FIVE REASONS WHY A GREEK ISLANDS CRUISE IS A GREAT CHOICE RIGHT NOW

Despite the hail of horror stories raining in and around Athens, there has probably never been a better time to visit the region, especially on a short cruise and stay holiday. And, for those of you that think I’ve taken definite leave of my senses, I’m going to outline the reasons why in this piece.

CHEAPER FLIGHT PRICES

Since the high noon standoff between Tsipras, Merkel, and the rest of the EU, flight prices from Europe to Greece have gone into something of a tail spin- pun wholly intentional. And, with airlines such as KLM serving Athens via Amsterdam from no less than twenty-one different regional airports in the UK, you can add a healthy dollop of convenience into the mix for good measure. And, with flight times from Amsterdam to Athens of around four hours, you get cheap, fast and convenient all packaged up and served in a goody bag.

IT’S TIME FRIENDLY

Taking one of the short, three or four night cruises offered by Celestyal Cruises out of Piraeus, the port for Athens, will serve up snapshots of anything up to six different ports of call. No other Aegean cruise can pack in so much on such a short itinerary.

Three night cruises sail from Piraeus at 1100 every Friday morning. By five that same evening, you’re in Mykonos for a few hours of fun and frivolity ashore.

Next morning will find you in the stunning Turkish seaside town of Kusadasi, leaving around noon, and by mid afternoon you’ll be in Patmos for long enough to enjoy dinner and drinks ashore. Back aboard, and you’re on your way again about 2200 that evening.

The last full day finds you in Heraklion first thing, before an afternoon arrival in Santorini, with time enough to ascend the caldera to Thira, and a chance to check out the most stunning single vista anywhere in the Aegean.

Next morning, you’re back in Piraeus.

HISTORY AND HEDONISM

The Greek mainland and islands offer endless scope for both history lovers and sun worshippers. Just consider the itinerary above, and look at what you can actually see in a mere four days;

In Athens itself, there is time to check out the Acropolis, with it’s stunningly majestic Parthenon. On Mykonos, there’s time to take in the fabled sunset- the best such show east of Key West- from the waterfront at Chora, before an evening in the nightlife capital of the Aegean.

In Kusadasi, you can check out the stunted, sprawling ruins of magnificent Ephesus, and then savour a long, lazy evening of dining and people watching on the waterfront in pretty little Patmos.

From Heraklion, there is time to see the stunning palace of Knossos, a platinum chip rated UNESCO World Heritage site. And an afternoon in Santorini, spent chilling out on the Olympian heights of Thira, is one of the most unforgettable travel experiences in the world.

It’s worth mentioning that the four day cruises, which sail on a Monday morning, also throw in a full day’s visit to the amazing medieval theme park known as Rhodes. The old town has history in spades, yet the nearby beaches are a sun seeker’s utopia. This one island alone really does have it all.

SIZE REALLY DOES MATTER…

The smaller, comfortable ships operated by Celestyal cruises offer a far more intimate, ‘up close and personal’ view of the islands. In fact, these ships are sailing their own home waters, and their captains know the area better than most. The small size of the ships also means that they can get into the smaller ports, and often much closer to all the good stuff, than the much bigger ships with their thousands of passengers.

And that small size makes for a far more intimate, rewarding on board experience. The ships feature many authentic Greek specialities on their menus in addition to international fare, and there is a very definite emphasis on Greek hospitality on board. In other words, it’s a more genuinely authentic, pared down way to see the islands. One that offers the best of everything.

OVERALL VALUE

Add up all those points above and you’ll realise what a fantastic, time sensitive, cost effective little jaunt one of these cruises represents. Over one slightly long weekend, you can see and do more than many millions of people actually achieve over the course of a lifetime. These trips offer comfort, good pricing, awesome, world famous sights and jaw dropping scenery, plus the chance to just spend a few days’ lazing under that glorious Aegean sun.

Greece? It’s still the word. See you out there.

Savour marvellous vistas from atop spectacular Santorini

Savour marvellous vistas from atop spectacular Santorini

THOMSON CRUISES RENEWS THREE YEAR CONTRACT WITH LOUIS CRUISES

Thomson cruises; promising platinum

Thomson cruises; promising platinum

The Cyprus Mail newspaper is reporting today that Thomson Cruises has inked a second, three year charter renewal of two ships with the Cyprus based Louis Cruises.

