A great value Greek islands cruise proves to be a smash hit for Sara Macefield and her family

Oia, a coastal town on the northwestern tip of Santorini, Greece, with whitewashed houses carved into the cliffs

The spectacular seascape of towering snowy white cliffs, rugged caves and roughly hewn archways sculpted by the glittering waters of the Aegean Sea was too beautiful to resist. As our tour boat dropped anchor off the coast of the unspoilt Greek isle of Milos, I was one of the first to plunge into the shimmering aquamarine depths, revelling in the balmy gin clear waters that gave me the feeling of swimming in paradise.

But as I struck out towards the rocky shore, I couldn’t shake off an eerie sensation of being watched. Maybe it was the spirits of the pirates who in centuries past used to skulk among the nooks and crannies of the craggy coastline or the first Miloans who called this island home as far back as 7000 BC, but no; I was being observed by a modern-day resident. Standing silently in the cool shade of a high rocky ledge was a Chamois goat, one of the many that roam these Cyclades Islands, all shaggy coat and horns, guarding its young kid resting nearby and gazing impassively at the shrieking bunch of tourists splashing around in the cobalt waters below. It remained there, statue-like, watching as we sailed back towards the sleepy harbour town of Adamantas where we’d arrived earlier aboard Greek line Celestyal Cruises during a one-week sailing through the Greek islands.

Milos was only our second stop since we’d departed from the busy port of Piraeus, near Athens a few days earlier. The cruise had started in lively style at party isle of Mykonos where our ship Celestyal Crystal was one of the few to moor overnight.

We’d spent the day wandering along the maze of cobbled streets through Mykonos Town meandering between immaculate white-washed houses with trademark blue doors. Chic boutiques showcasing designer brands like Cartier and Louis Vuitton amid the latest
on-trend styles reflecting the flavour of the buzzing resort, but it was in the evening that this Greek answer to St Tropez really came into its own, with a jumping party atmosphere as the crowds came out to play.

The vibe may have been trendy, as the streets thronged with hip young couples and singletons, but there was a real family feel too in the bustling fish restaurants and buzzing bars.

Having already enjoyed dinner on the ship, with our 15-year-old twin daughters, Dani and Holly, we headed for a cocktail bar that promised romantic sea views from its first-floor balcony. We triumphantly bagged a prime-view table overlooking moonlit waters. Alas, our feelings of elation were short-lived as the bill arrived for our two cocktails and one smoothie (we had persuaded Dani and Holly to share) which came to an eye-watering £42 (47 euros).

This achingly hip resort may look and feel good, but such style clearly comes at a price, though it did make us appreciate the all-inclusive drinks on board Celestyal Crystal even more.

Our next overnight stop, Santorini, offered breathtaking views from its capital Fira over the flooded caldera, where our ship was now moored. The caldera, a large cauldron-like hollow created by the evacuation of the magma chamber of the volcano, was formed nearly 4,000 years ago after one of the biggest volcanic explosions of all time.

The vista from below was pretty mesmerising too, especially from the open bar on the back deck of our ship where we sat until the early hours enjoying cocktails al fresco while the lights of Fira twinkled more than 1,300ft above us.

We didn’t miss out on local culture when we returned to Crystal for our nightcap, because Celestyal ships showcase their Hellenic heritage with Grecian touches, which give the cruise a refreshingly different flavour.

The constant diet of pop played on other lines was replaced by the distinctive harmonious lilt of bouzouki music and there were even Greek dancing lessons for passengers inspired by a visiting troop of Cretan performers whose nimble display was full of impressively energetic leaping and foot-slapping.

Greek cuisine also brought an extra taste to the delicious culinary line-up in the main restaurants, where I enjoyed possibly the best moussaka I’ve ever tasted and unfamiliar specialities like cheese saganaki (fried Kefalotiri cheese served with lemon and honey) which was wonderful and served with a little Greek flag to denote its lineage.

But there were plenty of international alternatives too with soups, salads, and fish, plus grilled and roasted meats.

While Celestyal Crystal’s two small buffet restaurants may not be able to compete with the size and selection of their counterparts on larger ships, the choice was always reasonable and dishes were kept piping hot, while a Chef’s Corner by the pool served freshly-cooked pasta, stir fries and tasty tacos.

Perfect views from the cocktail bar on board Crystal

Entertainment was similarly Grecian themed and again, while the Muses show lounge was smaller than theatres on newer ships, the productions were imaginative with engaging original touches.

We particularly enjoyed a clever production inspired by Greece’s mythological heritage that was full of Greek gods, while a circus-themed performance impressed with the high standard of fantastic singing and extraordinary acrobatics.

As the week progressed, I couldn’t help thinking what excellent value for money Celestyal was, especially for families. With most drinks included in the price along with gratuities and three excursions, we barely needed to put our hands in our pockets.

Even the Sana Spa (Greek, of course) was a haven of sybaritic value with scrubs and wraps from £53 (60 euros) and facials from £58 (65 euros), plus a host of special offers.

But the clincher was a 50 percent discount promotion that sent me racing through its doors for an Aegean Wind body scrub of olive oil and Cretan sea salt. It was deliciously relaxing and cost just £26 (30 euros). Even better, there was no hard sell or expectation of a gratuity that you often get in cruise ship spas.

Our cabin was spacious and everything was kept spotlessly clean throughout the entire ship.

The layout of this 1,200-passenger ship was slightly quirky too, with just one swimming pool located under a retractable roof by the Helios Bar on Deck 9, and the surrounding deck area was largely used for dining, so there were no deck beds. Sunbathers had to climb up to the next deck where there was limited space. However, these were small concerns about a ship that we instantly felt comfortable on and we relished the relaxed ambience, which made us feel at home. Another novelty was the blend of passengers. There were only a few Brits, but lots of Aussies, Americans, Greeks and Spanish, adding to a refreshing international mix of couples and families.

Mykonos

Yet the unmistakeable calling card of this cruise was Greek, reflected in a stop at Crete’s capital where we joined our included tour to the 4,000-year-old ruins of Knossos, the largest Bronze Age archaeological site on Crete. It was superbly organised to ensure we were the first arrivals of the day, avoiding the worst of the queues and rapidly rising temperatures under the blazing sunshine.

Our final stop at Kuşadasi the following morning injected plenty of Turkish delight for our young daughters. We opted out of the tour to the ancient city of Ephesus, preferring instead to spend our final day on the beach and browsing the many bazaars, sending Dani and Holly into a shopping frenzy. We came away with armfuls of exciting and interesting purchases, and lots of bargains. It was a fitting finale to a cruise that had been an unquestionable Greek triumph, the only tragedy was that we had to go home at the end. 

GETTING THERE

A seven-night Idyllic Aegean round-trip from Athens (Piraeus), calling at Mykonos, Milos, Santorini, Crete and Kuşadasi. Departs various dates with 2019 prices starting at £1,099pp, including flights, drinks package, shore excursions and gratuities
(02392 809949; planetcruise.com/celestyal-cruises).

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