OUR GREEK ISLAND CRUISE

July 2016

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Our trip to the Greek Islands had an unusual genesis. Conceived as a family holiday, after an earlier attempt to arrange a holiday that would include all of us perhaps in Spain or Tuscany but that had gone nowhere because the planning had proved too difficult, it seemed suddenly that a cruise might be the answer! A cruise would  visit a variety of ports, without the inconvenience of car rentals or room changes and would likely be as cheap as the rented house.

Our proposed destination—the Greek Islands—was received with enthusiasm and having settled that we needed only to find dates that would suit everyone. There was a struggle on that but we were almost there, sitting in the travel agents on the phone with the last person to satisfy, who then told us that the last cruise date available didn’t work because of a hitherto undisclosed arrangement.

At that point, Lyn and I looked at each other and decided to book the trip for ourselves: Athens, Santorini, Rhodes, Mykonos, Kusadasi and ending in Istanbul. 

We had the trip and the excursions booked and flight plans finalized and were only a few days from departure when there was another hiccough: terrorists attacked the airport in Istanbul. The cruise line immediately announced that they had cut Istanbul from the itinerary but the airline didn't. So the cruise would put us back in Athens but our return flight was still leaving from Istanbul!

Reassured that we could indeed change our flights, we decided to wait until we reached Athens to rebook the return flights (rebooking involved cancelling the existing itinerary which might have jeopardized our arrival in Athens).

Preliminaries

Tunbridge Wells

We flew from Vancouver on Monday July 4 and were royally (starting with them picking us up from Heathrow and driving through the hell of London evening rush hour traffic to Tunbridge Wells which deserved a medal by itself) entertained for a couple of days by friends, Tony and Margot. Had to leave them all too early (for us anyway) to catch an early flight to Athens Friday 8th 9 am.

Athens

We arrived in Athens, took the (excellent) metro train in to a stop that was supposed to be near the hotel…and by George it was, only a couple of minutes walk away! We were in our room probably within an hour of landing. Sorting out our return flights was a priority and once we were in our room, we had a long and increasingly heated exchange with the airline. We could indeed change our flights but it was going to cost us about $5,000! We decided to book flights from Athens to Istanbul and get the original flights back from Istanbul. But that wasn't the end of the saga.

By that time it was late, so we had dinner at a sports bar on the street next to the hotel. Next morning, we took the same very convenient metro to the docks and began to trundle our bags towards the distant ships. But it seems that Celebrity had moved gates, so when an exasperated (in a kindly way) taxi driver drove up and offered to take us to the ship for free we took it and paid him 5€ anyway. We endured an airport-like embarkation process, boarded the Equinox, and found our cabin.

The Equinox

Lyn and I had never cruised before, thinking that cruising, like golf and croquet, was for older, overweight people, and we were neither.

Our cabin was comfortable, food was always available in one of the dining rooms and there were endless activities (table tennis, swimming, sunbathing, library, and many more if you are willing to pay for them). Much of the ship and many of the activities were devoted to the interests of the idle well-to-do. There were jewelry shows, make-up seminars, art auctions, and scads of “passive” health (massages, waxes, and acres of deck chairs on the sun decks). We accidentally opted for “Celebrity” dining, that allowed us to eat in one of the speciality dining rooms in the evening. This required slightly more formal dress (other restaurants went even further in this direction). However, we found the food limited and (for me) not significantly better and we opted for the rest of the cruise to eat in the informal main dining area where there was a considerable variety of food, to which we could help ourselves in our own time, and we could dress how we liked.[This seemed to distress Celebrity and they began phoning us to encourage us to go back to the specialized dining.]

We’re now sold on cruising, at least as one option. The convenience of stepping off the ship every morning, coming back when we liked (see later on this) to excellent paid-for meals and then relaxing for the rest of the day in any one of the many possible available ways of doing so turned out to be much to our liking. Lyn went to some iPad workshops, tried some exercise classes, lounged by the pool; I went to the library, played table tennis, went for coffee in the café, read, hung out on the veranda in our room. There are many appealing aspects of cruising that we hadn’t considered. We usually left one destination in the evening around 7 and arrived at the next at 7am next morning. The ship sailed at night and we slept with the door to our veranda door open; the sound of the sea slipping past the ship wafted in as a kind of white noise.

When we arrived in port, those interested and prepared (perhaps on arranged excursions) could leave the ship right away but we gathered that the “rush”, such as it was, happened around 10-10:30am. So we usually breakfasted (OED recognizes it as a verb, I checked) and were off the ship by 8:30am. There was seldom much of a delay in getting off the ship, either onto one of the tenders to take us to shore in Santorini, or directly onto the dock in the rest of the ports.

Our fellow passengers were a mix of nationalities; far Eastern, middle Eastern, European, Russian and a few North Americans. Funnily on this trip while we chatted with a few couples—people would share a table with us—we didn’t make any lasting contact with others.