According to a source in Limassol, Thomson has renewed charters of the 1983 built Thomson Spirit and the 1992 built Thomson Majesty through until November of 2017. The two vessels form part of the five ship Thomson UK operation.

The other ships- Thomson Celebration (the twin sister of Spirit), Thomson Dream and the Island Escape, are owned outright by the company.

The relationship between Thomson and Louis goes back to as far as 1996, when Thomson began chartering ships from the Cypriot operator in a bid to compete with the new, highly successful budget operation of its major rival, Airtours.

 By one of those quirky accidents of fate, the biggest of the Airtours ships now sails for Louis as the Louis Olympia, and was even chartered out to Thomson itself for several successful seasons.

This is a good deal for both lines; Louis has traditionally chartered out several of its vessels to various operators in both the UK and France. Thomson Majesty was originally built as the Royal Majesty for Majesty Cruise Lines in 1992, with Liza Minnelli acting as godmother.

She was for many years a staple of the summertime Boston to Bermuda run, a role she continued after her purchase and lengthening by Norwegian Cruise Line in 1999. She went to Louis in 2009, and has been under charter to Thomson since 2012.

The Thomson Spirit began life as the Nieuw Amsterdam for Holland America in 1983, coming to Louis Cruises after a short, ill fated attempt to revive US flagged cruising out of Hawaii.

  Both ships were recently upgraded with the addition of balconies to the higher priced cabins and suites on board. Marketed to the Thomson UK market and served by flights coming in from several UK airports, both ships sail these days on predominantly seven night, destination intensive itineraries.

With on board food and entertainment tailored to suit their British clientele, the Thomson ships have been very successful. Though the entertainment programme and cruise staff are supplied by Thomson, the ships are still owned, staffed and provisioned by Louis Cruises. 

Typically, both ships spend spring, summer and autumn in the Eastern Mediterranean (Majesty) and the Baltic (Spirit) and, while Thomson Spirit usually spends the winter season on the Red Sea, the Thomson Majesty will be running Canary Island cruises this coming winter.

WHERE ARE THEY NOW PART TWO: MORE SHIPS YOU LOVED AND THOUGHT YOU’D LOST….

P&O's original Sun Princess was last sailing as the New Flamenco

P&O’s original Sun Princess was last sailing as the New Flamenco

The first part of this narrative detailed the ‘after lives’ of several former favourites that sailed for cruise lines such as Carnival, Celebrity, and Royal Caribbean. The reaction to that piece was both surprising and very gratifying, hence this follow up.

Holland America Line made big attempts to upgrade its fleet in the mid eighties, well before the spectre of a takeover by Carnival began to loom. To that end, the company commissioned a pair of spectacular, mid sized sisters in 1983 and 1984, respectively; the Nieuw Amsterdam and the Noordam.

These two ships were very popular and successful, cruising mainly in the Caribbean and Alaska. However, after the Carnival takeover in 1997, Holland America began planning and construction of the new, far larger Vista class vessels that populate the fleet today. It was then  obvious that Nieuw Amsterdam and Noordam were on borrowed time.

The Nieuw Amsterdam was sold to Louis Cruises in 2002, and Louis then chartered her long term to Thomson Cruises UK. She continues in service for that company as the Thomson Spirit, operating cruises in the Mediterranean and Baltic regions.

The Noordam also found a second life with Thomson, she cruises mainly in the Aegean and Adriatic regions as the Thomson Celebration.

Another former ‘Flying Dutchman’ that has found new life over at Thomson Cruises is the Thomson Dream. This famous ship started life in 1986 as the Homeric, the last newbuild for the ailing Home Lines.

Purchased by Holland America in 1988, she was renamed Westerdam, and then ‘stretched’ in a German shipyard. She then moved on to Costa as their Costa Europa before finally winding up with Thomson back in 2008-9, where she remains to this day. She typically spends her time making seven night cruises around the Mediterranean each summer, and relocates to the Caribbean for winter cruises out of Barbados.

Dreams and memories: the perky little Ausonia was the perfect 'mini liner'

Dreams and memories: the perky little Ausonia was the perfect ‘mini liner’

Another former Home Lines survivor is the 1982 built Atlantic. She went to MSC Cruises in 1997 as the Melody, and had a long and successful career with them. Put up for sale in January of 2013, she has yet to find an official buyer. I saw her laid up in Naples in October, still in her MSC colours, and still looking very trim indeed.

