Seven Unforgettable Days of Delight and Discovery
Sunshine and warm breezes worked their magic on Simon, Splendid, and me as our Celestyal cruise ship, Crystal, left the magnificent city of Athens, Greece behind. We were off on a once-in-a-lifetime weeklong voyage that would take us to Thessaloniki, Kusidasi in Turkiye, as well as the islands of Crete, Santorini, Mykonos, and Milos.
This was to be a new cruising experience for us. Our three previous trips were trans-Atlantic crossings that lasted from 14 to 18 days on much larger ships. We stopped in several Mediterranean ports before hitting the high seas for a week and disembarking in Fort Lauderdale, Florida. The ships had at least two swimming pools, extensive exercise and spa options, several restaurants and bars, as well as at least three simultaneous entertainment venues available every evening.
This time we sailed on a smaller ship with fewer dining and entertainment options, there were no lazy, relaxing sea days, and we ended our cruise where we began, in Athens.
Did we feel disappointed and deprived? Not in the slightest. We were well-treated, lavishly fed, and delightfully entertained. But far more important, was the joy we derived from the priceless experiences in which we were privileged to participate during our Celestyal cruise.
Celestyal Cruises is the only home-porting cruise operator in Greece. The line offers three-, four-, and 7-day cruises to the Greek Islands, Egypt, Israel, Turkiye, and Cyprus on four mid-size ships.
The cruise line has garnered more than 60 awards in the past seven years. Having experienced Celestyal’s excellent service, as well as its variety of onboard amenities and incredible shore excursions, this comes as no surprise.
Celestyal received first prize for ‘Cruise Line with the Greatest Commitment to the East Med Region’, British Travel Awards 2022 – Best Company for Short Sea/Mini Cruises, and the list goes on. The awards are important and well deserved, but what matters to me is that our cruise lived up to the promise and beyond.
Crystal was clean, comfortable, and well staffed, but we didn’t spend many daylight hours onboard. The ports of call called to us, and each day was one amazing discovery after another. But while at sea, we thoroughly enjoyed our time on the ship.
Crystal could carry 1,200 passengers, and although the ship wasn’t running at capacity, I don’t think it would have felt overcrowded. Everyone was polite and friendly, and there was ore than enough to do while onboard.
During the day, passengers could take complementary Greek language lessons, learn Greek dances and other forms of fancy footwork, engage in arts and crafts workshops, play boardgames, participate in sports activities, and more. We especially enjoyed the cooking demos featuring recipes for some of the dishes we were enjoying onboard. And I loved my relaxing massage at the onboard spa.
Following dinner you could usually find us applauding Cirque Fantastic, a troupe of colorful circus artists and acrobats. Every performance found us marveling at the human body’s capacity for flexibility. The performances were spellbinding, joyful, and highly entertaining.
Although gambling isn’t our jam, Crystal had a casino for those who enjoy Roulette, Blackjack, Poker, and slot machines. Cozy bars, music, and conversation with fellow passengers made for a pleasant end to our days.
Of course, there were a few downsides, such as the abysmal wifi connection on our Apple products while at sea. Sometimes, if we were running close enough to shore, we could get phone service. But then, I have yet to sail on a cruise ship that didn’t have abysmal wifi. So don’t let this minor inconvenience be a deterrent. If our experience is anything to go by, you won’t have a lot of time for phones and computers anyway.
Alas, Crystal has recently gone to the big port in the sky. The good news is Celestyal has replaced her with Journey, a 719 feet long and 101 feet wide dream of a ship with a capacity of 1,260 passengers. It has 12 decks, and in it’s former life, was called Rotterdam, a Holland America cruise ship. Ironically, this was the very ship on which we spent 18 blissful days on our last pre-pandemic trans-Atlantic cruise, so I can say with complete confidence, Celestyal cruisers are in for a terrific time.
Journey has seven restaurants, eight bars, a fully equipped gym, two swimming pools, and an entire deck dedicated to health and wellbeing. From the description, I can picture our favorite haunts on Rotterdam, although they have different names on Journey. I’m sure much has changed, but there’s no doubt this new addition to Celestyal’s fleet will be a winner.
