greek.
IF YOU GO
To reach the Cyclades Islands, it's best to fly into Athens, Greece, and travel on via a high-speed ferry to the island of Syros. From Baltimore, multiple carriers offer connecting flights to Athens. To get from Athens to Syros, there are departures several times a day from Athens' Port of Piraeus aboard either GA Ferries (gaferries.com) or Blue Star Ferries (www.bluestarferries.com).
To call the numbers below, use the country code 30.
A brief Internet search will reveal many companies that rent sailboats either supplied with a captain, cook, staff (or any variant of personnel), or "bare boating," which means you are on your own. Check out sailcyclades.com to learn more about Arianna.
Sofokleous 26 and Klisthenous, Omonia, 210-524-8511; www.freshhotel.gr. A boutique hotel with small, well-appointed rooms, a rooftop bar and pool with views of the Acropolis. Rooms start at $195.
St. George Lycabettus Hotel:
Kleomenous 2, Kolonaki, 210-729-0711, www.sglycabettus.gr. At the foot of Lykavittos Hill, this boutique hotel has a rooftop pool as well as a luxurious spa center. Rooms start at $275.
National Archeological Museum:
28 Oktovriou-Patision 44, Athens, 210-821-7717; www.culture.gr. Extensive collection of sculptures, mosaics, pottery and jewelry from Greece's most important archaeological sites.
Corner of Leof Vasilissis Sofias and Koumbari 1, Kolonaki, Athens, 210-367-1000; www.benaki.gr. For nearly four decades, Antoine Benaki avidly collected ancient sculpture and Bronze Age treasures, and they're all on display here.
Delos island tour:
No visit to the Cyclades is complete without a pilgrimage to this sacred island, which is one of the most important archaeological sites in Greece. It lies just a few miles off the west coast of Mykonos. Day trips only, overnight stays forbidden.
The Echo of Greece by Edith Hamilton (New York, 1957). With marvelous concision and clarity, Hamilton brings to vivid life people such as Plato and Aristotle, Alexander the Great and the Stoics.