Monday 22 January 2018

My big fat Greek Island Odyssey: An idyllic cruise that doesn't cost the earth

Cruise Special

A Greek house in Milos, Cyclades Islands, Greece
A Greek house in Milos, Cyclades Islands, Greece
Celestyal Crystal
Celestyal Crystal's Thalassa Bar
Celestyal Crystal's Eros lounge and bar
Celestyal Crystal's pool area

Isabel Conway

You can get a surprisingly rich Greek island immersion on a short trip with Celestyal Cruises, says Isabel Conway.

Greek Island hopping is the stuff of holiday daydreams.

And certainly, sailing away from Athens, southwards towards Anavyssos Beach, I am lost in the mists of time. Flashbacks to a  pre-computerised era have me remembering the searing, high-summer heat at dusty shipping offices which once lined the Piraeus port, gateway to islands dotted all over the Aegean and Ionian seas.

Back in the day, ledger-thumbing clerks would shrug gloomily, muttering "full" (in Greek, naturally!), impervious to our girlish pleas to board packed ferries and be spirited off to islands of snow-white villages nestling behind beautiful beaches where a hedonistic lifestyle (or so we hoped!) lay in wait.

Celestyal Crystal
Celestyal Crystal

Eventually, our persistence got us third-class tickets, without cabins, and my first Greek odyssey began. The brilliant blue marriage of sky and sea, the sight of the Acropolis (left) shimmering in a celestial light above traffic-choked Athens, dancing under the stars with a handsome Adonis named Mikos (or was his name Nikos?), incongruously dodging plates flung at our feet... the memories come flooding back.

More than 30 years on, I am about to embark on some new-era island hopping, this time aboard a comfortable cruise ship with my own spacious cabin instead of a shared lumpy saloon sofa reeking of tobacco smoke and stale beer, or bungling up on a deckside wooden bench.

Smiling and efficient cruise-terminal staff at the port of Lavrion wave us off with glasses of chilled fruit juice as we board the 10-deck M.V. Celestyal Crystal. Leaving on a Friday, it will spirit us off on a three-day 'Idyllic Aegean' cruise amid calm seas and blinding sunshine.

My weekend hop to three diverse islands - dry and rugged Mykonos, fertile Samos and volcanic Milos, as well as a stop in Kusadasi, Turkey, to visit the ancient kingdom of Ephesus - will have me back in Ireland by Monday evening.

Celestyal Crystal's Thalassa Bar
Celestyal Crystal's Thalassa Bar

Our first port of call, hours after boarding, is Mykonos - cosmopolitan and worldly, its architecture strictly preserved, famed for its beaches, windmills and nightlife. After dining under the stars at Ornos's romantic Kuzina restaurant (left, kuzinamykonos.com), we hurry back to port for our overnight crossing to Kusadasi. More than four hours of sightseeing and bargaining in its tempting bazaars beckon before another short sea voyage to Samos, where whitewashed villages tumble down to boat-filled harbours. It's just the same as I remember all those years ago.

From there, an overnight crossing northward to the Cyclades Islands brings us to heavenly Milos, by far my favourite Greek island to date. A day-long trip on a 47-foot yacht, enjoying magical forays inside deep pirate caves and fantastic swimming, is the absolute highlight.

Celestyal (honouring the ancient Greeks' use of celestial navigation) turns out to be one of the best-kept secrets of the eastern Mediterranean. The only wholly owned Greek cruise company plying its own seas (it also sails around the coast of Cuba), the three-ship fleet is small enough to enter ports mega-vessels cannot.

A genuine taste of Greece is guaranteed on themed cruises ranging from archaeology and culture to cookery and mythology, dance and music to Greek cinema.

Celestyal Crystal's pool area
Celestyal Crystal's pool area

The M.V. Crystal is mid-sized, accommodating 1,200 passengers (with 400 crew). It's cosy yet surprisingly spacious, with big-ship amenities like an outdoor swimming pool, Jacuzzi, library, large theatre, dance floor, disco, playroom for children, excellent spa, casino, gym and several restaurants (à la carte, buffet, pool grill, etc). Before Mykonos, there's plenty of time for on-board exploration and repeated visits to the colourful lunch buffet featuring Greek favourites.

The ship is booked out, and not just by foreigners, in early July. Little wonder, considering that three days' (and nights) full board this summer is priced from €480pp, including drinks and shore excursions. That's less than many half-board hotel arrangements you'll find at home for the same stretch of time - and here, you have a panorama of glorious island coastlines, warm azure blue water, to boot.

The mix of generations and nationalities aboard includes Greek grandparents returning to their roots with prosperous emigrant children living in the US and Britain, and a big group of teenage US exchange students, Cubans, French, Germans, Eastern Europeans and some Chinese couples. Spyros, a London-based financial services manager travelling with a multi-generational family, told me: "My parents and siblings used to spend a month on the islands every summer, touching base with our roots and the old life; there were always distant relatives and neighbours left. Now, because of the economic situation, most Greeks can only get back to the islands for a couple of days."

Tourism to Greece has not been unduly damaged by the economic crisis and refugee arrivals (except for islands like Samos, closest to the Turkish border, where tourism plunged by up to 50pc over the past two years). Athens and most islands are experiencing a significant and welcome increase in tourism to one of the world's enduring holiday destinations.

Celestyal Crystal's Eros lounge and bar
Celestyal Crystal's Eros lounge and bar

3 must-dos...

On Mykonos

Meander through labyrinthine laneways that conceal ritzy designer boutiques and spectacular galleries   to ‘Little Venice’ — whose balconies behind the homes of sea captains built on the rocks overhang the sea. A refreshing drenching from waves that jump the walls onto café terraces is assured.

On Samos

Take in the lushness of a green and fertile island that’s thick with wildflowers, including orchids — unlike drier spots of the Aegean. Around Pythagoreio, birthplace of Pythagoras, nature and World Heritage archaeology provide superb walks. Wine tasting is another unavoidable pleasure.

On Milos

Sail from Adamas or Pollonia for a day cruise around one of the most beautiful Greek islands to Kleftiko, Kimolos and other spots, exploring spectacular pirate sea caves, swimming in crystal-clear waters under vertical volcanic cliffs which have remote fishermen’s dwellings built into their sides.

When in Athens

Athens is more affordable than most other big European cities, but you score even bigger hotel discounts by avoiding the (uncomfortably hot) summer. If you plan on visiting the Acropolis, get there at the crack of dawn to dodge all the tourist hordes and selfie sticks.

Get there

Isabel travelled with Celestyal Cruises (celestyalcruises.com; +302104583400) on its three-day Iconic Aegean itinerary aboard the M.V. Celestyal Crystal. Departures in July and August start from £420/€485pp full board, including meals, drinks, on-board entertainment and two shore excursions.

Fly to Greece

Direct (seasonal) flight options from Dublin to Athens include Aer Lingus (aerlingus.com) Ryanair (ryanair.com) and Aegean Air (aegeanair.com).

For more to see and do in Greece, see visitgreece.gr.

Read more:

Amazing Azamara: Escape the cruise crowds on a floating boutique hotel

Irish Independent

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