Splendid Sailing and Shipboard Challenges
Our first Celestyal cruise was also Splendid’s first time on a cruise ship. It turned out she was somewhat of a novelty for the Crystal’s crew. Whereas the ships that carried us across the Atlantic were fully accessible and the crews accustomed to passengers with disabilities and service dogs, this was not the case on Crystal. The ship was not designed for passengers with wheelchairs and mobility challenges to make the most of a week’s cruise. Nevertheless, the crew stepped up and devised innovative solutions to the few problems that presented themselves.
The first challenge arose early on when it was time for Splendid to potty. A relief area had been set up on a remote portion of deck conveniently close to our stateroom. Splendid took one look and decided this was not to her liking. Simon eventually coaxed her to do her business, but over the following two days, crew members tried several strategies to make my princess comfortable while not causing disruption for other passengers. They were determined to make it work, and they succeeded brilliantly.
The second challenge occurred when the transportation to Milos for shore excursion turned out to be a lifeboat. Again, crew members were up to the task, and we safely made it there and back with no mishaps and a lot of laughs.
Of course, Journey is fully equipped to accommodate wheelchairs and service animals, After all, this is becoming the norm in the world of cruising. But I’ll never forget Crystal crew’s kindness and willingness to accommodate Splendid. It’s often the times when circumstances are less than ideal that the best in people surfaces. And it’s memories such as the efforts of this particular Celestyal crew that will forever stand out.
Crystal stopped in six ports and we took a shore excursion in each. Two were Authentic Encounters, a new immersive and hands-on small-group excursion option designed to enable participants to delve deeper into a destination and pursue personal passions. Food, wine, art, archaeology, culture, and active adventures are among the possibilities from which to choose. Be sure to show your interest in booking one or more of the Authentic Encounters early, because the tours won’t run if there aren’t enough participants.
Here is a small taste of our unforgettable shore excursion experiences:
Our first stop was Thessaloniki. We had visited this remarkable city previously, so we wanted to see something new. The first of our Authentic Encounters, a half-day wine tour of the Epanomi Hills region, fit the bill perfectly.
We disembarked and boarded our bus. A comfortable drive and some spectacular scenery later, we arrived at the Ktima, Gerovassiliou, a highly reputed wine company that has been making wine for more than 40 years.
We learned about production, soil, climate, and enjoyed sampling the liquid fruits of the company’s efforts. Equally fascinating was our visit to the wine museum, which featured, among other interesting items, what could very well be the largest collection of corkscrews on earth.
Kusadasi: Ancient Ephesus and the Terrace Houses
Our next stop was the Turkish port of Kusadasi, our gateway to the ancient city of Ephesus and the Hellenisticc, Roman, and early Christian treasures it held. Once our feet grew accustomed to the slippery marble terrain – Splendid did splendidly despite the challenge – we began to take in the importance of this unique site.
Ephesus is where the Temple of Artemis, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, once stood. It was visited by St John and the Virgin Mary, and was one of the sites where St Paul preached.
We began our tour at the Magnesium Gate and walked slowly and cautiously, stopping to gape at the gymnasium, the Temple of Hadrian, the Roman Baths, the magnificent Library of Celsus, and the Great Theatre. Once again, we were blessed with a phenomenal guide, whose descriptions and encouragement to touch what we were seeing made Ephesus come alive in all its glory.
A completely different wonder awaited us at the covered area of the archaeological site. There we took our time exploring the remarkably preserved Houses of Koressus or Terrace Houses, where the wealthy families of Ancient Ephesus once live, worked, and played.
Our tour ended with some time to shop and a visit to a carpet manufacturer. He treated us to a fascinating presentation, after which he wined, dined, and offered to sell us some of his stunning wares.
Known as Greece’s “Big Island”, Crete is the fifth-largest island in the Mediterranean. Famous for its breathtaking unspoiled landscapes, rich history and culture, magnificent archeological sites, and world-renowned cuisine. According to Greek legend, a cave near the center of the island was the birthplace of Zeus, the head honcho on Mount Olympus. Perhaps just as important, Crete produces no less than one third of Greece’s olive oil.