Back in the mid 1970s, Cunard tried to shake off it’s dowdy old class conscious image, when it commissioned a pair of 17,000 ton sister ships expressly for the Caribbean cruise trade; the 1976 built Cunard Countess and her 1977 sister, the Cunard Princess. The latter ship was christened in New York by Princess Grace of Monaco.

She is still sailing in the Eastern Mediterranean as the Golden Iris for Israeli-owned Mano Cruises, and has been since 2009. After a long spell with Louis Cruises, and then UK firm Cruise and Maritime, the Cunard Countess is currently laid up in Chalkis, Greece, under the name of Ocean Countess, awaiting a new buyer or charterer.

INSPIRING SPRING BREAKS IN THE SUNNY GREEK ISLANDS

Magical Mykonos awakens with the first kiss of spring

Magical Mykonos awakens with the first kiss of spring

It’s that time of year when winter slowly begins to descend across Europe like a damp. clammy shroud, and many of us just mentally curl up and hibernate. We go out when we need to but, in general, we just stock up on the wine, batten down the hatches, and pray for an early arrival of spring.

But nothing sharpens the appetite for travel like anticipation of trips to come. And knowing some of the options ahead might just add a little warmth and brightness to those long, leaden winter nights.  So, with time and money also being key considerations in these straitened times, why not consider a short, exhilarating three or four night cruise to the Greek Islands and Turkey out of Athens on Louis Cruises in the spring?

There are quite a few advantages here. Firstly, the cost is very reasonable- around £200 per person, based on two sharing an inside cabin. Then there’s the time scale. For the three night cruise, you’ll need to fly to Athens on the Thursday night and stay overnight. You’ll be home by late Monday. For the four nighter, flying on the Sunday prior to a Monday sailing will have you back at home late Friday. So it’s not a huge drain on your time.

The ships themselves are relatively small; comfortable rather than luxurious, with a smart casual dress code. The welcome is very warm and the ships are perfectly attuned for cruising these waters- vital on such a short, high density trip as this.

So you’re probably wondering ‘how soon can I get out there?’

The first three night cruise begins on the 38,000 ton Louis Olympia on March 14th, 2014. The weather by then should be more than agreeable enough to enjoy the best hospitality that the islands have to offer. This three day cruise leaves Piraeus- the port for Athens- at 11 in the morning. Here’s the full skinny for the itinerary:

Day One: (Friday)

Depart Piraeus 11.00

Arrive Mykonos 18.00

Depart 23.00

Day Two: (Saturday)

Arrive Kusadasi, Turkey 07.00

Depart 12.00

Arrive Patmos 16.00

Depart 21.00

Day Three:  (Sunday)

Arrive Heraklion, Crete  07.00

Depart 11.30

Arrive Santorini 16.30

Depart 21.00

Day Four: (Monday)

Arrive Piraeus 06.00

Waterfront at Symi, Greek Dodecanese islands

Waterfront at Symi, Greek Dodecanese islands

Yes, it’s a busy few days, and it will pass at one hell of a rate of knots. But in that short space of time, you’ll see and experience more than many people do in an entire lifetime. From people watching in Mykonos, to strolling the stunning ancient ruins of Ephesus (see previous blogs), a late dinner ashore in Patmos, strolling the quayside in Heraklion and, as a finale, the stunning sunset from the Olympian heights of Santorini, it’s a fabulous feast of options.

The four day cruise (Monday departures) follows a similar route, but also allows for a full day in historic Rhodes, usually on the Wednesday. Whichever option you decide to choose, it’s a wonderful, whirlwind tour through some of the most amazing waters anywhere in the world.

And, hopefully, you’ll even come back with a sun tan. See you out there in March, maybe.

THE LARDBURGERS’ GRAND TOUR OF EUROPE….

By popular demand, guest blogger and bon vivant, Myrtle Lardburger, returns to regale us with her impressions of the family’s first cruise to Europe. Over to you, Myrtle….

Herb had a lot on his plate on this trip

Herb had a lot on his plate on this trip

Hi there again, folks! Herb and I are just back from our first cruise to Europeland, and we’d like to share some of our impressions with those of you who might be thinking of going there in the future.

