Exploring the Ancient World on a Celestyal Cruise
By Bobbie Leigh
The tony celebrity islands in the Aegean are beyond stunning. The rolling hills, cubist architecture, and white sand beaches are unlike anything you have ever seen. Keep in mind that Homer had it all wrong in the Odyssey. These are not wine-dark seas. In fact, they are a brilliant cerulean blue.
Some of these islands are playgrounds for oligarchs and celebrities, but for the rest of us they have a distinct elegance and ambiance. More important, to visit these islands is to be swept away by their ancient civilizations and you don’t have to cash in gilt-edged securities to enjoy them. A best bet for value, comfort, and well-chosen destinations is a seven-day Celestyal cruise, which gives you ample time to explore five islands. The cruise is delightfully all-expenses paid. On board, drinks, coffees (endless cappuccinos and lattes), snacks and ice cream are included as well as all meals. Even gratuities are included. What’s more, no one will hound you to go to the spa, shop, or gambling casino. The final price is the price of your ticket unless you opt for a few extras. That said, a visit to the spa is worthwhile.
This Greek line offers not just value, but pleasing accommodations, several restaurants, quiet places to read, and what probably is the friendliest staff afloat. Add to that every single excursion is meticulously planned. Afternoons at private beach resorts with impeccable seafood restaurants are available but not included.
Still, your best memories may not be of sandy beaches, but of Bronze Age cities, palaces, and ports which dot the islands. Guided by knowledgeable guides, you learn how sophisticated these ancient civilizations were. Homes of wealthy merchants were undoubtedly luxurious with mosaic floors and magnificent wall frescoes. Some ancient settlements even had water and waste management systems that any third world country would envy.
The most extensive archaeological site we visited was Akrotiri, dating from the second millennium BC. It was abandoned due to powerful earthquakes followed by the enormous eruption of the Thera volcano, estimated to have taken place in 17th century BC. Perhaps the equivalent of 40 atomic bombs, and at least 100 times more powerful than the explosion at Pompei in 67 AD, it is still considered the most catastrophic event in human history. Like Pompei, the town was buried in a blanket of ash and pumice. Consequently, many of the buildings, storage vases, and decorative elements were buried for centuries. Now, after extensive excavations still ongoing, the pre-historic city of Akrotiri is one huge archaeological site protected by a modern roof. Visitors follow a series of walkways, inspecting what must have been multi-story buildings with stairs, doors, and windows. You have to let your imagination swing free as your guide explains that no bodies (unlike Pompei) were found here. The earthquakes warned the city’s inhabitants who rowed or sailed off speedily in their ships. Only one gold object was found suggesting an orderly evacuation. In spite of the early warnings, it’s likely no one escaped as a huge tsunami destroyed everything on land and sea.
The gods must have been watching over the early inhabitants of the wind-swept, bone dry island of Delos, another archaeological site we visited, which was once a center of free trade and a thriving city of some 30,000 people. For ancient Greeks, this small rocky island was a sacred place as Apollo and Artemis were supposedly born there. The town was first settled around 2500 BC, became a metropolis reaching its peak after 167 BC. Delos was the principal market for grain and slaves in the eastern Mediterranean. Excavations revealed a typical agora and Roman “sacred way,” a hippodrome, a theater, various sanctuaries and statues to the gods, a slave market, even a synagogue which was too far away to visit. One of the most fascinating discoveries was a bank. It is lined with shelves where bankers kept oil lamps as they often worked through the night rectifying accounts among all the different currencies of the islands. Another is the theater district built around the second century BC. Performances were supposedly in many languages to appeal to the foreigners who came to live there in opulent houses with courtyards and mosaic floors in lively colors. A small museum preserves the most sacred objects and statues.
The six-day odyssey aboard the Celestyal Crystal also includes guided tours to the Minoan palace of Knossos in Crete. This vast palace of King Minos was a labyrinth with some 1500 rooms, frescoed walls, running water, and flush toilets. The Minoan royals had their own ensuite bathrooms which were strikingly unknown even in Versailles in its heyday.
Ephesus in Kusadasi, Turkey, another historical site we visited, is mostly known as an Ionian Greek City. Probably first inhabited at the end of the Bronze Age. It evolved into an important Asian center and by the 2nd century BC, was known for its intellectual leadership. Not surprising, the most impressive structure still standing is the Celsus Library, completed around 117 AD. The library, at the end of a long marble road was a repository of more than 12,000 scrolls. It was considered one of the most iconic buildings in the Roman Empire.
Celestyal Cruises is known for introducing passengers to the beauty and history of the Cycladic islands yet there is still ample time for beach life, to mingle and talk with locals and browse around the shops. Low-key and unassuming, this is a cruise for those who chafe at pretensions. On board, a welcoming staff is ready to help you enjoy your stay any way they can. Unless you rely on ferries or charter a vessel to visit the islands, a Celestyal cruise is the ideal way to explore an ancient world and still see some of the tony spots that honeymooners rave about.
For details: Celestyalcruises.com
Bobbie Leigh has written for many national publications including The Wall Street Journal, Travel & Leisure, and Departures. Currently she is a New York correspondent for Art & Antiques.