It’s sunset in Mykonos, and a vast crowd has gathered along the expanse of the waterfront to watch one of the most amazing natural displays anywhere on earth. Like some great actor bowing out after giving a bravura performance, the blood red ball of the sun sags into the still, silent Aegean. It resembles nothing so much as a slowly lowering curtain, and the crowd watches in a kind of stunned, mesmerised silence.
An amazing, rosy glow sweeps across the brilliant white façade of the line of windmills crowning the headland. On that hill, the ghost of a warm breeze drifts among the crowds. Pools of light begin to glow along the packed restaurants and bars that cling to the edges of that spectacular waterfront. And when the sun finally kisses the line of the sea and disappears from view, the entire rapt audience breaks out in a round of applause. It’s magical and moving, and totally unique to the Aegean.
Many people are drawn to the Greek Islands for the matchless sense of history that can often be found, quite literally, all around you. No-one who has seen the sprawling remains on Delos, where stunted Doric columns glint eerily in the pitiless light of a mid day sun, will ever forget it. Ephesus stands as a city apart; a petrified expanse of marble streets where the wheel ruts made by Roman chariots can still be seen, flanked by a series of magnificent facades dotted with clusters of pine trees. You could go on and on.
The truth is that nowhere on earth combines this sublime mixture of history and hedonism like the Greek Islands. You can spend a morning on Nauplion, marvelling at the amazing Lion Gate at Mycenae and the entrance of the Tomb of Agamemnon, and then while away the afternoon at some sun-splashed waterfront taverna. Contrast the amazing views down from the Olympian cliff tops of Santorini with the looming Venetian fortress that crowns the headland of Rethimonn. The choices are limited only by time, stamina and imagination.
But to really take in these incredible vistas, you have to approach them from the sea, as generations of mariners have done for centuries. Sailing into Santorini presents a moment of pure, magnificent theatre that people on package holidays simply never get to savour. The looming battlements of Rhodes never look more impressive then from aboard a ship, nudging into Mandraki Harbour as the early morning sun claws at the sky.
Even a short cruise allows you to see a string of radically diverse islands in a relatively short space of time. While most of the islands have a shared sense of history and a mutual proximity, each is as individual as a fingerprint. Cosmopolitan Crete seems a world away from sleepy Kea, and sultry, seductive Mykonos is radically different to Patmos, with its diminutive waterfront and brooding castle.
The main problem here can be one of accessibility. While ports such as Rhodes and Kusadasi have ample space to dock even the biggest ships, many of the islands are actually tender ports, where passengers have to go ashore via the ship’s own boats. And while the big ships often boast a spectacular run of on board facilities and entertainment, the sheer numbers carried by these ships often makes getting ashore- and back on board-a time consuming process. And on any cruise, shore time is invariably at a premium.
Inevitably, these same big ships have to sail past many of the smaller, more unspoilt islands where the way of life is still more genuine and less commercialised. Like any cruise, it really is a trade off; a big ship will give you far more in the way of on board glitz and glamour; but your experience of the islands themselves will be less close up and personal, a more watered down experience.
So it follows that a small ship will, in theory, give you a far richer return on your investment. With passenger numbers in the hundreds and their obvious accessibility to smaller, more secluded ports of call, the advantages of small ship cruising are simple and numerous. With more personalised service and catering that is tailored to smaller numbers, a smaller ship can maximise the overall experience of these mesmerising, idyllic islands in a way that is absolutely compelling.
I chose the Aegean Odyssey for a cruise from Athens to Istanbul. One of my reasons for doing so is that, although the ship ticks all the boxes as far as numbers and size go, she also boasts a number of extraordinarily large cabins. When the current owner purchased the ship, cabins were enlarged by deleting several hundred berths and knocking through walls, creating two cabins in the space once used for three.
These include a number of secluded cove balcony cabins towards the stern that offer welcome shade from the often pitiless heat of the summertime Aegean. And few things are quite as evocative as savouring champagne on your balcony at night under a canopy of stars as the lights of some distant island drift past on the horizon. Nothing sums up the magic of sea travel so perfectly.
