Tag Archives: greek islands

THE CELESTYAL CRYSTAL PART FOUR: TIME OUT IN THE TIMELESS ISLANDS

SANTORINI
Santorini from the heights

Though our week long cruise on the CelestyalCrystal would be very destination intensive, the extended stays at most of the places we visited meant that there was not always a hard and fast rush for me to need to get ashore. Especially if, like me, you know most of those islands very well indeed. In fact, returning to these wonderful islands is like revisiting old friends these days in so many ways.

And, to sure, it seemed wise to make time just to enjoy one of the smaller, more laid back of the Greek Islands- the CelestyalCrystal herself.

Naturally, most people cannot wait to get ashore to visit the islands themselves, and the lowering of gangways and/or tender boats at most ports soon produced an exodus of eager travellers, ready to get off the ship and get into full exploration mode. Those days, the ship would often go from boisterous and bubbly mode to calm, sedate repose in a matter of minutes.

To be clear, those were moments to treasure; just the simple, pared down pleasures of a well run ship on a bright, sunny day is a tonic for all sorts of things. A warm breeze, a cold beer, some delicious ice cream, maybe a book… this is what I always define as platinum chip quality relaxation time.

Always in the background is the crew, going through the ballet of the daily duty roster. At any port of call, around thirty per cent of the crew is obliged to remain on the ship, both to keep essential services (eg, the supply of cold ice cream) running, as well as to provide an adequate safety cover over all of the different departments on board.

These moments when a ship seems to draw breath, to gather herself and get ready for the next port of call, are ones worth savouring. All around you, people are working hard to prep and primp the surroundings. getting them ready for returning passengers and the occasional, small groups of visiting travel agents and port officials.

It’s always worth watching the expressions on the faces of those visitors as they are ushered from lounge to lido, pool deck to dining rooms. They always seem to look with envy at any passengers around in, say, the Jacuzzi, or on a comfortable deck chair.  It’s true of every ship in every situation. I’ve seen it so many times now over the years.

Of course, you can take your time over breakfast and lunch, too. Meander in and out of the buffet as many times as the mood takes you. Curl up with a cappuccino, or enjoy a few languid laps in the sparkling pool. Too hot out in that mid-day sun? Head for cover in one of the air conditioned, near deserted lounges, and just lose yourself in a book for an hour or so.

I love the slower, smooth tempo of those days, especially on a really port intensive cruise like this one. These cruises are like some fantastic fairground ride, whirling you through a carousel of islands of all shapes, sizes and colours. But, every now and then, it’s kind of nice to step off that carousel, to gather your breath, and just glory in all the good stuff that is around you, right at that very moment. You can jump right back into the fun places the minute that you’re ready to.

And sure, there’s something quite sublime and magical about tendering ashore to Santorini at about six in the evening when the crowds are still all ashore, up in the hills, but the worst of the heat has begun to fade. The play of the slowly setting sun against those massive, imperious rock formations is really something else to behold.

Watching those vast, grizzled walls of ancient granite turning shades of gold, green and burnished rust is spellbinding stuff. Early evening in the islands throws up all sorts of beautiful sun and seascapes that the sheer brilliance of the noon day sun largely negates.

A kind of low, shimmering rosy haze dusts the line of the horizon as the sea turns a fine shade of blush red. Walls of rock embrace you even as they blacken in the shade of the setting sun. Sunlight glances against a wine carafe standing sentinel atop a chequered table cloth, sitting above a gnarled stone quayside where idly bobbing, brightly coloured fishing boats sit tethered like sated swans. Seabirds arc, dive and swoop against a backdrop soundtrack of chirping tree frogs and sizzling sea food, probably freshly caught that same morning. The sounds of bouzouki music begins to kick in from some local musicians, playing in one of the nearby bars.

It’s a tender, mellow time of day, and it showcases these wonderful islands in an entirely different light. Quite literally, as it turns out. And, as sunset softens and fades like slowly vanishing fog, the first glimmering stars make their appearance, ‘like pin pricks in the fabric of the universe’ as someone once wrote quite wonderfully.

Forget the shopping. Forget the history. Just for now, at any rate. This is Greece in the raw; stunning, magnificent and almost bereft of crowds, even in the last, lingering days of high summer.  Intimate and yet grand at the same time, low key and languid,  it’s a dreamscape wrought in stone, sky, sea and time. And yet, one in which you are completely and utterly wide awake.

Lovely stuff.