We had several tempting choices, including exploring Crete’s capital city of Heraklios, and decided on a trip deep into the island’s picturesque countryside. Our bus took us through a couple of quaint settlements until we came to the traditional village of Stironas. There we took in the spectacular view at 1,800 feet above sea level and admired the traditional stone buildings in the village.
One of the highlights of our countryside tour was a visit to a raki distiller where we had the opportunity to sample this lovely rustic licorice-flavored libation straight from the barrels. We learned about production and bottling processes, after which we were invited to participate in what could only be called a mid-morning party. Our hosts laid out Cretan meze with pure local olive oil, and poured local wine. While we ate and drank, costumed entertainers delighted us with a lively performance of traditional Greek music and dance.
Our day-long tour of Santorini was nothing short of magical. To say the island IS SPECTACULAR would be an understatement.
The island, with it’s iconic blue and white houses and churches perched along clifftops, occupies a mere 37 square miles of Aegean real estate. Our bus carried us along roads that wound continuously upward, keeping us in constant awe from one stunning view to the next.
We stepped out of our rolling enclosure several times to take in an ancient monastery and other one-of-a-kind photo ops, and spent a delightful hour in the clifftop village of Oia. The village is famous for its unequaled views, including breathtaking sunsets high over the volcanic caldera and nearby Therasia island. Enchanting restaurants and shops beckoned us, but there was little time to eat or shop, since the village and its views occupied us for most of the time we were in Oia.
Just when we thought our brains couldn’t absorb any more, we stopped at Akrotiri. There we encountered the ancient ruins of the Minoan Bronze Age city of the same name.
Akrotiri is an active excavation site where we moved slowly along covered elevated walkways taking in the layout of a settlement inhabited as far back as the 16th century B.C. Village life came to an end as a result of the powerful 1643 BC volcanic eruption that buried Akrotiri in a mountain of ash. This cataclysm created Santorini’s massive caldera, as well as a tsunami. Which wiped out the entire Minoan civilization on nearby Crete.
We were privileged to have had an esteemed archeologist as our guide. He explained the history and helped us understand what we were seeing. Ancient art, innovation and technology were mind-boggling. An indoor toilet, bathtub, and comfortable-looking furniture were a few of the items that convinced us this had to have been a highly advanced and sophisticated civilization. Only a third of the site has been excavated. Dedicated archeologists are regularly unearthing colorful frescoes, carved storage vessels and other treasures.
This popular Greek island, a hair short of 33 square miles, has become notorious as a party isle for the glitzy and glamorous. But there’s more to Mykonos than its vibrant night life. This was a lesson we were delighted to learn before, during, and after our second Authentic Encounter experience.
Along with its happy-go-lucky vibe, Mykonos has outstanding beaches, but we weren’t there to laze around soaking up the sun. We spent the first part of our time on the island leisurely meandering the streets of Chora admiring the colorful architecture, iconic windmills, and the friendliness of the locals.
The Authentic Encounter on Mykonos gave us the opportunity to learn the history of and skills involved in mosaic making. This ancient art form is one of the earliest still practiced today. It is an integral part of Greek civilization and culture.
Our small group was led by a talented, energetic artisan, who patiently guided us through the process of creating our own mosaic masterpieces to take home. She explained the tools and how to use them, assisted us in selecting our subjects, provided us with tubs of tiles in a myriad of colors and shapes, and turned us loose.
The two-hour session consisted of our instructor and her assistant walking around the large work table offering helpful suggestions and limitless encouragement. Meanwhile, we worked on our mosaics and tried to look as if we knew what we were doing. Although I wasn’t exactly channeling my inner artist, it meant a lot that both women took the time to assisted me with identifying colors and more.
Although we all made light of our artistic abilities, the session yielded some truly wow-worthy results. Among them was Simon’s mosaic depicting a lovely church we had seen earlier that day. Mine, on the other hand could have best been described as an abstract flower.
This island has the advantage of not being able to accommodate large cruise ships. It is uncrowded and teeming with natural wonders.
Upon our arrival, our group boarded a sailboat for a guided excursion that took in the rich geological marvels surrounding Milos. Breath-taking rock formations, caves and turquoise crystal-clear waters of the Aegean kept us enthralled for hours.. Stops for swimming and exploration rounded out our adventure, and then it was time for a late lunch. Platters of fava beans, eggplant, and other traditionally prepared delights filled us up for the return to Crystal.
