CELESTYAL OLYMPIA PART TWO: MYKONOS

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Eighties elegance at sea; the Celestyal Olympia sets sail from Piraeus for the Aegean

Once clear of the port of Piraeus, the Celestyal Olympia cut an elegant swathe through Homer’s ancient, wine dark Aegean as we settled on our course for Mykonos. Lunch was being served, both at the upper deck buffet and in the main restaurant downstairs.

I opted to go alfresco, picking at some delicious souvlaki as the ship slipped neatly between a string of shimmering, arid looking islands flung at random across the sparkling emerald carpet of the Aegean. Sunlight danced on the water in the two swimming pools as the sound of on board bouzouki music caught the ears of seabirds wheeling in our wake. Warm breeze, ice cold ouzo- life felt good that late September afternoon.

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Mykonos revisited……

All too soon, a familiar, fondly remembered shape stirred me from my daydream as it breasted the line of the horizon, filling our view as it spread across the sea. Low, rolling hills took on depth and definition as the sun began to dip, taking on a sharper aspect. Indistinct dots on a headland morphed into a quintet of shimmering, petrified white windmills.

Time to say ‘hello again’ to dear old Mykonos, the hedonistic queen of the Dodecanese.

Yes, Mykonos is expensive compared to many other Greek islands, and there are those who think that it is over rated. But for me, the island retains an inherent, ageless charm that no amount of tacky souvenir shops can erase. It’s a magical place, almost adrift in time and space.

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Windmills on the waterfront, Mykonos

The Celestyal Olympia docked at the new port of Tourlos, and I was amazed at just how much that port has developed now from just a small pier surrounded by arid hills, into more or less an extension of the main town itself. A chain of small, biscuit coloured beaches has been grafted onto the sea shore here, lined with a run of bars, shops and tavernas that now runs right along the waterfront.

As a result it’s now busier, more bustling and colourful than before, and the yacht marina near the pier is now blossoming into a beautiful, expansive place in its own right. But, inevitably, I found myself drawn back along that ancient, cobbled quayside, and back towards the old town centre.

In the winding streets, shop lights shone on white bordered crazy paving. Bouquets of flaming red and cherry plants overflowed from painted baskets that hung below balconies framed by bright, electric blue shutters. Tables and chairs spilled out across every conceivable space as evening revellers sought out a place to dine. On the crown of the hill where the windmills stand, crowds gathered to watch the ritual, world famous Mykonos sunset.

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Mykonos sunset; twilight of the old Gods

I would normally have joined them, but this time I chose to grab a veranda seat on the upper level of a bar overlooking Little Venice. From there, with an ice cold Mythos beer to hand, I watched spellbound as the vast, crimson ball of the sun sagged slowly into the Aegean like some flaming piece of performance theatre. In the background, I could hear Louis Armstrong’s La Vie En Rose playing. The sound of Satchmo’s soft, cool trumpet notes kissing the flaring purple Mykonos twilight was almost too good to be true. I hardly dared breathe, in case I shattered the moment forever.

It was the end of the season in Mykonos, and the night air somehow felt heavy with the feeling of the impending winter’s hibernation. White capped waves flailed and thrashed against the quayside on Little Venice like the heralds of the coming darkness. It felt beautifully mellow, nostalgic and sentimental all at once.

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Mykonos at dusk. Magnetic and compelling.

But Mykonos will awaken again. Come the spring, she will stir lazily and smile at the first, welcome rays of the returning springtime sun. Tourist haunts, closed against the bony stillness of winter, will reopen. Plants will bloom. Life will flood back like spring water. And I, too, will return.

I mused on this as I walked back to the ship. Floodlit from bow to stern, the Celestyal Olympia was a towering, majestic presence, at once welcoming and reassuring. As I walked back on board, the sound of an acoustic guitar caught my ears.

Later, I sat in the spectacular, twelfth level high Viking Crown lounge, drinking prosecco as the lights of Mykonos glanced against the window panes before fading from sight like so many dying fireflies. The gentle shudder of the ship brought me out of my reverie, and set me to thinking about the upcoming ports of call on the morrow.

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CELESTYAL OLYMPIA TO THE GREEK ISLANDS PART ONE

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Celestyal Olympia at Santorini

I boarded the Celestyal Olympia at the port of Piraeus on September 26th for a short, four night run around the Greek islands and Turkey. Recently fresh from a multi million dollar overall refurbishment, the flagship of Celestyal Cruises looked  magnificent, her long white flank bathed in late summer sunshine as the passengers went on board.

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The Viking Crown aboard Celestyal Olympia

The ship has a long and interesting history. Built as the Song of America for Royal Caribbean back in 1982, she was the first ship in that company’s fleet to have a complete, wrap around Viking Crown lounge installed right around the funnel- a feature that, quite happily, still survives on board to this day.

In 1999, the ship was transferred to the UK based operator, Airtours, and sailed for them as the popular Sunbird. A few years later, she was bought by the as-then titled Louis Cruises, and chartered to another UK operator, Thomson Cruises, as the Thomson Destiny. At this stage, a set of penthouse suites, complete wit balconies, were added to the forward, upper structure of the ship.

A subsequent ship swap with Thomson meant another rebranding, this time as the  Louis Olympia. She then entered service from Piraeus, the port of Athens, on three and four night mini cruises to the Greek islands and Turkey, from March until November, and is usually laid up until the following spring.