Advertisements

CELESTYAL CRYSTAL PART TWO: GETTING TO KNOW THE SHIP……

CC

Our week long Greek Islands and Turkey cruise was not my first time on the Celestyal Crystal; in fact, it was my third trip sailing aboard her in these waters since 2012. So, to me, she is a ship that is quite familiar. And, being quite small, her size lends her an air of informal intimacy that is one of the things that I really do love about her.

She’s also quite endearingly quirky; originally built as a car ferry for the Baltic trade and then extensively rebuilt to work as a cruise ship, the Celestyal Crystal is a wonderfully angular piece of seagoing architecture; very much a one-off ship. In comparison to many of the huge, purpose built floating resorts of the moment, she’s quite an enigmatic little ship, and one well worth getting to know.

Size wise, she comes in at a svelte 25,611 tons. There are 476 cabins, of which something like fifty-three are balcony suites. Of the remainder, some 163 are inside rooms.

The rooms on Two Deck are pretty small but, as you move up the ship, cabins open out in terms of space. I was in a Four Deck cabin on this trip-4221, to be precise- and it came in at around 170 square feet overall.

With that came twin beds that could convert to a double, and a comfortable sofa and table combination in a separate sitting area. There’s a good sized television with about a dozen channels. Wardrobe space is decent, as is the open drawer space. Because the Celestyal Crystal is a pretty informal ship in terms of evening dress, you won’t have to overdo it on the formal wear front.

The bathroom is small, with a toilet and shower only and a selection of in room toiletries, but it’s surprising how easily you manage. And the shower, too, was really good. In general the room was much like the rest of the ship, solid, functional and comfortable, easy to navigate and pretty handy for everything. In fact, two of the four lifts and the main, after staircase were literally right outside my door.

On this cruise, the Celestyal Crystal was full to capacity, with around 1200 passengers booked for the week long round trip from Piraeus. It was a fascinating mix of passengers: Greeks, Spanish, French, Germans, Canadians, Americans- even a handful of Brits. Over the week, it would coalesce into a pretty easy going, well mannered crowd, one that was well looked after by the ship’s crew of 406.

Touring the ship was akin to rediscovering an old friend. I’d quite forgotten how charming the Thalassa Bar and Terrace at the back of Five Deck is, with it’s centrally located hot tub overlooking the stern, and scores of wicker chairs and tables scattered across the fantail. With the port side reserved for smokers, it became a popular hangout at all hours of the day and night. In fact, it was nothing unusual to see scores of people sitting out there in the small hours of the morning, enjoying the balmy Aegean breezes.

Centre stage, at the top of the ship is a small pool set on a teak deck, surrounded by cafe style tables and chairs. It has a sliding, perspex roof overhead, perfect for shelter from the sun when needed. With a forward bar- the Helios- and live music both at lunch and dinner, this was an intimate, raffish little place to just kick back as the ship meandered between the hedonistic sprawl of the Greek Islands.

You’ll find sun loungers aplenty on the deck overlooking the pool, and on the stepped series of terraced decks at the stern.

Aft of that pool complex is a pair of buffet restaurants set up for breakfast, lunch, afternoon tea, and dinner. The offerings are the same in both sections, but with some delightfully indulgent Greek twists. After all, when was the last time that you saw chicken wraps on an afternoon tea buffet? And delicious they were, too.

In terms of interior spaces, there was the main Muses Lounge on Eight Deck; a forward facing show lounge set on two levels, this was the main venue for the evening production shows held on board. It leads neatly into the Eros Lounge, with it’s row of floor to ceiling windows facing out to port. This was a popular, late night venue for some sultry, after dinner samba and soft rock.

There’s also a full service spa up here on Nine Deck, with all the treatments that you could want at an extra charge.

There is a small, adjacent Sports Bar and a neat little casino here, too, but the other main public room is the surprisingly large disco, wrapped around the ship’s funnel on Deck Ten. It has glass walls looking out on three sides, an aft facing bar, and a decent sized dance floor for such a small ship. On our cruise, the disco was invariably full most nights, right through until the early morning hours.

There are two main formal, sit down dining venues, one aft on Eight Deck, and the other on Five Deck. Both are open seating and, on our itinerary, they offered full dinner service right up until 2200 each night. And, while it was wonderful most nights to just kick back and enjoy dinner and live music under the stars, sometimes it did make for a nice change to just come inside and enjoy some succulent Greek and international fare, served with a lot of flair.

With Celestyal, all drinks come included in the fare, together with something like three complimentary shore excursions per passenger. In terms of the drinks, there’s the option to upgrade to a premium package that includes brands such as Havana Club, Grey Goose and house champagne for around fifteen euros a day. It’s a good deal but, to be honest, many people will find the included drinks package more than enough to be getting on with.