This time we were on some damn big boat again. I think it was the Highland America line? Anyway, that’s not so important. We had so much fun, but it wasn’t all plain sailing, I’m afraid.

For starters, I didn’t like Monte Carlo. More like Monte Carloff, if you ask me. Those waiters are so snooty! And the size of those food plates… honestly, I’ve seen bigger dimes. Not our fault the damned waiter had to bring us five each. Jesus.

Still, it was very sad to learn about Will and Grace. Princess Grace apparently died in a car crash, so then Prince Will had to go to England and marry some broad called Cruella Carpet Bowles. Such a sad story.

I did quite like Greece. The Grecians are very friendly but boy, nothing happens quickly in that country. They still don’t have an elevator in the Acropolis, and it’s been five thousand years. But we loved the Parthenon. Just get that roof fixed, get a nice carpet laid inside, and it’ll be fit for a king. Long as he’s not very picky, mind you.

We had been so looking forward to Venice, Herb and I. But when we got there, the whole damn place was under water. Whole damned place is falling apart. And -I’m not being rude here- but the local women really should learn how to shave. Some of them could really do with visiting Italy, and getting some lessons in style from those people.

We didn't care much for Monte Carloff

We didn’t care much for Monte Carloff

Istanbul was pretty, and they told us beforehand all about the story of the Orient Express? Well, I’m sorry, but Istanbul is not at all oriental. And I sure didn’t see any express.  But we did buy a nice carpet from a tattooed lady in the local bizarre. She told us it was a really good carpet. And I believe she was an expert. She looked like the sort that had been on a few carpets, if you catch my drift.

It was lovely to go to Barcelona, too. It’s the first chance I’ve had to speak with the locals in their own tongue. I spent four months learning to speak Portugonese especially for this visit. They call the locals ‘Catalans’ (just think; Catalogue) and the local dialect is something called Catatonic. Great city, but you’ve got to stop going on about that Columbus guy. Like, it was 1492, you know? We’ve had Elvis, moon rockets and American Idol since then, for crissakes.

Anyway, our last stop was in Southampton, England. What a bummer. When you see this place, you realise why so many people swarmed aboard the Titanic. 

We were invited to go ten pin bowling here and, of course, Herb played the game of his life.  Took down skittles quicker than a hooker’s drawers on Fleet Week.

Well, whup my ass and call me Gertrude! I haven’t had that much fun since Aunt Arlene’s naked Nazi hot tub party. Least, not until Herb’s final strike.

Boy, was it a beauty! He scattered those babies like ninepins. Came down with one hell of a crash, mind you.

Turns out the locals were not best pleased. Apparently, he had knocked over something called Stonehinge? Apparently, it’s older than Zsa Zsa Gabor’s babysitter, for crissakes, but the candy assed Brits made such a big deal of it.

Things move kinda slow in Greece.

Things move kinda slow in Greece.

Don’t get me wrong. We had a lot of fun. But Herb and I were kinda glad to get checked in for our flight at Deathrow Airport. Who thinks of these names? Don’t the Brits have any sense of decorum?

Next time, who knows where we might go? I was thinking about some place called Polynesia, but one of the passengers on the ship told me that it’s just a load of old parrots suffering from memory loss. Something like that.

Stay tuned. That’s all I can tell you. Maybe one of these days, the Lardburgers will be coming to a town near you.

TITANIC; WHAT’S IN A NAME?

Launching of the Titanic

Launching of the Titanic

Titanic. The most infamous name in maritime history. Said by some to be the third most recognisable name in the entire English language; beaten only by Jesus Christ and Coca-Cola. Quite a tag team, that one.

But where did the name come from in the first place? Who came up with it, and did it really smack of the hubristic overtones grafted onto it by an armada of latter day ‘experts’? As so often with these things, we will probably never know the whole truth.

David Banks was a former American consul at the court of Siam, the country we now know as Thailand, towards the end of the nineteenth century. It was he that suggested to the White Star Line a pair of names for future steamers it might build. Those names were Olympic and Titanic.

At about that time, the world had just staged the first Olympic Games of the modern era; those held in Athens in 1896. They were a worldwide sensation, offering the biggest and best of everything, and on an unparalleled scale. So it’s not really so difficult to see where Banks came up with the idea for Olympic as a name.

