Blissbehavin’ in Athens & The Greek Isles

By Regina Lynch-Hudson

Blissful destination: Through spellbinding tales of sparring Gods and Goddesses, my seventh grade Greek mythology instructor was the first to spark my interest in the islands of Greece. Since then, I’ve fantasized about sailing the Meditteranean waters surrounding Greece. We were already in Europe, on a dream vacation in Venice, so it was a no-brainer to tag on a Greek Isles expedition. This 12-day excursion on Holland America cruise line included touring Athens and notable Greek Islands as well as two destinations in Turkey. Luxury cruise travel is the unsurpassed way to expeditiously explore the Greek Isles.

The Greek islands are legendary for their beauty, landscape, diversity and mystical history. Though there are more than 200 Greek islands, only a few rate as tourist-traipsing grounds.

Gems of Greece: In Athens, I discovered a gritty, graffiti-festooned urban metropolis, congested with buildings. After zipping and zagging through traffic on a tour, I scaled my way up the winding path to the Acropolis, a walk that cast me some 230 feet above the city. The Parthenon, the star feature of the Acropolis, was originally a temple dedicated to Athena, the city’s resident goddess. The visual jolt of standing atop the historic hill set the momentum for panoramic excesses that followed in the Greek Isles.

01_Acropolis, Athens GreeceAcropolis 

small-02_Parthenon,-Athens-GreeceParthenon

Once you leave Athens, and venture to other ports and islands of Greece, you’ll find that each exhibits its own distinct typography and tempo. Following Athens, our next stop was the coastal fishing village of Katakolon, the astonishing archaeological site where the first recorded Olympic Games were held, between 776 BC and AD 393. Because Katakolon’s western tip is mainland, it doesn’t qualify as an island — but feels like a sleepy islet lost in time. There, we explored ancient Olympia, and immersed ourselves in an era when athletes rivaled in the nude to honor their Gods and bring triumph to their villages. A guided tour amid the stone pillars, temples, and ruins — plus a vivid imagination — transported me to a time when mankind’s greatest sporting competition began.

small-03_-Ancient-Olympia,-in-KatakolonAncient Olympia

After ample time spent romping in Katakolon, we sailed to Lesbos, a mountainous island perched in the northeastern Aegean Sea. With a population that’s barely 100,000 residents, Lesbos is Greece’s third-largest island and the Greek isle closest to Turkey. Remote, primitive and unspoiled, Lesbos is commonly referred to as Mytilene, after its capital Mytilini. In Lesbos, olive, cherry and citrus trees dot forested landscape that hugs cobalt blue water. Entranced by the backcloth, we opted to wander the island alone. Our rootless meandering led us to the Mytilene Castle, a mammoth, 6th century fortress overlooking the harbor of Lesbos. The view from the castle to Aegean Sea was spellbinding. Hours melted away, as we drifted in the halcyon rhythm of the edge-of-the-world setting.

small-04_Lesbos,-GreeceLesbos Greece

Next, we island-hopped to the volcanic island of Santorini. Its snow-white houses, hotels and churches frosting coal black cliffs, deem Santorini the undisputed ‘eye candy’ of the Greek Islands. There are only three ways to reach Fira town, atop a 1,000-foot cliff. The options are a 600-plus step walk — straight uphill; a donkey ride; or cable car. Santorini’s dramatic postcard views convinced us that it deserved the title of ‘eye candy.’

Our final stop was Argostoli, the capital of Kefalonia, the sixth largest Greek island. Kefalonia’s 158 miles of stunning coastline are only accessible by boat. Highlights of the dropsy, slow-moving port included Melissani Lake and Drogarati Cave — a breathtaking spectacle of colors, from the violet blues of the lake to the golden hues inside the cavern. The sparsely inhabited Argostoli afforded us the chance to unwind, in what felt like an undiscovered setting.

The Lap of Luxury: Nix your notions that all cruises are created equal. Cruise lines are as diverse as hotel chains — from bargain motel-type cruise liners to Holland America’s palatial floating resorts. Holland America’s five-star ships are virtual “buoyant cities” boasting fine-dining restaurants, glitzy casinos, state-of-the-art spas  and gymnasiums, infinity pools that reach out to the ocean waves, dazzling nightclubs, boutiques and art galleries.

Lay of the Land:  You’ll pay to play on Holland America’s land tours or shore excursions — which last four to eight hours long. Tours averaged $60 to $200, per person — easily necessitating more than $2,000 in ‘pocket change.’

Insider Tip: When cruising, always book a stateroom with a private balcony; they are more convenient when trying to catch impromptu sites. Never book a cruise with durations under 9-12 days. Anything less is a ‘tease’ that will have you franticly darting in and out of each hit-and-miss port.

Beyond Greece: Holland America Line’s newest ship, Nieuw Amsterdam, offers Mediterranean itineraries round-trip from Venice, Italy; visiting ports throughout Italy, Greece, Turkey, Croatia, France, and Spain.

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hollandamerica.com

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