Overview and expectations

I suppose I’d envisioned, without giving the idea much intelligent consideration, that the Greek Islands would consist of quaint fishing villages inhabited largely by goatherds living a bucolic life that hadn’t changed in millennia. Reality check: perhaps that life still exists on the more isolated islands but it probably took only a couple of cruise ships to deposit as many as 10,000 well-off westerners in the port one day, to to sweep out the rustic charm and bring in modern chic—art galleries boutiques and high-end real estate. Yet what was there still had charm: and all four destinations had a different character and points of interest that certainly filled a half day of languid tourism (the heat proving too oppressive by 2pm to consider much more activity).

SANTORINI

Santorini is a long, croissant shaped remnant of a long-ago volcanic explosion. The cruise ships stop (or ours did) opposite the capital city of Fira, which is perched on a cliff overlooking the bay. Passengers are ferried to the small pier at the bottom of a 1,300 foot cliff (by a flotilla of small boats run by locals. From the pier, one can take the gondola to the top, or a donkey up a cobbled road that zig-zags up the cliff face (circled left)...

...or walk up—as we did—in spite of the warnings about the donkeys. Yes, indeedy, there were about 100 donkeys tethered alongside the path at the bottom and we met further groups of them being herded down. Donkey droppings formed a subtle underfoot layer for the trip. The owners were not friendly. Clearly business was bad (we heard of only one couple from the ship who took a donkey-ride to the top and those that asked were shocked to hear that we walked up) and one could understand that rich foreigners “avoiding” the 10€ ride were not appreciated.

The town at the top was delightful. Clean, very safe to walk in, and with spectacular character (see photos). We wiggled our way across town to the bus terminal and found a bus to Oia (we-ah) that left every 20 minutes. On the bus, we encountered a certain Greek character that we had come across in Crete. The driver, smoking a cigarette directly under the sign that said “No Smoking”, answered our questions with minimal responses: “Going to Oia?” (waves us onto bus); "when do you leave?" (“soon”); "how Title: Oiamuch?"; (vague wave); "how to pay?" (“later”). Then we remembered that a different person came down the bus (somehow: even the aisles were jammed by the time we left) and collected the fares on the journey. Fares were 1.80€ each; the ticket collector gave us 1€ change from a 5€ note, stiffing us .40€ with the vague explanation that he had no change but on the return journey wouldn’t let us off with 3.50€, claiming that "they" would throw him in jail, and giving him the chance to stiff us again!

The trip took about 20 minutes. We were let off in a square (the bus turns around here) and walked uphill through twisted, narrow streets to the top, where we could look out on the rest of the island. There is plenty to see: beautiful little galleries, upscale coffee-houses and bars.

We spent a couple of hours in Oia and then took the bus back to Fira (goes every 20 minutes). Walked up into town and found the restaurant that we’d spotted on the way that morning. Had a great lunch—including a grilled octopus that we never did find again on a menu for a comparable price—did a little more sightseeing and then took the gondola back down to the dock and were back on the ship within about half an hour.

Corrected impressions

The cruise ship, anxious probably to sell shore excursions rather than have people find their own way, provided little in the way of information about buses on Santorini and their comment that the service was unreliable proved inaccurate. In fact the buses were easy to find, arrived apparently on time and were very cheap.

If we wanted there would have been plenty of time for us to also make our way South, to the ruins of Akrotiri, and to look around there. But it was already 35C and we had walked a fair distance so we decided against it. We would after all be seeing our share of ruins in Ephesus and as you well know, if you’ve seen one ruin you’ve pretty well seen them all.

RHODES

Rhodes was a different island altogether. It is much bigger, and politically more substantial, since its proximity to the mainland made it a strategic location for the region in Roman times and later served as a centre for the Crusades and for Christian defence against Muslim advances generally.

We docked immediately opposite the town, and were easily able to navigate the shoreline and make our way to the “Old Town” the historic centre. We arrived, after some 15 minutes of meandering, at the far end of the Street of Knights. We took a few minutes to make sure that there was no much to look at further out (or if there was, it was difficult to find on foot), and walked back down the Street of Knights, checking our map for the market hotspots.

There wasn’t much to help us. We did stumble on a map of the Street of Knights…mounted on the walls of an alleyway off the street itself. And while it did provide us with identification of the buildings, it didn’t do much more. We found the Auberge where the French knights had stayed. Apparently, knights of England, France and Spain had all assembled here to fight the Muslim invasion and lived in apparent harmony for a century while the fracas was on. However, the person who gave us this information turned out to be the artist who was displaying his wares in the upstairs rooms, so we’re not sure how accurate it is.

