Sam Ballard spends a few days in Athens, before joining Celestyal Cruises for a leisurely sail around the Aegean, and finds out how the country has undergone a resurgence
From idyllic, Instagram-perfect islands to world famous ancient sites and incredible cuisine, there is a lot to love about Greece. This year marks a decade since the country’s crippling debt crisis, and the resurgence has been incredible. In 2018, 3.6 million Brits arrived in Greece – a 9.6 per cent increase on 2017. Speak to locals and they say things are changing and people are moving back home. New restaurants are springing up in Athens and the islands are booming. The Aegean nation seems to be having a moment.
We start our Greek adventure in Athens. The Aegean capital often gets overlooked by tourists who are more interested in visiting the country’s more glamorous islands. However, a few days in the city pays dividends. We walk up to the Acropolis, the most important site in Ancient Greece; eat souvlaki in O Kostas, which has been knocking out the famous fast food for almost 70 years; and pop in to Melissinos, the poet sandal maker, where the styles are named after those chosen by famous past customers like The Beatles and Jackie O. We spend our time in Psyrri, just to the north of Plaka, the tourist hotspot. While there we drink wine in herteroclito, an organic wine bar; and eat at Ivis, a small restaurant on a vine covered back street. Whether it’s tapas – lots of bread, houmous, tomatoes and wine – or grilled meat, everything we eat is delicious. The hot weather and warm evenings make for perfect al fresco dining conditions.
We take a day trip out to Hydra – an island under two hours ferry ride away. Leonard Cohen bought a house here in 1960 and cars are banned. Two factors that made us want to see Hydra for ourselves. We walk around the pretty harbour and discover a rocky outpost where people idle away their day sunbathing and jumping in to the sea. We follow their lead and jump off the stone steps into the Aegean sea and paddle around before warming ourselves up by the rocks. After an hour or so we’re famished and head off to a small restaurant for a late lunch. It doesn’t get much better than this.
Athens has been great fun. Chaotic and slightly rough around the edges. It feels buzzy. And, while perhaps lacking the grandeur of some European cities, it is definitely a place I want to explore more. However, it is time to move to the next stage of our trip.
Our hosts for the next seven nights will be Celestyal Cruises, on board Celestyal Crystal. The ship can handle 1,200 guests and boasts an international clientele – although the feeling on board is most definitely Greek. The cruise offers incredible value, with a seven night sailing in the Mediterranean costing just £899. That includes booze, gratuities and even some shore excursions. While the ship was built in 1980, and does show its age a little, the service on board is impeccable. Entertainment is brilliantly bonkers, too. However, while the onboard offering is attractive, it is the itineraries which really make Celestyal stand out. Starting in Piraeus (Athens), we are due to call at Mykonos, Milos, Santorini and Kusadasi over the next week. We’ll be staying (very) late in ports like Mykonos, where we leave in the morning, and spending two days in Santorini – the cruise’s two most famous stops.
In Mykonos we step through the island’s party-goers and selfie-takers. It’s perfect for those who want to stay out late and make the most of the ship’s longer stay in port. However, it’s all a bit Love Island and we opt to take a trip to nearby Delos. The island was the mythological birthplace of Apollo and hasn’t been inhabited since ancient times. It’s now one of the best preserved ancient sites in Greece, where visitors can walk around houses with beautiful mosaic floors, wander the streets and look into shops including a butcher (identified by its marble table) and amphitheatre. The island hasn’t been inhabited for more than 2,000 years but is currently populated by Angel of the North sculptor Antony Gormley’s creations, as part of an exhibition.
In Milos we visit Sarakiniko Beach, which looks like the surface of the moon, and then take a boat trip out to Kleftiko where we swim among the caves and coves, which are said to have once been a pirates’ hideaway. It’s probably one of our favourite ports of call. Without an international airport it is harder to get to than Santorini and Mykonos and, as a result, is a bit of a gem.
In Santorini we embark on Celestyal’s included excursion to the village of Oia, along with the rest of the ship. Perched on the edge of a cliff, it is famous for its pretty streets, blue domed churches and incredible sunset views, which have made it extremely popular. We battle through the hoards along with passengers from MSC, Silversea and SeaDream – and, given we’re in Santorini for two days – wish the visit had been spread out across visiting ships. It’s best to make the most of the excursions, however, as the coach drops you off in Thera, the capital. As you are still high up on the cliff, the excursion includes a ticket for the cable car (which otherwise costs €6 each way) so it gives you a good chance to explore the town at your own pace without being stung.
Back on board and it’s hard not to get into the Aegean life. Dinners are long and the entertainment, which becomes more and more popular as the cruise continues, is weirdly addictive. At one point the dance troupe all don sheep heads in the middle of a routine and the crowd love it – perhaps it was lost in translation – but the atmosphere was brilliant. One criticism of the ship is that it could do with a decent bar – one that isn’t a lounge or Horizons, which is the domain of karaoke singers. There is also an outside pool, but the loungers are on the deck above. Again, it’s a small thing (especially with no sea days) but it would have been a good option to have.
Our final port of call is Kusadasi, in Turkey, which sits a short drive from Ephesus, the Unesco World Heritage Site. Arguably one of the most impressive ancient sites in the world, Ephesus is vast and includes the world famous Library of Celsus and huge amphitheatre. Religious scholars believe it was home to John the Apostle after the death of Jesus Christ – as well as the Virgin Mary. It’s a must see and Celestyal offers it for free to all passengers.
Our time in the Aegean has drawn to an end. We have been incredibly well looked after during our time on board – although you would expect nothing less from a region where hospitality is an art form. Greece does feel like it’s having a moment and there is no better way to enjoy it than on a cruise.