As with most European cruise ships, in cabin breakfasts and a basic, ‘any time’ menu that includes pizza, burgers and other fast food, comes in at an extra charge. There is no midnight buffet or late night snacks service as such but, to be honest, you don’t really miss it, either.

Five Deck houses the reception and shore excursions desks, as well as a small shopping area that has everything from sweets to fine couture, sun tan lotion to fine perfumes. It’s only allowed to open while the ship is actually at sea, with the opening hours usually being posted on the shop’s glass door.

So, this is the Celestyal Crystal. She’s intimate, warm, unpretentious, bright and pretty.  Yes, sometimes she’ll feel crowded when you’re looking for a lunch table, but the crew works wonders at clearing tables. And, in terms of a crew that is hard working and eager to please, you’d be hard put to find better on any line anywhere.

So- this is our ship. Grab a chair on the Thalassa Terrace, and watch the twinkling lights of Piraeus disappear over the rim of your wine glass. There’s a lot of fun in store over the next few days…….

CELESTYAL CRYSTAL COMMENCES 2018 ‘IDYLLIC AEGEAN’ SEASON

CC
Celestyal Crystal

In her first summer season back in the Aegean after several years out in Cuba, Celestyal Cruises’ popular 24,000 ton, 1,200 passenger Celestyal Crystal has embarked on a series of seven night sailings- known as the Idyllic Aegean itineraries- out of her home port of Piraeus, Athens.

These are very different from the normal Celestyal offerings on a number of fronts. Firstly, the vessel sails at 2100 in the evening, thus actually allowing passengers from Europe to fly in on embarkation day itself. The normal, 1130 in the morning sailings so typical of the three and four night itineraries usually mandate an overnight stay in either Piraeus or Athens itself.

Central to this new itinerary is a pair of overnight stops at both Mykonos and Santorini, allowing passengers ample time to sample both the famous Mykonos beach and nightlife scene, as well as the sublime experience of enjoying the summer sunset from atop Santorini’s lofty cliff top town of Oia.

Other ports along the way include a new, first time call into Milos, as well as full day stays at both Heraklion, with it’s fabulous Palace of Knossos and nearby resort life at Aghios Nikolaios, and also at Turkey’s beautiful, breezy seaside port of Kusadasi, an easy access point for the nearby ruins of once mighty Ephesus.

Uniquely among niche Greek Island operators, Celestyal includes complimentary shore excursions at many of the banner ports en route, as well as tips and an all inclusive drinks package.

All things considered, this longer cruise allows for more interaction and immersion with some of the most seductive, sought after destinations in the Aegean when they are at their most popular, at the height of summer. And the pretty little Celestyal Crystal offers a more intimate, truly immersive, Greek style experience and ambience that the big, international cruise ships simply cannot replicate.

CELESTYAL OLYMPIA PART TWO: MYKONOS

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
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.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
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.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
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.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
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.

OLYMPUS DIGITAL CAMERA
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.

CELESTYAL CRUISES: GREECE IS THE WORD…..

CELESTYAL OLYMPIA
Celestyal Olympia at Santorini

Following on from the recent Norway trip on Fred. Olsen, here’s a heads up on the next one in this year’s calendar.

I’ll be joining Celestyal Cruises’ 38,000 ton flagship, the Celestyal Olympia, for a short, four night cruise from Athens to the Greek islands and Turkey, sailing on September 26th and flying home on the 30th. Short, for sure, but awfully sweet as well.

A number of factors influenced my choice. Here’s the breakdown of those;

SHEER INCLUSVITY

The mutual proximity of the Greek islands and Turkish mainland to each other means that you can pack in an almost unimaginable amount of sightseeing in just those four days. Should I really decide to push the boat out- pun wholly intentional- I could see and savour a whole raft of sights, many of them rated as UNESCO World Heritage experiences.

Ftom Kusadasi, I could see the magnificent, swaggering ruins of the preserved city of Ephesus (and on my birthday too, no less). There is the stunning Library of Celsus, the House of the Virgin Mary, the magnificent amphitheatre, and the vast, marbled central axis that Anthony and Cleopatra once strolled. Not bad, eh?

Mere hours later, from Patmos I could visit the Holy Monastery of St. John, where the great man is said to have written the Book of Revelations, as well as visit the Cave of The Apocalypse. For anyone with even a passing interest in either history and/or religion, that would rank as reason enough alone to make this trip.

