Celestyal Cruises specialises in authentic Greek itineraries around the Aegean. Linda Aitchison reviews a cruise on Celestyal Olympia.
Santorini’s sleeping volcano looms large ahead as Celestyal Olympia sails through the glittering waters of the Aegean. Spotting the island’s steep, vivid cliffs, and then the crescent-shaped caldera, the crowd of passengers on deck fall silent – until our assistant cruise director comments that it looks a lot like a croissant. I’m unable to control my laughter – he’s right, it does look like a croissant.
It’s also breathtakingly beautiful: Santorini is the archetypal Greek island, with its iconic blue-domed, whitewashed houses. We anchor in open sea off the port of Old Fira, where tender boats bring us to Athinios Harbour. Apart from a line of tourist buses to welcome us, the port is quiet. We travel a steep, narrow winding road up 500 metres to the monastery of Profitis Ilias.
Here, the view is unforgettable. From the monastery’s peaceful gardens, above the village of Pyrgos, you can see most of the island spreading out beneath you and way beyond into the turquoise blue of the Aegean. There are now two cruise ships docked but our group is almost alone in this oasis of calm.
We leave the monastery and drive north, past the settlements of Kamari and Monolithos, through Fira, with an abundance of shops and cafés for tourists and the smaller, more traditional villages of Firostefani and Imerovigli, to Oia.
This is the island’s most scenic and famously filmed or photographed village, and it doesn’t disappoint, although it’s a lot more crowded. People jostle for position to take the best pictures, and there’s a bride and groom having their photo taken. I take the Santorini Cable Car back to Celestyal Olympia, laughing like a teenager as it judders into action at what seems like a very sharp angle. There’s plenty of time to mooch around in more shops before jumping on board a tender boat towards our ship where we watch the sun go down. I’m told this is one of the most beautiful sights on earth but this evening a hazy mist obscures the view. As the sky turns vivid orange, I remember the blue and white of Oia and later fall asleep dreaming of weddings in the sunshine. Santorini is not the first place in our Iconic Aegean cruise of five Greek Islands and Turkey where romance is in the air.
In Rhodes, our brilliant guide Michael reveals some 74 Dutch couples chose to marry together a few years ago in a beautiful church on the way to the unspoiled beach at St Paul’s Bay. He has me in stitches as he recalls anecdotes and traditions of a typical Greek wedding.
Did you know for example that the mothers-in-law fight over how the marital home will be decorated from the moment the engagement is announced? Or that the bride tends to stamp on the bridegroom’s foot as a joke… and some husbands have walked out at that moment?
Learning about local traditions is a big part of a Celeystal cruise, adding to the feeling that you are really immersing yourself in the culture and traditions of Greece and Turkey. Hospitality on board Celestyal Olympia, with Captain Stathis Romeos at the helm, reminds me of staying in a Greek island hotel; everyone is so friendly.