Travel: Aegean Islands cruise
As Mamma Mia fever grips us once more, the Greek islands have seldom been more alluring. But where to go? The night-time buzz and excitement of party island Mykonos, the magical sunsets and lunar landscapes of Milos, or the volcanic beaches and clifftop villages of Santorini? Well I get to experience the lot during a week-long cruise around the Aegean Sea which takes in all of these destinations and more
I travel on board Greek firm Celestyal’s mid-sized liner, the Crystal, which departs from Athens. It takes a maximum of 1,200 passengers and boasts a number of bars, restaurants and shops, as well as a disco, performance arena, swimming pool and sun deck.
My cabin is basic but cosy, with two single beds and shower room, but Celestyal’s Greek heritage means the emphasis is heavily on the destination stops.
Our first is Mykonos, where we’re whisked off on a short boat ride to the nearby island of Delos, one of Greece’s most historic sites. The excavations here are breathtaking and include the three temples of Apollo, who according to mythology was born on the island, as well as the avenue of the lions. All that culture in temperatures topping 30C can be hard work so we opt for a bit of downtime by the sea. Ornos beach on the south-side of the island is a 15-minute taxi ride away, but worth it to soak up the relaxed vibe. I enjoy a salad and calamari at the Kuzina restaurant which faces out to this beautiful little cove enclosed by gently sloping cliffs, dotted with whitewashed villas. Then it’s time to get wet in the warm waters, before drying off in the baking heat. Just don’t forget that factor 50 – it really does get hot.
A night out in Mykonos Town takes us on a winding stroll around the maze of stone streets with swanky bars, restaurants and boutique shops. It’s easy to see why this island has become the place to be in the Aegean. We settle down for a cocktail in the Little Venice area on the shorefront and watch the world go by as waves crash against the harbour. I take breakfast next morning in the ship’s Leda buffet, which has a wide choice of cooked breakfast staples, as well as cereals, fruits, yoghurts, salads and porridge. A separate buffet room also serves breakfast, as well as a formal restaurant with table service.
The ship docks in Milos early afternoon and we’re whisked off for a boat trip along the southern coast of the island before reaching the former pirate lair of Kleftiko, a stunning inlet of rocks and caves amid pristine waters. We drop anchor and spend the best part of an hour swimming through the caves. The contrast could not be more stark with the north coast and its lunar-like landscapes of Sarakiniko Beach. The white volcanic rock has been forged by thousands of years of winds and waves to create a glorious backdrop. A memorable day is rounded off with a trip to the picturesque hilltop village of Plaka to join hundreds gathering on the terrace of Korfiatissa Church to take in a breathtaking sunset.
Next morning, we’re in Santorini and head off to the remains of the lost city of Akrotiri. This site was only rediscovered in 1967 after being engulfed in the volcanic blast which struck the western chunk of the island. The inhabitants of this city built two- and three-storey houses, with early plumbing, banks and crops. They were so advanced that legend has it this could be the lost city of Atlantis.
Next, it’s off to Perissa beach on the island’s south-east coast for a spot of lunch then a few hours lounging on the black volcanic sands and cooling off in the sea. The curved west coast of Santorini is dominated by the dormant volcano which sits in the middle of the Calderon, the bay where the cruise ships dock. It’s a stunning vista from the clifftop village of Oia where we have dinner on the terrace of the Red Bicycle restaurant, while another sunset fades behind us.
Every day feels like a new adventure with so many destinations crammed into the ship’s week-long itinerary. Getting onshore seems the obvious way to make the most of this, but some passengers seem content to spend the odd lazy day on the ship. A full itinerary of daily events is provided to keep passengers occupied, including cooking lessons, Wii games and general knowledge quizzes. The on-board entertainment team also offer dancing classes, ahead of nightly performances in the Muses lounge/theatre where dance spectaculars are themed around acrobat shows, musicals and the world of mythology.
The most southerly port of call is Crete and a visit to Knossos Palace on the outskirts of the capital Heraklion. This was the base of Europe’s first great civilisation, the Minoans. Walking around this vast site, with its labyrinthine paths and compartments, it’s easy to see why it’s believed that the legend of the Minotaur was born here. Then it’s off to Kokkini Hani where we enjoy a delicious baked fish fresh off the boat at To Kyma Taverna bar on the sea front.
Our final stop in Turkey’s Kusadasi takes us to the Ancient Roman city of Ephesus dating to the 10th century BC. The scale of this place is colossal and includes a temple to the same Emperor Hadrian whose wall once divided Scotland from England, as well as the Grand Celsus Library with its dramatic facade of 16 columns. The Great Theatre once hosted crowds of 25,000 for performances and has been revived as a venue in recent years for stars like Elton John and Sting. Shoppers can visit the covered Bazaar of Kusadasi, a short walk from the port – just be prepared to haggle. A surprise stop in nearby Samos breaks up our final night journey back to Athens. Just time for one last cocktail on the waterfront as the turquoise Aegean waters disappear into the horizon, a lasting snapshot of this magical Greek adventure.