The next day- a full day in Rhodes- I could take in the stark, isolated splendour of the Acropolis at Lindos, or tour the still formidable Palace of the Grand Masters that dominates the old town of Rhodes. I could stroll the ancient, cobble stone lanes of Rhodes Town, where the Knights Templar once fought and died in their vain attempts to hold on to the island. On an island like Rhodes, the echoes of history are, quite literally, just around every corner.

Crete next and, from the port of Heraklion, I could visit the magnificent, recreated Palace of Knossos, with its links to the fabled Minotaur, the legendary half man- half bull that supposedly roamed the corridors here. Or I could simply take in the harbour itself, with its magnificent Venetian fortress at the entrance. Not a bad morning’s enlightenment on offer there.

The same afternoon, I can take in the view from the legendary caldera of Santorini, where white painted houses look like bits of frosted wedding cake, clinging to the rim of the long extinct volcano. Thought by many to be the sight of the fabled ‘lost city’ of Atlantis, the views down into the lagoon are rightly regarded as some of the most awe inspiring, heart stopping vistas anywhere on the planet.

Not bad in four days, eh?

THE COMFORT FACTOR

Celestyal Oympia is the ideal sized ship for cruising these idyllic waters. Big enough to showcase a variety of bars, lounges and restaurants that offer up local as well as international favourites; yet still small and intimate enough to find her way into the chic, more sedate little places that make cruising these waters such a rewarding experience.

Recently refurbished quite extensively, the ship is freshly primped, with all new menus featuring food for all tastes, from basics such as burgers to bountiful Greek fare. This particular cruise has a wine and cheese theme, as it happens.

Everything on board is handy, easy to reach, and expansive enough to relax in during our short spells at sea between islands. The cabins are comfortable, stylish and more than commodious enough for a short cruise like this one.

And-from 2017- Celestyal Cruises are also featuring fully inclusive fares that cover shore excursions, together with an all inclusive drinks package, as well as food and accommodation on board. This makes perfect sense as it creates a seamless, worry free product. Good forward thinking.

THE TIME OF YEAR

While cruising the Greek Islands is idyllic in high summer, I prefer the slightly cooler days of autumn- and indeed early spring- for my voyages in the region. There are not quite so many tourists, the heat is less intense and-in September/October in particular- the whole atmosphere is a little more mellow and reflective; a truly nice way to end the summer traveling season, without using a lot of valuable holiday time or, indeed, breaking the bank.

THE FEEL GOOD FACTOR

While Greece and Turkey are truly awash with historical lore, few other places on earth offer so many opportunities to just ‘kick back’ and enjoy the indolent, laid back pace that makes these waters so damned compelling. Whether watching a legendary Mykonos sunset from the quay just outside Jackie O’s, or savouring exquisite souvlaki on the Patmos waterfront, there are little moments for self indulgence that just stand out as if writ large in spotlights.

Few things beat an ice cold beer in Rhodes Town after a few hours’ spent strolling the ancient streets and magnificent sights. On Santorini’s almost exalted peak, a glass of wine takes taste to new heights. And that first, early morning coffee at a waterfront café in Heraklion is truly something special to savour, too.

So; these are my reasons. In the fullness of time, no doubt you will find your own. And, believe me, few other parts of the world are worth taking time out for so much as these ancient, seemingly enchanted Aegean idylls.

 

CELESTYAL CRUISES GO ALL INCLUSIVE FOR 2017

CELESTYAL OLYMPIA
Celestyal Olympia at Santorini

Celestyal Cruises, the company that leads the way in small ship, destination intensive itineraries around the Greek Isles and Turkey, is going all inclusive for the 2017 season.

The company currently operates a trio of vessels- Celestyal Olympia, Celestyal Cristal and Celestayl Nefeli- on a series of three, four and seven night cruises from March through to November, sailing from ports around the Athens area, to such storied destinations as Mykonos, Rhodes, Istanbul and Kusadasi, among others.

As of 2017, these cruises will now be offered as an all inclusive package, with all drinks and shore excursions ashore bundled into the lead in fare as standard, creating great value packages that should appeal to family groups and singles of all ages.

For instance, a three night cruise in April from the port of Lavrion, some sixty kilometres south of Athens, visits Mykonos, Kusadasi, Patmos, Heraklion and Santorini. Fares for this sailing start from 422 euros per person, based on two people sharing an inside cabin, and include all the perks of the new all inclusive fares.

Such breaks are perfect for groups of friends looking to travel together, as well as for first time cruisers, and those looking for a quick, cost effective post winter break that does not really eat into valuable holiday time allowances too much.

I’ll be on the Celestyal Olympia later this month, so you can expect a full review of the experience, plus photos, on my return.

As ever, stay tuned.