There's no better way to tour the Greek isles and show kids and parents a truly educational, enriching and fun good time than by ship.
Children may not be thrilled at the thought of viewing a brilliant sunset on the Greek island of Santorini, which is famous for such occasions, but they might be more favorably inclined to see a volcano close-up and have the experience of riding a docile donkey up a steep hill. That was one of my thoughts while on a cruise through the Greek islands. This is not Disney World, but you don’t have to be religious or scholarly to appreciate the Biblical-familiar sights, the museums, restored archeological sites, or even the sheer rugged beauty of Greece. Then, there are windmills and pelicans.
I was on Louis Cruise Line’s Cristal, which did not have a lot of children aboard, but the cruise line has children’s programs and offers special prices and discounts for families with children throughout the year. The Louis ships are not the kind where you find rock-climbing walls or bowling alleys. But they are comfortable.
The real attraction, however, is that the cruise line organizes excellent shore excursions. Here are some island impressions from my ports of call.
Santorini is one of the most famous islands in the world, partly because of its views but also because it is the remains of the original large island that had been destroyed by a volcanic eruption several millennia ago. Today’s small, 29-square-mile Greek city was built on layers of lava but most visitors find its cobblestone streets and white-washed houses clinging precariously to steep cliffs among the most attractive, and perhaps most classically “Greek,” sights in Greece.
Contrasting black lava rocks and white pumice seen from a ship make the island look like a huge checkerboard. It has a reputation as a romantic wedding spot, deservedly so especially at the northern tip in Oia, one of the prettiest traditional villages in the country of Greece.
Those familiar with the island say if someone visits just one spot, it should be ancient Akrotiri, a Minoan-era town frozen in time 3,000 years ago by ash from a volcanic eruption.
In modern times, more than 40 buildings have been excavated with work continuing. Unlike Pompeii, Akrotiri’s ruins feature strikingly colorful murals from its heyday rather than petrified skeletons of those caught in the volcanic eruption. The site is accessible only by public bus or a guided tour.
Because of tourists, there are many excellent bars and restaurants in the Chora, or hilltop main town of Santorini. But perhaps offering the best view anywhere is Panorama (30 228 608 1123). It’s built on the edge of a cliff overlooking the Aegean Sea. Another place to dine that holds much interest because it is described as a “living museum” is the 1800 Restaurant (30 228 607 1485, e-mail at email@example.com), which also has a roof garden with a view of the sea.
And those donkey rides? Santorini is famous for them, though they are common throughout the hilly areas of Greece. Arriving by ship at the old port of Santorini, you have a choice of ascending to the cliff-top main town by taking either a funicular (cable car) ride; walking the 580 white-washed stairs past homes and olive oil cans filled with geraniums, or riding an ornery donkey. Keep in mind if you choose a donkey, the trick with the animals is to avoid scraping your legs against walls when they turn a corner. The trick with their wranglers is to fix the price of your ride in advance.
Rhodes & Lindos, Greece
The ancient 13th century city of Rhodes on the island of the same name was constructed by the Knights of St. John. Site of the ancient Colossos of Rodos, one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, Rhodes is one of the most visited islands in Greece, drawing 800,000 people a year. Many visitors come for the day from the nearby coast of Turkey as well.
In the main port called Rhodes, visitors can stroll within the shadows of the huge stone walls of the Old Town with its winding alleys to see towers, turrets and the medieval houses where the knights lived. For fine dining, Mythos (30 224 403 1300) is often cited as offering the best Greek food on the island. It’s also known for its Italian and vegetarian dishes and is open late as well.
Don’t miss the half-day excursion to Lindos, a coastal village with a restored Acropolis (temple) of Lindos on a steep precipice 400 feet above the sea. From this white-washed temple, visitors can see panoramic views of the Aegean Sea. Lindos’ small, narrow lanes filled with lace shops and small villas to rent are also very picturesque. Children are sure to enjoy a dip in the Aegean from one of the many seafood tavernas that line the white sand beach below the hilltop village.
Visitors to this rocky and barren island of only a few thousand residents will not find a lot of attraction options. But most will want to take a short drive to the hilltop village of Chora to find the 900-year-old monastery of St. John built within the walls of a strong stone fortification.
Note that Patmos is not a suitable shore excursion for anyone with walking difficulties, but going down the steps to the Grotto of the Apocalypse reveals artifacts from the time St. John wrote the Biblical Book of the Revelation while hiding out from the Romans who later killed him.
Presumably because of its religious background and the strong influence of the monastery on the islanders, Patmos has only a few bars and restaurants. Some of them are certainly innovative, however, catering to both visitors and the chic resident ex-pat crowd. The beachside Vegghera Restaurant (30 224 703 2988) overlooking the port is one. This highly-praised restaurant specializes in both French and creative Mediterranean cuisine with unusual dishes such as Salmon smoked lightly in rose sticks, and spaghetti lobster.
With a port guarded by huge stone lions, Heraklion or Iraklion is the largest city on Crete, the most rugged of the Greek isles. Archeological studies show a Minoan civilization dating back to 4,000 BC. A must-see attraction just outside the town is the famous Knossos Palace, itself once guarded by the original lion statues. The enormous palace complex is thought to have been abandoned by the Minoan kings when a tidal wave (probably one formed after the volcanic eruption on Santorini) washed over Crete.
