From the crumbling Acropolis of Athens to the blue-tipped villas of Santorini and the unspoiled beaches of Rhodes, Greece is a destination of enduring appeal. With 6,000 islands in total, scattered across the Aegean and Ionian seas, and divided into groups including the Cyclades, Dodecanese and Sporades, there’s enough to keep you exploring for a lifetime. These islands, which range from Alonnisos (130 sq km) to Crete (8,336 sq km), make up almost half of the country’s near 14,000 km coastline. Greece is thus a sun-worshipper’s paradise, but there’s much more to the country than its beaches: Athens is a fascinating, chaotic but brilliant city where ancient monuments and modern life mix through al fresco dining, art and a lively café culture, while each of the country’s 227 inhabited islands boast charms of their own.
“Greece is one of the world’s most beloved destinations, because it provides beautiful yet diverse nature as well as culturally fascinating places,” says Kyriakos ‘Kerry’ Anastassiadis, CEO of Celestyal Cruises, which is based in Cyprus and specialises in Greek cruises.
“We combine Greece’s iconic ‘greatest hits’ such as Athens and Mykonos and Santorini, with idyllic hidden marvels like Milos, with its volcanic landscapes, and evergreen Samos and its azure waters,” says Anastassiadis.
“Our medium-size ships allow us to visit destinations that others cannot, while our service and onboard experience is exemplary. The Aegean is our home and our mission is to broaden the portfolio of destinations, increase the diversity of itineraries and give our passengers the unique opportunity to discover these unknown treasures.”
While most cruise lines will call at least one Greek port (such as Mykonos or Crete) on an Eastern Mediterranean itinerary, Celestyal dedicates entire cruises to exploring islands, spending a little amount of time in each port, allowing guests to explore more of the region (its Iconic Aegean cruise takes in six ports in just three days, for example).
Greece is one of the world’s most beloved destinations, because it provides beautiful yet diverse nature
Similarly, Variety, which operates far smaller ships than Celestyal (Celestyal Crystal holds 2,000 guests compared to Variety Voyager’s 72), focuses on the islands, most of them outside of the standard tourist trail. Its Jewels of the Cyclades starts and ends in Athens, taking in the likes of Poros, Poliegos, Folegandros and Antiparos among the better known stops of Santorini, Mykonos and Syros. Pick any of these islands – such as Folegandros, with the quaint hilltop village of Chora, or the uninhabited, beguiling Poliegos – and you’re likely to be delighted.
Seabourn and Azamara, which operate similarly-sized ships (Azamara Quest holds 686 guests; Seabourn Encore 604), also take a more in-depth look at the islands, calling at some of the better-known destinations, such as Santorini, perhaps the most celebrated of the Greek islands.
While best known for its famous villas (and the white church with a blue dome overlooking the sea), the island is of great geological interest. It was destroyed by volcanic eruption in the 16th century BC, which helped create its steep banks and majestic underwater caldera. Many cruise lines offer an excursion to the excavation of Akrotiri, an ancient shing village discovered under a mountain of volcanic ash.
Crete, Greece’s largest island, is one the most popular destinations in the world for British holidaymakers, and is home to Chania and Heraklion, both of which are called at by well-known cruise lines. From the former is the chance to visit the 4,000-year-old Minoan ruins at Knossos.
Piraeus, the port that links to Athens, is unsurprisingly a regular call on both Greek island cruises and itineraries that explore the wider Mediterranean. Like Barcelona, Civitavecchia (Rome) and Venice, it’s a port of call many itineraries begin or end in – be it Princess, Viking or Oceania.
Prior to the Olympics in 2004, the city was notoriously difficult to navigate with a transport system not befittting of a capital. Much of that has now changed and getting to and from the port – as well as to the key sights – is easy. No trip is complete without taking in the Parthenon, Acropolis and Theatre of Dionysos, which is why an overnight here is more important than on the Greek islands. The ancient may grab your attention, but the modern is not to be overlooked. Recession may have hit the country hard, but the capital remains a fun place to be (it’s undoubtedly a party city) with great, wholesome and unpretentious food to boot.