It was current, it had international appeal and, aptly for White Star, it contained the ‘ic’ suffix that had marked out every White Star liner since the first Oceanic of 1871. So no great mysteries there.

But what of Titanic? What was the line of thinking there? Here again, there is a link to ancient Greece.

In Greek mythology, the Titans were a breed of all powerful deities. They were a dozen strong in all, and they were said to be the children of Earth and Sky.  These Titans were held to be immortal (shades of unsinkable) and to possess tremendous stamina and strength. In the pantheon of ancient Greek gods, the Titans were platinum chip royalty.

None of which was enough to stop the second generation of Titans from being overthrown and destroyed by a new, younger set of ‘new gods on the block’- the Olympians….

Workmen posing on the shaft of the Titanic's 38 ton, starboard wing propeller

Workmen posing on the shaft of the Titanic’s 38 ton, starboard wing propeller

So the transformation of ‘Titan’ into Titanic as a name was, in fact, simple and obvious, as well as symmetrical. With it’s Greek origins and obvious parallels with the Olympic, it made perfect sense for White Star to adopt those two names; Olympic and Titanic.

In the event, the company chose to hang onto both names for a very special occasion.

When White Star introduced the second, revolutionary Oceanic in 1899, it was originally intended to build a twin sister ship for her. In the event, this second ship was never built. Legend has it that this mythical second ship was to have been called the Olympic.

And, when White Star built it’s ‘Big Four’ at the turn of the 20th century, none of the quartet- the world’s largest at the time- were graced with the two names. Instead, they were called Celtic, Cedric, Baltic and Adriatic. 

It was only in 1907, a full decade after David Banks made his suggestion to White Star, that the Greek themed names were finally brought into play for the two new, world beating sisters that would be laid down in Belfast over the following eighteen months. Respectively, they would be newbuild (yard) 400- Olympic-and yard 401. Titanic.

Unlike many modern liners, their names were never secrets from the start. In fact, they were etched into the hull of each ship, in three foot high golden letters. They were also proudly displayed on massive hoardings that stood beneath the bows of each of the twin monsters as they took shape. Because of this, their names were public knowledge a full three years before either took to the seas.

No one can say with one hundred per cent certainty who signed off on the use of the decade old names at that time; but it was almost certainly Joseph Bruce Ismay, the autocratic managing director of White Star at the time. No detail escaped his notice. A decision like that would be unthinkable without his go- ahead.

The Titanic fitting out at Belfast, early 1912

The Titanic fitting out at Belfast, early 1912

What is certain is that there was no formal naming ceremony; no champagne shattered over the bow of yard number 401 when she lumbered into the steel grey River Lagan just after noon on May 31st, 1911. No dignified lady in a wide brimmed hat ever uttered the immortal phrase: “I name this ship Titanic. May God bless her, and all who sail in her….”

The White Star Line liked it’s launchings to be understated, business like affairs. It never went in for the pomp and ceremony so beloved of it’s great rival, Cunard.

But this should not be misconstrued as false modesty. White Star simply believed that the Olympic and Titanic were so fabulous that no amount of frippery and celebration could truly do them justice. And, up to a point, they were right.

After the sinking of the Titanic, a whole flotilla of pulpit based experts railed against the White Star Line, arguing that naming such a vast and swaggering ship as the Titanic was just asking to bring down God’s wrath. After all, had not the brave and boastful Titans been brought down in the prime of their vanity by a stronger, more vengeful God?

Few people actually bought this clerical claptrap, but the idea haunted the White Star Line all the same. Soon after the disaster, the name of the third ship in the class- originally intended to be the Gigantic- was quietly changed to Britannic instead. It just did not seem wise to provoke the fates a second time.

Fat lot of good it did her; on November 21st, 1916, while on the outward leg of her sixth round trip as a requisitioned hospital ship, the Britannic struck a mine laid by a German U-Boat. She sank within an hour, but with mercifully few casualties. Twenty-one people lost their lives in the sinking of the Britannic.

She foundered in calm waters. Just eight miles from the Greek island of Kea….

Who knows? Maybe the ancient gods of Greece just had a malign sense of humour at the end of the day.

 

THINGS FROM MY BUCKET LIST….

At the end of a cross USA train journey, to be greeted by this view...

