Home / Smart Travel / Features / Greek islands: Small ship cruising

Features

Greek islands: Small ship cruising

Forget colossal cruise vessels and complicated ferry schedules — on a vessel small enough to sail into secluded bays, explore the Greek islands in breezy style, tucking into fresh fish, docking at pastoral islands for bike rides or hiking up to medieval monasteries along the way

Greek islands: Small ship cruising
Oia village on Santorini. Image: AWL

Share this

It’s been half an hour now, and I can’t locate SeaDream I. I’ve opted to walk around the waterfront from Piraeus metro station, figuring that the Greek capital’s port district can’t be that complicated; that it’s silly to grab a taxi for a trip of just a few feet. But the underbelly of Athens’s dockside is defeating me, placing ship after ship in my path — freighters, ferries, cruise giants. None of them is the boat I’m seeking. And the temperature rises even as a gust whips the water, as if Aesop’s fable about the sun and wind thrusting their weight at an embattled traveller is being restaged for my benefit.

So by the time she finally materialises by the quay, hidden in the shadow of an MSC behemoth, my home for the next 10 days already resembles some sort of oasis. Stepping on to SeaDream I certainly seems a moment of respite. My bags are removed from my shoulders and spirited towards my cabin. A glass of Champagne is folded into my hand. And a picture quickly emerges of happy passengers, settled in and ready to go, some already lounging around the compact swimming pool on the rear deck. I drain the fizz, amble the corridors, attempt to establish my bearings. And once I’ve done this, I try to push towards a decision on the pertinent question — am I pleased to be here?

I’m not, in general, a lover of cruises; of big beasts of the ocean, barging into harbour, disgorging hundreds of passengers who may, or may not, know or care where they are. And yet the SeaDream proposition — of travelling with a company that describes itself as a ‘Yacht Club’ — has proved seductive. It’s not just the opportunity to spend the best part of a fortnight slipping between Aegean islands whose existence has enchanted visitors since the legendary Odysseus was lost on his way home from the Trojan War. There’s the Cyclades outcrops of Sifnos, Naxos, Mykonos and Santorini; that celebrated Saronic shard Hydra; distant Patmos, cast adrift on the cusp of Turkish terrain in the Dodecanese. It’s the chance to do so on a vessel small enough to sidle softly into the most secluded bays — or lower anchor directly outside them, unobtrusively, without hogging the horizon.

SeaDream I — I soon come to appreciate — is little. ‘Yacht’ may be a misleading term, a stretching of the obvious definition of the word (there are no sails here) — but she occupies barely more of the sea than the most winsome of tall ships. There are only 56 ‘staterooms’, equating to a maximum capacity of 112 guests. At just 355ft in length, she’s a slight presence on the surface of the Aegean — so slight, in fact, that as she slips away from Athens, she moves quietly into the evening, seeming scarcely to stir a ripple. And, at some juncture, once dusk has fallen, she halts 50 miles south of her start point, where, amid the hopeful shimmer of morning, she will present Hydra as a glorious fait accompli.

View of Mykonos in the Cyclades, Greek islands

View of Mykonos in the Cyclades. Image: Getty

Mountain monastery

In The Odyssey, the ancient scribe Homer describes ‘the long hill-paths, the welcoming bays, the beetling rocks and the leafy trees’ of Ithaca in the hour Odysseus finally sets foot on home soil. There is something of this pastoral wonder about Hydra in my initial glimpse of it. The capital, Hydra Town, spreads up its hillside on the north coast, a thin trail ebbing along the shoreline in search of the hamlet of Kamini, doughty fishing boats forge out in search of a catch sufficient to fuel the restaurants on the harbourside. A simple ferry hop from Piraeus, Hydra is enormously popular with Athenian weekenders. But there is no discernible capital-city hubbub today. Rather, there’s the braying of the donkeys tethered at the dock — there to provide rides for the less athletic visitor — and a rattle of shutters opening in the adjacent cafes. Life feels local and languid.

Not that I have time for languidity. “How are we all doing today?” Jeff Fithian inquires of the 12 of us who’ve disembarked. “It’s a really good day for a hike.” A wiry American, somewhere indefinably in his 50s, he is the force of enthusiasm behind the daily active excursions — partially focused on fitness, partly on showing passengers something of each stop — that are included in the price of a SeaDream cruise. Even the shortest of conversations reveals him as a man who has carved out an ideal existence, sailing both the ship’s seasons (one in the Mediterranean, the other in the Caribbean), and spending the weeks between living in Cartagena in southeast Spain. But now, here, he is a picture of energy. “We’re going up there,” he says, pointing towards the monastery of Profitis Ilias — which is, as yet, invisible, some 1,640ft up on the roof of Hydra’s resident rock titan, Mount Eros. “It’s a bit steep-going in parts, but if we get moving, we’ll be back well in time for lunch.”

Off he sets, at a decent pace, up through the town. And we try to keep up — ‘we’ being a disparate bunch whose variety underscores the broad appeal of a SeaDream cruise. There’s a twenty-something Australian who lives in London and has met her mother on the far side of Europe for a holiday catch-up; a thirty-something Croatian man from Zagreb who loves to explore Greece; a Californian couple from the Los Angeles suburbs, hideously jet-lagged but determined not to waste a second of their getaway; another American wife and husband — he’s a pilot with a major airline whose job has given him some serious wanderlust.

