Why you Need to Take a Cruise Expedition Next time you Visit Greece
Cruising may have passed its glamorous 1920’s hey day, but it is still one of tourism’s fastest growing sectors. Millions of people cruise the world’s waters everyday. Worldwide, the industry is trying to shed cruising’s image problem and appeal to a broader client base by introducing more flexible itineraries, faster vessels and luxurious designer ships for a younger, hipper crowd: all the while, major cruising companies have been trying to introduce friendlier budgets so as to attract more clients each year.
Greece and the Mediterranean continue to be a popular destination and in the summer of 2007, together with the company of my workmates Harrison, John and Ashley, we went aboard the Olympia Explorer to test the waters. It was one of my most memorable and adventurous experiences.
It was a tough assignment. A seven-day Grand Mediterranean Cruise aboard the Olympia Explorer which, along with her sister ship, the Voyager, was reputedly one the fastest cruise ship in the world. A floating, or rather, speeding hotel that travels at 28 knots, taking you from Greece to Venice to Istanbul and back, with six other exotic ports of call along the way.
A Great Summer Voyage
It is a warm Friday afternoon as the taxi race down to Piraeus port in time for final boarding. Passengers and crew are in their life jackets, going through the safety drill. When I later find my life jacket on the bed in my cabin, I wonder if it is wise to have missed the drill. But I’ve seen enough disaster at sea movies to know what to do-panic and wait for some handsome, charismatic hero to get you through the ordeal unscathed. At times like this, it is best to remain a hopeless romantic.
Up on deck, the late afternoon sun gives Piraeus that special pink glow as we sail away to the bouzouki beat of Zorba’s theme, compliments of Mitch (a Romanian Tom Jones), who heads our versatile onboard entertainment team for the week. As Mitch gets passengers into the Greek spirit with chants of “opa, opa,” and “no ouzo, no cruiso,” we order a strong cocktail – Bon Voyage, indeed.
There are 829 passengers and 361 crew on board the German-built state-of-the art ship-the vessel in Royal Olympic’s fleet-which, in seven days, covers destinations that in the past would have take 10 or 11 but the vessel is revered for its speed.
After dinner, we take a tour of the ship. A crowd has gathered in the casino and the bars are full. In the Amber lounge, where the nightly shows take place, the evening’s theme is Greek, with Mitch and his sidekick Kiki, singing the predictable classics (in heavy Eastern European accents), while Greek waiters from the dining room join in for a round of traditional Greek dancing. I try not to cringe. The crowd seems to love it. We have our share of fun for the day before taking a rest.
As day breaks, having traveled 369 nautical miles overnight, we arrive in Corfu. A precision operation gets underway to get passengers onto waiting tour buses. We choose the excursion to the Achilleion Palace, the summer home of Austria’s Empress Sissy, which is packed with tour groups listening to stereo, surround-sound spiels in several languages. Dedicated to Achilles, the kitsch palace is decorated with statues of the god and her other heroes-including Shakespeare, who sits incongruously among the busts of Plato, Homer and other great minds of Ancient Greece. Sissy may have lucked out in her love life, but she could sure pick good real estate-the mountain and sea views are breathtaking.
On the drive back, we get a brief glimpse of the island and sprint through Corfu town, with its graceful Venetian buildings, grand promenade and cricket pitch. That was Corfu, in three and a half hours.
Back on board, there are games, lectures from historians and activities to keep you entertained until the evening gala cabaret show-when Mitch is transformed in shiny dinner jacket and bow-tie.
The Beauty of Venice
By morning, we have traveled another 486 nautical miles through the Ionian and Adriatic seas to Venice, where we have just over eight hours to see one of the most stunning cities in the world. What to do? Queue up for a look through the imposing Saint Mark’s Cathedral? Take a gondola ride? Take in the atmosphere at the landmark Florian cafe on San Marco Square? Buy a Murano glass souvenir?
We get lost in the maze of canals seeking a fix of the city and an espresso, quaff down some lunch, photograph a few canals and take a lightning tour of the Palazzo Ducale, with its famous Bridge of Sighs that connects the palace to the old prisons. After a last-minute dash for a gelati, we catch a vaporetto back to the ship and, before we know it, we are cruising out of Venice on the canal Della Guidecca.
Meanwhile, new passengers are taking videos of the safety drill and it’s time for the second dinner sitting. We decide to skip tonight’s “show time” which, you guessed it, Mitch and the usual suspects.
The Explorer is like a floating United Nations, its motley assortment of passengers clustering according to nationality and language. The group of badge-wearing Americans with names like Nancy, Betty, Dot and Bob turns out to be a contingent of Nomads, a Detroit-based non-profit travel club with their own plane and 12,000 members. “It’s like traveling with 93 friends,” explains Larry Dumouchelle, a retired printer.
It is the Nomads’ first foray into Greece (their plane flew directly to Athens). “This is very interesting, it’s a very old country, history seems to start here and just to see the ruins in person is so different to seeing it on TV,” says Harrison. “But you only have a few hours at each place and it’s not enough, it’s 101 history and you are not going to retain a lot of information.”
The latter is quickly confirmed by a fellow Nomad. “Our hotel in Athens was right under the Apocalypse,” she says.
Cruising through Awesome Ports of Europe
Day three, 302 nautical miles later, we arrive at the enchanting fortress town of Dubrovnik. Damaged during the 1990’s Yugoslav war, Dubrovnik has undergone major reconstruction. A map inside the Pile gate marks the city’s scars.
