The bright blue rooftops, pearly white buildings, and windmills are the three things that spring to mind when I think of the Greek Islands. Greece is an area of the world that I have never been to, but has always sounded appealing. A cruise is the best way to see the hundreds of small islands, but for my first time to Greece, I wanted to experience something extra special.
Celestyal Cruises offers a different cruise experience than all the other major operators who typically see around four islands during a week – we’d be doing the opposite, stopping at six ports in just four days. Celestyal Cruises offers a truly authentic Greek experience, from local Greek dishes in the restaurants, to traditional entertainment, and fascinating shore excursions – of which some are included in the fare! Drinks are included in the price too, so once onboard there’s very little that you need to spend to have a great time.
My four-night cruise aboard Celestyal Olympia from Piraeus, would take in the majestic and picturesque Mykonos, Kusadasi, Patmos, Rhodes, Heraklion, and Santorini.
Day 1 – Piraeus/Mykonos
I was up early, ready to head to the Port of Piraeus from Athens. The ship was due to depart at 11:30 a.m. and check-in was open between 8:30 a.m. and 10:30 a.m. I arrived at 8:15 a.m. and was greeted by a chaotic queue of people waiting to hand over their luggage to the porters. Assuming the line was because check-in was still yet to open, I joined the back of it. After waiting in line for 20 minutes, and getting to the baggage porters, I was then told to go over to a desk to ‘check-in’ and to get luggage tags. After finally entering the terminal building, I completed the health questionnaire, where I then had to queue again to get my onboard keycard, before having to join another queue to formally check-in, and finally the final queue for security. The whole experience reminded me of the chaotic process to board Carnival Vista in Barcelona back in June 2016.
Once onboard, I ascended to the pool area to enjoy the sun with a drink. Staterooms were still out of bounds, and no food would be served until after we set sail, so I took the time to explore the ship whilst guests were still embarking. Royal Caribbean International’s former Song of America and the ex-Thomson Destiny is full of charm, character, and quirkiness.
An announcement was made to say that staterooms were now available. I was staying in #6075 – an XF category outside stateroom. Located on the starboard side of Deck 6, it was a similar size to that on Sovereign and other smaller ships. It was comfortable, with plenty of storage space, a bright bathroom, and relaxing beds. The only downside was the shortage of plug sockets.
Muster was at 11 a.m. and was held on the promenade deck. Lifejackets were required to be worn. Immediately after, we departed Piraeus bound for our first port of call – Mykonos, which we’d arrive at later that day at 6 p.m. By this point, a breeze had picked up, and the skies were overcast. It was an interesting sail away, with a narrow entrance, and a sharp turn as soon as we cleared the harbour wall.
Having been on Pullmantur’s Sovereign – another former Royal Caribbean ship – back in November 2016, I could see some similarities, in terms of layout, between Celestyal Olympia and her big sister. The Argo Lounge Bar is unmistakably the former Schooner Bar, filled with nautical décor.
In just under six hours, we arrived in Mykonos. P&O Cruises’ Ventura was berthed at the cruise dock, which meant we would anchor off-shore. The sun was just reappearing again, but grey clouds still loomed. I took one of the tenders ashore to explore the island. Mykonos is the place I had always pictured when conjuring up images of what Greece would be like. Tiny, narrow passageways, with whitewashed walls and floors were just waiting to be explored. This way…that way…I wonder where this leads to. It’s sometimes best to just go with the flow, instead of heading in a particular direction with an aim in mind. I eventually stumbled across the iconic row of Greek windmills as the dark clouds rolled in. I headed back through the maze of alleyways and boarded the tender just as a thunderstorm approached the island.
Back in the comfort of the ship, I quickly changed ready to enjoy my first dinner aboard in the Aegean Restaurant. Due to the diverse timings and frequent evening arrivals, Celestyal Cruises operates a flexible dining experience. The Leda Buffet and Aegean Restaurant are open from around 7 p.m. until 10 p.m. Simply head down to Deck 4 between those hours for a great taste of Greece and other world dishes. On the menu this evening was Octopus, Beef Brisket, and Ouzo Cheesecake.
Production shows are only performed once each evening, so always draw a large crowd. This evening was a quick showcase from the cruise staff, followed by the headlining singers and dancers, with an acrobatic show. The songs were very modern, and included the dancers recreating the dance routine from Sia’s song, “Chandelier”, along with Katy Perry’s “Unconditionally” and Pharrell Williams’ “Happy”. IT was a spectacular show, even more so for the relatively low height of the stage. The show finished at 11:15 p.m. and it was an early night as we would be disembarking the ship in Kusadasi at 7 a.m. the next morning.
