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Stark-white buildings with blue domes in the town of Oia on Santorini add to the classic Greek scenery. Stark-white buildings with blue domes in the town of Oia on Santorini add to the classic Greek scenery. Photos by Peggy Sijswerda
2022 Nov

An Idyllic Greek Cruise: Pt. 2

Fabulous food, surprising scenery, and a chill vibe are just a few reasons to love Greece.

I never thought I would walk on the moon, but here I am strolling with Peter across a bizarre, moonlike landscape. Instead of sand dunes, Sarakiniko Beach on the island of Milos features an inlet of pure white stone carved by volcanic eruptions. As far as you can see, smooth hills, like white elephants, undulate in every direction and shine like polished alabaster. A strong breeze blows off the deep blue Aegean Sea , the freshest air imaginable. Peter and I find a shady place to sit and take in the dramatic surroundings. There’s nowhere else we’d rather be.

I am a huge fan of Greece—her lovely islands in particular, and every time I visit I discover something new and mind blowing, like this other-worldly landscape in Milos. Each of the Greek islands is charming in its own way and offers unique cuisine, flora and fauna, architecture, and culture. Taking a cruise in the islands is the perfect way to get a taste of their charms, so you can find your favorite and come back for a longer visit.

Peter and I are midway through our 8-day Idyllic Aegean cruise with Celestyal, a cruise line that specializes in the Eastern Mediterranean and the Greek Islands. In 2019 we enjoyed their Three-Continent Cruise and are back once again to discover more of this picturesque region. After stopping by Thessaloniki, Kusadasi, Turkey, and Rhodes, we are visiting Crete, Santorini, Mykonos, and Milos.

It’s Day 5, a beautiful sunny morning, and our ship drops anchor in Crete, the largest island in Greece and one I’ve always wanted to visit. An intimate food tour of Heraklion, Crete’s capital city, is on our agenda, and I’m hungry!

Crete: Home of Greece’s Finest Olive Oil

Take a Food Tour in Heraklion for a Taste of Crete
Shopkeepers
On the Cretan food tour, you’ll meet local shopkeepers like these owners of an herb and tea shop in Heraklion.

One of the reasons I love Greece is because Mediterranean cuisine is my all-time favorite. Our ship, the Celestyal Crystal, serves amazing Greek cuisine on board, but sometimes it’s fun to taste regional specialties in the ports we visit. Crete, the largest Greek island, is well known for its food pathways. Home to 14 million olive trees, it produces 50 percent of Greek olive oil, which many argue is the country’s finest.

The island is also famous for its cheeses, fresh herbs and vegetables, seafood, and pastries. Our tour guide, Manos Koukakis, takes us to a popular pastry shop on Heraklion’s main square. “You have to come early to get a table on the patio,” says Manos as we sit down to a tasty breakfast of local teas and a pastry called bougatsa. It’s light, flaky, and unlike anything I’ve ever had. We try a savory version filled with cheese and a sweeter one with custard sprinkled with cinnamon and sugar. I love them both!

Manos also introduces us to three kinds of teas, all of which have therapeutic properties. My favorite is a wild mint from the oregano family, whose name I forgot to note. Malotira, known as mountain tea, helps with tummy aches, headaches, high blood pressure, and diabetes. It also has been shown in studies to help prevent Alzheimer’s. Who knew?

We continue our tour through the marble-paved shopping streets of Heraklion and stop in two adorable herb shops. Manos provides information on the products, which is super helpful because almost everything is labeled in Greek! I buy small packages of oregano and tea, but would love to fill my suitcase with more.

As we wander through the colorful shopping district of Heraklion, we stop here and there to taste olive oil, cheeses, nuts, even fresh vegetables. I’m convinced that Crete is an ideal destination for foodies, and Peter and I decide we will return to this Garden of Eden one day for a longer visit. Our guide tells us the island is divided into four distinct geographic regions, and each one has a unique food pathway.

The tour ends at another pastry shop, where Manos hands out boxes of delicious cookies and pastries. One cylindrical-shaped pastry covered in sesame seeds is traditionally given to guests at a wedding. Manos explains that weddings in Crete are the biggest event in society. “For us a wedding, it is the biggest joy,” he says, smiling. We smile too as we taste the delicious pastries and thank him for a fabulous tour. Peter and I are already planning our return visit.

Exploring Santorini and Mykonos

Blue-Domed Homes, Seaside Cafes, and Picturesque Vistas
Mykonos Town
Mykonos Town is home to many seaside cafes, bars, and restaurants, where the “in” crowd is said to party all night long.

That afternoon we sail to Santorini, an island Peter and I have visited before. Last time we missed exploring Oia (pronounced “Ee-uh”), the sparkling white village perched on the caldera’s rim with blue-domed homes and spectacular views around every corner. So we join an excursion that includes a glimpse of a traditional interior village of Santorini, along with a chance to explore Oia and see a spectacular sunset from its many viewpoints.

Trouble is the town is swarming with other tour groups, and everyone is jockeying for the best spot to see the sunset. It’s a bit crazy, so Peter and I escape the maddening crowds, find a terrace along the main walking street where we can “sort of” see the sunset, and enjoy a relaxing drink and people watching.

