Yahsu from Athens! We’re finishing up with our incredible seven-day Aegean cruise on Seabourn’s newest ship, The Odyssey (if you missed it, here’s the first part of the story). This unforgettable trip began touring around Istanbul (and here’s that story) and last week, we visited some of Turkey’s most famous ports including Kusadasi (to see Ephesus) and Bodrum. Today, we’ll hit some of Greece’s magical ports like Santorini and we’ll end up at a hotel in Athens that overlooks the Acropolis. Not a bad week, eh?
DIGITAL MEDIA TRAVEL SYMPOSIUM
I will be speaking at the 2009 Digital Media Travel Symposium in New York City at the Sony Wonder Tech Lab on October 15 so if you are in the Big Apple, come on by; it’s free! MedjetAssist is sponsoring the discussions and insights into how blogs, Twitter, Facebook and digital media outlets have transformed travel for consumers, editors, agents, marketers, and operators. Other panelists include: Michael Yessis of WorldHum.com, Adrien Glover of Travel+Leisure.com, Janelle Nanos of National Geographic Traveler’s “Intelligent Travel”, Everett Potter and Rudy Maxa. To RSVP and for more information contact Ross Belfer at email@example.com. Twitter: @MJAMediaSymp
BODRUM TO SANTORINI
From Bodrum, Turkey to Santorini, Greece, it’s 112 nautical miles. For this part of the journey, the waters were the roughest of any we encountered along the way, and it wasn’t even that bad, really. For a few hours, you could feel the boat swaying gently and occasionally, you’d feel a little tipsy if you tried to walk down the hallway in a straight line. Despite this, I didn’t hear of anyone aboard the ship getting sick.
Santorini is 126 nautical miles (233km) southeast of Athens and is located in the Cyclades, a group of Greek islands that total about 220.
I had never been to Santorini before so I knew nothing about it except that it was regarded as one of the most beautiful islands in the world. So when I found out that daily life is lived atop a 1,000-foot-high cliff and that the best way to there is via cable car, I admit I became a bit concerned. I have a slight fear of heights.
Santorini does have an airport (code JTR) so if you fly in, you don’t need to worry about a cable car and there are excursions available that do have a bus ride to the top but they were for one way only and I didn’t see any taxis.
BREAKFAST ON THE SHIP
We moored in the central lagoon, which is a former volcano crater that measures about 7.5 miles × 4.3 miles (12 kilometers × 7 kilometers). Three other ships arrived before us and Barry the cruise director informed everyone over the P.A. that there were long lines to get to the top so everyone should sit tight and relax. Natalie and I did just that by having breakfast and enjoying the vistas from the ship.
BOAT TO SHORE
Seabourn didn’t use their tenders to transport passengers to shore. Instead we were shuttled in 100-seat, Greek-run covered wooden boats that departed every 30 minutes. The ride took 10 minutes and everyone was excited for the day’s adventure – especially me.
NOTE: Although we were entering a new country for the first time, we didn’t have to go through any kind of passport control or show IDs. Upon boarding the ship, passengers are required to hand their passports over to Seabourn staff for the duration of the sailing. They must have taken care of the tedious behind-the-scenes paperwork for us.
LONG LINES FOR THE TRAM
Even when we arrived late, around 11am, the line for the tram was still insanely long, a 90-minute wait. It looked like Disneyland during Spring Break. But to be honest, I was actually relieved since it gave me an excuse not to ride in on the six mini, side-by-side gondolas, each holding six passengers. FYI:The price for the tram is 4 euro.
Our other options: We could either walk the 500+ steps or take a donkey, but the line for the donkeys was almost as long as the tram line. Luckily, someone from the ship had told us that if we planned on walking up, to just push our way through the donkey line because there’s no wait to walk.
SLY DONKEY OWNER
We did just that and as we began walking away from the crowd, a sly donkey owner approached us and said, “Donkey? Give me five euro.” That’s the regular price anyway so we figured why not? The next thing you know, everyone in our group of seven were being led up the stairs to a group of sad looking animals. They looked just like Eeyore.
One of our friends, who had never been on a horse before, was somehow helped up onto the first donkey. The guy helping her up didn’t offer any words of warning or advice so you should have seen her face when the donkey went into autopilot and slowly started climbing the shallow, slippery cobblestone stairs. She screamed the whole way up, while the donkey zigzagged through the crowds of tourists on foot and others on donkeys.
