Exploring the Greek isles has been a bucket list trip for years, but for various reasons, kept getting pushed to the back burner. In 2019 we were finally able to fulfill the dream, spending 10 wonderful days in Greece.
There are hundreds of islands in Greece to explore, and trying to figure out which to visit, and how to get there was an exhausting task. Then I learned about a small ship cruise on a mega-yacht that would allow us to visit multiple islands without having to figure out how to navigate to each. We selected a seven-night Classical Greek itinerary on Variety Cruises that embarked from Athens.
We spent three nights in Athens before boarding the M/Y Harmony G. We arrived in Athens late at night so we really only had two full days to explore. We spent the majority of our two days wandering around the Plaka neighborhood, which is an atmospheric area flush with tavernas, cafes and shops, that sits in the shadow of the Acropolis. There are also numerous churches and ruins in Plaka; be sure to visit the Metropolitan Cathedral of Athens for its dramatic interior and dome. Next door is the ancient church of Virgin Mary Gorgoepekoos and Saint Eleutherius, that dates from the 12th century.
Athens is a virtual living museum, and you will have plenty to see and do to occupy more than a few days. Should you decide to visit the acropolis, be sure to buy tickets online in advance so you can skip the line. Getting to the acropolis requires a bit of physical exertion and the marble is slick. Be sure to wear appropriate footwear for the hike. Also, guided tours are plentiful but an audio tour can be downloaded to your smartphone if you want to strike out on your own. Other must-see sights are the Roman Agora, the Library of Hadrian, and if you want to get some sun and a swim, you can take the tram down to the ocean where you will find a nice beach and clear water. From Plaka catch the tram at Syntagma and jump off at Mpates in Edem. Here you will find many cafes and bars with close access to the beach.
The ship itself was a bit aged, but for the most part in good shape. The cabins were tight but the bathroom was a good size considering the size of the ship. Most of the cabins were fitted with two twin beds but our cabin had an additional bunk bed which provided some extra storage. The beds were comfortable (but short), however, the linens are due for an update. The meals served on the ship were plentiful and the food was fresh, albeit a tad bland. Also, while there was a full bar on board, alcohol was not included in the fare (the exception was the welcome cocktail hour, and the captain’s dinner on the last night, where wine was included with dinner). The ship bartender will keep a running tab of your booze consumption and you are billed at the end of the voyage.
An idyllic port with a small, charming old town, Nafplio also has a great swimming area with bars and cafes during the high season. The Palamidi Castle (built in 1686) is at the top of the peak, and you can hike or taxi to the top. There are a lot of good restaurant options that are very reasonably priced, as well as affordable souvenirs such as leather sandals and worry beads.
Another small port that doesn’t accept cruise ships. When you arrive at the port, Monemvasia looks like a giant rock. A small bus transported us up the road where we found the entrance to a magical fortified town. Monemvasia is absolutely stunning and you could spend hours getting lost in the cobblestone alleys. On the main street are plenty of bars and restaurants, many with breathtaking views of the sea. But behind the church in the square is a narrow lane that will lead you to Byron’s Wine Tasting, a little stone vault where the very charming Byron will offer delicious Greek wines, tasty snacks and excellent conversation. We spent a few hours sampling Byron’s wines and found it to be one of the highlights of our trip.
After drinking copious amounts of Byron’s wine in Monemvasia the night before, we decided to spend our day in Kythira relaxing on the sandy beach. After a lunch of Greek salad and souvlaki, we paid €10 for two beach chairs and an umbrella, and soaked up the island sun for the better part of the day. The crystalline water was warm and inviting and there were a few people snorkeling. Here there are little fish that will nibble your feet (the same fish employed at some salons), and if you don’t mind their nibbling, you will be treated to a free pedicure! There is an old town in Kythira that is worthy of a visit. It’s accessible by bus or taxi from the harbor. This is another island not accessible to cruise ships so there are very few tourists.
In Santorini we finally encountered the dreaded cruise ship crowds. Our boat was moored in the caldera with the other ships, and we took a tender to the dock. From there we paid €6 to ride the gondola to Fira, Santorini’s capital. Fortunately we arrived in between the big ships and did not have to wait to ride the gondola. Other options of getting to Fira are walking up the steep path, or riding a donkey. Be aware that if you walk, expect to dodge the donkey dung all the way (don’t wear sandals!).
We spent an hour walking around Fira, which is touristy and crowded. There is a bus that takes visitors to Oia, which is the main tourist attraction in Santorini. We opted for a taxi that was €30 each way for two people. We were pleasantly surprised that Oia wasn’t as crowded as we were expecting, and we were able to walk around the narrow passageways without too much trouble. There are unlimited places to take in the view, and of course, lots of options for eating and drinking. We had cocktails at a pretty place called the Red Bicycle that offers incredible, jaw dropping views of the coastline and caldera. Afterward we stopped for a great lunch at Pelekanos, but sadly, by the time we left the restaurant, the streets of Oia had become flooded with tourists and we could hardly make our way to the square. It was nearly time to catch our tender back to the boat, so we made our way back to Fira and back down hill to the port. Although Santorini is incredibly beautiful, the crowds intrude on the ambiance. We have heard that evenings in Santorini are less crowded after the cruise ship crowds leave, so perhaps we will try an overnight stay next time.
Mykonos is another island that accepts the big cruise ships, but despite there being three ships in the harbor, it didn’t feel crowded. After we left our boat, we made our way through the seaside restaurants of Mykonos Town and walked to Little Venice, which is the Greece of my dreams. Here I finally found the whitewashed buildings with their gray stone walkways and blue accents. We wandered without a plan for hours, eventually finding ourselves at the windmills of Mykonos. We found an incredible restaurant on the water’s edge called Kastro’s where we had the best meal of the entire trip. The seafood was so fresh you could taste the sea in each bite. We washed it down with a crisp, minerally Greek wine as we gazed out across the bright blue water. It was a perfect day and I wished we were staying in Mykonos for a few more days.
Our last stop on our Greek tour was Syros, a small but beautiful little island that is almost completely lacking tourists. The town itself is lovely, but the top attractions are the monastery, St. Nicholas cathedral and Miaouli Square. Be sure to find your way through the Vaporia neighborhood to view the magnificent villas and mansions of Syros.