My brief descriptions don’t even come close to doing our shore experiences justice. Of course, I don’t want to spoil the opportunity to discover and enjoy with a lot of detail. You’ll have to experience these wonders for yourself. You can thank me later.
Long-time lovers of Greek cuisine, we found the variety of familiar and new-to-us mediterranean dishes available to us on Crystal to be highly addictive and tempting to our palates. The food was a feast for the senses, eye-pleasingly arranged with aromas that called out, “Eat me.“ Our biggest challenges were what to choose and when to stop.
The meals in the main dining room were enchanting culinary experiences. The well-crafted dishes came with a generous helping of charm and good humor from the well-trained, efficient staff. On other occasions, we chose the buffet when Celestyal offered themed dinners, such as a sumptuous seafood extravaganza. The offerings exceeded our expectations, not to mention our capacity for creatures that swim.
We also chose the buffet for breakfast in order to make sure we were on time for our morning tours. The fresh-squeezed orange juice and custom-made omelets kept us going for hours.
One of the many advantages of stopping in a new port every day was the opportunity for staff to source fresh seasonal foods on a regular basis. Although the trans-Atlantic cruises offered us incredible food, the lettuce did look a little tired by the time we reached Fort Lauderdale.
We were most fortunate to have taken our Celestyal cruise shortly after the introduction of a specialty dining option featuring a signature Greek menu developed in partnership with Diane Kochilas, one of the world’s foremost experts on Greek and Mediterranean cuisine. Diane is the host, creator and co-producer of My Greek Table, the popular cooking and travel show airing on Public Television in the U.S. and Australia.
Celestyal offers the premium, “My Greek Table Six-Course Tasting Menu,” for a supplemental charge in the specialty restaurant. It features local and regional ingredients from many of Celestyal’s ports of call, and centered around the healthy Mediterranean Diet, with many plant-forward or vegetarian, gluten-free and/or vegan options.
The Tasting Menu was a gastronomic experience and a masterpiece of a meal. The food, the presentation, the wine pairings and the service were excellent, and I consider it well worth the extra charge.
The menu consisted of:
- Three dips (accompanied by freshly baked Pita and sesame-encrusted Simit bread) including Syros Maintanosalata (made with pesto, capers and herbs), Roasted Tomato Kopanisti, and Smoked Eggplant Caviar
- Cretan Octopus Carpaccio
- Aegean Fisherman’s Saffron Avgolemono Soup
- Aegean Lobster Escallop boiled or grilled and served with ouzo-scented golden rice and a side of Kalamata olive mayonnaise with Greek yogurt
- An intermezzo course of Pappardelle of Zucchini with marinated tomatoes, mint and toasted pine nuts
- A Kalogeros Terrine with sliced beef loin, sheep’s milk cheese and tomatoes served with Naxos oven-fried potatoes
- Arugula, red onion, grilled Manouri and Pasteli crumble salad
- A choice of a Greek Village Cheese Platter or a Floating Greek Island in a Wine-Dark Sea along with a Greek digestive and spoon sweet.
Although the courses weren’t overwhelming in size, we began to flag about halfway through the meal. Still, we did Diane and the Crystal staff the courtesy of at least tasting everything. This was truly a magnificent dining experience to remembered fondly and for years.
Diane’s influence was also present in the main dining room. Diners could enjoyed one of her nightly signature dishes, such as an Ikarian Longevity Greens Phyllo Pie filled with seasonal greens, summer squash, carrots and herbs.
Looking back on this incredible cruising adventure, I know I’d do it again in a heartbeat. The mind-boggling experiences, the history, the art, the culture, and the generosity of the Crystal’s crew warm my heart. My only regret is we were able to spend only a short time in each port. Of course, this lavish buffet of amazing experiences has helped us pinpoint the destinations to which we want to return for further exploration and enjoyment. On our Celestyal cruise, we didn’t have to look for the surprises. The surprises found us.
What are some of your favorite cruising memories? We’d love it if you’d share your experiences in the comments.