Cruising in Greece

Travelers have been sailing Greek waters ever since 3500 BC. The good news is that today’s visitor will have a much, much easier time of it than Odysseus, the world’s first tourist and hero of Homer’s Odyssey. Back in his day, exploring the Greek islands—1,425 geological jewels thickly scattered over the Aegean Sea like stepping-stones between East and West—was a fairly daunting assignment. Zeus would often set the schedule (during the idyllic days in midwinter the master of Mt. Olympus forbade the winds to blow during the mating season of the halcyon or kingfisher); waterlogged wooden craft could be tossed about in summer, when the meltemi, the north wind, would be a regular visitor to these waters; and pine-prow triremes often embarked with a scramble of 170 oarsmen, not all of them pulling in the right direction.

Itineraries

Most itineraries that focus on Greece last 7 to 10 days. They may be round-trip cruises that begin and end in Piraeus, or they may begin in Venice (usually ending in Piraeus) or Piraeus (usually ending in Istanbul). Some cruises concentrate on covering an area that includes the Greek islands, Turkish coast, Cyprus, Israel, and Egypt, while others reach from Gibraltar to the Ionian isles, the western Peloponnese, and Athens.

For an overview of Greece’s top sights, choose an itinerary that includes port calls in Piraeus for a shore excursion to the Acropolis and other sights in Athens; Mykonos, a sparkling Cycladic isle with a warren of whitewashed passages, followed by neighboring Delos, with its Pompeii-like ruins; Santorini, a stunning harbor that’s actually a partially submerged volcano; Rhodes, where the Knights of St. John built their first walled city before being forced to retreat to Malta; and Heraklion, Crete, where you’ll be whisked through a medieval harbor to the reconstructed Bronze Age palace at Knossos. Port calls at Katakolon and Itea mean excursions to Olympia and the Temple of Apollo at Delphi. Some cruises call at Epidavros and Nafplion, offering an opportunity for visits to the ancient theater and the citadel of Mycenae, or at Monemvasia or Patmos, the island where St. John wrote the Book of Revelation.

Some lines allow you to spend extra time (even stay overnight) in Mykonos to experience the party scene, or Santorini, so that you can see the island after the crush of cruise-ship tourists leaves for the day.

When to Go

When to go is as important as where to go. The Greek cruising season is lengthy, starting in March and ending in November. In July or August, the islands are crowded with Greek and foreign vacationers, so expect sights, beaches, and shops to be crowded. High temperatures could also limit time spent on deck. May, June, September, and October are the best months—warm enough for sunbathing and swimming, yet not so uncomfortably hot as to make you regret the trek up Lindos. Cruising in the low seasons provides plenty of advantages besides discounted fares. Availability of ships and particular cabins is greater in the low and shoulder seasons, and the ports are almost completely free of tourists.

Major Ports

The cruise ports of Greece vary in size and popularity, and some require passengers on larger ships to take a smaller tender to go ashore. In some ports, the main sights may be an hour or more away by car or bus, so plan your day appropriately. At virtually every port listed, a beach stop can be found nearby if you prefer to relax by the sea instead of exploring a village or archaeological site.

Ayios Nikolaos, Crete. A charming and animated port town, Ayios Nikolaos is a dramatic composition of bare mountains, islets, and deep blue sea. Its hilly streets offer fantastic views over Mirabello Bay, and the “bottomless” Lake Voulismeni remains its core. There aren’t any significant beaches in the town but a few nice bays. Its streets are lined with simple tavernas, and its architecture reflects Venetian and Byzantine influences.

Chania, Crete. This elegant city of eucalyptus-lined avenues features miles of waterfront promenades and shady, cobbled alleyways lined with Venetian and Ottoman homes. There’s a lighthouse; the waterfront Firka Fortress, once a Turkish prison, is now a maritime museum. A converted Turkish mosque now hosts art exhibitions. You can tour several monasteries on Agia Triada, an area that extends into the sea from the east side of Chania. A short walk west of the harbor takes you to Chania’s main beach. Buses and tours depart for Samaria, known for its deep, breathtaking gorge that cuts through Crete’s mountains.