The reward for our first-morning commitment to Hydra is a view which unspools slowly — a sprinkle of sparkle on the bay at first, apparent between the whitewashed houses and shoebox churches which adorn the gradient, then a widescreen vision of flawless blue as the town concedes defeat to the mountain and the sky behind it. There are smells, too, to complement the sights — that gorgeous aroma of pine needles baking on hot stone; the vague tang of animal skin from a horse sweating in the approach to midday, carrying his owner down the slope. And then the crown on the prince’s head, the 10th-century monastery — under whose tower the whole of Hydra prostrates itself. I ask Jeff, who has done the walk more than 50 times, if he ever tires of it all. “I really can’t say I do,” he replies.

Naoussa on the island of Paros, Greek islands

Naoussa on the island of Paros. Image: Getty

Smooth sailing

I settle into a routine — an early breakfast of eggs and fresh fruit at the open-air Topside Restaurant on Deck Five, followed by whatever Jeff suggests as an excursion. Generally, this is a three-hour tour of an island on one of the ship’s 10 mountain bikes, returning aboard for lunch — before pedalling out by myself to see whatever we’ve missed in the morning. This allows me to burn, in advance, the many calories I ingest at the Topside over dinner, where there’s a perfect steak with a side of foie gras one evening, a succulent slab of seabass another, served by a well-rehearsed crew of 95 — a number almost matching the passenger head-count one-for-one. SeaDream I begins to look like home. And if my cabin is mildly chintzy in its floral carpets, it’s never less than comfortable when I fall into bed, and sleep through the Aegean’s playful moods.

My approach each morning provides Aegean snapshots aplenty — Sifnos, where the impossibly pretty village of Kastro gleams on the east coast; Paros, where north-coast Naoussa is still protected by its 13th-century Venetian fortress; the Cyclades hotspot Mykonos — where, suddenly, there’s a thrum of people, milling around the cool cafes and bars in Chora, and posing for selfies by the Kato Myli windmills. I absorb each destination in turn, with a burgeoning appreciation of the process, tacitly acknowledging how much trickier the journey would be if relying on ferries rather than the SeaDream I.

It seems odd, in such a context, to think of the end of the world. But there it is all the same when I land on Patmos — the island where, according to biblical lore, St John the Evangelist penned the fire and brimstone that is the Book of Revelation. The cave where this act of authorship reputedly occurred is now topped by a small but ornate monastery with dark-eyed saints snared in fresco form. It’s helpful that the village it occupies is named ‘Apokalypsi’, for there are no other hints of the death of it all on this most picturesque of outcrops. The tarmac ribbon which curls up from the port town of Skala is no road to hell (though maybe to heaven) — it’s fir-fragrant and panoramic, unfurling on to the doorstep of an elevated citadel (also Chora) where another monastery claims the ridge. A plaque on the wall declares its UNESCO World Heritage status, but there are secrets too when I venture into the labyrinth of lanes behind — not least Thanasis Cafe, which dispenses Greek beer and a rumble of conversation on the miniscule space which constitutes the ‘main square’.

I could be persuaded to linger, but there’s a final challenge to tackle — to ride to the peak of the island; to a summit that hits 883ft beneath the flagstones of a tiny chapel. It is, alas, too much, the angle such that I have to walk the closing few feet. I stumble into a sunset that could have convinced Odysseus to make one more lap of the Aegean — and the company of a French couple who have had the sense to drive to the viewpoint. And I do linger, too long, only gradually realising that the gloaming is encroaching. The descent is harum-scarum, racing the last of the light to Skala. But then I round a grand corner and spot SeaDream I in a cove below. There’ll be further stops before Piraeus — the Temple of Apollo on Naxos; the volcanic cliffs of Santorini. Yet here in the gloom, and not for the first time, all things feel in proportion.

Aegan atttractions

SANTORINI
Akrotiri

Santorini’s links to the mythological lost realm of Atlantis are strengthened by the ruins of this Bronze Age settlement, which was covered in volcanic ash by the eruption which half destroyed the island in 1627 BC. odysseus.culture.gr

MYKONOS
Archaeological Museum of Mykonos

The museum peers back at life on the island as far back as the 14th century BC via gold necklaces and images of Poseidon on vases. odysseus.culture.gr

SIFNOS
Kastro

It’s entirely possible that there’s no more photogenic a Greek village than this wonder, which waits on cliffs on the opposite side of the island from the port (Kamares). passe-partoutsifnos.weebly.com

PAROS
Ekklisia Panagia Ekatontapyliani

The sixth-century ‘Church of a Hundred Doors’ in Parikia wears its age with dignity, all stone arches, angelic murals, cold marble — and a dome which pushes into the sky. ekatontapyliani.gr

NAXOS
Sanctuary of Dionysus

You have to search for this 14th-century-BC site, concealed amid working farms and the grumble of tractors in miniscule Yria, close to Agia Anna. naxos.gr

How to do it

SeaDream Yacht Club has a 10-day voyage on SeaDream I scheduled to depart from Piraeus for Civitavecchia (northwest of Rome) on 17 August 2019. It will call at Mykonos, Patmos, Santorini and Hydra (as well as Taormina, Amalfi and Capri) en route.
Carrier offers a 12-night holiday which features this cruise (reference 11934) on an all-inclusive basis — as well as return British Airways flights from London, transfers, one night at The Margi in Athens (with breakfast) and a further night’s post-cruise stay at the Hotel de Russie in Rome (also with breakfast). From £5,380 per person. visitgreece.gr

Published in the Jul/Aug 2018 issue of National Geographic Traveller (UK)