Andy Mossack samples the Celestyal Idyllic Aegean cruise, a 7-night voyage around the Aegean and the Greek Islands
It’s early morning in the ancient port city of Thessaloniki and I’m staring at a pair of edible shoes with 6-inch heels. Not a common sight in Thessaloniki I would wager, but nevertheless, this fancy bakery (which seems to specialise in many types of edible footwear), felt them worthy of a prime shop window perch.
It is day two of my Celestyal Idyllic Aegean cruise, a 7-night round trip from Athens wandering around the Aegean and we’ve parked up overnight at Thessaloniki to take on some more guests and for others, an excursion to the Royal Tombs of Vergina.
The Celestyal take on cruising is a little different from treadmill voyage concepts as to coin a phrase from Head Office – it’s all about the destination. It’s a Greek cruise line, after all, so no one could possibly know the Aegean any better. The destination is not simply a convenient stop for excursions, it really is an opportunity to explore, particularly as many Celestyal port departures are late at night, giving us plenty of time to get to know our latest port of call. The ships are midsize, which means we get to visit many of the smaller islands completely inaccessible to Mediterranean juggernauts.
The other notable difference is guests can embark and disembark their 7-night cruise from various stops along the way. All guests are on for a full round trip cruise, it’s just that if you live in Bulgaria for example, embarking at Kusadasi Turkey is easily reachable by car, so a much better choice than having to fly to Athens. I think it’s a genius selling point.
Celesyal’s Idyllic Aegean cruise begins in Piraeus Athens and then visits Thessaloniki, Greece’s second biggest city and capital of central Macedonia, Kusadasi in Turkey, and then its Greek Islands all the way – Heraklion the Cretan capital, Santorini, Mykonos and finally Milos before returning to Athens.
With a full day to explore the sights and sounds of Thessaloniki, I reluctantly move past the edible footwear and take in the pretty laneways and shopping arcades. A stroll along the Nea Paralia waterfront is a must as is the exceptional Roman Agora excavation and the Agios Demetrios church. But I can’t help stopping for coffee and a taste of Thessalonica’s famous Bougatsa – flaky filo pastry filled with warm custard and topped with a dusting of cinnamon.
Back on board, my balcony- junior suite stateroom on Venus deck 6 (they’re all named after Greek gods) is a spacious sanctuary. A silky king bed and generous living area with a couch, armchair and desk, and patio glass doors out to a balcony with two chairs and a table. I’m also looked after in true godlike fashion by housekeepers Chris and Maria, who never fail to greet me each day with a smile and a wave.
My class of stateroom or higher gains entry to private dining in the Aura Grill for a quieter breakfast and lunch. There are three other restaurants on board: The Leda Buffet and Amalthia and Olympus a la carte – all of them open seating. I’ve also got the premium plus drinks package for peace of mind, although soft drinks and wines are available to all passengers during meal service. Talking of meals, there’s certainly no shortage of them.
The Greeks are renowned for hospitality and generosity when it comes to portion sizes, and I’m pleased to report Celestyal embraces that tradition with wide-open arms. You can enjoy fare to suit all tastes, but there are always Greek specialities on offer in various forms, designed by celebrity chef Diane Kochilas, whether it be a vegan option at dinner or the supplement Monday night Greek fine dining tasting menu.
There are daily gourmet dinner suggestions available for a supplement as well as a nightly fine dining Mediterranean Experience (including the Greek tasting menu on Monday nights) which I can wholeheartedly recommend.
By the second day, all the waiting team are on first-name terms with me and already have a feel for my likes and dislikes, ably marshalled by Adrian, the literally larger-than-life Maitre d’hôtel. Quite apart from his lofty stature, Adrian, resplendent in his officer’s whites, meanders from table to table, schmoozing with his seated flock, or serenading a birthday or anniversary backed by his merry band of waiters. At last night’s dinner in Amalthia, I swear he was leading the Bulgarian tour group in a medley of their folk songs over raki shots.
On the other hand, I was struggling to choose my appetizer, and rather than wait for me to make up my mind he brought me all three! My kind of character is Adrian.
