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Part seven of our first-hand look at the Athens and 3-Day Greek Isles Cruise

When I left you last, I was about to go to the most famous (and some say the most beautiful) Greek Isle: Santorini. To pick up where I left off …

The Aquamarine set a course northward from Heraklion, Crete toward our next destination. And just a few hours later the ship was in the caldera (like cauldron). It’s the large, central lagoon from which Santorini’s 900-foot cliffs rise. The land mass is what remains of a volcanic eruption. Its crescent moon shape wraps around a large basin where the island literally collapsed in on itself.

It’s a stunning view from the caldera, looking up at the white-washed towns built into the cliffside. This is where our group had a decision to make. How would we get to the top? There were three options.

1. Take a bus to Oia (pronounced ee-a), the town with white buildings and blue domes where many well-known photographs of Santorini are taken.

2. Walk up a steep, winding path to Thira.

3. Ride a donkey up the cliff.

Obviously, I went with option three. It was a crazy experience that I won’t attempt to describe. Watch the video instead!

After saying goodbye to our donkeys, we spent some time exploring Thira, which is packed with little shops and was bustling with tourists. As it got later in the day, we looked for a place where we’d have a perfect view of the famous Santorini sunset.

The spot we chose was the deck of a cliffside cafe. We ordered our five thousandth Greek salad, a few cappuccinos, and the photo shoot began. It really was the most incredible sunset I’ve ever seen. Here are some of the shots I took.

When it was all over, we rode a gondola down the cliff to the water …

… and embarqued on the Aquamarine one last time. In the morning, we’d be back in Athens for the remaining days of our trip.

Part six of our inside look at the Athens and 3-Day Greek Isles Cruise

I closed my previous post in this series talking about my 8 a.m. wine tasting appointment. And I wasn’t kidding! We woke up early to disembark at Heraklion, Crete. Crete is the largest of the Greek Isles, and has a culture and dialect that has remained separate from that of mainland Greece. Heraklion is the largest city on Crete and is also the capital.

Right after stepping on land, our group boarded buses that would take us on a half-day shore excursion, appropriately named, A Taste of Crete. The drive itself was breathtaking. We followed a winding, two-lane highway through the countryside that came right up against olive groves and vineyards that seemed to go on forever.

We arrived at a modern winery about 30 minutes from Heraklion where we watched a film about how local wines, olive oil, and raki (a strong alcohol made from the pulp, skins, and seeds of grapes) are made; and how important these goods are to the culture and traditions of Crete. We had a chance to try each of the wines made there, and many people bought bottles to bring home with them.

Then we were back on the road. On route to our next destination we stopped along the side of the road at a spot where you can take beautiful pictures of the landscape and one of the oldest farmhouses in Crete, dating to the Minoan period 16th century B.C.

We arrived in Archanes a short while after. This settlement sits on the site of an ancient Minoan settlement that spread over the same area. It is a beautiful, quaint town who’s economy is based largely on grape and olive processing and marketing.

Our group entered a local tavern where we got to try a number of Cretan foods: olives, cheeses, breads, desserts, and yes, even raki. So now it was about 10 a.m. and we’d already sampled six kinds of wine and one of the strongest drinks you can get in Crete. This made the next part much easier: dancing with traditional Cretan dancers! I shot a quick video of the four dancers who showed off their moves. You won’t see this in the video, but every single person in the room was up dancing in a circle led by the pros. :)

After a morning spent eating and drinking, we headed back to Heraklion and boarded the Aquamarine once again, setting course for our last, and probably most anticipated stop: the beautiful Santorini!

Fifth edition of our first-hand look at the Athens and 3-Day Greek Isles Cruise

View from the steps to the Cave of the Apocalypse

When I left you last I had boarded the Aquamarine after a morning in Kusadasi, Turkey. We were headed for the port of Skala on the island of Patmos.

This island is one of the original Dodecanese (meaning “12″) Greek islands. The earliest known temples on the island were the fourth century B.C. sanctuary of Diana. It’s believed that the name Patmos might come from Latmos, or Mt. Latmos of Turkey, where the goddess Diana was worshiped.

Patmos was populated beginning in about 500 B.C. by Dorians, then Ionians, and then the Romans in the second century B.C. It was during this time that the island fell into decline and was used as a place to banish “criminals and religious and political troublemakers.”

Not long after, according to some, Patmos makes its mark in the history books. The story has been subject to much scrutiny, but legend has it that John the Apostle (sometimes referred to as John of Patmos) received his first visions while living in exile on the island. These visions inspired the writings of the Book of Revelation, the last document of the New Testament.

It’s for this reason that Patmos is a frequent destination for Christian pilgrimage. So for obvious reasons, the shore excursion that takes Friendly Planeteers to the Monastery of the Apocalypse, Cave of the Apocalypse, and Monastery of St. John are very popular. This was the excursion my friends and I opted to go on, as did almost all of our tour group.