The craziest part of the journey up was when a herd of donkeys came storming down the steps unmanned, as they returned from the top. It was exciting but a bit dangerous; the donkeys stepped on a few toes … literally. BTW: There’s a two-foot-high wall to protect people and donkeys from falling off. It’s nerve-racking but even if you do have a fear of heights, this is totally doable.
When we reached the top, we were hot, sweaty and in the picturesque, pedestrian-only capital of Fira. The view, those whitewashed building overlooking the steep drop, was so spectacular you could cry. But I didn’t. There were so many cruise ship passengers milling about, it just ruined the moment.
I turned to Natalie and suggested we get the heck out of the tourist jam and lose the crowd. We ended up walking all around and getting lost. In some places, we didn’t even see a soul around. Most of the people we passed were locals on mopeds and a few lazy dogs, basking in the hot Mediterranean sun. Perfect.
The highlight was walking to the traditional village of Imerovigli. There were lots of small hotels built high into the cliffs, with views you wouldn’t believe possible unless you saw them for yourself.
Our end goal was to make it to the Anastasi church, which we’d spotted from the donkey trail. On the way back, we stopped for lunch at an empty, expensive restaurant with unforgettable views but food that didn’t compare. Looking back, we should have gone to the restaurant nearby that didn’t have the spectacular views but was packed with locals – a sure sign that the food was better and cheaper.
Around 4pm, we made it back to the main tourist town by which time the crowds had dissipated. We opted to walk down, which we did at a pretty fast pace; it took 20 minutes but be sure to wear good shoes because the cobblestones are quite slippery.
The next day, Seabourn scheduled a relaxing Marina Day for everyone. This is when they bring out their sea pool and all types of complimentary water sports. But the water was rough (the wind gusts were 25 to 30mph) so instead, we made an unscheduled stop in Milos and did the Marina Day the following afternoon.
SANTORINI TO MILOS, GREECE
From Santorini to Milos was just 75 nautical miles. Natalie wasn’t feeling well so I went to shore alone. The ride on the tender took 10 minutes (they departed every 15 to 20 minutes) and when I got off, I asked one of the returning passengers how Milos was. He said that if you time it right, you can catch the same boat back. Ha!
I actually had fun exploring the cute little village for a couple of hours. I strolled the main streets of Plaka, the island’s whitewashed capital. The island is low-key and filled with European vacationers and few Americans, which I like when I travel to Europe.
At first I found myself walking behind a small group of backpackers who’d arrived on a huge Greek ferry and I overheard a family negotiate a rental apartment for 50 euros a night. Great deal!
There’s not a lot to see but it’s a quintessential Greek island complete with colorful fishing boats. I walked to the church where I snapped my best photo of the whole trip. Then I ventured about a mile or so along the shore to check out the popular beaches. Like in Santorini, there were plenty of little buggies and motorbikes for rent.
If Natalie had been with me, we would have dined at one of the casual seaside restaurants. Instead, I ended up at the most crowded beach, which was depressingly dirty. Before retuning to the boat, I hit the bakery and bought some local treats for Natalie but since she wasn’t feeling well, she passed on them and I ended up eating them. Just what my Buddha belly needed.
DID YOU KNOW? The most famous statue to come out of Milos was the Venus de Milo, originally called Aphrodite of Mylos. It was discovered here in 1820 and she now resides in the Louvre in Paris.
Navplion is a seaport town in the southernmost part of mainland Greece. It’s famous for being the first capital of modern Greece, from 1829 to 1834.
Natalie and I were pleasantly surprised by Navplion’s old town, with its narrow cobblestone streets. It was probably my favorite port of all. That might have been because ours was the only cruise ship that had docked there, so there weren’t tour groups ahoy. But I did see a lot of British and Italian vacationers. The town is well preserved and governments could learn a lot here. There were plenty of boutique shops (no chains), outdoor cafes and historic sites like Kapodistriou and Constitution Squares and the Town Hall.
The main attraction is the Castle of Palamidi, which is 708 feet (216 meters) high on a hill. It’s a medieval structure that was the last major construction of the Venetians in the 15th century but taken over by the Ottomans in 1715. To get to the top is either a five-euro taxi ride or an 852-step climb. TIP: If you opt for the climb, bring a hat, sunscreen and good walking shoes.
852 STEPS UP
Of course, we opted to climb. It took 10 minutes to get to the stairs from the ship and then we made the occasionally slippery ascent up the stone stairs. It took only about 20 minutes to get to the top but it felt longer because of the heat. But it wasn’t that bad since we left in the morning (around 11am) there was still plenty of shade.
We only passed a handful of climbers but they ranged in age from roughly seven to 70. Given my fear of heights, at times it was a tad bit nerve-racking but it seemed going down would be much worse, which is why we took a taxi back. You can ask the gate keeper to call you one.
INSIDE THE CASTLE
The views every step up were breathtaking (literally) and at the top, they were even more unreal. There is a four euro (two euro if you’re a student) entrance fee. There are three castles in total, all linked by vaults, corridors and secret passages. There are no exhibits but there is a claustrophobic prison, a small church and crazy stairways, most without guardrails so be careful.
PATH TO BEACH
The walk to the beach was long, hot and sticky. But the wide paved sidewalk lined with cactus, pine and palm trees filled with tree frogs or crickets singing the quintessential song of summer, reminded me a lot of a dirt trail in Palos Verdes, California, near where I live.
LEAP OF FAITH
We ran into some Moroccan kids who were playing Rock, Paper, Scissors on the hot pavement, to see who would climb down the rocks and check how deep the water was before they all jumped in. I said, “If you guys jump, I jump.” The jump was about 20 feet high (Here’s the video). It was so much fun and it brought me back to my childhood days of the bluff bridge in Rowayton, CT.
The beach was rough gravel/sand but the water was like heaven although it had a high salt content. There were ladders around the rocky cliff areas (I wish they had some where I jumped) and they had free showers. The snack bar sold not only ice cream and bottled water (just .70 euro) but bottles of wine and high quality food. Only in Europe.
NAVPLION TO PIRAEUS (ATHENS)
That night, before traveling the 116 nautical miles to Athens, we dined on the ship overlooking the lit up Palamadi Castle. The setting was surreal just like our whole trip, which was quickly coming to an end. Departing passengers were instructed to have their bags outside their doors by 11pm.
TIME TO SAY GOODBYE
We were out of the room by 8am as requested but didn’t need to leave the ship until 9am or 9:30am, so we had breakfast first.
We picked up our passports, which didn’t have Greek entry stamps but there was a Turkish exit stamp and 10 Turkish lira stapled to one of the pages. When I inquired about the money, I was told I had left it in there when I checked-in. Unreal.
Travelers who want to experience Seabourn Odyssey or any of the other yachts of Seabourn should consult a travel agent, call Seabourn at 1-800-929-9391 or visit Seabourn.com.
We decided to share a taxi into the city with our new Australian friends, who taught us a lesson. The first taxi in the line was a beat up, dirty Fiat, despite the fact that the lot was filled with clean Mercedes. I was just about to get in the dirty car when my Aussie friend said, “Oh no, we’re not getting in this filthy car.” He dragged us to the closest shiny Mercedes where he inquired about the rate before getting in. The price was the same as if we’d traveled in the dirty car and they charged by the vehicle, not per person. Always ask about that, too.
However the Aussies made one mistake: they hired the driver for an hour-long sightseeing tour and settled on a price of 50 euro. The driver never turned off the meter and when we were finished, it read 25 euro so he made out like a bandit.
QUICK TAXI TOUR
On the abbreviated tour, we stopped off to see the Olympic Stadium where the Olympic Games were revived in 1896 and returned in 2004. Then we went by the former Royal Palace, now the Parliament Building and watched the Greek guards stand so still that someone else had to wipe the sweat off his face.
One of Seabourn’s recommended hotels for this port was the Athenaeum Intercontinental Athens. It was just 15 minutes from Piraeus and the modern lobby was busy with Americans (other cruise passengers) and, get this … a Jehovah’s Witness convention, a definite first for me.
SEABOURN SERVICE DOESN’T END
A Seabourn employee who lived in Athens was stationed at the hotel the whole day while the boat was in port, to greet and answer questions from incoming and outgoing passengers. She was there until 4pm and did a fine job providing us with maps, distances, prices and best times to go places.
HOTEL TO CENTER OF THE CITY
I was bummed when I found out the hotel wasn’t in the center of town but stoked to find out that the hotel offers a free hourly shuttle, which takes just 10 minutes to get there. But if you don’t want to be dependent on a shuttle schedule, taxis are inexpensive; I was charged just three euro for the trip.
The Athenaeum InterContinental Athens hotel has 543 guest rooms and they’re supposedly the most spacious in all of Athens. All rooms are built solid (so you don’t hear the neighbors), come fully equipped with high speed Internet access (19 euro a day), 32” flat screen TVs and stylish interior features like the specially commissioned works of modern Greek art adorning the leather clad walls.