Day 2 – Kusadasi/Samos/Patmos
It was a very early start in order to be ready to meet in the Muses Lounge at 7:15 a.m. to begin our excursion in Kusadasi. The ship docked right on time at 7 a.m. and we swiftly disembarked the ship. Although it was early, we were not the first passengers to disembark that day. In the early hours of the morning, at 4 a.m. Celestyal Olympia dropped anchor just outside the port of Pythagorion, on the island of Samos – the birthplace of mathematician Pythagoras – to disembark tourists wishing to spend the day on the island. It must have been an unnerving sight seeing your cruise ship, with all your belongings still onboard, sail into the horizon.
As part of my first complimentary excursion during this trip, I would be taking in the sights of ancient Ephesus. Our tour guide for the day was Fulia. She briefed the group on the history, and geography of not just Kusadasi, but also Turkey in general. Kusadasi – pronounced Koo Shad A Shu – was once a small fishing village, until the tourism boom came along. Now, tourism is its most important industry, and the recent cancellation of many visits by cruise companies has had a significant impact on locals, that usually expect a cruise ship almost every day in the peak season – now that number is almost one ship every five days.
It was around 30 minutes by coach to Ephesus. This UNESCO World Heritage site was once a major Hellenic and Roman city, until the city was abandoned due to the harbour silting up. Having been to Pompeii last year, it was amazing to see how tourists were free to get up close with the ancient remains here, unlike Pompeii where very few areas are not protected by some sort of rope or fence. We could walk through the tunnels of what would have been the backstage area of the majestic Great Theatre of Ephesus, which would have seated 24,000 people, and got to go inside the remains of the Library of Celcus, and even the old toilet building! It was apparent just how drastic tourism in Turkey is on the decline. This site should be bustling with tourists, but we practically had the whole site to ourselves. It was a fascinating experience, but the tour wasn’t over yet…
Turkey is famed for its rugs and we stopped off at a place where they hand-make hundreds of beautiful rugs. We learned the process of how a rug is made, from starting life as a silk worm cocoon, to being knotted together by talented women. It takes around nine months for a large rug to be completed. We were then shown a wide selection of rugs, and told what made each one different. By the end of the talk there must have been over 30 rugs lining the floor of the room. We were all given a free traditional Turkish drink to try too. The apple tea was very soothing and refreshing, but authentic Turkish wine and ouzo were also available. We were left to explore the site, and look at more of the amazing rugs, which were like works of art, before we headed back to Kusadasi to board the ship.
After departing Kusadasi at 1 p.m., it was just a short sailing to the nearby island of Samos, to pick up those passengers who had disembarked. We slowly drifted outside the small harbour, as a large boat transferred passengers to the ship. As soon as the passengers were onboard, we continued onto our next port of call – Patmos.
Patmos is a small Greek island, with a quaint harbour and picturesque alleyways. One of the main attractions is The Monastery of Saint John. The Greek Orthodox monastery was founded in 1088, and is a UNESCO World Heritage site. I had a stroll along the coastal path, before getting a tender back to the ship to enjoy the cuisine on offer in the restaurant. The view from the restaurant window was simply stunning, as the sun gently set!
Day 3 – Rhodes
I would like to have said that today was a more relaxing day as we were only in one port for the whole day, however we still had to get up bright and early ready for our included excursion. Today we would be visiting ancient Lindos, before exploring the medieval streets of Rhodes. In port, we were joined by NCL’s Norwegian Spirit, Regent’s Seven Seas Navigator, and Celestyal’s Celestyal Nefeli, which was just arriving as our coach drove away from the port.
Anna-Maria was our tour guide for the day and explained the geography of the island, and how it is the largest of the Dodecanese Islands, during our 50 minute coastal drive. We approached ancient Lindos, with the acropolis standing majestic above the town. We walked down a steep slope into the main square, where we then entered the maze of alleyways. It was a steep trek to get up to the top of the acropolis, with some tourists choosing to travel up the cliff on a donkey. Our group were more adventurous, opting to walk up. At the top we were greeted by stunning views over the surrounding town, harbour, and coastline. Having been fortified by the Greeks, Romans, Knights of St John, and also the Ottomans, the eclectic mix of architectural styles is apparent.