Local Iraklion restaurants offer traditional Greek cuisine, said to be among the best in the country because Crete is the only island where tomotoes grow year round. Sample the island’s fresh natural products, such as local cheeses, at Manousos Tavern (30 281 076 2350). There’s also the Dolphin Beach Bar, which is aptly named because it has been a popular beachfront bar since it opened in 1958 catering to locals.
Around the island of Crete
Greece’s largest island is one of its most famous — no surprise, because it has everything: mountainside landscapes, a coast with beaches and rocky coves, white-washed towns and harbors, and ruins of the Minoan civilization.
Among its most intriguing sites are old monasteries, chapels and churches, some of them dating back to the year AD961.There are 300 registered Byzantine churches around Crete and many other Catholic churches. A popular tourist stop is the Katholikon, or Monastery of Saint John the Hermit of the Stranger. This ruined monastery is the oldest one in Crete (built in the 11th century). The building was entirely cut out of nearby rock and marble. The cave where Saint John the Hermit lived and worked can be explored.
Visitors to Crete (home of “Zorba The Greek”) should consider making some stops at the hilly country towns dotted with wineries, windmills and olive groves that date back several millennia. The quiet market town of Archanes is an archeological site that has won awards as one of the best restored cities in Europe.
For whatever reason, many of the best Cretan restaurants are in older buildings. Veneto Restaurant (30 282 109 3527), for example, is housed in a 15th-century renovated Venetian building. Classic Italian fare is served here with a great wine selection. Another restaurant in a 15th-century building is Pallas (30 282 104 5688), also known for its Italian delicacies.
Chances are, you will run across Petros the Pelican… not the original but one of his successors. The enormous white Petros has been the official mascot of this island since the first one survived a storm in 1954. But while that folksy touch is fine, Mykonos is known as the most cosmopolitan of the Greek islands in part because large numbers of artists make their home here.
You also can’t help but notice the plump white-washed windmills which date back to the 16th century, when the island was a major sea trade-route and the windmills generated power. One of the most famous architectural structures in Greece is found here, the Paraportiani Church. It’s a rounded cave-like, white-washed, stucco edifice started in 1475, and it still decorates all the postcards.
A common custom for Mykonos’ visitors at sunset is to take in the view from the Theoxenia Hotel (30 228 902 2230), which is one of the few luxury hotel properties on the island. (Most of the truly wealthy live in private villas.)
Mykonos is best known for its bars, discos and nightclubs, but they go in and out of fashion with the seasons. Not all restaurants stay open in the winter but the Appaloosa Bar (30 228 902 7086) year-round serves up some familiar dishes such as chicken wings, nachos and burritos. A popular waterfront restaurant is the Alegro CafÃ©-Bar, which is best known for its breakfasts (30 228 902 5030).
On Louis Cruise Lines, many of the ships depart from the port town of Piraeus near Athens. It’s a fine place for ships, with a staggering 60 a day arriving at peak times. But this perennially traffic-clogged port town has perhaps a single attraction for visitors not boarding a boat: shopping. If you only have a day, board the open air subway and head to Athens.
Athens, about 20 minutes away, is much more attractive.
The Acropolis is what everyone wants to see, and over the years this monument has seen it all. It was the site of many decisive events in the city’s history, and in the 5th century reflected the art and culture of the golden age of Pericles. Guides are recommended to see it, and they can be hired on the spot before climbing the many — sometimes steep — stone steps leading to the top of the rocky crag. At the top of a winding climb is the Parthenon, the famous classic temple of ancient Greece. Nearby, and set to open in June 2009 will be the new Acropolis Museum containing many antiquities returned to Greece by countries whose turn-of-the-century archeological teams pillaged the site.
The second best attraction in Athens is the National Archeological Museum (30 210 821 7717). Not only is it the largest in Greece, it is also among the world’s greatest museums. More than 20,000 exhibits trace the history of Greek civilization from the beginnings of pre-history to more modern times.
A short walking distance from the Acropolis is Platanos, (30 210 322 0666) one of the oldest restaurants in the fashionable Plaka district. Bargain prices for unpretentious grilled Greek food such as lamb with artichokes and eggplant salad served in a bougainvillea-covered terrace have made this a favorite since it opened in 1932.
Plate sharing is the rule at nearby Taverna Plaka, which is in the oldest section of Athens where most of the streets have been closed. The atmosphere is very casual and food is reasonably priced (from $16 per person).
The Plaka area was once a nightclub district but many places closed down when the government outlawed amplified music in the 1970s. That was to keep out unduly loud “undesirables” and it apparently worked. Today, Plaka is an area of upscale restaurants, jewelry stores, tourist shops and cafes. Shoppers note: The common commercial mantra is to look around generally for the best jewelry in Greece, as well as knock-off luxury products such as watches. Expect the best prices for hand-made leather goods to be found in Turkey.
You’ve probably heard of Louis Cruises, famous for the summer 2008 tragedy off the island of Santorini, Greece, when one of their ships struck an underwater volcanic reef and sank, taking the lives of two French passengers with it. Despite this incident, which followed our family’s cruise, the line continues to operate, offering a full slate of 2009 sailings from Greece, France, Cyprus and Italy. For information on Louis Cruise Lines, get in touch with your travel agent, call 800/490-2079 or visit www.louiscruises.com.
For more information about Greece and planning your land itinerary, visit the Greek National Tourism Organization’s website at www.gnto.gr.
This story was accurate when it was published. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question, and stay up to date with current events to ensure a safe and successful trip.