From big ships to small sailing vessels, the best way to explore Greece’s coastline and islands is to take to the sea, writes Sam Ballard
From Mykonos to Santorini, the Aegean Sea is one of the most idyllic cruise destinations in the world. In 2019, more than 5.2 million cruise passengers are expected to come to Greece – that’s a ten per cent rise on the previous year. But why are Greek cruises so popular?
For starters, Greece is one of the sunniest countries in Europe. Athens has about 2,771 hours of sunshine every year – almost double that of London. The food is unpretentious and delicious and there is an abundance of cultural and ancient sites to visit. There is also a huge amount of choice – Greece spans 130,000 square kilometres and 6,000 islands. In theory, you could visit a different Greek island every day for 16 years and still not visit them all.
There are numerous ways of doing this, too, with everything from giant ocean-going cruise liners to small sailing vessels making their way around the coast and from island to island. When it comes to cruising around Greece, there’s something for everyone, depending on what destinations you would like to visit.
Piraeus is the cruise port for Athens, and is located about 15km from the city centre. Numerous cruises begin, end or call here – and no trip to Greece is complete without a visit to its ancient capital city, which mixes contemporary culture with ancient history.
Crete is the largest of the Greek islands – and the fifth largest in the Mediterranean – and the cruise port at Heraklion is within walking distance of the historic city centre, which is worth a visit for its many attractions, including the ruins of the Minoan Palace of Knossos, which dates back nearly 4,000 years and is said to hold the original Labyrinth of the Minotaur.
The cruise port at Rhodes is close to the historical centre of the Old Town, a Unesco World Heritage Site, with its imposing Palace of the Grand Master and cobbled Street of the Knights. Cruises to Rhodes often include an excursion to Lindos, which is known for its incredible clifftop acropolis.
In Santorini, large cruise ships are unable to use the port at Fira, instead they anchor and passengers are brought ashore by tender.
The blue-roofed buildings of the clifftop village of Oia are familiar even to those who haven’t visited and other attractions include the Orthodox Metropolitan Cathedral and Museum of Prehistoric Thera, one of the most important collections in Greece featuring vases from the 7th and 6th centuries BC and a collection of prehistoric art from the Aegean.
According to mythology, Mykonos was formed from the petrified bodies of giants killed by Hercules. Today, it’s a popular destination for the well-heeled traveller and cruises will either arrive at the new port, or anchor in the bay for a tender landing in the old harbour. Once ashore you can meet the legendary pelicans and check out the beautiful district of Little Venice. Some cruises also offer passengers an excursion to the island of Delos, an archaeological site said to be the mythological birthplace of Apollo.
Patmos was used as a place of exile by the Romans, and this is how St John ended up here. It is said he wrote the Book of Revelation in 95 AD in the Holy Cave of the Apocalypse, after he heard the voice of God talking to him. The cave has been a place of worship since the 11th century. Today, you can also enjoy the lovely countryside the island has to offer and wander the steep streets down from the monastery to the port of Skála – where only smaller ships can dock – which is a good place to enjoy local seafood delicacies.
Away from the more well-known ports of call, some of the smaller cruise lines take in islands that most of us will have never heard of, such as Kythnos, Serifos, Kimolos, Sifnos and Milos. These ports are so small that dinners for the entire ship’s company can be hosted in the traditional tavernas that line the old harbours.
Ancient or modern, a cruise around Greece will get you there.