How Discovering Swimming Saved Me
I’m going to skip over the part where I forgot to book a place in Europe, in August, while we were staying on an island in Croatia and the closest house I could find to rent for at least a week was a few countries away on the island of Corfu, Greece. I know. Madness. We were living in Europe and working from the road for the summer, and somehow I thought we could just wing it. In August, in the Mediterranean. When most of Europe shuts down and heads to the water. Noted.
My partner and I had our little van packed to the brim on Hvar, Croatia, and on August 1 during a 94-degree heat wave, loaded our van, and jumped on a ferry to the mainland and proceeded to drive through Croatia, then Bosnia, on to Montenegro, and finally through rural Albania with goat herders at dusk before we hit a small Greek border town around 11:00 p.m., exactly 52 minutes before the last ferry from the port town of Igoumenitsa left for Corfu. After racing against the clock through five countries, we finally felt the relief and the unfamiliar night air on my skin as we crossed the Ionian Sea by ferry in the dead of night.
I seriously underestimated how you might have to cross five borders to find a house on the Mediterranean or Adriatic for a full one week in August, if you wait until the end of July. And that’s the short story of how we unexpectedly ended up on the Greek island of Corfu in the heart of summer. It’s the beginning of an unexpected love story of discovery after 40, and finding a new passion my partner and I both loved.
Fewer Jellyfish Than France, Italy, and Spain
The reason the Adriatic (Croatia) and part of the Ionian are so special is because people like me need clear water to swim in without tons of jellyfish. I’m never going to get in the ocean and not be able to see what’s around me. You’re thinking there’s a lot of places in the world with clear water, but not without predatory animals. Many places in Asia say to look out for sea snakes and sharks and all kinds of other surprises that give me a panic attack just thinking about it. I can’t relax when I always need to look over my shoulder for the unexpected.
From my experience, the Mediterranean and Spanish islands seem to be plagued with jellyfish starting in April and lasting most of the summer. The Adriatic near Hvar has almost no regular jellyfish population, and Corfu, because of its position, may see them come through, but they never linger long plus the extra bonus of no unruly currents.
I’m skipping over the Old Town and other parts of the island—for me, that’s not where the magic lies. I have to say the price gouging of vacation rentals is out of hand though. Having its own airport with direct flights and the success of the BBC show The Durrells in Corfu have made this island famous and easily accessible.
An Underwater Otherworld
There’s a Different Planet Beneath the Surface
I wasn’t a swimmer, let’s get that straight. I was a snorkeler when I began. When we arrived, I was overwhelmed trying to figure out the best beaches and how to access them. I was having a semi-standard meltdown when the area we were in wasn’t matching the postcard in my head, and we only have a few hours each day before we begin work on American time at 4 p.m. Our second day we ended up parking in the lot
on Agios Petros Beach. I lacked the courage to park our van on the roadside during the height of summer with narrow little lanes. My partner and I grabbed our snorkel masks and headed to the average-looking tiny beach as I proceeded to complain. We agreed to go as far as we could snorkeling around the rocks to the left. That’s when it happened. After 30 minutes, we just kept going until we reached the next beach on the other side of the rocks.
I felt like I was on another planet. You could see the bottom all the way around the rocks/coastline, 20 to 30+ meters, which was so entertaining it eventually allowed me to keep adding time and distance each day, slowly transforming my physical strength and confidence that inevitably leaked over to other aspects of my life.
The Magic of Paleokastritsas
The Inner World of a Woman
What sets Corfu apart is a little area called Paleokastritsas. There’s this magical strip of 3.4 kilometers where there are beaches and coves every few minutes as you’re driving, and the first time you see it you just keep yelling are you serious. When we first arrived it just felt gigantic like it would take us weeks to explore, and then we realized that all of the little inlets are actually pretty close in proximity, easy enough to swim, walk, and paddle. The best part, we never encountered dangerous currents.You can rent a little self-driven boat for around 140 euros for the full day (no license needed). It’s the best way to start your trip.
I don’t exactly know when the life-altering magic happened between putting on a mask and snorkel turning eventually into swimming one to two hours a day, merging with the mysterious world beneath the surface. I felt more at home underwater than I did above the surface. It touched me so deeply that I wanted it to become a tradition that I could share with my daughter and she can pass it down long after I’m gone.
The Silence Can Consume You
It’s the closest thing I’ve found to transcendence. For a short time to be a part of this otherworld, a secret world, an unknown terrifying beautiful mystery. Alone. Alone in the sea, enveloped by the wildness, each day a new terrain, new conditions requiring a raging confidence and self-determination that challenged me. It’s just me and the sea.
At times I was convinced I’d be swallowed, by my thoughts, my anger, my quiet polite rage always ready to consume me. Every injustice I’d witnessed, every fight I’d lost as a woman, it comes to you with each stroke, in that silence, when no one is around. Just silence.
Every time you didn’t speak up, every time you sat down when you should’ve flipped a (metaphorical) table, it all rises to meet you. Stroke by stroke. The all-consuming fear of your perceived inadequacies confront you, overreaching into crevices you can usually hide from when you fill your world with noise. Or busyness. When you can make life loud enough not to hear any of it. But not here.
The unfulfilled hungers, the unresolved conflict inside of you, every shortcoming, with just one hand in front of the other in the water, battling your mind while surrounded in beauty. I see women sink from the weight the world makes them carry, the way so much is built against us and that lives in us and occasionally tries to claw its way out. Weighted with a sedated life of pleasantries, eating your feelings, making yourself small, sacrificing your dreams for others. There are things you get to work out with yourself in the open water, and there’s no way to escape your thoughts.
