One of the fun things to do while in Greece is to travel to the various islands over the spectacular blue Mediterranean Sea. Nothing is as pleasant as relaxing. Let the ferry take you to a charming destination for the next few minutes or hours, be it for pleasure, adventure, family reunion, or even – heaven forbid – for business!

The Greek islands are served by a sizable fleet of ferry boats, large and small, which are vital to the life and economy of the country. I followed a favorite route that typically travels from Rafina (near the Athens airport) to Andros, Tinos, and Mykonos islands – then back again.

The ferries that serve these islands are of three types: Conventional ships that can carry 1200 passengers and about 400 cars (or 70 trucks) and sail at a brisk 20 knots, catamarans that can carry about the same passengers and 200 cars (no trucks) and sail at a spectacular 35 knots, and smaller catamarans that carry only passengers, at the same speed – which matches a destroyer at full gallop. They are all designed for easy maneuverability, to get into and out of harbors quickly, without needing tugs or other help.

Port arrivals are a fascinating orchestrated ballet to watch: As their timing is approximate, depending on sailing times and the varying time-for-loading-unloading, it often happens that there may be as many as three or more of them reaching a port at the same time, with the occasional ship waiting a few minutes outside the port, for an empty berth.

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Multiple ferries are arriving simultaneously at the port of Tinos—Image courtesy of Vidalis car rental company.

The activity upon arrival is worth watching: The ships back up to the dock, lines are thrown and set taught to hold the stern in place, ramps (which have already been lowered) are set on the dock, and almost immediately, a stream of hundreds of walk-off passengers disembarks, spreading somewhat to find people and cars waiting for them, or vans, or taxis. Others head for the convenient car rentals nearby. There are many emotional welcomes, hugs, and affections, as is the occasional stranding of some whose ride had not shown up in advance.

As the passengers exit, the train of disembarking automobiles, buses, vans, and trucks leaving via a separate ramp, bumper-to-bumper, resembling a slow train. Once they are out, large tractor trucks waiting on the quay put their gears in reverse and back into the cavernous depths of the ferries, there to engage trailers left at a previous port and take them away – commerce at work.

When the embarkation begins, these exits are still ongoing; Hundreds of people, previously herded into a long, warehouse-type structure, are sent in to walk up the special passenger ramps, check in, and find their way to the passenger lounge. Cars are simultaneously directed to enter the ferryboat by a wider ramp, to be given directions within for parking very close to each other (sort of like sardines) at the one or two levels within the hull. The speed of loading is remarkable – I noted that, at one of the smaller, high-speed catamarans, nearly 800 people entered in the space of 10 minutes, while at the same time, 104-105 passenger cars were simultaneously embarking (driven in by their drivers) in less than 20 minutes.

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Cars are embarking on a high-speed catamaran ferry—Image courtesy of Vidalis car rental company.

All this maelstrom takes place simultaneously, often with two or more ships in port. Confusion reigns as if an anthill has been disturbed. People searching to re-board their bus, locals holding up signs advertising room rentals, others searching for signs to get directions, and there are always a few needing help and clarification. But, despite all this seemingly disorganized activity, almost in the blink of an eye, as if by magic, the exiting crowd and their rides are gone, the vehicular traffic has left or embarked, and the once busy, entire harbor area is – suddenly – empty!

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The last ferry of the evening is heading for Rafina. The lights of Ermoupolis, Syros, in the distance—Image courtesy of Vidalis car rental company.

This was the end of a 3-day holiday, so everyone reluctantly was eager to return to Rafina (Athens) after their holiday at beautiful Tinos and the other equally beautiful islands in the route: Andros and Mykonos. (Of course, I wondered how crowded the ship’s lounge was – there must have been many passengers from the previous port – Mykonos – already on board, also going to Rafina. I suspect some had to sit on the floor!)