We travelled back towards Rhodes, where we entered through the grand Gate d’Amboise. Rhodes was a heavily fortified town, protected by two moats. Walking along the cobbled streets of the medieval town is like stepping back in time. The tour ended in the town, which was just a short walk away from the port. I headed to the Naillac Tower to get some photos of Norwegian Spirit. I quickly returned to the ship to enjoy lunch, before heading back out with swimwear and a towel to enjoy the glorious weather on a beach with cruise ship views – now that’s my kind of beach! I spent a few hours there, constantly mesmerised by the sight of the shimmering reflection of Norwegian Spirit in the clear blue water. Rhodes is a fantastic place to get up close to the giant cruise ships whether as a cruise passenger or as a regular tourist. There are plenty of great vantage points.
Back onboard, I watched Norwegian Spirit set sail, shortly before our ship departed. Tonight I tried out the evening buffet selection in The Leda. As with lunch, there was always something delicious to choose from. Traditional Greek food is featured every night, along with juicy burgers and hot dogs, fish, and pasta. Deserts are usually light sponge cakes, with varying fruit flavours.
I was having a drink in the charming Argo Bar, when the Hotel Director and Guest Services Manager approached me and invited me for a tour of the bridge after we departed Heraklion tomorrow. It was very unexpected, but I jumped at the opportunity! We chatted for a few minutes about the appeal of Celestyal Cruises and how beautiful Celestyal Olympia is for an ageing vessel, before heading into the Muses Lounge for the cabaret show.
Day 4 – Heraklion/Santorini
Today was a chance to have a small lie in. We didn’t have a morning excursion booked, but the ship was due to leave Heraklion at 11:30, so we still had to be up fairly early to explore the town. Compared to all the other places, Heraklion was my least favourite destination. It was still a beautiful place, but I just didn’t connect with the destination like I did with all the other fantastic ports of call. I walked to the Venetian fortress of Rocca al Mare, which guards the entrance to the inner harbour. I enjoyed seeing the traditional fishing boats moored up too.
Onboard, and shortly after setting sail for Santorini, I went to reception to be escorted up to the bridge. Florentina, the Cruise Director showed me around the bridge, seeing all the important navigational equipment, fire safety systems, and the ‘steering wheel’ of the ship! I was briefly given command of the ship. Wearing the Captain’s hat, I delicately placed my hands on the wooden steering wheel, even though I knew the ship was on auto pilot. I used the binoculars to look out for any dangers on the horizon – I identified Costa neoRiviera which was making its approach to Heraklion. I’ve been lucky enough to visit a few cruise ship bridges, but this was the first one that looked like a traditional ship and not a command station on a spaceship!
We continued our course to Santorini. The weather was taking a turn for the worse. My visions of a picture-perfect view looking down on the ships, from the famous village of Oia, were quickly diminishing. We arrived slighter earlier than scheduled, joined by Seven Seas Navigator and Crystal Esprit. As soon as we dropped anchor, I was on the first tender ashore to join today’s shore excursion. After a tense coach journey up the steep winding cliff-side road, we arrived at the small village of Megalochori, with church bells greeting us. Almost nothing grows on this windswept volcanic island, so farmers have to get inventive. Farmers grow grape vines in spirals, creating a little basket that protects the grapes from the brutal winds.
We then drove to where almost everyone who comes to Santorini wants to see, the village of Oia perched atop of the cliffs. It’s the iconic image that comes to mind when you think of Greece – blue-topped churches, small white-washed alleyways, and traditional windmills. We approached Oia just as Seven Seas Navigator was passing. Sadly, by the time we got off the coach, the ship was out of sight. The sun was beginning to set, and provided a short glimpse of beautiful weather.
It was dark and raining by the time we got back to the port. The wind had picked up too, which made tendering back to the ship extra fun! It was almost 9 p.m. by the time we got back on the ship. Back in the warmth, I once again ate in the Leda Buffet, before heading to bed ready for the early morning disembarkation.
I thoroughly enjoyed my first time to Greece, and Celestyal Cruises was certainly the perfect cruise line to experience the authentic side of the Aegean. It was a hectic and busy cruise, but so rewarding! Perhaps not the best cruise to choose if you’re looking for a relaxing getaway, but perfect for sampling the various different islands, cultures, and history!
Be different. Live the authentic!
A detail ship review of Celestyal Olympia, detailing all the venues that can be found onboard, will be published soon…
DISCLAIMER: In addition to a stateroom upgrade, Celestyal Cruises provided me with complimentary Wi-Fi access during my time onboard. However, all opinions expressed in this review are my own. To find out more about Celestyal Olympia and Celestyal Cruises, visit celestyalcruises.uk