Cruising the Aegean for 10 nights is as much about island-hopping and meeting the locals as it is enjoying the on-board experience, writes Ben Mack..
The stinging waves crash on the deck, thrashing the little boat. Several passengers grip their seats. The waves are tossing the ferry about like a toy in a washing machine. I certainly didn’t expect this.
The water is calmer by the time we reach Delos, off the coast of the Greek island of Mykonos, about 30 minutes later. I’m on a shore excursion during day two of my Greek Myths & Summer Mirth cruise that began in Athens and ends in Rome, aboard the Regent Seven Seas Explorer. Wandering this tiny isle in the Aegean, spending much of the time patting the cats that live among the ancient ruins, I almost forget our rocky journey over on the small ferry. And that becomes a theme. “The thing about the Greek islands is you forget everything,” says my driver, Maria Chastoupi, as he takes me to board the Explorer for the first time, at the port of Piraeus near Athens, on a warm summer afternoon.
I reflect on Chastoupi’s words often on the trip. At first, I find it hard to believe. How could anyone forget Mykonos, with its windmills and waves, or Santorini and its whitewashed buildings hugging the sheer cliffs of a caldera? But then I realise he might be onto something, like Homer in The Odyssey, when he described an island of Lotus Eaters, who are struck by amnesia after consuming the magical plant.
First, it slips my mind that I have an evening spa treatment scheduled as we’re about to depart Athens. (I finally have the hot stones massage 48 hours later.)
I have so much fun exploring Delos – despite the ferry ride across the rolling seas suggesting that Poseidon is in a foul mood – that I also forget I’m booked for a local-led tour of Mykonos that afternoon. I even forget to meet the ship’s social hostess, Cherisse Martinelli – a performer from Seattle who was drawn by the chance to see the world and the “unique experience of working somewhere that’s a luxury floating hotel, theatre, restaurant and transportation” – in one of the many lounges aboard. She is kindly trying to help me track down general manager Evan Willemse, who before joining the cruise industry once served as a footman at a Silver Jubilee event in London that Queen Elizabeth II attended.
“Cruising is a fantastic way to make new friends,” Willemse tells me when we finally meet, as I tuck into avocado and crab under the crystal chandeliers of Compass Rose, a fine dining restaurant on Deck 4. “You already have three things in common: you share a passion for cruising or adventure, probably have a similar background and you’re open to the world.”
Indeed, I remember as much – if not more – about my fellow passengers than I do the places we visit. This is helped by the larger-than-life personalities many of the other guests possess.
While exploring Kuşadası and the fruit-tree-filled villages of Caferli and Kirazli on Turkey’s west coast on day three of the trip, I meet Keith Loh and Johan Grundlingh from Singapore. They are the most stylish people aboard (the shoes Keith wears one evening for drinks literally sparkle) and natural-born storytellers so getting together and hearing about their adventures on this voyage and others becomes a daily highlight.
If Keith and Johan are easy to remember, it’s impossible to forget Caroline and David. The British couple are on their second cruise. They loved the first (around Canada and Alaska) so much they thought they’d take another.
They tell me this over a meal at Pacific Rim, an Asian fusion restaurant on Deck 5 that’s one of five dining venues on the ship (it offers a fantastic seafood laksa with lobster). We talk until 1am – and are up late the next few nights, too. The Hutts agree that this voyage has been more adventurous than they were anticipating – they were on the same rocky ferry to Delos that I was.
Some of the local people we meet on the shore excursions are just as memorable. On the same day I first meet Keith and Johan in Kuşadası, I also encounter Semra Abdolah, our guide as we tour the villages under the bright sun. She introduces us to Daniel from Florida, who moved to Caferli in 2005 with his Turkish wife. Over the years, they expanded their home and adopted three dogs, one of them barely raising its head as we chat. Daniel says village life along the Turkish coast is perfection – especially on a balmy summer’s day.
Next door to Daniel’s house, Nazli Deniz runs a café, where she employs local village women so the money they earn goes back into the community. We have a traditional Turkish breakfast, which, among other things, includes “Turkish cheese rolls” (flat bread wrapped around cheese and fried in olive oil). Deniz says she’s thankful for the return of cruise ships. “For two years everyone was jobless in the village,” she explains. “We never realised how important the ships are to the local economy.”
Willemse later says that during our voyage, the ship has been resupplying with local goods, such as tomatoes and olives. “Not only does it make a difference for the freshness of the ingredients but it also makes a real financial difference to the local people. That’s one of the beauties of travelling – we can assist local communities.”
I do remember the shore excursion in Naples, Italy, on day nine, towards the end of our voyage. More than 25 metres beneath the streets, I’m led by local guide Assunta through a series of tunnels known as the Bourbon Gallery, which are carved from tuff, a volcanic stone. The underground maze, once used for shelter during World War II, has been open for tours since 2010 thanks to the work of volunteers, who receive no government support.
We enter a room filled with old cars and motorcycles, which according to Assunta, were dumped here in the latter half of the 20th century. “This is probably not what you were expecting,” she says, her voice echoing in a chamber with a ceiling so high that it’s difficult to see it.
I admit as much, snapping a photo so as to keep a memento of the strange sight. But what I don’t remember is how to get out and back to the Explorer.
Image credit: Miemo Penttinen