Travel review: Cruising the Greek islands
by Nicola Smith
Swayed by exceptional excursions and an enthusiastic crew, Nicola Smith settles into cruising in the Greek islands
Perhaps it was when I was sipping a Ne-Gro-Nai (a Greek take on Negroni) on the top deck as the live band struck up the distinctive chords of Zorba’s Dance. Or as we pulled away from Thessaloniki, tucking into an oozing baklava as the sun set.
Or maybe it was when we threw open the curtains and stepped onto the balcony as Heraklion hove into view, with all the promise of the Cretan countryside now on our doorstep. But whenever it was, there was a point at which I was nudged from reluctant cruiser to accepting – even converted – cruiser, as my partner, Fi, and I drifted blissfully around the Greek islands for a week.
We began in Athens with a further six stops on the agenda. From the moment we stepped aboard, the relentlessly cheery Celestyal crew were on a mission. The only dubious moment was a couple of hours after boarding when, already slightly overawed by the nine-deck boat (although, to seasoned cruisers, the Crystal is probably more akin to a houseboat, accommodating just 1,200 passengers), we were called for our safety briefing.
Armed with life jackets, we mustered on Deck Five, where we were assigned lifeboat numbers and ushered into lines with fellow passengers, who spanned a range of ages and nationalities. I began to long for a villa, its foundations firmly on dry land. But it’s funny what the Aegean air can do to a landlubber. Or perhaps it was the aforementioned staff.
Celestyal prides itself on the experience, and its people are integral to this. Almost without exception, the extensive crew are enthusiastic and can-do, and even the most cynical holidaymakers are highly likely to find themselves having fun. Our junior suite came equipped with a dedicated concierge, Sayed. All we had to do was call his name and he materialised like a genie at our door – happy to replenish water, fix a broken safe or answer any questions.
He excelled in ‘towel art’, the highlight being a monkey (by special request), hanging on a coat hanger when we returned one day. The suite was a good size with a small seating area and a compact, but perfectly adequate, shower room. The treat was the balcony – large enough to allow us to greet our new destination with some yoga moves each morning. The engine thrum at night took some getting used to, but we weren’t in our suite for long: there was too much to do.
Several excursions were on offer each day, which had to be booked the evening before with Sharon, who was both knowledgeable and skilled at handling everyone’s demands simultaneously. Prices varied, but averaged about €80 per adult for a half-day trip. Our first excursion, in Thessaloniki, saw us meet at 8.30am, adorned with numbered bus stickers and equipped with headphones, before disembarking group by group to board the relevant bus.
This was cruising as I imagined it, a throwback to school trips, being marshalled by bossy teachers. But once I’d got over the herding, I went with the flow. We disembarked along Thessaloniki’s beautiful waterfront boulevard, wandered along to Aristotelous Square and admired the city’s iconic White Tower, as our learned guide talked us through the history.
We took a tour around the city’s Archaeological Museum before winding up the hillside to the impressive fifth-century St Demetrius Cathedral. The sweeping views from the Upper Town were something to behold, and Fi and I stopped for a coffee to take in the views (all the while waiting for a teacher to berate us. They didn’t).
It was with less trepidation that we booked onto further excursions. One of the most enjoyable was being led by Dutch guide, Gino, into Oia, Santorini. Arguably one of the Greek islands’ most pictured places, Oia certainly attracts the crowds, but it is still worth a visit (just avoid July and August). The distinctive blue domed buildings against the backdrop of an azure sea are breathtaking, and the whitewashed winding streets are lined with quirky boutiques.
After the throngs of the north end, Gino advised us to head south, where the roads widen and the seafront opens up: the calm after the storm.The half-day excursions worked well, giving us time to wander at our own pace in the afternoons, rummaging in the markets in Kusadasi, strolling down the hill with the donkeys in Santorini, browsing the galleries and boutiques in wonderful Mykonos, and tucking into a delicious Greek salad by the water in Milos, before enjoying a swim off the beach.
Plaka, a hilltop village in Milos, was also home to some absorbing artisan shops and a rooftop café, En Plo, where we sipped coffee and chatted to a young couple from Manchester – self-confessed foodies drawn to En Plo by recommendations on TikTok. We left them tucking into yogurt with honey and walnuts, and a generously loaded feta omelette.
Food is one of Greece’s attractions, and Celestyal ensured we weren’t limited to generic global cuisine. The ship has two larger restaurants, a casual buffet restaurant (which also serves lunch) and a more intimate speciality restaurant, where we also ate breakfast. All are overseen by Romanian maître d’, Adrian, a towering bear of a man who manages to be everywhere at once, ensuring every passenger has exactly what they need.
He is also a seasoned raconteur, so watch out… The restaurant menus majored on Greek dishes, from a luxurious cheese saganaki to an Aegean fish mixed grill, as well as tangy dolmades (vine leaves stuffed with herby rice) and a rich moussaka. The buffet was a veritable smorgasbord of delights, with grilled fish, meat and fresh salads and vegetables, including a hearty paella one evening.
Guests can also sample the speciality restaurant (at an extra cost). Here we indulged in a six-course Greek tasting menu and sipped rosé as the sun went down. Treats included a very moreish smoked eggplant caviar, a succulent escalope of Aegean lobster with a subtle fennel kick from the ouzoscented rice, and a palate cleansing pappardelle of zucchini with fresh tomatoes.
Dessert was a work of art: a Greek take on the French classic, îsle flottante: meringues encaged in sticky, gold spun sugar, afloat a sea of rich, sweet raspberry. On-board entertainment also featured food, with a lively poolside cooking demo of tzatziki followed by seafood saganaki (with tasters and recipes provided), as well as an incredible fruit carving demo, which transformed watermelons into human faces.
Not that we just sat around. Ping-pong and darts tournaments, Greek bracelet making, ice-cream parties (for the kids) and dance classes were also on offer. We enjoyed a happy half hour cha-chacha’ing around the poolside as Thais, the exceptional Brazilian dance expert, showed us the ropes.
For those who want to simply observe, cabaret-style entertainment took place every night (in two sittings) including a Greek Abba night (the jury is still out on that one), a traditional Greek party and the memorable Cirque Fantastic, showcasing some eye-watering acrobatics. Evenings were fronted by ebullient cruise director, Tereza (her mantra: ‘life is good’), while performers were a hugely talented mix of singers, dancers, acrobats, and even a classically trained ballerina, some of whom are surely destined for the West End.
Seemingly against our will, we fell into something of an evening routine, starting with a poolside aperitif as the very talented El Greco band played, and settling in to the after-dinner cabaret show, sometimes punctuated by stopping for some classical piano in the lounge en route to the main event. It seems cruising has a way of truly getting under your skin.
How to book
Celestyal’s seven-night Idyllic Aegean cruise costs from £699 per person. Price includes all meals, select drinks with meals, daily activities, port charges and gratuities. Call Celestyal on 0800 411 8038 or visit celestyal.com. While the Crystal is no longer doing the seven-night Aegean trips, the Idyllic Aegean can be taken on Celestyal’s new boat, Journey, which launched in September. Sky Express offers daily flights between London Gatwick and Athens with prices starting from just £41.82 per person. For further reservations, visit skyexpress.gr.