At the end of a cross USA train journey, to be greeted by this view…

Most people who know me would say that I’m well travelled. My general response to that is that I travel well. And, for sure, I do.

But looked at in either context, a simple fact remains the same; the more we experience of the world, the more we become painfully aware of how little we actually have seen. Travel is like peeling an onion; just when you think you’ve got down to the heart of it, you find another hundred layers, lying in wait to be unravelled.

And that is exactly as it should be, too.

To truly travel, the mind should always be constantly exploring new horizons and, at the very least, contemplating new stuff. Many of us have what we call a ‘bucket list’; a set of trophy things we want to do, sights we yet want to see,

Trust me, I’m no different in that regard. So, without further ado, here’s some of the adventures I still want to experience at least once in my lifetime. Hang on- this could get messy….

TRAVEL BY RAIL ACROSS THE USA

From sea to shining sea. West to East. Starting in Los Angeles with a stay on the dear old Queen Mary, and then making my way on those fabulous Amtrak double decker trains, all the way to New York.

I’d make a two night stop in certain cities along the way; New Orleans, Chicago, and Philadelphia come first to mind. There would be a final couple of nights in New York and then- as a truly grand finale- I’d sail back across the Atlantic to England on the Queen Mary 2. 

That’s living, all right.

THREE WEEKS IN THE GREEK ISLANDS

This would be the complete opposite to my normal, organised routine. Just an open return flight ticket to Athens, as little luggage as possible, and then just island hopping for three weeks, using the local ferries like buses.

Where to? Wherever the mood and the music takes me. A day here. Three days there. Two days anywhere. Repeat as necessary until you become so chilled out that you’re almost liquid.

So many choices, and all dependant on a mood, a whim, People watching and drinking wine in the sun. Repeat as necessary. Jacket and tie? I don’t think so. Not for this one, Colonel.

Rio bound??

Rio bound??

SAILING DOWN TO RIO

Anyone with even a hint of romance in their soul has a sacred duty to sail down to Rio; the most sultry and sensuous city south of the Equator. Why sail? Because tourists fly. And you are not a tourist; you’re a child that has to follow the sun. We don’t ‘do’ mundane, chico. That’s not what we’re about, is it? That’s not how we roll.

And, if you are going to arrive in Rio, you want to make that spectacular, dramatic entry from the sea. Sailing in past Corcovado and the statue of Christ the Redeemer. And do it in style; arrive on the biggest, most swaggering and spectacular ship you can find. You owe it to Rio. And you owe it to yourself. Don’t let me down.

PADDLE WHEELER ON THE MISSISSIPPI

In the immortal words of Churchill, D; Oh, yes…

I want to sit on a rocking chair on some huge, hulking great wedding cake of  a paddle steamer, and pretend I’m Huckleberry Finn while I sip on a mint julep. I want to swagger down one of those impossibly over fussed, Gone With The Wind style grand staircases. To roll on out of New Orleans, with the paddle wheel thrashing up the river behind us, and a dixieland jazz soundtrack ringing in my ears. I still want to be able to hear that music until my dying day. Yes sir, I’ll take some of that Mississippi mud pie, with a big slice of old style steamboating.

Is there more? Oh Lord, yes. Lots. But these are the brightest stars I’ll be aiming to reach for. Bucket list? The only thing that I’m sure of with any real certainty is that I’m going to be needing a bigger bucket.

How about you?

SANTORINI. THE THEATRE OF THE GODS

Santorini sunsets; the stuff of legend

Santorini sunsets; the stuff of legend

The approach to Santorini from the sea is utterly mesmerising. The air is almost completely silent as your ship ghosts cautiously into the massive natural amphitheatre, a three quarter sweep of granite in a dozen shades of grey, backlit by a slowly rising summer sun.

Up around on the rim, clusters of blinding white houses crown the peak like frosting on the top of some whimsical, unreal wedding cake. The water is like polished glass; a shade of deep. electric blue so bright that it almost hurts to study it for any length of time.

Time is something that Santorini is an expert study in. Thousands of years ago, a volcanic explosion of unthinkable magnitude blew the heart out of the ancient island, long rumoured to be the site of the fabled, sunken Atlantis. What you sail into today is the rim of the flooded, long since obliterated volcano.

You’ll find further evidence of the past on the black, volcanic sand beaches that form part of the island’s extremities, but most cruise ship passengers never see these.

