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Set sail into the blues: Greece offers plenty of bucket-list experiences

Suzanne Sng on 05 Jan 2020

The Straits Times


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You cannot help but feel blue when in Greece.


It is the good kind of blue, though. It is the blue of the sky and the sea, of painted shutters and domed roofs.


It is while cruising around the Greek islands that my eyes encounter so many shades of blue - azure, aquamarine, cyan, cerulean, teal, turquoise - that even my thesaurus runs out of words.


We set sail on the Celestyal Crystal with 1,200 passengers from Piraeus, a port city outside Athens. The sun is just dipping below the horizon, a wash of brilliant blues and golds across the sky.


As my travel companions and I ooh and aah over the changing colours of dusk, Mr Marios Andreopoulos, a representative of the Greek cruise company, says even more spectacular sunsets are in store over the next eight days of the cruise.




Overnight, while we sleep, our ship smoothly motors towards our first port of call - Mykonos.


We wake up refreshed and ready to take on the island's winding alleys and blazing sun.


We meander along the narrow lanes with white-washed abodes and shutters painted in that classic shade of Grecian blue.


There is an Instagrammable doorway or photogenic cat at every turn, and we do not mind we are ever so slightly lost in a maze of souvenir shops selling everything from trinkets adorned with the iconic Greek evil eye to handcrafted strappy leather sandals.


After a happy wander, we end up at Little Venice, simultaneously the most romantic and most overrun corner of the island.


Known for its old fishermen's houses with balconies hanging right over the water's edge, the area is now home to tightly packed cafes and restaurants where you can grab a cup of Greek coffee and drink in the views. The chairs and tables are placed so close to the lapping waves that any closer and you will be sitting right in the water.


With the afternoon sun blazing overhead, we take advantage of the ship having dropped anchor nearby and retreat to beat the heat. The plan is to take a siesta before venturing out to catch the sunset, after most of the other cruise ships have departed for the day.


Unlike a lot of its competition, the Celestyal Crystal sails mostly in the night, so you get to spend more time exploring on land and take in those promised sunsets.


Expectations are high for a spectacular sundown experience and Mykonos does not disappoint. The sun takes its own sweet time to sink out of sight, so we go wild taking selfies and time-lapse videos while it paints the sky amber and pink.


That night, we feast on fresh seafood on the waterfront. Mykonos is famed for being a party island and we could have danced all night - the ship departs in the wee hours - but we head straight to bed.




The next morning, we awake to find ourselves transported to Milos, a peaceful haven in contrast to the tourism-driven Mykonos. Because it is a smaller island with shallower waters, it is inaccessible to large cruise ships and the place is almost deserted.


You can take excursions to Sarakiniko, a beach with white volcanic rocks that looks like a lunar landscape. Or you can grab a cab to Plaka, the island's main town, which is perched on a rock with panoramic views.


Alternatively, you can follow my lead and do a lot of nothing. I stroll along the shoreline and end up at Papikinou beach.


Nestled among the trees is a laidback cafe, where I kick off my sandals, settle into a deck chair and have a beer. Later, I dip my toes in the water, delightfully cold and the epitome of crystal-clear.




Sailing into the caldera of Santorini at sunrise, you can almost imagine a Greek deity standing on the cliffs, shooting down rays of light that pierce the moody clouds.


The island of Santorini has been on my bucket list since forever. And it appears to have been on that of a large number of others as well.


Selfie-seekers are especially rampant in the popular villages of Fira - the entry point for the armada of cruise ships that calls on the island - and Oia, instantly recognisable with its stunning white and blue dwellings perched on the cliffs.


We spot at least five brides in full regalia - all Asian, with photographer and entourage in tow - trying to nail that perfect romantic shot.


It is early October, towards the tail-end of the tourist season, and the place is heaving, so I can only imagine what it is like during peak season.


For a reprieve, wander around the ancient village of Megalochori, which has a rustic charm all of its own, or sail out to the active volcano in the middle of the caldera.


After getting hot and sweaty climbing up to see the crater, you can take a dip in the hot spring - which is more like a lukewarm spring - to cool off.


A couple of hours before the sun begins its leisurely, spectacular descent for the day, we park ourselves on a cliff-top cafe that strategically faces west. The sun is mirrored in the sea, like twin giant balls of fire, and it seems to almost sizzle as it touches the horizon.




Our next stop is the port of Heraklion in Crete, the largest island in Greece.


It is when I step on land that I start feeling landsick - not seasick, mind you - after six days on board a gently undulating ship.


My body is bobbing up and down the entire time I am on my half-day trip to Knossos Palace, the largest archaeological site in Greece with a history that stretches back a mind-boggling 9,000 years.


The bull is a sacred symbol of the Minoan people who lived there and it can be seen all around, from horn-shaped stone carvings to painted frescoes.


Even though there is no sign of the minotaur and labyrinth which gave rise to the Greek myth, the ruins are sufficiently awe-inspiring and show a high level of sophistication with an efficient plumbing system and rooms which stay cool in summer and warm in winter.


A number of frescoes and parts of buildings have been restored by archaeologist Arthur Evans in 1900s, who painted them - some say inaccurately - in vibrant shades of red, orange and blue.


The flamboyant colours do make the ruins stand out from archaeological dig sites and make it easy to make-believe I have time-travelled back a few thousand years.




Our final port of call is Kusadasi to see the famed ancient city of Ephesus.


Even though it is in modern-day Turkey, Ephesus has Greek, Roman and Christian influences so you see temples of Greek gods and goddesses next to ruins of Roman baths and aqueducts.


In the Bible, the church of Ephesus is one of the seven churches of Asia.


Nearby is the House of the Virgin Mary, a major pilgrimage site for Catholics who believe it to be the final home of the mother of Jesus.


I love nothing more than pottering around ruins, treading over marble that has been worn slippery-smooth over 2,000 years and trying to figure out if a broken column is Ionic, Corinthian or Doric.


The place is truly like an Excel spreadsheet - so many columns.


At the colossal facade of the ancient library, I stand like a statue, gazing at the details above for an eternity, heedless that I was obstructing selfie-seekers.




On our last night on board, we sail off into the sunset - what a beautiful cliche - and arrive back in Athens the next morning.


Even though our Greek odyssey covers so many islands in eight days, at no point does it feel rushed.


Perhaps the leisurely pace of the cruise ship and its attentive staff help to ease us into a breezy mood.


There is also no constant lugging of suitcases, frantic coordination of ferry timetables or looking for a new hotel every night.


In fact, we become so fond of the ship that we start to call it our "home", looking forward to be rocked to sleep by the waves.


Back home two days later, working on my laptop with nothing more than a fading tan and a bunch of photos to remind me of my cruise, I do feel a little blue - and not the good kind.


But then I close my eyes and feel my landsick body still swaying ever so gently.


It takes me back to the deck of the ship - with the sun on my face, wind in my hair, surrounded by blue.


• The writer's trip was hosted by Celestyal Cruises and Scenic Travel.


• Suzanne Sng is a former Straits Times journalist based in Amsterdam as an independent editorial consultant.


Source: The Straits Times © Singapore Press Holdings Limited. Reproduced with permission.



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