There are three categories of suites. // © 2018 Peter Knego
Feature image (above): Most Iconic Aegean sailings will take place on Celestyal Olympia. // © 2018 Peter Knego
Whether sailing into the dramatic, cliff-fringed caldera of Santorini, watching the sunset beyond the windmills in Mykonos or swimming at a pristine beach in Rhodes, there is no better way to see Greece than by sea. One of the most affordable Greek cruising options is Celestyal Cruises, a Cyprus-based cruise line that carries on a tradition started with now-defunct, family-operated companies such as Sun Lines and Epirotiki. Celestyal provides regularly scheduled sailings from the Athens vicinity that are steeped in Greek heritage, culture and cuisine.
Celestyal’s immersive Greek experience is evident from the moment guests step onboard. For example, the cuisine is locally sourced and authentic, from the yogurt and dates in the breakfast buffet to gyros at lunchtime and mouth-watering avgolemono (lemony egg) chicken soup and spanakopita for dinner.
Throughout the cruise, budding Hellenophiles can partake in Greek dance and language lessons, enrichment lectures, taverna music in the evenings, a gala deck buffet and a spectacular night show replete with live bouzouki (a Greek string instrument) music, colorful costumes and folkloric dancing.
While still managing to keep its lowest cruise package near a relatively modest $200 per person, per day, Celestyal includes in the fare two shore excursions (a walking tour of Ephesus in Kusadasi, Turkey, and a visit to remote Oia on the island of Santorini); a comprehensive beverage package featuring soft drinks, bottled water, spirits, wine and beer; all port taxes; and gratuities. This is not a luxury cruise product, but service is friendly and efficient, the ship is well maintained, and the atmosphere onboard is both informal and festive. It should also be noted that the passenger mix is international, and, as would be expected, there are plenty of announcements in a variety of languages.
Every Friday between late March and early November, three-night Iconic Aegean cruises depart Piraeus (the port for Athens) for Mykonos, Kusadasi (or Samos), Patmos, Heraklion (Crete) and Santorini, while four-night sailings — which depart on Mondays — offer an additional day in Rhodes. Guests also have the option at the time of booking to choose to disembark in key ports for extended stays and rejoin the ship when it returns on the next cruise.
In 2018, the lion’s share of Iconic sailings will be offered onboard the 1982-built Celestyal Olympia, a handsome 1,664-guest vessel that once wowed American cruisers as Royal Caribbean International’s Song Of America. Now considered small to midsize, the classic but well-maintained Olympia has 10 passenger decks and an array of features, such as an observation lounge and a bar that is cantilevered from its funnel. There’s also a teak-lined area with two large pools surrounded by open and sheltered seating areas, two outdoor bars, a gym, a full-wraparound promenade and several forward-situated observation terraces that are ideal for enjoying the passing scenery and sapphire-blue seas. Most of the recently refurbished public spaces — which include a large show lounge, a casino, a photo gallery, a spa and the Agora (a shopping area that touts local Greek textiles, crafts and culinary items) — are located in the heart of the ship on decks 4 and 5.
Most categories of staterooms are on the smaller side but are more than adequate for these port-intensive itineraries. Ideal for families on a budget, compact but economical interior cabins with upper berths can accommodate up to four guests. Outside cabins with a picture window or porthole are the most popular options, while three categories of suites provide extra living and storage space as well as bathrooms with full tubs. Suites also feature large balconies, separate bedrooms, a bath with full tub and living rooms that overlook the bow.
Celestyal just announced that during March and April next year, Iconic sailings will be offered onboard the 1992-built Celestyal Majesty before Olympia takes over from June through early November. Returning from a long-term charter with British-based Thomson Cruises, the ship is slightly larger than Olympia, with capacity for 1,800 guests.
In addition to its Iconic itineraries, Celestyal offers a season of weeklong Idyllic cruises from Lavrion (near Athens) to Mykonos, Santorini, Heraklion and Kusadasi/Samos, with longer port stays and the addition of the scenic and less visited island of Milos onboard the 1,200-guest Celestyal Crystal, formerly Norwegian Cruise Line’s Leeward. And for those who can’t get enough Celestyal: Crystal also sails on weekly Cuba cruises from Havana or Montego Bay, Jamaica, between October and March.