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Celestyal Olympia, photo by Celestyal Cruises

Sea More with Celestyal Cruises in Greece

© by Ming Tappin

In September, onboard Celestyal Cruises’ Olympia to the Greek Islands, I enjoyed a four-day Aegean itinerary, actually an island-hopping experience. Sailing roundtrip from Athens, in four days we visited six islands - Mykonos, Kusadasi, Patmos, Rhodes, Crete, and Santorini. The proximity of the islands allows the ship to visit two ports in one day.

The Islands
The Aegean in mid-September remains sunny and hot, with temperatures around 30 C every day. However locals think it cool as summer months can swelter to 45 C. Thus, if not a fan of heat, spring and late fall are the best times to travel. Crowds are thinner too.

While most large ship lines call at Mykonos and Santorini, Celestyal is one of the few that gets into Rhodes, Crete and Patmos. These idyllic ports are uncrowded and offer countless sightseeing opportunities, the islands dotted with churches, forts and temples that reflect a rich history.

A scenic bus ride took us to Lindos, home of the second-most-visited Acropolis in Greece. A steep climb or a donkey ride if you prefer, takes you 116 metres up for breathtaking vistas of the surrounding sea and marina. Visitors wander through the grounds to view remnants of a temple dedicated to Athena Lindia, medieval gates and staircase. On a sunny day, hats and sunscreen are a must as the Acropolis is open to the elements. The grounds are covered in uneven rocks and slippery marble, so exercise extreme care while walking. I don't recommend flip flops or smooth-bottom sandals! Back at the harbour, take a walk through the Old Town, one of the best preserved medieval towns in Europe.

During our afternoon call at Patmos, we visited St. John's Monastery and Grotto of the Apocalypse. The holy grotto of Revelation fame is a short but steep walk up from the bus drop-off point. Here, St. John the Theologian, one of Christ's twelve disciples was exiled to the island where he experienced prophetic visions that inspired him to write the Book of Revelation. A further climb to the top of the hill took us to the Monastery of St. John, an imposing fortress-like structure where we visited the chapel and its grounds. The path up to the grotto and monastery is lined with quaint shops selling ceramics, art, clothing and jewellery. They are worth popping into.

Ming Tappin's Greek Islands Cruise   Ming Tappin's Greek Islands Cruise

Our ship docked in Heraklion on Crete, Greece's largest island. The Minoan palace of Knossos is the main attraction. The site was occupied as early as 8,000 BC, making it Europe's oldest civilization. The palace itself was constructed between 1,700 - 1,400 BC, but throughout the centuries and myriad rulers, it had been damaged and rebuilt several times. Excavation was led by British archeologist Arthur Evans in 1900, but due to extensive damage and the fragile nature of the ruins, much of what you see today is reconstructed, and many of the paintings, pottery and frescoes are reproductions, while some of the originals are housed in the Heraklion Archaeological Museum in town. There is great debate whether or not the current grounds resemble what it was like in its heyday; nevertheless, visitors glimpse into the past of this ancient civilization. Back in town, there is time for shopping or to sample a piece of bougatsa, a flaky, warm phyllo pastry with a cheese filling, along with a cup of Greek coffee.

Although many cruise lines have stopped anchoring in Turkey, Celestyal still visits Kusadasi, with no sign of trouble when we were there, everything business as usual, and visitors warmly welcomed. The excursion to Ephesus remains on one's must-do list. This fascinating city, the second largest in the Roman empire with a population of 250,000, boasts beautiful architectural remnants of temples, carvings and terraced homes, adorned with smooth marble, frescoed walls and stone pillars. The technology employed to build the city with copper insulated pipes, hot water heating and sewage disposal was well beyond their time. Excavations began on Ephesus in 1869, and to date, only half completed. It's estimated another 200 years will be required before the city is fully unearthed.

Mykonos & Santorini
We visited Mykonos in the evening with excursions mainly walking tours around the beautiful village with its charming narrow streets and iconic windmills. Dinner is recommended at one of the waterfront restaurants or cafes that line the main square. Here eight years ago, I notice how commercialized Mykonos has become. Quiet alleys are now bloated with bars, lounges and shops that sell designer fashions and souvenirs.

