Ships Like Villages:There are mega-sized cruise ships that you could fit the entire population of Buellton into and still have room for the crew. But ships that are more like friendly villages than floating cities are my speed.
Sue and I recently cruised the Adriatic and Greek islands in the Azamara Journey, which holds fewer than 700 passengers (far less than Buellton’s 4,828 residents). I think I got to know as many of my fellow passengers, including a Ventura couple and a Greek businessman and his wife, as I have friends in Buellton.
You can spend a week bouncing from hotel to hotel in Europe and not meet anyone, exchanging words with few except front desk clerks and museum guards. On the other hand, I’ve met people who cruise so much they seldom even get off the ship, choosing itineraries solely on the basis of amenities—how many dining rooms there are, how large the suites are, and what kind of entertainment is offered. Sad to say, poor jaded souls, they’ve seen all the ports, at least from the rail.
But Sue and I haven’t, and had the itch to explore the Greek islands, or as many as many as we could see in a week, a day at a time. The Journey slowly drifted out of Venice, closely followed by one of these behemoth ships that soon peeled off into the late afternoon mists and thankfully wasn’t going our way. We didn’t care to share Santorini with over 5,000 tourists.
Our Azamara (based in Florida) stateroom was fine, and sported a "veranda"—balcony, that is. But things changed radically the next day when we discovered that a roomy club suite down the corridor was vacant. It had a butler, a bathroom three times the size of ours at home, and a deck nearly as big as our front lawn. Naturally, Sue was anxious to pack up and move. So we made a deal, paid the freight, and in 15 minutes were ensconced in luxury quarters. (How often do you get to cruise Greece?) On board you pay in dollars; ashore it’s euros, and you pay a heavy premium for them because of the weak buck.
After stops in Split, Croatia, and the medieval town of Kotor, Montenegro, we found ourselves prowling the ruins of Olympia: Site of the original Greek games in about 776 BC, and of the remains of the sacred Temple of Zeus, Olympia is one of the original Seven Wonders of the Ancient World. We walked among the thrilling stones of history, some shipmates even running on the original dirt track. That visit alone was worth the price of the cruise.
Corfu is one of those islands that bounced back and forth among conquerors over the centuries like a historical ping-pong ball. Finally, in 1864, after a half-century of the British holding power, Queen Victoria handed Corfu back to Greece. Such was life among the Great Powers. You never knew whose flag would be flying in the morning.
Corfu Town is a good place to load up on olive oil. More than four million olive trees grow on the slopes.
The big cultural event in Chania, Crete, far out in the Mediterranean, is the Municipal Market, a locals’ mall where booths sell everything from worry beads, spices, and ouzo to lamb, sheeps’ heads, and sides of beef. Cretan cuisine, based on the humble olive, is famous in Athenian restaurants. One delicacy available in Chania tavernas is octapothi, octopus marinated in a mixture of garlic, oregano, olive oil, vinegar, and pepper. Then the octopus is grilled over hot coals and drizzled with lemon juice.
Kreatopita is a meat pie combining boiled meat with onions, oregano, nutmeg, olive, oil, and kefalograviera (hard cheese), then covered with phyllo dough and baked until golden brown.
The island of Santorini is one of the great sights of the world, either looking up from your ship at the 1,100-foot heights crusted with alabaster towns, or gazing down from the villages to the magnificent bay, where ships like the Azamara Journey languidly rest at anchor awaiting your return. Santorini was blasted apart by a tremendous volcanic eruption in 1600 BC, leaving a picturesque half-moon island but pretty much destroying it as a tourist attraction for eons.
The thing to do is take the cable car up from the dock—unless you care to hike (groan!) to the top or ride a mule—to the cobblestone town of Fira. Reaching the main road, grab a taxi to the white-washed village of Oia. The bus only costs about $3 but be prepared for a wait.
In Oia, low-profile high-end resorts and vacation rentals creep down the hillside, basking in the sun. The best is the famed Perivolas, luxury at its simplest and host to celebrities. Rates begin at $830 a night, a hefty tariff perhaps quickly forgotten during the first dip into its famous infinity pool.
In Oia, a wide walkway passes countless name-brand shops, and eateries like Café Lotza, with a view of forever from the deck and a menu that includes spaghetti bolognese for $38, or baked feta in phyllo, with a dish of yogurt-based tzatziki. Two highly rated fish restaurants, Katina and Demitrious, are at the far end of Oia, far down by the water’s edge. Taxis await those not wishing to trek down and/or back up.
Poems are written about the sunsets from Santorini, but we had to witness ours from the Journey. Back at the upper end of the cable station, we joined fellow passengers in an open air cafe and savored both the view and Greek Mythos beer until the last tender was due to head back to the ship.
Santorini also has a broad lowland where its famous wine grapes are grown. When we got to our last port, Athens, we sampled a glass of Gavalas white at the Grande Bretagne Hotel’s roof garden, with its spectacular view of the Acropolis and Parthenon, lighted for the night.
The Athens Hilton, where we stayed, offers a roof garden with an Acropolis view for far less per room. Since we were catching the Journey in Venice, we had arrived three days early, splurging at the best in town, the Cipriani, finishing off with two days in Athens at the Hilton. Athens, surprising to some perhaps, is a great city to visit. We joined the crowds on the Acropolis, then walked downhill, hopping from one open-air restaurant to another in the fun Plaka district, gobbling fried zucchini balls and other appetizers.
What can I say? We want to go back.