Dubrovnik is small and easy to navigate. A walk along the city walls, which span two kilometers, is a real highlight. The town’s oyster taverns regularly hold fierce eating competitions-the record is 300 oysters. The cobblestone pedestrian promenade is lined with stores and galleries, there’s an Irish pub and a group of Hari Krishnas is singing near the Onofrio fountain. Dubrovnik seems relieved to be back on the tourist map.
Back on board, it’s a full house on deck and at the internet cafe. We skip the line dance class and opt for a siesta before our second stop for the day-Bari.
The first port built by the Roman empire, Bari is a relatively unremarkable town, save for a Norman castle built in 1131, mid-way on the Adriatic coast. Bari once had extensive commercial ties with Greece and was alternatively fought over by the Romans, Lombards, Byzantines and Saracens. We arrive on a quiet Monday afternoon. Old men are playing cards in a square, a wedding is underway in the St Nicolas basilica, while outside the church grounds, they are setting up for a jazz concert.
John hangs along the maze of streets, while curtains flap in the breeze (their front doors curiously open directly onto the streets). Private chapels, often garishly-decorated, adorn the outside of many of the homes. We find ourselves back on board early. Three hours seems enough in Bari.
Olympic Speeds and the Culture of Greece in Shaping Olympic
By day four, Italy and Croatia are but a vague and distant memory. We are back in Greece, at the recently revamped port of Katakolon on the north western Peloponnese, which is attracting an increasing number of cruise ships visiting nearby Ancient Olympia.
Our guide takes us through the history and philosophy of the Olympic games, including the lesser-known female games-only bare-breasted local virgins could participate and men were not allowed to watch. The site gives some inkling of what was once there: the gymnasium, a 45,000-seat amphitheater, the 4,000 statues of the winners and a row for the cheats damned to eternal humiliation.
Four hours and a coffee in town later, we get back on board to find an invitation to cocktails and dinner at the captain’s table. It suddenly feels like an episode of the Love Boat.
At the cocktail party, everyone is decked out to the max, lining up for a welcoming handshake and pose with Captain Evgenios Misailidis. Contrary to popular misconception, not all the passengers are retirees and, while it is hardly a happening place for singles, there are several groups of young people and honeymooners aboard.
Sydney honeymooners Vicky & Jim, both 36, are on their fourth and third cruise, respectively, although this is their first together.
“We love boats so it’s our piece of cake,” says Jim. “It’s very romantic and has that old Titanic feeling. They take care to place you at the right tables at dinner, in the right age groups.”
The couple wanted a relaxing holiday after the hectic wedding preparations. “I like cruises because they are laid back and it’s a lovely way to see this part of the world”, adds Vicky. “I am not fussed about not having enough time at the ports because if you like a place, you can go back. I love the convenience and not wasting time with hotels and packing.”
At dinner, similar sentiments are echoed by two other honeymooning couples. “This way you can see a lot of islands and places in one week,” says Louis, a mid-20s American Express salesman from Toronto on his first cruise with new bride Dina. “It’s a beautiful boat, beautiful food, amazing service,” she says.
For Tom and Rose, from Michigan, a cruise was the ideal way to get their first taste of Europe, without having to worry about negotiating different languages, packing and transport. “It’s quick and you see twice as many places. We only have 11 days vacation.”
Not everybody is agreeable. At the other end of the table, a German woman in her late 40s is complaining loudly. “Too much culture. No more churches, no more museums. I need a smoke.”
Island Hopping to Enjoy the Stunning Views
On our final day, having sailed 320 nautical miles overnight, we have two Greek. Islands to visit. In Mykonos, Ashley and I skip the archaeological tour of nearby Delos, and opt for a walk through maze of Mykonos town. It is 9.30am and the island has hardly roused. The chic boutiques and galleries are starting to open; the island’s renowned bars are shut, giving it a misleading sleepy island feel.
Further along the waterfront, past the trademark Mykonos windmills, we find a table at one of the cafes in Little Venice, a picturesque quarter with balconies overhanging the sea. We have only four hours on the island and, after traversing the seas for nearly a week, I have yet to swim, so I opt for a dip in the town beach as I leave Ashley to enjoy the morning sunshine.
Back on board, most of my fellow passengers seem to prefer a berth on one of the sun lounges on the deck which prove a challenge to find. The pool is too small, complain Canadians Bob and Donna, who are used to the giant cruise ships of the Caribbean. They took this cruise to celebrate their 25th wedding anniversary. “The stops have been lovely but they are way too short. I’d rather go to fewer ports and stay longer,” she says.
Our final port of call is Santorini, the most stunning of the Cycladic islands. We have only three hours and it takes forever to get off the boat into a small ferry to take us via bus and a traffic jam to Oia. With three other cruise ships also in port, we find a huge crowd perched on the cliffs watching the famous sunset, to the flashes of cameras and loud applause. There is no time to stop at the boutiques or galleries or sit down and enjoy the stunning views of the caldera. We find a queue at the cable car going down to the port, so we opt for the path, dodging the donkey droppings in the dark. This is not the ideal way to see one of the most romantic of the Greek islands.
We are now back on board and heading to Piraeus. Like barman Dmitri , one of the many Romanians working onboard (there are 35 nationalities all up), we are looking forward to going home for a rest. After five months at sea, Dmitri is excited he will at least be at his daughter’s christening-she was born three days after he started on board. Like many of the crew, at the end of the European summer, he was heading to the Caribbean.