Cruising the Greek islands: an everlasting feeling of beauty and serenity- Part one – World Meanderings (n°26)
By Annick Dournes & Frederic de Poligny
We all have in mind the distressing images of the thousands of migrants disembarking on the Greek shores last year and early this year. It was a dire humanitarian situation for these poor people but also a costly burden for the local people. Many of them didn’t spare their effort or time to help the migrants fleeing from their homeland while the locale touristic activity collapsed depriving them of their main source of income.
Frédéric and I wondered how things developed several months later and how it would be like to visit the Aegean Islands. Names such as Samos, Mykonos, Santorin or Kos still create dreams and we soon realised that the best way to discover or rediscover as many islands as possible in a short amount of time was to go for a boat cruise around the Aegean Sea. No need to pack and unpack at each stop, no need to take a different ferryboat to go from one island to the other, no need to look for a restaurant for each and every meal! Among the many boat companies and itineraries available we chose a 7-day cruise called “Idyllic Aegean” proposed by Celestyal Cruises, a Greek cruise company. In seven days the liner calls in at ten different places: plenty to do, plenty to see while enjoying all the ship’s amenities and entertainments when sailing between two islands. Who could ask for more?
Celestyal Cruises proposes its guests to visit more Greek ports than any other cruise company and they have a wide range of cruises. For 30 years it never stopped innovating and has repeatedly been awarded for its “savoir faire”. They purposely have medium sized vessels where the traveller doesn’t get the unpleasant feeling of being one of many as it sometimes happens on the enormous liners that host thousands of tourists. The crew is friendly and within a few days many members of the staff will recognize you, making you feel at home in the restaurants and bars or when participating in recreational activities.
On our first day we had to take an early flight to Athens in order to be on time at Lavrion, a port near Athens from where the “Celestial Crystal”, our cruise boat, leaves at 1 pm. But of course you can also fly to Athens a few days in advance if you want to see the Acropolis. We had a private transfer from the airport to the port and it took us only 40 min to get there. A welcoming team was waiting for us and for all the other passengers getting on board here. There are actually passengers starting or finishing their cruise at every stop of the boat’s itinerary. This is a smart way set by Celestial Cruises to do things, since all the passengers won’t have to embark or disembark at the same time and we didn’t have to queue for a long time before getting on board. We were each given a nominative card that is both a key for our cabin and a credit card used for any extra we could need on board: drinks, spa, shopping, excursion fees…
The “Idyllic Aegean” cruise is a mix of varied excursions to visit ancient sites, to sunbath and swim on sandy beaches, to discover picturesque villages and Greek landscapes and to enjoy the nightlife of trendy resorts. Most of the time the ship sails at night and so most of the daytime is dedicated to visits. All the excursions are optional and you may choose to discover an island on your own or to join a guided tour, but you might as well stay on board where the entertainment team will keep you busy or just relax on one of the sun deck and swim in the small pool of the boat. Thus each passenger builds his or her own cruise. Full board is included for all passengers but drinks are extra: you can pay for each drink or choose one of the three all-inclusive and unlimited drink packages (you can pre-purchase one when booking your cruise: the non-alcoholic package, the non-alcoholic and alcoholic package and the premium package with premium brands, all details on the company website).
We found our way to our cabin, one of the 480 cabins of the ship. All the cabins whether inside or outside ones, are quiet large compared with the usual standards of cruise cabins with two lower beds or one queen bed and room enough to easily move around them. Soundproofing is efficient and we were able to enjoy quiet and resting nights.
Our luggage was quickly delivered to our door but we had no time to unpack! All new passengers must attend an emergency exercise: wearing a bulky life jacket we joined our fellow newcomers on one of the deck. Women and children first! Paying more or less attention to the crew’s explanation, most of us were busy taking pictures or selfies to immortalized this moment of useful ridiculousness!
We were finally allowed to go and get a well-deserved lunch while the vessel was slowly and majestically leaving Lavrion port. We had lunch in one of the three restaurants on board enjoying the view of the shore slowly drifting away. As the vessel proceeds across the Aegean Sea towards Mykonos Island all the newcomers were invited to a guided visit of the ship. It takes some time to find one’s way through the 8 decks of the boat open to the passengers. From deck 3 to deck 7 there are mostly cabins, except for the Olympus restaurant on deck 5, the medical centre on deck 4 and for the big bridge on deck seven from where the captain and his crew lead the boat. The 3 upper decks are the liveliest on board with two other restaurants, the reception, the shore excursion office, the pool and the pool bar, the casino, two other bars, the disco, the wellness centre, the sauna, the hairdresser, the sauna and Jacuzzi and the theatre where dancers and singers entertain the passengers every night.
We arrived in Mykonos at 6:30 pm and since the Celestyal Crystal would leave at 11:30pm, we had plenty of time to discover Chora, the capital village of the island. Mykonos probably is the most famous island of the Cyclades and has lured celebrities and jetsetters sine the 1970’s thus becoming the place to be for partygoers and nightlife lovers from all over the world. If tourism saved the local economy, the 400,000 or so tourists who invade the island every summer obviously transformed it. Chora’s maze of small streets is full of people and lined with luxury shops, lively bars and elegant restaurants.
In spite of all these changes Mykonos hasn’t lost its soul and being there you know at once that you came to an genuine Greek island with its clear blue sea, its dazzling white houses and their blue shutters, its dozens of churches and its windmills. There are countless churches in Mykonos and you will find one on almost each street corner in Chora, even in the most touristic part of it. The Panaghia Paraportiani church is the most famous one of them all.
Made from the assembling of 5 different churches built during the 17th and 18th centuries. Believe me you won’t be the only tourist to make a picture of its crooked silhouette facing the deep blue sea. Another “postcard” like picture in Mykonos is the five tall windmills lined on top of a low hill that attract tourists like a magnet. Unmistakable!
All passengers can go back on board the Celestyal Crystal to have dinner or stay in Chora and make the most of it. We opted for a tasty and typical Greek meal at Leto, a hotel and restaurant on the seafront, seated at an outside table next to the beautiful swimming pool. Fortunately we had our swimsuits on and were able to get a welcomed cool bath! ; www.letohotel.com
By 11 pm it was high time to get back on board. Time is time, and the ship never waits for latecomers!
Next week we will continue our cruise through the Aegean Sea. Join us to discover Ephesus, Samos, Milos… and many other exciting places. See you next Thursday!
For more information about the Celestyal Cruises company, its vessels and its itineraries ; http://www.celestyalcruises.uk/en
Text © Annick Dournes
Photos © Frederic de Poligny