Ming Tappin's Greek Islands Cruise   Ming Tappin's Greek Islands Cruise

In 2018, Celestyal will add overnight stays in Mykonos and Santorini to its 7-night "Idyllic Aegean" itinerary. Mykonos enjoys vibrant nightlife after the sun sets, and speaking of sunsets, Santorini is THE place in Greece to catch the best. We arrived just in time. At dusk, throngs of visitors line the streets and cafes in the village of Oia (pronounced Eea) to admire this natural wonder. We sat at an open-air bar with a glass of Vinsanto, a dessert wine produced in Santorini, and on cue, the blazing sun set in the ocean, promoting loud, appreciative applause. Fighting our way back to the tour bus was anticlimactic with alleys jammed with thousands trying to make their way out of Oia after the sunset. An overnight allows guests to linger, perhaps enjoy a tasty meal overlooking the scenic vista and return to the ship at their leisure.

The Ship
Celestyal Cruises, headquartered in Athens, was rebranded from Louis Cruise Line in 2014. It operates three ships in the Greek Islands and Cuba. The Celestyal Olympia was built in 1982. Ship buffs may recognize her profile as the former Royal Caribbean Song of America with the signature Viking Crown Lounge. Typical of older ships, standard staterooms are small at 120 square feet, and only the top two suite categories provide balconies. The refurbished ship retains classic features such as a wraparound promenade and wide, open, teak decks for sunning and lounging, perfect for the Aegean climate. All public areas are pleasantly comfortable, but keep in mind that this is an older vessel and cannot be compared to large, new ships on the market. The focus is definitely on the destination. If you are looking for a comfortable way to see multiple Greek islands without changing hotels and living out of a suitcase, Celestyal is the way to go.

Life Onboard
The onboard experience is Greek, flavoured in cuisine, entertainment and activities. Representatives from GAEA, a leading olive oil producer, were onboard to offer olive oil tastings. Additional Greek experiences include cooking demonstrations, dance and language lessons and more. A nice touch is that a small section of the ship dedicated to Greek arts and crafts, appropriately named the Agora, the traditional Greek gathering place or marketplace. It offers jewellery, art, and leather goods, all designed and made by local artisans.

International cruise lines differ from their American cousins. Guests sailing on Celestyal Cruises should be prepared for a European experience with international flair. This includes mingling with a majority of European and international guests, some of whom may not speak English. Announcements are made in multiple languages depending on the nationalities onboard (English first), and dinner time is slightly later at 7:30 pm. Room service has a supplemental charge, as well as lobster and prime cuts of steaks in the dining room. Speak to a travel agent who specializes in cruises if you have any questions about the onboard ambiance.

Ming Tappin's Greek Islands Cruise   Cuban trio, photo by Ming Tappin

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Photos by Ming Tappin
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In 2017, Celestyal Cruises received an unprecedented four Cruise Critic Cruisers Choice Awards. It earned first place for Best for Value, Best for Entertainment, Best for Embarkation and Best for Shore Excursions. Value is definitely a key benefit when cruising with Celestyal as they offer an all-inclusive onboard program.Ming Tappin's Greek Islands Cruise A complimentary alcoholic and non-alcoholic beverage package, excursions at every port and gratuities are all included in the fare. Canadians can purchase a package from Air Canada Vacations or Transat Holidays which also includes roundtrip airfare from major Canadian cities. For more details about Celestyal Crises, visit http://americas.celestyalcruises.com/en.

Greece is a country in southeastern Europe with thousands of islands throughout the Aegean and Ionian seas. Influential in ancient times, it's often called the cradle of Western civilization.

There are few places in the world where you can enjoy yourself as much as I did on my cruise through the Greek Islands.                    Ming

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Ming Tappin - Ming took her first cruise in 1991 and was immediately hooked. She took a cruise every year after that, and she had so much fun researching and learning about cruising, she enrolled in travel school and became a travel agent in 1994, specializing in cruises. A marriage and a move to Vancouver two years later, Ming began working in the administration side of the cruise business, helping travel agencies promote cruises to their clients through marketing, promotions and training. Today, Ming continues to work closely with cruise lines and travel agents, and she cruises several times every year to broaden her experience. Ming has sailed on 45 cruises with 17 cruise lines, with many more on her list still to try.
In 2015, Ming created her own company Your Cruise Coach, and began her career as a cruise journalist serving the travel industry. She has been published on three leading Canadian travel industry websites and currently has a cruise column in a travel industry magazine distributed to 8,000 travel agencies across Canada. Ming also writes for the consumer - her goal is to educate the traveling public on the value of a cruise vacation, and share stories of her cruise experiences to help travelers make informed decisions. Ming can be reached at ming@yourcruisecoach.com.

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