The port of Skala: View from the Monastery of St. John

We boarded buses in Skala that took us on a short drive up the hillside to the village of Chora where these three sites are located. The first stop was the Monastery and Cave (or Grotto) of the Apocalypse. The Monastery is small, beautiful, and peaceful with amazing views of Skala and the Aegean.

Next to the Monastery is a long stone staircase leading to the cave where St. John is believed to have written the Book of Revelation. We saw niches left in the wall marking the pillow where he rested his head and ledge used as a desk. Above your head is the crack in the rock said to be made by the voice of God honoring the Holy Trinity.

Further up the hill is the Monastery of St. John, built 900 years ago. The main church, still in use today, is known for its intricate frescoes and decoration. We were there the day before Palm Sunday, and leaves tied into delicate crosses were hung inside the building. Nearby is a small museum that houses priceless ecclesiastical treasures, books, manuscripts, mosaics, icons, splendid medieval textiles, vestments, and jewelery.

Drinking Ouzo on Patmos

After two hours of sightseeing, we headed back down to Skala to explore on our own. We went into the little white-washed shops to find gifts for our families, and sat outside of a cafe where we shared pastries — baklava and kataifi — and had our first tastes of ouzo.

Ouzo is typically mixed with water, which turns it from clear to cloudy. We forgot until about halfway through our drinks that we’d been warned about the drinking water on the islands. But luckily, we lived to tell the tale. :) When we asked the waitress where we could get our own ouzo glasses to commemorate our day in Patmos, she said, “You can keep these!” It was the perfect souvenir to bring home with us.

As night fell, it was again time to head back to the ship for dinner. This was one of my favorite stops on the tour — very beautiful, peaceful, and seemingly untouched by the rest of the world. If I had to choose one place to spend the whole week, this would be it. The next morning we’d be arriving at Crete to make an 8 a.m. wine tasting appointment. More on that in my next post.

Fourth edition of a first-hand look at the Athens and 3-Day Greek Isles Cruise

When I ended my last post in this series, recounting the Athens and 3-Day Greek Isles Cruise, my friends and I had just found our way out of the Mykonos maze.

A. Mykonos. B. Kusadasi.

We spent our first night aboard the Aquamarine and woke up to views of colorful Kusadasi, Turkey. The geographically challenged (myself included) might be wondering how we ended up in Turkey on a cruise in the Greek Isles.

If you pull out a map, like I had to, you’ll see that Turkey also borders the Aegean Sea, and isn’t far from Mykonos or Patmos, another island we’d soon visit.

First order of business in Kusadasi, according to our tour guide, Izzy: Learn how to pronounce the name of this town. It’s koo-SHAH-dah-suh, not KOOS-uh-DASS-see. The incorrect pronunciation translates to Bird Island. Saying that to a local would be pretty embarrassing.

Kusadasi, Turkey

Kusadasi was the first place where I opted in for a shore excursion — a visit to Ephesus. This is the second most well-preserved ancient site in the world (after Pompeii, the city that was buried in ash after Mount Vesuvius erupted in 79 A.D.). Ephesus is located near Selcuk, Turkey, a 30-minute drive from Kusadasi.

Ephesus was first an ancient Greek City, and then a major Roman city. In fact, in the first century B.C. it was the second largest city in the world with a population of 250,000.

Izzy, was in a BIG hurry to get us to the site of Ephesus that morning. Why? Because when you’re the first to enter the city, you have some incredible, unobstructed views (and photo opps) of the ruins and the valley. It’s pretty rare to get a shot like the one below that isn’t packed with tourists. Be jealous. :)

Tourist free Ephesus

We saw some incredible things at the archeological site. It’s actually the largest collection of Roman ruins in the eastern Mediterranean. Izzy’s descriptions of what the site once looked like brought the city to life.

We saw marks that carts made in the stone pathways more than a thousand years ago, beautiful Roman-style columns, intricate lettering carved in stone, and most notably, the Library of Celsus. It was once home to over 12,000 scrolls.

The library’s facade has been completely reconstructed from its original pieces, and the result is breathtaking.

Library of Celsus

We also saw the Grand Theater in Ephesus, which seats about 44,000 and is believed to have been the largest theater in the ancient world. It was used as recently as 2001, when Elton John played a concert there.

After our tour, we headed back to Kusadasi to get a taste of Turkish life. The first stop was a Turkish rug store. The owner was VERY intrigued that there was a New Yorker in our crew. He asked her about a million questions about “the best city in the world,” and had pretty much invited himself to come stay on her couch by the time we left.

