Aegean odyssey: Celestyal Olympia cruise ship review
By Linda Aitchison | 9 Jun 2015
Celestyal Cruises specialises in authentic Greek itineraries around the Aegean. Linda Aitchison reviews a cruise on Celestyal Olympia
Santorini’s sleeping volcano looms large ahead as Celestyal Olympia sails through the glittering waters of the Aegean. Spotting the island’s steep, vivid cliffs, and then the crescent-shaped caldera, the crowd of passengers on deck fall silent – until our assistant cruise director comments that it looks a lot like a croissant.
I’m unable to control my laughter – he’s right, it does look like a croissant.
It’s also breathtakingly beautiful: Santorini is the archetypal Greek island, with its iconic blue-domed, whitewashed houses. We anchor in open sea off the port of Old Fira, where tender boats bring us to Athinios Harbour. Apart from a line of tourist buses to welcome us, the port is quiet. We travel a steep, narrow winding road up 500 metres to the monastery of Profitis Ilias.
Here, the view is unforgettable. From the monastery’s peaceful gardens, above the village of Pyrgos, you can see most of the island spreading out beneath you and way beyond into the turquoise blue of the Aegean. There are now two cruise ships docked but our group is almost alone in this oasis of calm.
We leave the monastery and drive north, past the settlements of Kamari and Monolithos, through Fira, with an abundance of shops and cafés for tourists and
the smaller, more traditional villages of Firostefani and Imerovigli, to Oia.
This is the island’s most scenic and famously filmed or photographed village, and it doesn’t disappoint, although it’s a lot more crowded. People jostle for position to take the best pictures, and there’s a bride and groom having their photo taken. I take the Santorini Cable Car back to Celestyal Olympia, laughing like a teenager as it judders into action at what seems like a very sharp angle. There’s plenty of time to mooch around in more shops before jumping on board a tender boat towards our ship where we watch the sun go down. I’m told this is one of the most beautiful sights on earth but this evening a hazy mist obscures the view. As the sky turns vivid orange, I remember the blue and white of Oia and later fall asleep dreaming of weddings in the sunshine. Santorini is not the first place in our Iconic Aegean cruise of five Greek Islands and Turkey where romance is in the air.
In Rhodes, our brilliant guide Michael reveals some 74 Dutch couples chose to marry together a few years ago in a beautiful church on the way to the unspoiled beach at St Paul’s Bay. He has me in stitches as he recalls anecdotes and traditions of a typical Greek wedding.
Did you know for example that the mothers-in-law fight over how the marital home will be decorated from the moment the engagement is announced? Or that the bride tends to stamp on the bridegroom’s foot as a joke… and some husbands have walked out at that moment?
Learning about local traditions is a big part of a Celeystal cruise, adding to the feeling that you are really immersing yourself in the culture and traditions of Greece and Turkey. Hospitality on board Celestyal Olympia, with Captain Stathis Romeos at the helm, reminds me of staying in a Greek island hotel; everyone is so friendly.
We dined every day at the Aegean à la carte restaurant – choices were delicious and plentiful – with a genuine Greek theme running through each menu.
From slow-cooked meats (veal, chicken or lamb) to lighter options such as Dolmades (stuffed vine leaves) there was no need to venture elsewhere for dining. If you wanted something quicker and simpler, buffet-style restaurant eating was also available, as well as fast food poolside snacks. Service was flawless and desserts were especially moreish.
Also fitting in with the ‘authentically Greek’ theme were expertly planned activities – including learning snippets of the language and finding out more about cooking or wine tasting with a talk from a local vineyard owner.
This is a new direction for Celestyal Olympia but any teething problems since its first outing in March this year under a new brand have been ironed out, and I felt completely spoiled. My junior suite was plush, stylish and comfortable, with a double bed as well as a bath and shower to unwind in.
Our itinerary was exhilarating, combining maximum time on land exploring stunning destinations with a Greek atmosphere on board. In our first port of call, Mykonos, we marvelled at the sunset and learned about the island’s emblematic windmills. On this island too love was in the air as the 1980s rom-com, Shirley Valentine, filmed here, was recalled. I laughed out loud when our guide identified me as a lone face in a crowd who would have remembered it.
In Kuşadasi, Turkey, we visited the ancient city of Ephesus where I learned the first church dedicated to the Virgin Mary was built, and that rich people had slaves to warm up their toilet seats before they sat down. We visited Patmos, known as the island of St John where the Book of the Apocalypse was written, and I trekked up and down hills and steps to see the grotto where St John lived. There was also a monastery bearing his name where monks still practise – their early morning work begins each day at 2.30am. As well as its religious significance, Patmos is known for its ‘positive energy’ – and I could see why thanks to our charming guide and the fabulous views. I sampled local pastries in a café in the main square, a wonderful spot for people watching.
In Rhodes I relaxed at St Paul’s Bay with its fine sand and clear blue sea, relaxing on my sunbed. The beach was simply lovely and not at all crowded on this hot spring day. I enjoyed another traditional meal, this time in Vassili’s Tavern, finished off by Halva (a small sweet tart made of semolina). I walked it off in the medieval city.
The next morning in Crete was a chance to be impressed by the opulence of the Palace of Knossos, known as the island’s most important archaeological find and the centre of Minoan civilisation, as well as being famed for its fascinating connections with ancient Greek mythology.
We finished our trip in Athens with an expedition up to the top of the Acropolis to see the Parthenon; a wonderful place for gathering your thoughts and giving us time to reflect on our spectacular Aegean odyssey. “Opa!” as they say in Greece.
Celestyal Cruises has a four-day Iconic Aegean cruise on board Celestyal Olympia from £336pp including full board accommodation (celestyalcruises. com/+30 210 4583400). A flight- inclusive package including a four-night stay in Athens (Hotel Titania) costs from £799pp with Cosmos Tours and Cruises (cosmostoursandcruises.co.uk/ 0800 997 8826). Includes flights, B&B hotel and full board cruise accommodation and transfers.
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