Moments where your mind could devour you. Maybe the sea is the only thing that can hold and even celebrate the wildness that we’ve repressed for years. If you’ve got decades of shit to work out with yourself, this might be the place to do it. That subtle sinking sadness I’ve carried most of my life meets you at the surface. Even if I could’t find complete peace in it, I might have recovered part of myself.
In this connected chaos, the person you think you are begins to merge with what you could be. The idea you have of yourself begins to meld into the person you wish you had known sooner. This strong, capable, athletic figure begins to emerge, familiar and yet a total stranger.
Had she been here the entire time? Or does it happen after 40, when we finally get to move to the front of the line and place priority on ourselves and our desires, the space where we get to matter, finally.
Sometimes the wind would change and turn and you find that hard-earned resilience and power that comes with having no choice but to push through. I wanted to give you a light love story about self-discovery after 40 on a Greek island, but swimming in the deep end isn’t always a feel-good story, until it eats you alive first. And, you know, I tend to lean a bit dramatic. I’m not a fast swimmer, and I probably have bad form, but I have an endurance that only comes with someone who has built a high tolerance for pain. A pain you finally are forced to look at in these waters. After a few days I started feeling stronger and leaner and more confident, not just in my swimming, but as a woman, reassembling herself, reconstructing and reinventing the very idea of who I was, and what was possible.
My internal experience merging with this external landscape was transformative. I must mention that my Gemini husband would tell you the breadth of his experience was someone to the extent of, ‘I really liked the long swims and underwater landscapes.’ That’s it. LMAO. Here I am as a Cancerian woman with a whole ‘phoenix rising from the sea shit’ makes us both laugh when we compare our experiences.
The Logistics for the Swim
I always try to keep it fun, because once I made it a little too rigid and obligatory, some of the joy started leaving. Take a little pouch with money and your phone if possible and always always have a dry bag that works as a flotation device to let boaters know that you’re in the water.
Agios Petros Beach
This is the only beach with easy parking, so for a few euros a day park your car here and this is the last drivable beach in Paleo. There’s a café with beach lounges on different levels with a gorgeous view. If the water is calm you can start with short swims from this beach and stay along the rocks to the left following the rocks all the way around to Agios Spiridon Beach. If the water is calm enough, this is a great first swim. It’s an absolute underwater world and you can see all the way down to the bottom between 30 and 40 meters the entire way. The first time I did it by accident and thought it was an amazing feat. Within two weeks this became a warmup. For a super short fun swim, go right, instead of left, and head over to Ampelaki Beach (6 to 15 minutes and a moderate swim with calm water). You can also kayak here and keep going to the stunning Kastelli Beach and swim with thousands of fish.
Agios Spiridon Beach to Spiros Beach
When you’re ready for the next step, repeat the same swim but keep swimming to Spiros Beach (bypassing Beach Paleokastritsa). Cross the bay to save time if you don’t need to always see the bottom, if you’re really brave. I’m not. So in each bay you may want to grab a snack, rest, or warm up. Head over to the Tango Café to watch the sunset. If you’re fortunate you can land a table outside overlooking the bay.
Spiros Beach to Agia Triada Beach
You can either keep swimming to the next bay or get your dry bag and walk along the road to the next beach where there is a beach bar and restaurant. Akron Beach Bar and Poseidon Restaurant are on Afia Triada Beach with quite a little scene.
Agia Triada to La Grotta Bar and Cove
Each major turn holds a new landscape, an unseen adventure, new caves, formations that begin to seem like their own planets. For La Grotta you want to get there early because even in summer it loses sun at 3p.m.
It’s a light party scene, but they have a diving board that proves lots of fun. This is always a great place to start a swim to the next few beaches we’re about to discover.
La Grotta to the Acapulco Bar
Both are on the water, at least in theory. From La Grotta I swim to one of my favorite spots on the island, the Acapulco Bar. It’s also a chill hotel that is generally filled with British people, but they have a four-tier outdoor lounging system that never seems very crowded with the best possible views of this island imaginable. You can also drive here. There are reasonably small rocks/cliffs to jump from, which are a blast. They have miniature bottles of wine and this is the best place to relax before making that two-minute swim over to Liapades Beach and renting a kayak to paddle all the way down the coast until you hit the ultimate, Paradise Beach, discovering the most stunning points on the island within a 45-minute kayak. I love taking a kayak because you and your partner can take turns swimming while one kayaks for those super long trips.
Liapades to Glyko and Rovinia Beaches
From Liapades, swimming or kayaking to Glyko Beach and Rovinia is pretty simple if the waves are calm enough. My first day trying this route, the sea was stirred up and it was pretty awful. From Rovinia you can swim or paddle to the famous Limni Beach that literally connects on both sides with just a little patch of land.
Rovinia to Limni
A little not-so-secret, the tiny beach right next to Limni, Klimatia, is usually a bit more peaceful, with more locals than tourists. You can park and walk, which requires a little hike down numerous steps and harrowing roadside parking. This is about as far as we swim, and then past this point you can take your kayak over to Chomi Beach otherwise known as the famous white-rock Paradise Beach.
Limni to Paradise Beach/Chomi
It varies by year, and because of falling rocks they don’t always allow people to stay on this beach and move you to the next one over (Stelari Beach). It’s the one with the towering bleached white rocks, like out of a film. Take a visor, water, and a shirt for sun protection especially if you’re kayaking. Sunscreen just isn’t enough out here.
We worked on American time so we would wake up and do the full kayak over from Liapades, between 45 minutes and an hour, rest on the beach, read our Henry Miller, and then be able to kayak back and have lunch all before work.
The food isn’t great for plant-based options if you’re eating out.
Price gouging on rentals since the island has skyrocketed in popularity.
Packed traffic during summer months in Paleo on a narrow road.
Most major points are no more than 45 minutes apart.
Grocery stores carry organic and vegan products.
Most people speak English