The quality of the bedding is first class, and after a day of sightseeing and sunning there are few things as pleasant as sagging gratefully into a comfortable bed after a good meal. Food on the Aegean Odyssey approaches the peerless in terms of quality and presentation. Passengers have the opportunity of dining indoors our outside at night. The outdoor ‘Tapas on The Terrace’ allows you to savour some mouth watering cuisine, often with a side order of flaming Aegean sunset. In both restaurants, evening meals are accompanied by complimentary red or white wines, beer or soft drinks. This combination of alfresco dining in a charmed environment, with stunning seascapes, fresh air and fine wine, makes dining on the Aegean Odyssey one of the most enjoyable experiences on any ship anywhere at sea…
This luxurious, low key inclusive approach to dinner is typical of the entire Aegean Odyssey experience. The ship is quiet at night, with no disco or casino. There is a large, highly styled main lounge with piano music and late night snacks, but most people tend to be in bed by midnight. If you are looking for a late night party boat with lots of night time diversions, the Aegean Odyssey is not your obvious choice.
But where this lovely ship really does score is in the way that she offers up a truly complete travel experience that allows passengers to maximise their holiday time in a way that suits them. Almost uniquely, all shore excursions are included in the cost of the cruise. You can literally opt to take as many- or as few- as your curiosity and stamina permit.
These excursions are far more comprehensive and in depth than those offered on most mainstream cruises. Each passenger is given a personal set of headphones and ‘quiet box’ that enables them to tune into their guide and hear them all the time, a massive boon in situations where touring groups sometimes get strung out in the course of a visit. The quality of the guides is invariably first class, while a series of world class lecturers on board present the backdrop for the next day’s port of call.
The on board library is extensive and free, and tailored to the ports of call visited during the season. All things considered, the entire excursion programme is one of the most polished and comprehensive available on any ship afloat. High quality, knowledgeable guides and low numbers in groups translate to a much more in depth experience. Though I have been to the Greek Islands many times, I have never seen them as ‘up close and personal’ as I did on this cruise.
But this was not all about hard work. Back aboard the Aegean Odyssey, I sagged gratefully into the hot tub as we left Delos, emerging an hour or so later as we rounded the headland of Mykonos, and the famous clutch of brilliant white windmills on the headland came into view. It was a uniquely wonderful view, savoured from a fantastic vantage point.
Mykonos proved wonderful for a few hours of nothing more demanding then some idyllic people watching, heightened by that memorable sunset. And an overnight stay in Kusadasi enabled us to be stunned by the ruined majesty of Ephesus by day, while still leaving ample time to check out some bargains in the bazaar, and even enjoy late night drinks ashore on the beautiful, palm splayed waterfront with its warm evening breezes and excellent local beer. Best of all, the Aegean Odyssey sat a mere hundred yards away, small and beautifully formed. Ablaze with light from stem to stern, she sat against the reddening twilight as perfectly poised as a graceful swan.
The finale was a fabulous procession upstream into fabled Istanbul, with its clutch of minarets clawing at a pale blue sky as motor boats and ferries bumbled past us like so many startled water beetles. An included two night stay in a deluxe hotel included two half day excursions that allowed us to take in all the bejewelled, jaw dropping splendour of this amazing city the straddles two continents. Truth be told, it was worth doing the entire journey for the last two days alone.
A word on transfers. Flights were with BA via Heathrow, and coaches were waiting at both embarkation and journey’s end for us. Transfers from hotel to the airport were also included and, without exception, all of these were seamless and well thought through.
The overall Aegean Odyssey experience was marked out by outstanding quality and largely inclusive fares, and easily the best value internet charges of any ship afloat. With a charming and attentive crew, a charismatic ship offering great food and some of the most compelling itineraries afloat, it all adds up to a package and a product that will leave you wanting more.
Aegean Odyssey returns to the Eastern Mediterranean in Summer 2015 for a programme of equally in depth and fascinating cruises. For our latest Voyages to Antiquity offers or to request a brochure please visit our website http://www.cruiseline.co.uk/Voyages-To-Antiquity