There’s plenty of opa!, delicious cuisine and culture as Becky Wiggins joins a Celestyal mini-cruise

The old harbor of Ammoudi under the famous village of Oia at Santorini, Greece
The old harbor of Ammoudi under the famous village of Oia at Santorini, Greece

Wandering a narrow, whitewashed street on the seahorse-shaped island of Patmos, stopping occasionally to pop in to tiny shops filled with handmade jewellery and bright, local pottery, I’m intoxicated by the floral scent of the warm breeze and more than a little enchanted by the sweet local cats, tumbling together in the shade.

My attention is caught by a lovely terrace, where bright blue chairs and tables have been placed to make the most of the shade. As I lean in to look a little closer, I realise that what I thought was a climbing plant inches from my nose is actually a gangly octopus, hung out to dry in the sun.

Our guide laughs as I jump backwards and says ‘dinner’. I’m beginning to realise that this weekend break might be a bit different.

My Aegean weekend began in Athens, where Celestyal Olympia slipped smoothly out of the port of Piraeus and off to the first of our five Aegean ports of call: glamorous Mykonos, where we were docked by the early afternoon, taking tender boats to the shore. We settled at a café, washed with the glow of the peachy sun setting over the island’s iconic windmills right on the water’s edge, enjoying a lazy dinner and drinks. Back on board, we sipped a cocktail in the Horizon bar, perched high above the twinkling ship as we set sail for the Turkish coast. As first days go, this was going to take a lot of beating.

Library of Celsus at Ephesus
Library of Celsus at Ephesus

The next morning, we arrived early in Kuşadasi, disembarking for our chosen excursion to the jaw-dropping ancient city of Ephesus, one of the seven wonders of the ancient world (two excursions are included in the price). Our brilliant tour guide was funny and informative, explaining what life was like for the inhabitants of this incredible city, where the wealthy occupants enjoyed luxuries way before their time, including clever forms of heating and hot water. The honey-coloured stone was bathed in sunshine and the discoveries were fascinating, from the well-preserved two-storey Library of Celsus to mosaics and intricate marble wallcoverings and even ancient graffiti. We received an entertaining, warts and all idea of what life was like in the kingdom, complete with the perfectly preserved public latrines and brothel.

On Celestyal Olympia the atmosphere is friendly and relaxed. Drinks including cocktails, wine and beer are included as well as the addictive iced frappé coffee served at the pool bar. A wide range of breakfast options is served in the Aegean Restaurant, or there’s a quick buffet breakfast available in the Leda Buffet on deck 9. Lunch is buffet style or table service and the cuisine in the Aegean Restaurant is some of the best I’ve tasted, focusing on authentic Greek cuisine with a twist. The menu features incredible fresh salads, delicious Aegean fish and seafood, grilled meats and elegant versions of Greek classics like moussaka, plus a very creative range of veggie and gluten free options. On two evenings, we dined on the deck, feasting on a sumptuous Greek barbecue.

Out on deck, there’s a fun mix of Zumba classes, live music and cocktails by the pool, but if that’s not your thing there’s always a quiet corner – whether you want to read, or sip a drink in one of the seven bars. The daily programme features a wide range of options, including Greek lessons, quizzes and even dance classes. Evening entertainment is great quality and the two shows we saw were dazzling, with slick performances reflecting Greek mythology and tradition, and ending in true Greek style with a massive knees-up. Opa!

The spa and gym are both small but efficient. One afternoon between ports, I had a wonderful, traditional massage using Greek olive oil.

In Patmos, we visited the Cave of the Apocalypse, a gloomy cave hung with glittering icons and lamps, where John the Evangelist is said to have had the visions which became the book of Revelations, the last book of the New Testament. This was followed by a steep walk to the opulent 10th-century monastery, richly decorated with frescoes and filled with ancient religious artefacts, declared a UNESCO World Heritage site in 1999.

Our next early call was the town of Heraklion in Crete, the southernmost island of Greece, where we visited the breathtaking ruins of Knossos, a palace built by the Minoans, the first European civilisation. The building was excavated by English archaeologist, Arthur Evans in 1900. This immersion into Greek culture and mythology was a highlight for me.

Last stop before our return to Athens was to the cobalt blue domes and white painted steps of Santorini. A coach was arranged to take us up the steep volcanic roads as Celestyal don’t support the use of the local donkeys. We explored the pretty town of Oia, drinking in the view (and some of the delicious locally made wine) at a local café, before moving
on to the capital, Fira, for more shopping and wandering.

Again, we were the only ship in the caldera and on board we sipped more local rosé and dined on delicious, authentic gyros, souvlaki and dolmades (stuffed vine leaves); a laughter-filled memory that I’ll treasure for ever.

A short flight time of four hours means that I was home again by Monday afternoon. The itinerary is busy, but as the only cruise line to homeport in Greece, the opportunity to immerse yourself completely in local culture, discover ancient myths, eat classic cuisine and see the treasures of long-forgotten civilisations feels refreshingly authentic. All this, as well as the chance to soak up some sunshine, made my long Greek weekend truly special.

GETTING THERE

A three-night iconic Aegean Cruise with Celestyal starts from from £699pp, including return flights from London, a two-night hotel stay in Athens and three night all-inclusive Aegean cruise, as well as free shore excursions in Kuşadasi & Santorini. To book, call Planet Cruise on 023 9280 8942 or visit planetcruise.com. For more information on Celestyal Cruises go to celestyalcruises.uk

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