The Museum of Archeology (shown on the map above) was further along off the Street of Knights, and we paid some 20€ to get in. We were given a map of the exhibits but, standing inside the entrance, we couldn’t relate the map to what we could see inside, and there didn’t seem to be much here. Having nothing better to do, we wandered up some steps to an upper floor and suddenly discovered a wealth of excellent exhibits. We got half way round this before realizing that we were proceeding in the wrong direction; that dates were receding in time. No, we hadn’t missed a sign; there wasn’t one!

Rhodes is somewhat misrepresented in the brochures. The Island may have been of central interest to the Christians in the 15th and 16th centuries but there was substantial history before that in the form of Roman, Greek and even earlier societies. This was of course where the great Colossus of Rhodes straddled the harbour for some fifty years, before it was toppled by an earthquake around 200 BC. The rubble lay around for 800 years, much revered by the locals. Unfortunately a conquering Muslim sold the lot (so rumour has it) to a Jewish merchant who shipped the pieces away and it is now lost.

The port is surrounded by a substantial fortress wall and we made our way back towards the shoreline, checking out the shops and markets that line the wall on the inner side. Can’t remember where we ate here but I believe we found some sort of treed and sheltered spot…with yowling cats in the vicinity. Found our way back to the ship by about 2pm again and spent the afternoon relaxing on board.

Of chief “interest” on Rhodes is that as we walked mainly in the fortressed old town we didn’t see much of the native architecture of Rhodes. As we would later see an interesting difference between the look and feel of Santorini and that of Mykonos, it would have been worthwhile to see some of the outskirts of Rhodes to see if here too, there was a different character.

Mykonos

The ship docked in Mykonos port, a little way along the shoreline from the town itself. It would only have been a 15 minute walk but shuttle buses were available that dropped us off at the edge of town. The town streets apparently were designed in such a way as to baffle the pirates who used to threaten these parts and they do an equally good job on tourists: the purple track of our progress (map below) is approximate!

The streets of Mykonos are tiny. Small trucks, apparently designed only for Mykonos, scrape their way along these streets bringing produce and other supplies to the stores, and as they pass, pedestrians paste themselves to the walls to allow them through. And that is just the main streets! There are others that barely have room for a bicycle.

Everything is upscale here too. We were told on the ship that “Giorgio” owns the major jewelry stores along the front and clearly runs the town, and sure enough, we found Giorgio, a George Hamilton look-alike, outside his store, greeting everyone making their way into town, and trying to gently guide us into his store. Fortunately, Giorgio is obviously so well off that he doesn’t have to press, and (more likely) others coming up behind looked richer, so we were able to politely decline and moved on. We worked our way through crooked streets, up a hill, and stumbled on the Maritime Museum (marked on our map). It was closed for that time of day (ironically, when tourists typically come by) and wasn’t much bigger than a closet anyway so it is unlikely that we missed much. We had similar experiences at all the interest spots on Mykonos and wondered whether in fact there was anything historical to see. We eventually gave up and located a restaurant where, serenaded by a howling cat, we had coffee and a snack, and moved on.

We headed now to the “bus terminal” which wasn’t as much a terminal as a turnaround, where buses occasionally showed up, people got on, and left again. There were no timetables that we could see so we grabbed a bus that eventually appeared, and got lucky: it was going to our destination: the monastery at Ano Mero a bit out of town.

Buses here generally head to the many beaches around Mykonos and our bus was of course mostly filled with beachgoers. But the ride only took about 20 minutes. The driver dropped us off but was cagey when asked when buses went in the other direction. “Every hour” said he, and all efforts to ascertain when in the hour led to the same response.

The monastery still houses some seven or so monks, and was of some interest. But we had finished our look around in about 15 minutes and made our way up to a nearby square for a bit of lunch (more cats). This was a so-so lunch and quite expensive.

The bus back was more of a bother. The sole timetable posted threatened us with a 4pm next departure which was 2 hours away which wasn't wasn’t appealing. We waited about 20 minutes but couldn’t find a cab and then luckily a few people began to show up. A wrinkled crone, when asked, signalled 2.5 fingers and sure enough at 2:45 the bus appeared and we hopped on. Back in town in 20 minutes and back on the ship in 30.

Kusadasi/Ephesus

We docked at 7am next day in the port of Kusadasi (Kooshadassy) in Turkey and minutes later Cunard’s Queen Victoria crept in alongside. We phoned the agency that was putting on our excursion to Ephesus. We were booked to leave at 9:30 am but they were keen to leave soon (because of the heat in the middle of the day) so we compromised and agreed on 8:30am. This gave us time to have a quick breakfast and we headed off the ship at 8:15 to find our guide outside. It turned out we were the only customers for her that day, hence the anxiety to get away!

The ruins that are left of the ancient city of Ephesus are about 40 minutes drive from Kusadasi. We made our way out of town expecting (or I was expecting) sand and rocky desert but that proved completely wrong. Instead we drove through greenery: orchards of oranges, figs, olives; and in places, pine and cypress forest.