Most people invariably make what amounts to one of the Aegean’s most spectacular pilgrimages, up to the town of Thira. Small and perfectly formed, this gorgeous little idyll offers stunning views out over the sunken, sun splashed caldera of Santorini. 

But first, you have to get up there.

Santorini's amazing backdrop is always spellbinding

Santorini’s amazing backdrop is always spellbinding

There are two ways of achieving this. The first is via a swift, if giddy, cable car ascent that offers some spectacular photo opportunities. It costs around four euros each way, and takes mere minutes.

The other way is to ascend via one of the brood of lethargic, spluttering, asthmatic donkeys. Years of constant, back breaking work under a pitiless Aegean sun have made most of these into stubborn, foul tempered, flea bitten brutes. You wind your way up a zig zag, cobble stone pathway littered with all sorts of unpleasant stuff, with the added bonus of banging your knees off every white edged wall within range.  It makes the charge of the Light Brigade look and feel like a Sunday afternoon cakewalk by comparison.

But however you get there, the reward at the top is spellbinding. Quite simply, the views out over that brutally truncated bay are some of the most amazing in the world.

Huge cruise ships look like toy boats, flung at random across a sparkling blue carpet by some petulant deity. Row after row of serried, white walled bars, shops and houses tumble down to the water’s edge, with window shutters in brilliant shades of yellow, terracotta and red.

Look closer, and details render each one more human. A cat snoozing on a canvas chair, or under some idle, lethargically flapping washing. Flower boxes almost overwhelmed with fierce, vibrant bursts of jasmine and oleander. Old women in white headscarves standing talking by a small, cobbled sidewalk as a motor scooter splutters past.

Tired of Greece? You're probably tired of life, period

Tired of Greece? You’re probably tired of life, period

There are churches capped by bright, electric blue domes and crucifixes that loom against a flawless, duck egg blue noon day sky. Winding, cobbled streets awash with shops that spew out a tidal wave of souvenir tat of the worst kind. Small vans groaning under the weight of fresh fruit they are delivering to the bars and cafes already sagging under the influx of a tidal wave of thirsty tourists.

Despite the inevitable crowds, there’s a sense of exalted, almost Olympian detachment that comes with being up here. Thira really does feel like the private viewing box of the old gods of Greece. It’s not hard to see where the whole Atlantis theory came into play.

All cruise ships tender their passengers ashore at Santorini, and this can lead to snarl ups ashore if there are a few big ships in the bay- much more likely than not on the over tonnaged, summertime Greek Islands circuit. Patience can be more than a virtue; it’s an absolute necessity on some days.

Another thing; don’t even think of walking back down that shiny, winding, permanently soiled zig zag track. No easier entree into the broken limbs club exists anywhere in the entire crazy kaleidescope that is summertime Greece.

But even as your tender bumbles reluctantly back towards the mother ship,  one final treat awaits. Check out those amazing, looming walls of rock from sea level as the sun plays around them. As the sun rises, shadows shift, darken and change the tone of the entire spectacular panorama. When the sun begins to descend again from it’s apex, the process goes into reverse. Either way, the views are every bit as amazing as those from up on the Elysian bluffs of old Thira.

Leaving...

Leaving…

Santorini. One amazing, spectacular, visual feast. Oh, and make time for some of the souvlaki and the local wine. Even the gods wish they had stuck around for those.

WONDERFUL WINDMILLS- A MYKONOS LANDMARK

That famous Mykonos headland

That famous Mykonos headland

Most people would quite probably agree that Mykonos is the most high profile of the Greek Islands. The island was already a world famous centre for summer hedonism and all night parties long before Shirley Valentine transformed it’s fortunes on a global scale. But, truth be told, to those ‘in the know’- from the widowed Jacqueline Bouvier Kennedy onwards- Mykonos has always had a unique, almost surreal lustre that sets it apart from its neighbours.

And no sight on this most alluring of islands typifies Mykonos more than the range of seven, sixteenth century Venetian windmills that crown the high ground just above the cafe strewn pier. They loom even above the surf kissed bars and restaurants of Little Venice. In fact, this group of ‘seven sisters’ can be seen from anywhere on the entire island.