Afterwards the bus takes us to explore Thira, the main town, which is also bustling with tourists. We confide in our guide that we’d love to dine in an authentic tavern, and he recommends a place off the beaten path where the food is amazing: fava dip, grilled mushrooms, zucchini fritters, and lamb kebob. Prices are reasonable, portions are huge, the local wine is surprisingly good, and we are in heaven.

The next port of call is Mykonos, another island we’re visiting for the first time. In case you didn’t know, Mykonos has become THE celebrity hotspot, attracting movie stars and rock stars, who want to escape normal life for a while. Where better to build a multi-million dollar dream estate than a rocky, barren island in the Aegean Sea? Personally, I don’t see the island’s huge appeal, but for whatever reason, Mykonos is the place to see and be seen.

Peter and I tour Mykonos Town, a buzzing hive of exclusive shops and seaside restaurants and cafes. It’s wild at night, we hear, with bars and nightclubs open all night long. Peter and I forego the party scene and join an excursion to Ano Mera, a more subdued village, where kids play in a playground on the village square and tourists are few and far between.

Our small group dines at Taverna Vangelis overlooking the square, perfect for people watching. The food is tasty: Greek salad with a slab of tart feta, fava dip, eggplant dip, tzatziki, chicken, potatoes, and rice. Dessert is simple and divine: Greek yogurt with a dollop of honey. We love the relaxed vibe of this authentic village, especially as sunset falls and pastel colors illuminate the square with a magic glow.

Don’t Miss: Sarakiniko Beach on Milos

Plus a Rave-Worthy Greek Feast Onboard Celestyal Crystal
Sarakiniko Beach
The Island of Milos, one of the ports of call on Celestyal Cruises’ Idyllic Aegean, offers breathtaking scenery, such as this other-worldly landscape at Sarakiniko Beach.

The island of Milos is known for the famous statue, Venus de Milo, (circa 150 BCE) which was found here in 1820 and is on display at the Louvre in Paris. Milos is our last port of call (boo hoo). Described as one of the most beautiful places on earth, it is a stunning destination with clear turquoise waters, beautiful beaches, and tall craggy cliffs overlooking the sea. The day we visit it’s quite windy—not uncommon in the Cycladic Islands—so our excursion—a ride on a small tourist boat around the island—is a bit bumpy and wet.

No worries, though. We are all suited up to enjoy a swim in a protected cove, where the water is crystal clear and the scenery is breathtaking. Peter cannonballs off the side of the boat and calls out, “Brrr, the water’s cold.” Hmm, I think I’ll hang out on board and enjoy the warmth of the sun and the gentle swaying of the boat.

Soon we are back in the bus, heading to Sarakiniko, the moonscape that makes you feel like you are on another planet. There’s a small inlet for swimming, but with the wind blowing off shore, conditions aren’t ideal. Peter and I take lots of photos and grab a beer from a food truck for the bus ride back to the ship. It’s been a whirlwind day, and we have a memorable evening planned.

It’s our 37th anniversary, not a special one number-wise, but for us, it’s one we’ll always remember. We have reservations in the ship’s specialty restaurant for the My Greek Table Six-Course Tasting Menu, created by Diane Kochilas, a foremost expert on Greek and Mediterranean cuisine and host, creator, and co-producer of My Greek Table, the popular cooking and travel show that airs nationally on PBS and is sponsored by Celestyal Cruises. To sample this gourmet meal, a surcharge will be added, but for the experience, it’s well worth it!

Here’s a few of the fabulous dishes we tasted: Smoked Eggplant Caviar, Cretan Octopus Carpaccio, Escallop of Aegean Lobster, Zucchini Pappardelle, and Kalogeros Terrine, a colorful layered tower with sliced beef, eggplant, cheese, and tomatoes. Wonderful textures and flavors! Even more dishes are on the tasting menu, including a cheese plate and dessert. Everything tastes like it’s homemade.

After we finish, our server presents us with a beautiful, personalized cake, wishing Peter and me Happy Anniversary. We ate so much during our Greek feast, however, we ask the staff to wrap it up for us to enjoy tomorrow. As always, they are happy to oblige.

As Peter and I walk back to our cabin, moonlight shines over the Aegean Sea. We’re sad the cruise will end, but we agree that the Idyllic Aegean cruise has been one of our best vacation experiences ever. Our cozy cabin on the Celestyal Crystal, terrific on-board entertainment, wonderful ports of call, amazingly friendly and efficient staff—we will never forget this once-in-a-lifetime Greek cruise. Bon voyage!

For more information and to book your next cruise, visit your travel agent or go to www.celestyal.com/us/.

As we went to press, Celestyal Cruises announced the Idyllic Aegean Cruise will now include a full day each in Santorini and Mykonos. The cruiseline also offers other itineraries as well as options for cruises of shorter and longer durations. “Inclusive” experiences will start as low as $339, and “Enhanced” vacations begin at $479.

Celestyal Cruises will be removing all of its COVID-19 vaccination, proof of COVID recovery, and pre-departure testing requirements for guests on sailings commencing on or after March 2, 2023, unless required by local regulations.

Peggy Sijswerda

Peggy Sijswerda is the editor and publisher of Tidewater Family Plus magazine. She has an MFA in creative nonfiction from Old Dominion University and is the author of Still Life with Sierra, a travel memoir. Peggy also freelances for a variety of regional, national, and international magazines.

Website: www.peggysijswerda.com

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