Corfu. Stroll through the narrow, winding streets and steep stairways that make up the Campiello, the traffic-free medieval area. Head to the center of town, known as the Spianada, where seven- and eight-story Venetian and English Georgian houses line the way. Wander through the maze inside the New Fort, which was built by the Venetians. There’s also the 15th-century Old Fort. Other highlights include the Church of St. George, St. Spyridon Cathedral, and Antivouniotissa church, which dates back to the 15th century. The archaeological museum houses collections from Kanoni, the site of Corfu’s ancient capital.

Delos. During a stop in Mykonos, a short boat ride takes you to the tiny uninhabited island of Delos, a well-preserved archaeological site that was once a holy sanctuary for a thousand years, the fabled birthplace of Apollo and Artemis. Walk through formerly luxurious villas including the House of Cleopatra and the House of Dionysus to see 2,500-year-old mosaic floors and remnants of magnificent marble sculptures. Other highlights include the Sacred Way, the Temple of Apollo, and the marbled and imposing Avenue of Lions. Smaller cruise ships can anchor nearby and tender their passengers ashore.

Gythion. This small port located right on the southernmost peninsula in the Peloponnese is in a unique geographical and cultural area called the Mani. Gythion is known for its seaside cafés, restaurants, and beaches. The Diros caves, accessible by underground boat tours, are located 37 km (22 miles) southwest. Tours also head out to other Peloponnese towns popular for their beauty and history including Mystras, Sparta, and Monemvasia.

Heraklion, Crete. This port gives you access to visit the nearby Palace of Knossos, the Minoan king’s residence as well as the religious center for the whole region. Right in the center of the Heraklion, near the main Platia Eleftherias, you can find the Archaeological Museum of Heraklion, which displays artifacts from Minoan culture discovered during the excavations of Knossos. The streets of the capital are lined with Venetian buildings, promenades, and outdoor cafés. In the port’s inner harbor you’ll find Koules, the massive fortress.

Katakolon. This small port is known as “the door to Olympia” since it is the closest port to the Greek city known for the most important sanctuaries of ancient Greece, the birthplace of the ancient Olympic Games. The ancient site includes the remains of the original 20,000-spectator stadium, and its archaeological museum houses prehistoric, archaic, and classical statues from ancient times. If you don’t want to make the trip to Olympia, then Katakolon is an ideal place for a leisurely Greek lunch.

Kos. Ships dock in Kos Town, putting you within walking distance to the main sights of the birthplace of Hippocrates, father of modern medicine. You can stop by the archaeological museum located in the central Eleftherias Square and explore the impressive 15th-century Castle of Neratzia (Knight’s castle). You may also want to see Hippocrates’s Tree, where the ancient Greek physician lectured his students in its shade. In wooded foothills 3½ km (2 miles) west of Kos Town you can discover the ruins of the ancient Greek hospital of Asklepieion.

Monemvasia. Cruise ships tender you close to this unique medieval island town, which is actually a natural rock fortress that has been inhabited since AD 583. A narrow road connects you to the town, and from that point on you must travel by foot or donkey. Once inside, explore the nooks, grottoes, tiny alleys, and homes carved into the rock. In Lower Town you’ll find Elkomenos Square, where the medieval Elkomenos Christos church and a small museum stand. Follow the remains of the medieval fortress to Upper Town to stand at the top of the rock. There you’ll bask in memorable sea views right where Agia Sophia church is located.

Mykonos. Cruise ships drop anchor at Tourlos, where a small boat shuttles you to the island’s main town called Mykonos Town, a well-preserved whitewashed Cycladic village comprised of a maze of narrow, small, and winding streets lined with shops, restaurants, bars, and cafés. Other ships dock in the modern cruise port and shuttle passengers into Mykonos Town by bus. Once in town, you’ll be within walking distance of several highlights, including one of the most photographed churches in the world, Panagia Paraportiani, as well as the town’s picturesque waterfront district called Little Venice. At night, Mykonos Town comes alive as a cosmopolitan nightlife and dining destination.