The entertainment team are not without their own particular brand of characters led by Cruise Director Teresa. Teresa is a Celestyal veteran, and mother hen to her troupe of singers, dancers and acrobats who put on a different show every night of the week twice nightly. Designed by Canadian-based Cirque Fantastic, whose founder was once a performer with Montreal’s Cirque de Soleil, it really is an entertaining watch.
Then there’s the music. El Greco is a Greek five-piece whose grey beards and ponytails are evidence of a certain age, but, trust me, can switch from traditional bouzouki tunes to a Led Zepplin anthem in the blink of an eye. But my hands down favourite act must be Derlee and Jason of Music Zone, a Filipino duo who can literally play anything from Latino to ABBA to AC/DC and smash it every night. Derlee’s vocals and Jason’s guitar are an unstoppable tour de force particularly post-show when the shackles come off and the Bulgarians are in full flow.
One memorable late night I’m in the Eros Lounge chatting by the bar with Mark from Atlanta, a rather large gentleman who’s wearing nothing but a tee shirt, beach towel and flip flops. Darlee and Jason suddenly switch it up and before I know it Mark’s hit the dance floor showing off his moves. In my head, I’m praying his beach towel remains attached to the rest of his body. Before long, the Bulgarians join in, line dancing to Highway to Hell. I decide to call it a night just as the conga line kicks off….
The Greek Islands
No prizes for guessing the Greek islands are the highlight of the cruise for me, with Milos in particular. A tiny volcanic island where the Venus de Milo was discovered, a visit to Sarakiniko beach is a must. A beautiful landscape of snow-white wind-carved rocks as smooth as marble. Plaka village is well worth a look too, it’s where the Plaka area of Athens took its name from when labourers from here were summoned to Athens to build the royal palace and wanted their neighbourhood to remind them of their island home.
Mykonos is also memorable. Stunning beaches all over the island and the 2 am departure left plenty of time to enjoy the famous island nightlife.
Santorini is drop-dead gorgeous of course, but terribly busy with coach loads of tourists, particularly in the postcard village of Oia perched on the rim of an extinct caldera. Again, another late departure for the ship from the capital Fira, this time at 0030.
Crete will always have a place in my heart, not least because it has the best olive oil in the world. Most of the guests take an excursion to the ruins of the Palace of Knossos where Theseus slew the Minotaur in the labyrinth and found his way out using a ball of golden thread. The island celebrates this fable with a painted golden line leading visitors walking from the port into the centre of Heraklion.
Cruising the Greek islands is a far easier way to visit than island-hopping by ferry if you are time restricted. And for me, the Celestyal Idyllic Aegean Cruise more than lives up to its Idyllic moniker. You get authentic Greek hospitality, a very welcoming laid-back vibe, excellent dining and entertainment and the Celestyal Idyllic Aegean Cruise is outstanding value for money.
And if you find that edible footwear bakery in Thessaloniki, please let them know I’m coming back for those six-inch heels as soon as I can.
Images (C) Andy Mossack and Celestyal Cruises
Tell me more about this Celestyal Idyllic Aegean Cruise
At the time of writing, prices for the seven-night Celestyal Idyllic Aegean Cruise start from £809 per person based on a departure on 8th July 2023. Price includes all meals, selected drinks with meals, entertainment, daily activities, port charges and gratuities, as well as a pre-bookable shore excursion discount of £65 per person.
For those wishing to upgrade their Celestyal Idyllic Aegean Cruise experience, Celestyal offers an “enhanced” tier with an unlimited premium drinks package, a daily hour of complimentary Wi-Fi, 25% discount on Specialty Dining and a pre-bookable shore excursion discount of £130 per person. Enhanced tier prices for the 8th of July 2023 departure are from £1,019 per person.
The Celestyal Crystal is being decommissioned in September and replaced by Celestyal Journey. for the Celestyal Idyllic Aegean Cruise. Following an extensive, €20 million refurbishment and technical maintenance overhaul, Celestyal’s newest ship will set sail on 2nd September 2023, taking over the Celestyal Crystal’s route, initially on its popular seven-night Celestyal Idyllic Aegean Cruise itinerary.
Call Celestyal on 0800 411 8038 or visit Celstyal Cruises to book this Celestyal Idyllic Aegean Cruise or choose from many other Aegean and Mediterranean cruises