The Times & The


It’s midday and we’re sailing serenely out of Piraeus just outside Athens, the hilltop Parthenon gleaming in the distance. Within an hour I’m listening to a bouzouki trio while I sample dolmades, artichokes and olives from the buffet on the sundeck.


By 6pm I’m strolling round the pretty, curved, bar-lined harbour of Ermoupolis on the island of Syros. Sipping a beer, I watch the sun go down over the ancient surrounds before ambling back to our ship, where it’s time for dinner and more Greek-inspired dishes.


It’s not your usual start to a cruise, where you head for the horizon, lucky if you get a port call the next day. However, a voyage on Celestyal Cruises is like no other in many respects.


Rather than pushing its sophistication, the ship has the relaxed ambience of a floating taverna, with the bars serving local beers, a range of regional firewaters and thick, sweet Greek coffee. Meanwhile, the schedule is more akin to that of an island-hopping holiday by ferry, often taking in two ports in a day.


Yet it’s far from rushed, the packed schedule conversely making the trip strangely laid-back. There’s the day that starts on a cool, beautiful dawn when, with a precision timing not normally associated with the southern Med, we dock in the Turkish seaside resort of Kusadasi. By 7.15am we’re outside for our coaches to the expansive Roman ruins of Ephesus, by 8am we’re at the gates. Our early, 90-minute walk through one of the Aegean’s mightiest sites, down marble roads and past huge stone columns, gives us an inspired, but unhurried overview before the crowds and the heat build up, without dragging into a tiring day out.


There’s a call at a carpet warehouse on the way back, lots of history and weaving and rug-tossing,before a spare half-hour to walk around Kusadasi’s bazaar. We’re back on board for lunch and a two-hour cruise to the isle of Samos (at its closest only a mile from the Turkish mainland across the Mycale Strait).

Once an important city state in the Greek Empire, Samos still trades on its reputation as a wine producer. Our afternoon excursion calls at the wine museum across the bay, an ancient stone winery and cellar where 20ft oak barrels are still used and where we taste the island’s rich, sweet, 15 per cent anthemis.


We also manage a paddle at the pretty town of Kokkari, then dart across to Pythagoreio, the birthplace of the mathematician Pythagoras, where we join the queue on the busy quayside to take photos in front of the triangular statue in his honour. Another day we call at the little hilly isle of Ios in the morning, then make picture-postcard Santorini for late afternoon. This is a casual whirlwind tour of the Aegean — over seven days we drop in at seven islands, two places in Turkey, and Lavrion on the Greek mainland. At the last port there’s a goodly changeover of guests because, while we’re on for seven nights, the cruise can be taken in three or four-night segments with lots of locals using it as a short break. There are a fair number of Brits on board, and entertainment and announcements are in Greek and English.


Both nationalities seem to love the lively, sun-drenched Greek atmosphere, joining in the “Dance Like A Greek” sessions and singing along, some more successfully than others, to the poolside band with its Zorba-like sounds. The staff tend to be largely Greek too, and our energetic housekeeper, Mily, bustles around with old-fashioned helpfulness.


I give the Olympic Games quiz and Greek language classes a miss, but I can’t resist the olive wreath-making lesson. Two charming women of a certain vintage, one wearing a toga-like dress, soon have us crowned like ancient Greeks; I feel a sense of achievement, even though it doesn’t involve much more than tying two ends of a twig together with white ribbon.


The ship’s restaurant has the quiet sophistication of a regular cruise ship and while the food is never cliché Greek, it has an elegant regional touch. There’s the “seafood symphony of the Aegean islands”, with ouzo, wild rice and lobster sauce, and the langoustine bisque with Metaxa brandy, plus small-batch olive oil on the tables.


There are also olive toiletries in the rooms, which are unassuming yet comfy in a pale, wood- trimmed way. Few have balconies, but it really doesn’t matter because by day we’re not at sea for more than a couple of hours and are mostly wandering around charming waterfronts — the ship’s small size and energetic schedule mean we can call at little ports where other ships can’t, dropping in at others when cruise-ship crowds have left. For example, we arrive at Mykonos at teatime and have a lovely walk through whitewashed alleys filled with bars and shops, watching the sun set as we stroll down from the hilltop windmill to go back on board.


The main entertainment each evening is an engaging dance and music extravaganza addressing themes such as Greek mythology and the Olympics in a riot of song (not least Demis Roussos numbers), Cirque du Soleil-like rope-swinging and the waving of chiffon scarves.


I watch from the bar while sipping a tentura, a thick, brown liqueur that could easily be an alcoholic Veno’s cough syrup, and watch as the evening ends with the crowd proving they really can dance like Greeks.Need to knowNick Dalton was the guest of Celestyal Cruises (00 30 216 40 09 999,, which has a seven-night Idyllic Aegean cruise from £858pp. The ships depart Pireaus weekly from July 3-August 21. Return British Airways flights from Heathrow to Athens are from £210.