by Liz Fleming

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 longing to bask on pristine white beaches, a Celestyal cruise through the islands of Greece and Turkey is a must.

SantoriniSunset on the island of Santorini - Liupco/iStock

Athena, Ares, Hercules, Poseidon…. thanks to my older brother 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.

Parthenon SelfieSelfies at the Parthenon in Athens - Piola666/iStock

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.

MykonosEvening street scene in Mykonos Town - Starcevic/iStock

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. 

Sarakiniko, MilosSarakiniko on the island of Milos - Siete_Vidas/Shutterstock

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.

EphesusAncient theatre at Ephesus - Nejdet Duzen/Shutterstock

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 amphi-theater 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.

KusadasiVendor in the market at Kusadasi, Turkey - Remus Eserblom/iStock

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 on the island of Cesme.  We wandered the perfect beaches of the tiny island of Ios, tasted the finest Samian wine on the sunny shores of Samos, and shopped in raucous markets in Kusadasi, Turkey 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!

Greek SaladAndre Gric/iStock

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-counters 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 tummy-hiding pleats.

Celestyal CruisesCourtesy Celestyal Cruises

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.

Celestyal_JBSJunior Balcony Suite - Courtesy Celestyal Cruises

Staterooms are spacious and well-appointed and the public areas, open and inviting. A favorite spot for me was poolside, where I could enjoy a sunny breakfast, join in the afternoon games and activities or sip on a tall, cold something after a day ashore. The theater was the hub of the entertainment during the early evenings, but most nights saw us heading upstairs to the lounge/bar where the energetic staff led Zumba on the dance floor into the early hours of the morning.

 The Greek word “FIloxenia”, means “hospitality” and the elegant Celestyal Crystal, with her well-planned sailing itineraries that showcase the region perfectly, has clearly found the perfect motto.  

Originally published in Cruise & Travel Lifestyles Spring/Summer 2017 issue.

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