Ephesus, until nature decided some thousand or more years ago, to change things around a bit, was the main port of the area. The Hittites settled it first, about 6,000 years ago, then the Greeks over-ran them, then the Romans over-ran the Greeks. Roman settlement now forms the bulk of the top layer of ruins that we saw, but there are Greek and Hittite artifacts still to be found beneath that armies of archeologists are still struggling to get at. The whole is still an active archeological site, and here and there as we went through, groups of workers were to be found carefully brushing off an area or restoring frescoes.

For later Christians this is of course where Saint Paul had his epiphany, and just off the coast on the island of Samos, Saint John (he of the Gospel) wrote the Book of Revelations in a cave).

In the first photo above, note the circled buildings on the left. We would (for an extra fee) walk up inside this to look at the ongoing excavation of apartments for the rich of Ephesus. The photo on the left is inside those buildings.

Details on Ephesus are beyond the scope and likely the interest of those reading but if not, the Wikipedia entry will provide more.

On the way back from Ephesus, we visited the shrine to Mary, much visited by Nigerian religious dignitaries. And then we dropped in on a family-run ceramic business, to see how their various plates, bowls, decanters and other products are produced. I don’t think I’ve seen a more convincing demonstration of the difference between commercial knock-offs and their crafted work: when tapped, a cheap bowl produced what I would have expected, a dull bonk; and their product, gave off a rich bell-like ring that lasted several seconds.

We also saw a factory outlet for leather goods—another product of the region. These were very upscale jackets and coats. While Lyn was downstairs actually looking at possibilities I thought I’d check on a the price of a jacket that I might have considered buying, if—as I hoped—this really was a factory outlet and prices would be reasonable. Translating the price into C$ from what I assumed were Turkish Lira I thought that the $1,000 was more than I wanted to spend but when Lyn came back she told me that the prices were in US$ and the jacket was therefore $2,200!

We got back to Kusadasi and thanked our guide. Made our way through the sequence of security checks of the terminal and then through the barrage of hawkers trying to sell us good, and onto the ship. Lyn foolishly ventured back out later in the afternoon and regretted it. The products were crap and the hawkers oppressive.

Athens

The Equinox left the dock at Kusadasi and headed for Athens. This would be a leisurely leg to the cruise; the Queen Victoria left the dock some twenty minutes behind us and literally sped past us within the hour. We were cruising, I later found on the navigation channel on TV, at 6 knots—about 11 kph.

So it took us about 36 hours to reach Athens. The evening before we docked we received our disembarkation instructions which let us know that while we once had been valued clients, we were now persona non grata as they wanted to get the ship ready for the next batch of fleecees.

But no problem: we were off the ship by 8:30 am and opted to take one of the 50 or so cabs waiting for us at the dock. The cab driver wasn’t too happy to be losing his place in the queue for a mere 5€ when other cabs were getting a 50€ trip to the airport but we sweetened the pot to 10€ and he grumbled but relented. The hotel proved its worth once again and we were in our room within 30 mins. We’d heard that the Acropolis was within walking distance of the hotel and so we set off down the street we were on and within seconds, spotted what we’d not seen through the trees until now, the Acropolis on the hilltop ahead. We were there, walking, within about 20 minutes, and inside (a bit of a line) within the hour. It is more imposing than we had imagined…except for the fact that a huge crane, helping the renovations, was currently obstructing the view. We “did” the Acropolis then headed down the other side and stumbled across the museum, which was almost as impressive.

The trip back

On the last night of the cruise, we heard of the attempted coup in Turkey and were a bit nervous about the downtown hotel we'd booked in Istanbul so decided to book a hotel at the other airport (we were coming in at one and leaving from another) However, that concern was, within short order, replaced by a greater consternation when we received an email telling us that BA had cancelled the flight from Istanbul to Heathrow!

In the end, after a slew of flight and hotel cancellations and rebookings of other flights and hotels bookings, we managed to fly directly from Athens to connect with the original flight from Heathrow to Vancouver, and were even more relieved to have Dean meet us at the airport. But we’re still (at the time of writing) waiting for the refunds we are supposed to receive from BA.

Afterthoughts

We liked the cruise but the cruise line and the ship were a little big for our comfort.

I should put our reservations in context. The personnel on the ship provided uniformly excellent service and Celebrity were very good about responding to our request for a partial refund. We also met many people on board who couldn’t say enough good things about their experience, so clearly the criticisms are mostly about our (newly acquired) personal preferences for cruises.

Next time we will look for a European based cruise line and a smaller ship, and perhaps river cruising.

The last day of our trip, July 18th 2016, marked 25 years since Lynda and John met, hiking up Grouse Mountain in 1991!