The Aegean Cruise that Leaves no Stone Unturned


"Good morning people! How are we all feeling today?" 


Ion, the irrepressible assistant cruise director, was dancing his way across the main lobby of the ship towards our small group. 


It was 7am and we were waiting to board one of the cruise ship’s tender boats to Rhodes. My muscles ached, and judging by my companions’ slumped postures, I wasn’t the only one. Two days before, MS Olympia had sailed out of Piraeus in Athens, putting in at Mykonos a couple of hours later.


Feeling energetic, we trod the narrow streets of the whitewashed main town, Chora, and supped cocktails in an area called Little Venice, then wandered up to view the island’s iconic ancient windmills and dined at a local restaurant before heading back to the ship. 


Celestyal Cruises’ mission is to bring a taste of Greece to its passengers – something it does with gusto. Sailing is largely at night, leaving plenty of time for cruisers to immerse themselves in Greece’s picturesque ports. 


And while on board, the 1,600 or so passengers – mostly western Europeans (including a good number of Greeks) but also Americans and Japanese – can join classes in Greek cooking and dancing, familiarise themselves with the language, attend wine tastings, join in quizzes on Greek mythology and tap into the region’s fascinating history, via lectures.

In the evenings traditional Greek music is played in the Muses Lounge, where ouzo is in good supply and circulating waiters ensure no guest is without a drink. Before long most are on the dance floor, raucously and clumsily attempting to perform Zorba’s dance from the film Zorba the Greek, which is played every night without fail. On occasion passengers take the Hellenistic immersion a step too far… and so it was that, none too fresh from a night of ouzo and Zorba, we waited for the boat to Rhodes.


All this might sound as if Celestyal presses Greek culture on its guests with aggressive exuberance, but that’s certainly not the case. You are free to choose where to go and what to do, as with any other cruise. 


On-board distractions take second place to the on-shore experience. Our Iconic Aegean itinerary didn’t rack up too many miles (cruises are between three and seven days) but it certainly packed in a lot of destinations. 


There is a fitness centre and spa, but during the limited hours of daylight sailing most passengers found their way to the top deck, where a small pool, bar and deck chairs met the needs of many until arrival at the next port. 


Celestyal sits comfortably in the mid-range bracket. Cabins on Olympia are comfortable enough, with flat-screen TVs and minibar, but even the top-end suites –although slightly larger and with balconies – are relatively basic.


Mealtimes involved abundant quantities of grilled meat, moussaka, baklava and all manner of seafood. I overheard one guest complain about the lack of American food on offer; doubtless he later found the buffet on the top deck, where more pedestrian fare – burgers, chips and the like – was served at the Aura Grill.


Drinks cost extra, although passengers can opt for the standard or, new this season, “gold” all-inclusive drinks package including Greek wines, premium spirits and branded soft drinks, from £27 per day.


With Celestyal having operated in and around the region since the Eighties, it is fair to say that, when it comes to small-ship cruising in Greece, this is its “patch”. On our second morning we boarded our tender for Kusadasi, on the Turkish Riviera. From there it’s a short hop to the ancient city of Ephesus, home to one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, the Temple of Artemis. The temple is all but gone, but the Great Theatre and facade of the Library of Celsus were breathtaking. 


Stopping for a quick shopping spree in Kusadasi’s bazaar, we were back on the ship by midday and on the Greek island of Patmos by 4pm. Here, we toured the serene Monastery of Saint John, which houses an impressive collection of Orthodox Christian icons, before making our way to the Cave of the Apocalypse, where John is reputed to have seen the visions he described in the Book of Revelation.  


On Rhodes, where the day’s heat intensified my headache, we were saved by our guide Michael (at every port a Celestyal-approved guide was ready to whisk us off on a tour of the local attractions), who, with wit and humour, got us through a morning of sightseeing; at least so that we felt we had done our duty by Rhodes and its eclectic assortment of European and Ottoman architecture. The afternoon was spent on the beach at St Paul’s Bay in Lindos. 


The final day of our cruise saw us arrive early at Heraklion, Crete’s main town, for a whistle-stop excursion to the ruins of Knossos, Europe’s oldest city and centre of the ancient Minoan civilisation. Again, we were back on board by midday, bound for our final and, arguably, most exciting port. 


Perched on the edge of a caldera, Santorini is surely the most recognisable of the Greek islands, and as we sailed towards it there was a palpable sense on board that this was the part of the trip we had all been waiting for.  


After a short visit to the hilltop Prophet Elias Monastery, which commands stunning views of the island, we headed to the town of Oia, resplendent in its blue and white Cycladic architecture. 


Taking the clanking cable car down to the harbour, we were back on the ship in time to watch the Santorini sunset, its brilliant orange light flooding the caldera and drenching the island’s whitewashed houses. Celestyal had shown us the Aegean at its best and most beautiful. 

- Editor, Source -

Tom Mulvihill,