The hotel is currently undergoing a multi-million dollar guestroom renovation and we were in one of the 181 completed rooms. The others will be finished next year. My only complaint is that the tub/shower was too narrow for my size 13 feet.
The design firm in charge is based out of Paris and their portfolio includes some of the finest international city hotels and resorts. I love what they did with the hallways, using vivid oranges, reds and yellows. They’re smart to have 350 authentic works of modern Greek art, consisting of both paintings and sculptures in private and public spaces.
But what I will never forget about the hotel is the view of the Parthenon – it’s surreal, especially at night when it’s all lit up; they leave the lights on all night and it looks just magical.
We were granted access to the Club Lounge, which was on Level 8 and reserved exclusively for rooms on floors seven, eight and nine. The staff in there were friendly and helpful and besides offering a quiet place to eat a daily buffet breakfast, enjoy a full open bar, evening canapés and computers with free Internet (one hour a day), it has the best view of the Parthenon (there’s a high powered pair of binoculars for seeing it up close). I also loved the fact that they even sold tickets to the new Acropolis Museum (one euro each) so we didn’t have to wait in line.
Athenaeum InterContinental Athens, 89-93 Syngrou Avenue, 117 45 Athens, Greece; Tel: +30 210 920 6000.
NEW ACROPOLIS MUSEUM
The was supposed to be ready for the 2004 Olympics but you know how construction goes and it opened on June 21, 2009. The $200 million museum is quite impressive to say the least; it’s one of the nicest I’ve ever seen. Much of that is based on the location, which is unreal since it’s at the base of the Acropolis with direct views of the Parthenon.
The museum has five floors with over 14,000 square meters of exhibition space, enough room for 4,000 artifacts. My favorite touches are the glass ramps, walls and freestanding objects from the archaic and classical periods.
VIDEO OF MUSEUM
Photos are not allowed but I did find this official museum video on YouTube so you get a better feel.
New Acropolis Museum hours are Tuesday to Sunday: 8am to 8pm. It’s closed on Mondays and January 1, March 25, Easter Sunday, May 1 and December 25 and 26.
Even as the sun went down, it was really hot out. Buy bottled water from a street vendor – prices vary but I usually paid .50 euro).
It was a dream come true when we visited the Acropolis, the flat-topped rock, 490 feet (150 meters) above sea level, depicting Greece’s glorious past. The best time to visit is late in the afternoon after all the cruise passengers have left and the sun goes down.
HOLD ON TO YOUR TICKET
The Acropolis entrance fee is 12 euros but it’s good for multiple entries on multiple days (we went back two days in a row) and it’s valid for a number of museums (including the Acropolis Museum) and different areas of the Acropolis (including the North slope and South Slope) so be sure not to lose your ticket because you do need to keep showing it.
We made the climb up the smooth marble steps and saw the masterpieces of architecture like the Propylea, the Temple of Athena Nike, and the Erechtheum with its Porch of Maidens. But the highlight of course was the Parthenon, which was built as a temple to Athena in the fifth century B.C. and is considered the most perfect example of classical architecture in the world. My friends who had all visited before me were disappointed but to me, it was absolutely beautiful.
Natalie and I walked down the back of the Acropolis and ended up in the Plaka, which is an old preserved (and touristy) district of Athens. Plaka means “old” and it’s packed with stores, cafes and tourists.
We tried to lose some of the crowd and have dinner on the outskirts of the Plaka on a cute, narrow street with grapes vines hanging over our heads. We went to a restaurant that was busy but had no idea how busy it would get. It turned out to be a haven for tour groups – at least three – mostly American but some Italian – showed up in herds. Luckily they were all inside while Natalie and I sat outside with all the stray cats looking for scraps of food. But it was still quiet, picturesque and romantic.
For dinner I had a tomato salad (5e) to start and chicken souvlaki with rice and peas (9.50e) as my entrée. Natalie had the famous feta cheese and Pastourma. The food and service was just okay so we had dessert elsewhere (though we wanted to try their traditional Greek sweet “Pasteli” made with sesame and honey. But the owners were busy being sharks like the other restaurant owners, trying to bring in new business before bringing our dishes.
We walked four blocks down, took a right and we were back in the heart of the Plaka. It didn’t take long to find the perfect place to order a small (two scoops) Nutella gelato for three euro.