Mytilini, Lesvos. Mytilini, or Lesvos, is Greece’s third-largest island known as the birthplace of ancient Greek poet Sappho. It’s also known for its landscapes that produce fine olive oil and ouzo. Once your ship docks in harbor you’ll be right near the waterfront mansions and bustling streets of Mytilini, which are lined with shops, taverns, and good ouzeries serving up local ouzo. A 15-minute walk up a pine-clad hill stands one of the largest castles in the Mediterranean, the Fortress of Mytilini. The Archaeological Museum of Mytilene, housed in a 1912 neoclassical mansion, is located behind the ferry dock.

Nafplion. Ships anchor off the coast of Nafplion and shuttle you to the main village, where you’ll pass the picturesque Bourtzi islet, where a tower fortress seems to stand in the center of the sea. The top attraction of Nafplion is the Palamidi Fortress built by the Venetians in 1711. Getting to it requires a climb up 899 stairs to the entrance, where you’ll have fantastic views of the region. The village itself is a picturesque maze of Venetian and Byzantine architecture lined with colorful bougainvillea, sidewalk cafés, tavernas, and shops. In the center of it all is Syntagma Square where you’ll find a beautiful 18th-century Venetian arsenal and the archaeological museum.

Patmos. Smaller ships can dock in pretty, mountainous Patmos. At the port of Skala you can venture on a scenic 20-minute hike up to Kastelli hill to the town’s 6th- to 4th-century BC stone remains. A quick taxi or bus ride 4 km (2½ miles) away takes you to neighboring Patmos Town, where you’ll discover the religious significance of the island; it was where St. John the Divine was once exiled and where he wrote the Book of Revelation. Traditional whitewashed homes surround the bottom of the exterior walls of the Monastery of St. John the Divine, dating back to 1088. It’s also where the Sacred Grotto is found, the sacred place where St. John received his visions that he recorded in the Book of Revelation.

Piraeus. The port of Piraeus is located 11 km (7 miles) southwest of Central Athens. You can easily catch the metro or a taxi to reach the worthy sites of the city, including the Acropolis, the ancient core of the modern capital. On its southwest slope you’ll see the Odeon of Herodes Atticus, an ancient and impressive stone theater. Within the perimeter you’ll find yourself in the heart of Old Athens and can easily stroll through Plaka and visit the bazaars of Monastiraki. The birthplace of democracy called the ancient Agora is at the northern edge of the Plaka. In the city, you can browse the impressive collections at the Acropolis Museum, the Benaki Museum, and the National Archaeological Museum. In central Syntagma Square you’ll find parliament, formerly King Otto’s royal palace, and have the opportunity to watch the Changing of the Evzone Guards at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.

Rhodes. Ships dock at the cruise port east of St. Catherine’s Gate, bringing you close to the island’s historical center. For two centuries Rhodes Town was ruled by the Knights of St. John. The monuments of that era are the island’s highlights, including its 4-km (2½-mile) fortress walls; Palace of the Grand Master of the Knights of Rhodes; and the Mosque of Süleyman, dedicated to a Turkish sultan, that dates back to the 1522. You’ll also discover where the ancient wonder called the Colossus once towered above the harbor in 280 BC. A 48-km (30-mile) trip away from Rhodes Town leads to the whitewashed medieval village of Lindos known for its grand hilltop acropolis.

Santorini. Cruise ships anchor near the cliffs of Fira, offering memorable views of the whitewashed mountaintop villages of Santorini. Once a tender shuttles you to the Old Port, you’ll find a picturesque, romantic village with whitewashed homes and churches topped with bright blue roofs. The Museum of Prehistoric Fira gives insight into the island’s prehistoric and archaeological history. If you want to venture 11 km (7 miles) farther into the island you’ll find yourself taking in the view in Ia, another beautiful village that’s built on a steep slope of the island’s impressive cliffs. The remains of Akrotiri, destroyed millennia ago by a massive volcanic eruption, are on the island’s southeastern tip.

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