We watched a woman do the back-breaking work of weaving a rug on a loom, which can take years for the most intricate designs. And we learned about the different styles of rugs while we sipped Raki (the Turkish version of Ouzo).

Hand-woven Turkish rug

After leaving the shop, we headed into the marketplace in Kusadasi. Now this was an experience I’ll never forget. Heather had warned us that the shop keepers were a little aggressive. That was the understatement of the century. These guys would probably drag you into their store if you let them.

In the Kusadasi marketplace, you’re expected to barter for the best price on handmade Turkish goods, such as beautiful (and real) pashminas, handmade jewelry, pottery, and much more. Bartering is something that most people don’t have much experience with, so here are a few tips:

  • Ask how much they want for something. Offer about 2/3 of that, or less if you really think that’s all you want to pay for it, and go from there.
  • If they won’t budge on a price, walk out. If they really want to make the sale, they’ll chase you down the street to give you the discount you asked for.
  • Be respectful of the fact that they do need to make a living, don’t offer them pennies for their goods.

I spent 30 minutes haggling with one jewelry maker over a silver bracelet. I walked out when he wouldn’t budge. He even got his dad on the phone before he’d agree to a lower price. But I did get it for about $50 less than he asked for at first. :)

If you can believe it, our tour of Ephesus, lesson in rug weaving, Raki drinking, and Turkish bartering all happened in one morning. We headed back to the Aquamarine for lunch, as the ship set a course toward Patmos. More on that in my next post.

Part three of our first-hand look at Friendly Planet’s Athens and 3-Day Greek Isles Cruise

Picking up from where I left off, recounting my experience on the Athens and 3-Day Greek Isles Cruise

When I left you last, we had arrived at the port of Piraeus where we would board the Aquamarine — the cruise ship that would become our home for the next four nights. For those of you who have never been on a cruise, the boarding experience, called embarkation, is exactly what you would imagine. Wait in a line, drop off your bags, and climb the gangway into the belly of the boat.

But there’s one thing about it you might not expect — you have to hand over your passport for the duration of the trip. Considering that international travelers are told over and over again that their passport is the single most important item they own, and that they must risk life and limb to protect it, putting that precious book in the hands of a very friendly, but completely unfamiliar port agent can be panic inducing.

But rest assured, this is how it’s always done. They will not take off with a few thousand passports for a good laugh. And it will be safely returned before you leave the cruise ship at the end of your stay.

Participating in our life boat drill

In return for your passport, you’re given a plastic ID card. This is your replacement passport. If you are ever asked to produce one while on a shore excursion, you can show them your cruise ID card and they’ll know exactly what it is. The card is also linked to a personal credit or debit card so you don’t have to carry around cash or other cards while you’re on the ship.

Upon boarding the ship, the five of us were greeted by the staff of the Aquamarine and led to our cabins. Quick note about cabins on a cruise ship: They are not designed for the over packer. Do everything in your power to keep pieces of luggage to a minimum if you want to be able to walk to and from the door.

After a lengthy (and hilarious) life boat drill, where many jokes about the Titanic were made, we spent the afternoon acclimating ourselves to the layout of the ship, lounging by the pool, and reading up on Mykonos, the first stop on our trip.

Once a quiet fishing village, this tiny island currently boasts a population of about 11,000 and has become one of the most popular summer tourist destinations in Europe. During the summer season, the population shoots to 55,000, and the beautiful beaches, narrow streets, and about 100 bars and clubs are packed with vacationers.

The winding streets of Mykonos

Before disembarking at Mykonos, our tour guide, Heather gathered us together to tell us a bit more about Mykonos. Her biggest piece of advice? Try not to get lost, it’s very, very easy.

Known as the windiest island in the Aegean, the town of Mykonos was built to break the gusts coming in from the sea. Wind enters the city through a break in the buildings, only to be stopped by a wall of houses where the road splits off in two, or three, or more different directions.

If you click on the image to the right, which I found on The Mykonos Island Reservation and Travel Agency website, you can see how the streets look like a tangled web. According to Heather, the confusing layout had a secondary purpose. It was a way to slow down the pirates who attacked the port from time to time.

While intruders would quickly get lost in the confusing streets, locals would shut themselves into their houses, climb to the top floor, and drop boards connecting balcony to balcony over the narrow pathways. They would run from house to house and hide, unbeknownst to the pirates wandering the maze below.

My first Greek sunset

Before disembarking at Mykonos, I had a minute to catch my first Greek sunset on film, looking over the deck of the ship. Then we were off, down the gangway on onto buses that drove us the mile from where the ship docked into the town.

Heather was right. From pretty much the moment we took our first turn, we were completely disoriented. Had we been there in season, when the streets are jammed with people, I don’t know how we ever would have been able to find our way out. But because it was late March, and the night air was still chilly, Mykonos was ours to explore.

