Whether you’re drawn by the turquoise waters and stunning white buildings
of Santorini, lured by the promise of delectable Mediterranean cuisine, fascinated by
the rich history of Athens or Ephesus, or dying to bask on pristine white beaches, a
Celestyal cruise through the islands of Greece and Turkey is a must.
Athena, Ares, Hercules, Poseidon….thanks to my older brother George who loved
classical lit, while other kids were reading Archie comics, I was immersed in stories
of Zeus, his wife Hera and their various immortal – and often fascinatingly immoral -
offspring. When I saw that the itinerary for the Celestyal Crystal promised not just
sunny skies and sandy beaches but also a day in Athens, I was sure the ancient Parthenon would be the high point of my cruise through the Greek and Turkish islands.
When the big day arrived, and we climbed the steps to the Acropolis, I could feel
Zeus smiling. We toured the ancient ruins early in the morning, before the crowds
arrived and savored the silence. Though I’d pored over a thousand photos of the
site, the real-life enormity of the temple…built without bulldozers, cranes or even
proper stone cutting tools… was stunning. Ancient stones, echoes of the past - it was
everything I’d thought it would be, and more.
But was it the best moment of my cruise?
Surprisingly, it wasn’t.
Although Athens was every bit as fascinating as I’d expected, the competition simply
proved too stiff. Every port we visited on our seven-day Celestyal cruise offered so
much to see, do, taste and experience that even the mighty Parthenon paled. Our
itinerary was a blissful blend of ancient historical sites, entertaining bazaars and
lively markets, endless white beaches and fascinating geography.
When you dream of the Greek islands, Santorini probably comes to mind first.
Startlingly beautiful, its streets are filled with bleach-white Cycladic-style buildings
with doors and shutters as blue as the sea that surrounds the island. More than 600 churches ranging from humble to ornate compete for your attention with
ancient cave settlements in the cliffs. I filled both my heart and my memory card with images.
Another of the better-known islands, Mykonos is also a photographer’s dream with its iconic windmills, dangerously welcoming stores and fascinating cultural surprises. There in a tiny shop on a winding street, we found a woman
whose weaving is renowned worldwide. Filled with beautiful tablecloths,
mats, scarves and wraps, her shop is a bulwark against the march of mass
production and a celebration of artisanal dedication.
Because Greece is such a study in contrasts, the island of Milos proved to be as
interesting as Mykonos and Santorini, but in an entirely different way. There, we
found the inlet of Sarakiniko, a volcanic land formation so otherworldly that it might
easily have been on the moon. One of the most photographed places in the Cyclades,
the utterly smooth white rock looked as if a giant ice cream scoop had plopped it in
the middle of the sea.
I’d expected to be wowed by the Parthenon, but the classical ruins of Ephesus on the
Turkish island of Kusadasi took me by surprise. One of the eastern
Mediterranean’s largest Roman archaeological sites, Ephesus opened a door to the
past with the well-preserved Library of Celsus and the largest theater in the ancient
world. First created for dramatic performances, the Romans later used the
enormous outdoor ampitheater for gladiator combat. Standing in the remains of the
ancient stands, it was easy to imagine the more than 25,000 cheering fans urging
their favorites on to victory and to wonder what their daily lives would have been
like in that once-bustling city.
Though we could easily have spent every day exploring ancient sites, our itinerary
was carefully planned to include a taste of many different Mediterranean wonders.
We spent one glorious afternoon coastline-cruising in a small yacht, as well as a
deliciously self-indulgent morning lolling on cushy daybeds under white draped
canopies in a luxurious Turkish day-spa. We shopped in raucous markets where
vendors offered everything from purses to jewelry to paintings of saints – all, of
course, for sale at the lowest of low prices, only that day, only for us!
Onboard, every aspect of the cruise incorporated Greek and Turkish elements, from
the colorful nightly shows to the scrumptious menus of baklava, hummus, lamb and
seafood in the dining room. Fresh local ingredients were featured at every meal –
grassy-fresh olive oils, rich, salty Feta cheese, thick, smooth Greek yogurt. Three
times a day, the ship’s bakers created six signature breads and ten iconic pastries as
well as mountains of muffin and other oven-fresh treats.
Accepted wisdom is that a cruise ship guest gains a pound every day – but my guess
is those calorie-accountants didn’t consider Celestyal’s Greek and Turkish islands
cruises. Not only are the meals on board decadently delicious but guests are also
taken ashore to charming local restaurants. There, the sea air sharpens your
appetite and convinces you that downing a whole platter of grilled halloumi cheese
with fresh local honey is perfectly reasonable. The only solution is to buy one of
those lovely white Greek dresses that fall from your shoulders in an endless swirl of
At just 162 meters long and with a guest capacity of 1200, the Celestyal Crystal is
not large, which enables her to sail into small harbors and visit islands missed by
bigger competitors. Her facilities include everything you’d expect, from a wellness
center, a spa, gym and pool, to a casino, and shops. The main dining room is elegant,
and the poolside grill and buffet, relaxed and welcoming but what makes the
onboard experience so memorable is the staff. Without exception, every server,
steward, and ship’s officer is so friendly and accommodating, you feel as your
personal likes and dislikes have been memorized long before your arrival.
The Greek word “FIloxenia”, means “hospitality” and the elegant, well-appointed
Celestyal Crystal, with her well-planned sailing itineraries that showcase the region
perfectly, has clearly found the perfect motto.
If you go: