During the summer of 2015, I participated in a well-planned but whirlwind media cruise/tour of Greece and Turkey hosted by Cyprus-based Celestyal Cruises, previously known as Louis Cruises when the line featured a sometimes bewildering variety of rather tired older vessels nearing the ends of their careers. Today it’s a different story, as the line now operates just a few still older but immaculately maintained ships that suit their intended purposes admirably.
Happily, providing the spirit, culture and physical beauty of Greece itself, as I’d discovered on a Louis sailing quite a few years ago, still seems to inhabit Celestyal’s itineraries today.
An Island Agenda
Not only did we cruise aboard both Celestyal Odyssey and Celestyal Crystal and explore the Athens area, including the Parthenon, the spectacular New Acropolis Museum and the Temple of Poseidon, but our itinerary featured nine fascinating and memorable ports: Mykonos, Greece; Kusadasi, Turkey; Patmos, Greece; Heraklion, Crete; Santorini, Greece; Cesme, Turkey; and three lesser-known but incredibly beautiful and uncrowded islands that I particularly enjoyed, Syros, Kos and Ios, Greece. We even docked at both ports that serve the Athens area: busy Pireaus, a virtual beehive of activity that always seems to be packed with ferries and cruise ships, and serene and much less crowded Lavrion, which was convenient for our visit to ruins of the ancient Temple of Poseidon nearby.
Celestyal Cruises’ ships are not of the most recent vintage — balconies are available only to suite occupants — but they are obviously clean with very comfortable staterooms. We also encountered the line’s Celestyal Olympia continually but were not able to get aboard the vessel. All relatively small vessels by current standards, Celestyal Cruises’ ships are easy to get around without your becoming disoriented. Food is good and plentiful, but not gourmet, although extra-cost steak and lobster entrees were excellent. Service was generally fine, the poolside barbecue dinner on Celestyal Crystal was very tasty, and both ships offered nice buffet breakfasts.
My media colleagues all seemed to enjoy the Greek entertainment a lot, and the traditional Greek attitude and joyful love of life were evident aboard both vessels and must be top selling points, in addition to the affordable pricing. For 2017, the line is offering a 20 percent early-booking discount, as well as new “all inclusive” packages, the prices of which include shore excursions and onboard drink packages.
During the past year, Celestyal made several fleet adjustments. When the charter of Celestyal Odyssey concluded, the vessel was replaced with Crystal Nefili, which originally entered service in 1992 as Crown Jewel. The 19,093-ton, eight-deck ship, which underwent a major refurbishment before embarking on her career with Celestyal, accommodates 800 guests based on two to a cabin with a maximum of 1,074, plus 350 crew.
Also, Celestyal Crystal has now been homeported year-round in Havana for weekly voyages offering four ports in Cuba, plus Montego Bay, Jamaica. Consequently, Celestyal Nefili and Celestyal Olympia are now handling all of the line’s three-, four- and seven-night Greece and Turkey sailings. For the record, the 37,773-ton, 12-deck Olympia, which began sailing for Royal Caribbean as Song of America in 1982, accommodates 1,448 guests two to a cabin with a maximum of 1,664, plus 540 crew.
Incredibly picturesque and popular Mykonos was our first port, and due at least in part to ideal weather, we found it absolutely packed with tourists of every description and nationality. The town center is world famous for its iconic, brilliantly whitewashed businesses, residences and chapels complete with colored domes and decorations, plus traditional Greek windmills, scores of shops, boutiques and waterfront tavernas. Even though I had been to Mykonos several times previously, the scene was so mesmerizing and kept me so busy with my camera that I managed to miss our planned shoreside dinner.
Kusadasi, Turkey, is the port for the ancient Kingdom of Ephesus, the extensive ruins of which give testimony to the splendor of the realm during the Hellenistic and Roman times. On foot we explored remains of the Odeon, the Temple of Adrian, the Celsius Library, Agora, the Ancient Theatre, the excavation of terrace houses and other sites. Everything here is not historic and authentic, however, as the bazaar just outside the ruins complex included a booth offering “Genuine Fake Watches” for $10. Nearby also, we visited the Christian shrine containing a house traditionally identified as having been occupied by the Virgin Mary.
Patmos is the island closely identified with St. John and where he reportedly wrote the New Testament Book of Revelation. Included in our tour were visits to the Grotto of the Apocalypse, where he lived, as well as the old Monastery of St. John, filled with priceless icons and manuscripts and overlooking the Aegean in the village of Chora.
Heraklion the largest city on Crete, is also the gateway to the extraordinary Palace of Knossos, center of the ancient Minoan civilization. Here, amid elaborate and partially reconstructed ruins, we viewed the Throne Room and the “Prince of the Lilies” fresco, and learned the legend of the Minotaur. Before we returned to the ship, we had a walking tour of modern downtown Heraklion, which was also included.
Santorini is an incredibly beautiful island, the buildings of which are magnificently situated along the rim of a huge caldera, the remains of a massive ancient volcano, the sudden and cataclysmic eruption of which some believe sent the legendary “lost” continent of Atlantis to the bottom of the sea. Today, however, whitewashed homes, shops, restaurants and hotels cling to the steep hillsides. We explored the exceptionally beautiful Ola Village, a shopping, dining and lodging community suspended high above the water and, unfortunately, woefully overcrowded with visitors on a delightful Sunday afternoon.