Five course dinners with double-starters and delicious deserts, all-inclusive drinks, fabulously friendly staff and tomorrow morning we sail into Santorini! Idyllic Aegean indeed as I’m on a seven-day cruise around the Greek islands with Celestyal Cruises on their yacht-like ship Celestyal Crystal.
People are up on deck early this Thursday as we slowly sail into Santorini which curves round a giant lagoon formed from the rim of an ancient sunken volcano that exploded in about 1628 BC. Thanks to that fateful day the island is considered by many to be one of, if not the most, spectacular sights in Greece. In fact mention Santorini to most people and you will find that if they haven’t already visited, it’s high on their ‘bucket list’. Multi coloured cliffs soaring out of the sea with tiny whitewashed buildings at the top look spectacular from our ship.
Celestyal Cruises is the main home-porting cruise operator in Greece and is becoming more and more popular with UK travellers. If you’re thinking of visiting a Greek island, then why visit just one when Celestyal can take you to all the famous islands in complete comfort on an all inclusive basis with shore excursions included at a really great price!
My wife and I chose the 7-night Idyllic Aegean cruise departing and returning to the Greek port of Piraeus, which is about 50 minutes drive from Athens airport depending on traffic. As you can see from the picture Celestyal Crystal is a fantastic looking ship and her size is perfect for cruising the islands. As soon as we arrived at the port our luggage was checked in (soon to be in our stateroom) and after a welcome drink and with formalities done we make our way onboard. With yacht inspired design, classic teak decks and a very warm welcome from the staff we immediately felt right at home, keen to explore the ship and looking forward to the week’s itinerary. Unknown to us then but we were soon to be captivated by the romance of the area visiting enchanting Greek islands dotted around the Aegean Sea where culture, history, pristine beaches and fishing villages, seemingly suspended in time, await. There’s no time for long sea days on this cruise and at 9.00pm during dinner we set sail for Mykonos; Milos, Santorini, Heraklion (Crete) and Kusadasi (Turkey) were to follow.
Celestyal Crystal has comfortable relaxing staterooms and suites; we had an exterior stateroom on deck 7 with a sea view via a large picture window. The stateroom had a double bed, plus a sitting area with an armchair and sofa. The bathroom had a shower with toiletries supplied, plenty of wardrobe and drawer space for 8 days, hairdryer, safe and TV. Our stateroom steward kept the room spotlessly clean and tidy with a twice-daily supply of fresh towels throughout the week. Onboard we found elegant restaurants, bars and plenty of lovely lounges, there was never a problem finding somewhere to sit. Ship facilities also included the reception area, casino, boutique shop, shore excursion desks and a spa and fitness room, as well as a swimming pool with a retractable roof and what seemed like endless promenade decks with loungers or tables and chairs where you could relax, soak up the sun or enjoy a drink or two. Talking about drink, the cruise was all-inclusive and came with a drinks package with unlimited alcoholic and non-alcoholic drinks, including wine. The cruise also included breakfast, lunch, afternoon tea and dinner, onboard activities, evening entertainment, port and service charges, staff gratuities and a shore excursion in Santorini, Heraklion and Kusadasi. A wide choice of other optional excursions was available on board or could be pre-booked.
For meals choices included the Leda or Aura Buffet on deck 9 or the stunning a la carte Amalthia Restaurant on deck 8. Dinner was served between 6.30pm and 9.30 pm with open sitting and although we chose to dine at the peak time of between 8pm and 8.30pm the wait time for a table was in the region of just 5 to 10 minutes. A speciality restaurant, the Fish Tavern, was available for reservations with a cover charge.
Mykonos was our first stop that has become one of the most popular of the Aegean islands and is vying to become the new Ibiza. Tourists from all over the world are drawn towards its vast stretches of sandy beaches and the upscale bars and restaurants crowded into the lively port town, also called Mykonos. Celestyal Crystal docked at the port of Tourlos just 3 km from the town centre and Celestyal laid on a free shuttle bus. Mykonos town is the archetypal image of the Cyclades and we enjoyed exploring and seeing the immaculate white washed streets and houses with their dashes of sky blue doors and domes, windmills and winding alleys. We enjoyed a lunch in one of the restaurants overlooking the iconic windmills. Celestyal Crystal stayed overnight in Mykonos so that guests that wanted to could enjoy the buzzing nightlife.
Wednesday and it’s Milos. Our ship tendered just off the main town of the island famous for the statue of Aphrodite now in the Louvre and some great beaches. After our arrival at 1pm we enjoyed a relaxing stroll around the harbor area and the boutique shops followed by a late lunch in one of the delightful harbour restaurants. That evening onboard the show was Cirque Fantastic, a spectacular acrobatic show production in the Muses lounge.
Thursday and we pick up from where I started… Santorini! The included tour took us by coach from the port area climbing the narrow hairpin bends to the top of the cliffs. We visited Megalochori an authentic Greek village and then made our way to Oia on the cliff top at the north end of the island. Oia must be the most photographed village in Europe with marble-paved alleys, pristine boutique shops and the famous white washed buildings carved into the rocks. I could see now why Santorini is so popular, the spectacular panoramic views and dazzling sunsets are amazing. After our free time in Oia the excursion continued back to the capital, Fira from where we descended to the port via the cable car. We stayed in Santorini for 2 days which gave us an opportunity to explore Oia and Fira again. That evening onboard was the Captain’s cocktail party hosted by Captain Nikolaous Vasileiou, a very elegant affair. Later that night we sat on deck cocktails in hand as Celstyal Crystal weighed anchor and slipped off into the night bound for Heraklion.
It’s an early morning arrival in Crete and the included excursion here is a visit to the ancient city of Knossos. Known as the Palace of Knossos the huge archaeological site dates back thousands of years to the Minoan civilization. The tour stopped at Heraklion on return for free time in the city and from here we made our way by foot the short distance to the port. With a few blasts of the ship’s horn we say goodbye to Crete and gaze in awe at another spectacular sunset.
Sunday sees our last port of call, one of Turkey’s largest and most cosmopolitan resorts, Kusadasi. It’s a good all round resort offering great beaches a lively nightlife and some serious shopping! The included tour at Kusadasi was the famous archaeological site of Ephesus. I’m afraid we passed on this excursion as the lure of the shops in the beautiful redeveloped harbour area and town proved far too much for my wife! Too soon we were cruising back to Piraeus but time now for one more sumptuous dinner in the Amalthia Restaurant.