Review: A weekend voyage in Greece with Celestyal Cruises - Cruise International

Review: A weekend voyage in Greece with Celestyal Cruises

By Jeannine Williamson | 2 Sep 2022

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Santorini. Credit: Dan MD via Unsplash

If you’re short on time but big on sights, Jeannine Williamson tests out a mini cruise you can do in a weekend from Athens with Celestyal Cruises.

“We will forget everything and walk back in time,” says guide Mania as we enter the courtyard at the Palace of Knossos. “Imagine the king sitting on his alabaster throne and women with their jewellery shining in the sun.”

Thanks to Mania’s lyrical descriptions, the vast site – considered by many historians to be Europe’s oldest city – comes to life as I turn back the clock 4,000 years.

In the space of a couple of hours I walk in the footsteps of royalty, the ancient Minoans and the mythical half-man, half-bull minotaur, as well as British archaeologist Sir Arthur Evans, who led the team that spent more than 35 years painstakingly excavating the site first uncovered in 1878.

Exploring the ruins and partially restored areas of Knossos, the largest Bronze Age archaeological site on the island of Crete, is certainly a diverse experience.

Celestyal Cruises-greece-review

Knossos. Credit: Shutterstock

I’m enthralled as I listen to Mania’s tales of kings and queens, secret storage rooms and giant pottery wine and olive oil jars – or pithoi – that needed 10 people to lift them. We then delve deeper into the labyrinth of staircases and corridors that once connected the palace’s 1,400 rooms spread over four floors.

But soon it’s time to come back to the present and move on. By lunchtime I’m back on board Celestyal Olympia for the next stop on this short sailing around Greece, which brings a whole new meaning to island hopping.

While Greek line Celestyal Cruises offers week-long and leisurely 14-night sailings in the Aegean and beyond, it also has three and four-night mini cruises. I’m on the former, which is the shortest ocean cruise I’ve ever taken.

Celestyal Cruises-greece-review

Kusadasi. Credit: Celestyal Cruises

With two ports of call each day, it’s a fantastic and value-for-money way to get a real taste of Greece on the floating equivalent of a long weekend. Alternatively, because the itinerary starts and finishes in Athens, you could tack on a city break in the Greek capital.

It might sound rushed, but curiously things never feel hurried. One of the reasons is that Celestyal Olympia is a relatively small ship, carrying 1,664 passengers, and it’s easy to get on and off.

Celestyal Cruises-greece-review

Celestyal Olympia. Credit: Celestyal Cruises

Passengers can choose to explore under their own steam, with up to eight hours at some stops, or sign up for optional excursions and still have time to head to a taverna for a refreshing Mythos beer or stroll through stunningly pretty waterfront towns, each seemingly more beautiful than the last, with their characteristically dazzling white buildings and azure blue shutters.

In fashionable Mykonos, where celebrity visitors over the decades have included Elizabeth Taylor, Brigitte Bardot, Jackie Kennedy, Leonardo DiCaprio, Tom Cruise, Beyoncé and Tom Hanks – to name just a few – we rub shoulders with countless Instagrammers looking for spots in which to strike a perfect pose.

But it’s a shame to simply view this cosmopolitan celebrity hotspot through selfies. Instead, we get lost in the maze of streets leading up from Little Venice, whose old houses perch on the edge of the sea.

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Celestyal Olympia in Mykonos. Credit: Celestyal Cruises

With no particular place in mind we wander through traffic-free cobbled lanes, where dazzling pink bougainvillea tumbles down balconies and walls, eventually coming to the narrowest of them all. Said to be the skinniest street in the whole of Greece, if not the world – locals fiercely contest the Croatian island of Krk’s claim to hold the record – it measures just 39cm across. I can’t resist seeing if I fit (just about) and hope I don’t get stuck or meet someone coming the other way.

Afterwards we take advantage of the late 10.30pm all-aboard time and linger awhile in town. It’s too early to sample the island’s legendary nightlife, which doesn’t get going until midnight, so we settle for a meal in a small restaurant overlooking the gently lapping sea and watch the sun disappear over the horizon. The meal is all the more atmospheric when a power cut hits a section of the beachfront and we eat by hastily arranged candlelight.

Celestyal Cruises-greece-review

Mykonos. Credit: Shutterstock

Santorini is another sun-bleached showstopper. The island was shaped by a volcanic eruption thousands of years ago and its two main towns of Fira and Oia cling to towering cliffs on the edge of the water-filled caldera, or crater.

But there are quieter islands, too. On Patmos we scale the steep street to reach St John’s Monastery, the tranquil, castle-like building that dominates the landscape and is dedicated to the apostle who wrote the Bible’s Book of Revelation on the island.

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Crete. Credit: Shutterstock

Back down in the port of Skala we visit Christodoulos Confectionery, a family-owned bakery and ice-cream shop that goes back generations, to buy one of the cheese pies unique to the island – we resist sampling it before finding somewhere to sit in the shady main square. Costing less than €2, the crumbly pie is a treat in every sense and any initial thoughts of saving the rest until later didn’t last longer than the second delicious mouthful.

The cruise also calls at Kusadasi in Turkey where the highlight is a tour of the ancient Greek and latterly Roman city of Ephesus, again made memorable by an enthusiastic and knowledgeable guide.

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Celestyal Olympia. Credit: Celestyal Cruises

Back on board, Celestyal Olympia is a lovely old- style ship with classic wraparound teak decks lined with steamer chairs. The vessel has undergone several guises and refurbishments since being launched in 1981 and has a really comfortable and laid-back vibe. In fact, it’s an extension of the whole Greek experience and the country’s relaxed love of life.

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Celestyal Olympia. Credit: Celestyal Cruises

Crew members are incredibly friendly, mealtimes straddle several leisurely hours and the authentic cuisine showcases locally sourced food and wine. There’s a Greek band and a colourful and energetic stage show, featuring dancers, singers and acrobats, themed around mythology.

The shop sells Greek products and souvenirs and the reasonably priced spa even includes a Mediterranean massage using olive oil. Narrowest street on Mykonos aside, I certainly squeezed a lot into this short but very sweet sailing.

Getting there

Celestyal Cruises’ three-night Iconic Aegean round-trip Athens cruise, including all meals and drinks, two excursions to Knossos and Ephesus and onboard gratuities, departing October 28, 2022, starts from £257 per person, excluding flights. For more information or to book, visit celestyal.com/gb.

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