By Gerrie Summers
The state of the Greek economy, the ensuing strikes and street demonstrations, political uncertainty, debates over whether to keep the euro or return to the drachma, as well as negative news about cruise ships in the Mediterranean, might make travelers think twice about a Greek vacation. A cruise of the Greek islands, though, could change your mind and might be the best way to go. Armed with research, planning, and by taking a few precautionary measures; it could be a bargain — and a memorable trip.
The Louis Cruise Line’s M/V Cristal is a mid-sized ship perfect for cruising the Mediterranean, since it is able to enter the smaller island ports. The ship has been rebuilt and renamed a number of times before being bought in 2007 (as the MV Silja Opera) and was refurbished and renamed the M/V Cristal. The ship now has 480 staterooms and suites.
The set-up is much like other cruise ships; there are five restaurants on board—the main dining room (Caruzo), casual dining in Traviata and Rigoletto, (Rigoletto also the site of Thalassa private restaurant serving Greek cuisine, has an extra cover charge) La Scala (which serves buffet breakfast, a la carte lunch and open seating dining) and a poolside Pasta Bar. There’s an assortment of bars, and live entertainment in the Metropolitan Lounge and Rendezvous Lounge (the shows could use a bit of work), a casino and the Sana Spa and Beauty Salon.
You’ll also find the typical onboard trivia games and karaoke interspersed with Greek dance classes and Greek language lessons. Now I really understand where the phrase “it’s all Greek to me” comes from. The Greeks seemed to appreciate my efforts to speak the language — or maybe it was amusing. I’m sure I pronounced kalimera — “good morning” — as “calamari” more than once.
I was on an eight day cruise, leaving from Athens (Piraeus) and visiting Greek islands as well as ports in Turkey. Here are some of the highlights:
Most visitors to Athens will want to visit The Acropolis, a hill high above the city, on which rests the Parthenon, a temple dedicated to Greek goddess Athena. I didn’t get to tour The Acropolis, but did stop by the impressive New Acropolis Museum (the former museum was located on the top of The Acropolis), which holds sculptures and artifacts from The Acropolis and Parthenon. The Parthenon Gallery has a display of the frieze of the Parthenon created by Phidias. (Some are originals and others plaster casts obtained from the British Museum. The Greek government has been working toward the return of the sculptures and artifacts taken by Thomas Bruce, Earl of Elgin back in 1806, from an agreement with the Turkish government, but without much luck.)
This city was one of my favorites on the cruise, starting with view of the Bosporus from the bridge as the ship entered the port. Some places to visit: Blue Mosque – actually the Sultan Ahmed Mosque, but named the Blue Mosque because of the blue tiles along the walls of the interior; Hagia Sophia a former Orthodox patriarchal basilica, later a mosque and now a museum; Topkapi palace – the primary residence of the Ottoman sultans for 400 years; Basilica cistern a cathedral-sized Cistern “sunken palace,” the largest of several hundred ancient cisterns that lie beneath Istanbul and the site of films like the 1963 James Bond film From Russia With Love, and the Grand Bazaar, a bit overwhelming, but fun to navigate, especially if you love to shop and haggle.
Called “the pearl of the Aegean,” this 5,000-year-old city, one of the oldest in the Mediterranean and Turkey’s third largest city, was was once the ancient city of Smyrna. You can see remnants of the ancient city at the Izmir Agora Open Air Museum. Also stroll the Kordon, the city’s waterfront promenade, and visit Konak Square.
Mykonos is a gorgeous island with blue domed chapels, windmills and whitewashed buildings. Have dinner in one of the local restaurants near the waterfront (ROCA is a good choice) and watch the sunset.
This Turkish city is a popular holiday resort. Take an excursion to Ephesus, one of the 12 cities of Ionia (ancient Greek district on the west coast of Asia Minor) and see ruins of ancient shrines (one of the most famous, the temple to the goddess Artemis was one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World), public buildings, houses, streets, a theatre and churches. The Library of Celsus reminded me of the Treasury in Petra (Jordan).
This is the island of St. John the Divine and where he is said to have dictated the Book of Revelations in a cave in AD 95. Visit the fortified monastery, built in honor of St. John, where you can see frescoes, art objects, manuscripts and rare Christian books, some dating back to the 6th century, and a collection of 33 pages of the Gospel of St. Mark inscribed in 5th century purple vellum.
Known as “the island of the roses” Rhodes is one of the most popular resorts in the Mediterranean. It’s also famous for the Colossus of Rhodes, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. Erected to celebrate the victory over Persia, the 98-foot statue of the sun god Helios collapsed during an earthquake in 225 BC. Visit the Acropolis of Lindos, which was used as a fortress in antiquity. (The climb up steep stairways can be nerve-wracking on a windy day, but worth the visit to the archaeological site.)
Take a tour of the palace and kingdom of Knossos. This was the seat of the wise king Minos and where the legend of myth of the Labyrinth with the Minotaur was born. On the site are remnants of Minoan civilization, ruins of buildings, royal palaces, frescoes, ceramics and theatres.
Santorini is another one of my favorites of the Greek Islands. The blue-domed and whitewashed buildings are striking against a perfect blue sky. It is the largest island of a small, circular archipelago and the remnant of a volcanic caldera. The town of Thira with its narrow streets, open-air cafes, and boutiques on edge of steep cliffs is accessible by donkey or cable.
A Few Tips
A special option, depending on the itinerary, is that passengers can disembark in Santorini, stay a few nights, then fly back to Athens. Or you can sail from Athens to Mykonos, stay a few nights and then pick up the next cruise and continue along the itinerary. Check with the Louis Cruises (www.louiscruises.com) for more information.