Finally, with Louis itself transformed into the nascent Celestyal Cruises, the ship was renamed once more as the Celestyal Olympia. But this time, the company recognised that more than a simple renaming was in order to make the ship into an attractive, contemporary choice for short, port intensive cruises.

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Instantly familiar to many former RCCL passengers, the Selene Lounge now doubles as the ship’s disco

Celestyal Olympia was given a comprehensive refurbishment, with new TVs and fittings in every cabin, major enhancements to the Junior Suites on Deck Seven, and a vastly upgraded food operation, both in the main dining room and at the aft facing, enclosed upper deck buffet. With an emphasis on local Greek cuisine and regional wines, the ship was intended to be a floating, authentic complement to the places that she visits on each cruise.

The revitalised Celestyal Olympia then resumed service on the three and four day cruise circuit. Leaving Piraeus at 11.30 every Friday morning, the ship arrives in Mykonos that same evening for an approximately five hour stay.

Saturday morning finds her in the Turkish resort of Kusadasi for five hours, usually departing at one in the afternoon. By four thirty she is in the port of Patmos until around nine in the evening.

Sunday morning finds her in Heraklion until around noon, with the afternoon and early evening spent in Santorini. From here, she leaves for Piraeus, arriving back at around five the next morning. At 11.30 that same morning, she goes out again with a fresh complement of passengers.

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The Thalassa Bar, looking aft towards the Viking Crown

The longer, four day sailings also include a full Wednesday spent in Rhodes. As you can see, both cruises are short on time, though long in potential for seeing the sights. It needs a comfortable ship, capable of docking smartly in the smaller ports along the way, to maximise the full potential of this itinerary.

Hence my  return to the Celestyal Olympia on September 26th, to check out the four day cruise circuit. First of all, I wanted to get a good look at the re-imaged ship.

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The famous Argo Bar, looking aft towards the Selene Lounge

I was delighted to see that the Argo Bar- the one time Schooner Bar of RCCL days- retains it’s classic maritime theme, with coiled ropes and decorative furled sails, wooden decking and table groupings that lined the floor  to ceiling windows. It was a venue that featured a live acoustic duo each night, and it also had brilliant, attentive bar staff.

I was also much taken with the upper deck Thalassa Bar, a great attempt to recreate a classic Greek taverna on a terrace overlooking the twin pools. Complete with white painted tables and chairs with basket weave coverings, it was a joy to just sit here, sipping on ice cold ouzo as the ship slipped smartly between a series of sun kissed islands, sprinkled across a glittering seascape.

My refurbished Junior Suite on Seven Deck combined both space and grace. With shaded windows overlooking the Promenade Deck, it was easily big enough for twin beds, ample storage space, a full bathroom, a table, and full length sofa that could easily convert to another bed. I loved this room, both for its comfort and accessibility to every part of the ship. It’s always worth remembering that, although the Celestyal Olympia is a big enough ship for these short cruises, she is relatively small compared to today’s giant new vessels.

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Eighties elegance at sea; the Celestyal Olympia sets sail from Piraeus for the Aegean

As such, she represents the design ethos of the early 1980’s. With cabins mainly in the forward part of the vessel and stacked more or less in layers, the aft part of the ship contains most of the public rooms and lounges. It makes the Celestyal Olympia a very easy ship to navigate, even for those new to the cruising life.

Although the ship can accommodate around 1400 passengers, just over eight hundred actually came on board for this cruise; one of the last of the season out of Piraeus. So the ship seemed very spacious and, throughout four days, there were no real queues for anything. Both embarkation and disembarkation took mere minutes.

I had sailed on this ship before as the Thomson Destiny back in 2007, but I have to say that the food overall was of far better quality this time around. The main dining room- the Aegean Restaurant- was open sitting; it’s a loud, bubbly chamber where most passengers dine at night. But there was also a small, speciality option called the Galileo, just off the main restaurant entrance.

This is quieter, more subdued, and offered a few tables for two. It also featured a small, extra charge menu that included some memorable surf and turf, as well as fillet steak collections. With the more intimate surroundings and hushed tone here, this venue makes for a wonderful treat for a special occasion. And the service was first rate, too.

Up top, the Lido Buffet had also improved a lot from my previous cruise, from breakfast right through to dinner. Passengers in general do not dress up for dinner at night on these short trips- it’s not that kind of cruise experience. But it was, undeniably, a little piece of ‘Greece afloat’ and, in that respect, a far more authentic taste of these islands than many of the mega ships could offer.

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Looking aft from inside the upper level Viking Crown

Similarly, the entertainment was more low key, but much more in keeping with the region through which we sailed. It was wonderful to hear real, live bouzouki music played on board during our short spells at sea during the day. The typical Greek dancing ensued at night, and always attracted a good, energetic crowd. There was also a casino and a late night disco in the large, aft facing Selene Lounge. But for me, those guitarists in the Argo Bar won out every night.

So, that’s a short overview of how I spent four nights on the Celestyal Olympia. I found her to be a charming, captivating travel companion at all hours of the day and night. As well as the bars. pools and dining venues on board there was also a small shopping centre (though Celestyal really needs to have more of its own, branded products available for sale such as polo shirts, caps, etc), a spa, an internet cafe, and even a library, as well as laundry services available to all passengers.

The Celestyal Olympia is big enough to feel spacious and accommodating, and to allow enough choice on board without being overwhelmed. At the same time, she is also intimate and accessible, with everything to hand. And now, with all shore excursions folded into the on board fare, plus drinks and speciality coffees, the value to be found in board is very hard to beat.