Painted blinding white like most Greek architecture, they range in a lopsided line along the brow of a hill that offers the best view out over the town. All of them were initially built to mill wheat, and some were in use until the middle of the last century. One of them has now been preserved as a museum, but they all stand still, as perfectly petrified in time and space as the statues on Easter Island. And, it has to be said, they are a lot prettier.

They are all built in the typically round style of the times, with narrow. slit windows and gaunt, skeletal sails that look like the weavings of some giant spider. The thatched, mop top roofs look like an early homage to a Beatles haircut.

This is undoubtedly the best place from which to witness the legendary Mykonos sunsets, an experience in high summer that verges almost on the religious in terms of the crowds it draws out.

The silence is incredible, and the sense of peace and calm is impossible to quantify as the sun sags gently into the slowly rolling embrace of the summertime Aegean. The great, fiery orb casts a pale, dusky pink glow on the sinuous curves of those seven windmills, throwing them into sharp relief against the backdrop of a slowly reddening sky.

Up close and more personal

Up close and more personal

It’s a truly beautiful, spectacular sight; a superb natural floor show that comes at no extra charge. Often as not, it’s the mellow prelude to an evening of late night, early morning carnival madness on the true hot spot of the Greek party circuit.

And more than one or two people have wandered back to their hotels at sunrise, somewhat the worse for wear, only to find themselves entranced again as the slowly rising sun glints with deceptively gentle shyness against those ancient Venetian windmills. Waiters are setting up the cafes on the quayside as the silhouettes of the first inbound cruise ships loom impressively over the horizon. It’s another day, Mykonos style.

For visitors, the days and nights are never long enough. But for the seven slumbering sisters, time stands as still as the gossamer like strands that still frame their faces, just as they have for centuries here.

LOUIS CRUISES- LOOKING AHEAD

CNV00158Louis Cruises has settled into 2013 with an upgraded programme of three, four and seven day cruises in their home waters around the Greek islands and Turkey. But it is the itineraries for next winter that really mark out a different strategy for the Hellenic mainstay line.

The main programme of three and four day cruises operates out of Athens until November, with the Louis Olympia and Orient Queen taking pride of place. Each Friday, both ships set out on a mid morning departure that takes them to Mykonos that same evening, before arriving in Kusadasi on Saturday. The next morning finds them in Heraklion, Crete, during the morning, with a late afternoon, five hour stay over in Santorini. Both ships return to Athens on the Monday morning,; for these cruises, embarkation is also possible in Kusadasi as well.

The four day cruises depart on Monday morning, and again call in at Mykonos that same evening. Tuesday morning is spent in Kusadasi, and the afternoon and early evening showcases a call at Patmos.

Wednesday allows for a full day in Rhodes, and Thursday once again features a morning in Heraklion, and the evening in Santorini, before returning to Athens early on Friday morning. Once again, embarkation is possible in Kusadasi, as well as in Rhodes.

CNV00018Louis is also offering a few seven night cruises on the Orient Queen next month, also from Athens. These basically extend the four night trip by adding a welcome overnight stay in Mykonos, and a call in to sultry Istanbul. These itineraries can also be booked as round trips  from Istanbul as well.

Orient Queen then moves over to Cyprus, from where she will operate a series of two to five day cruises around the Greek Islands from Limassol.

But the really big splash comes this winter when, in association with Canada-based Cuba Cruises, Louis will send the Louis Cristal out to Cuba, to begin a series of seven night, round trip Caribbean fly cruises from December through April. Embarkation will be possible both in Havana, and in Montego Bay, Jamaica. Though the cruises are chartered, and mainly for the Canadian market, Louis will also be selling cabin space on board.

Even more surprising is the news that Orient Queen- soon to be renamed Louis Aura- will be sent to South America over the winter, to operate a series of cruises there. This represents a welcome contrast in a cruising arena that has been the sole preserve of the mega ships up until now. Having sailed on the ship last year, I can vouch for the fact that she is a perfect size for getting into the smaller, more secluded ports that the big ‘floating resorts’ have to bypass because of their size.

CNV00145Other welcome news is that next year will see the return of the popular Coral, under the new name of Louis Rhea. At present, she is expected to sail alongside the much larger Louis Olympia on the three and four day ‘greatest hits’ cruises of the Greek islands and Turkey.

I’ll be providing a more detailed look at the experience of cruising with Louis in the near future.