Once we were thoroughly lost in the streets, we explored our way right into a local restaurant for dinner. We sampled delicious moussaka, pita, tzatziki, and chicken gyros.

Our waiter even offered us a round of complementary dessert liquor! We thought we were special, until the table of American guys next to us said they’d been given an entire bottle to share the night before. I guess it was just that famous Greek hospitality, not how cute we looked. :)

A narrow street in Mykonos

The experience in Mykonos might have been a bit different had we arrived two weeks later. It’s truly the heart of the European party scene, once the weather turns warm. But no matter what time of year you’re there, the architecture is beautiful, and you really feel like you’ve been transported to another time.

After finishing our dinner and more free drinks from our waiter, it was time to find our way out of the town (easier than we thought it would be) and back to the bus.

One island down, four to go! Check back for my next post and an explanation of how you end up in Turkey when you’re on a trip to Greece.

Part two of our first-hand look at Friendly Planet’s Athens and 3-Day Greek Isles Cruise

View of the Athens Parliament from Syntagma Square

Picking up from where I left off, recounting my experience on the Athens and 3-Day Greek Isles Cruise …

Soon after collecting our bags at Athens International Airport, the Friendly Planet group was met by our tour guide, Heather. First a word about our multilingual travel lifeline.

Heather had come to the country about three years earlier for a job as a guide with another company. She moved to Athens not speaking a word of Greek, but had a month before starting her job to acclimate herself to the city and begin learning the language.

Two days after her arrival she got a phone call from her soon-to-be boss. “Think you could start tomorrow?” She agreed. And after just a week on a tour bus with a driver who didn’t speak a word of English, she was conversational in Greek.

Not surprising, our first conversation with Heather was a vocabulary lesson. On the ride into the city we learned kalimera (pronounced ka-lee-MEra, meaning good morning), yasass (pronounced YA-sass, the polite way to say hello to someone you don’t know), and efharisto (pronounced ef-ka-ree-STO, meaning thank you).

During that drive, Heather also told us an important thing to know about the streets of Athens: Traffic is heavy and the “rules” of the road are seen as more of a suggestion. For the most part, they’re ignored. She strongly suggested that we look both ways (a few times) before crossing the street. :)

Athens’ heavy traffic can be attributed to its dense population. The city lies in a valley, with Mount Aegaleo to the west, Mount Parnitha to the north, Mount Penteli to the northeast, and Mount Hymettus to the east. Over 3 million people live in the Athens urban area, which is about seven times the square mileage of Manhattan.

But unlike the Big Apple, a building height restriction put in place to protect views of the Parthenon means there are no buildings over 12-stories high (except for a handful of exceptions). That means the city is packed with residential and commercial buildings, and Greeks traveling from the outskirts of town to the city center.

Life in the Plaka

After driving from the airport into the heart of downtown Athens, we arrived at our centrally located hotel, the Titania. The afternoon was spent exploring our surroundings. We were walking distance from some of the most beautiful neo-classical style buildings in the city, including Parliament and the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, where we watched the changing of the guard; the Academy of Athens; and the Vallianios National Library.

Having wandered through Syntagma Square (or Constitution Square), we found ourselves in Plaka, the historical neighborhood of Greece that wraps around the base of the Acropolis. The tangled web of narrow streets here are lined with beautiful old homes, street vendors, shops, and cafes.

It was just a few quick hours wandering the Athens streets (we’d be back in a few days) before we headed back to the Titania to resist a nap, meet with our tour group to discuss cruise embarquement procedure, and finalize the list of shore excursions we would take at each of the islands we would visit.

Dinner that night was at the hotel restaurant. Sure we were thousands of miles from home, but we managed to find ourselves at a place called The Olive Garden. Not the chain you find in the U.S. No endless soup, salad, and breadsticks here. Just incredible views of the Acropolis. :) We went easy on the wine, because it was a 6 a.m. wake-up call the next morning when we’d head to Piraeus, the port of the Athens where our cruise ship, the Aquamarine, was anchored.

But more on that in my next post. Plus: Lifeboat dry runs, sunset picture #1 of 3,000, and how to confuse a pirate.

A first-hand look inside Friendly Planet’s Athens and 3-Day Greek Isles Cruise

When in Greece, eat Greek salad.

As a Friendly Planet blogger, I get sneak peeks of incredible deal announcements. There was one in particular that grabbed my attention back in July 2009. It was a discount on the Athens and 3-Day Greek Isles Cruise.

As a young professional on a budget, the first thing that caught my eye was the price: $1,199 for an eight-day adventure on the Aegean? Flights, hotels, and cruise included? I was sold. Two days later the trip was booked. And by the end of the week, I’d recruited four more friends to join me!

After months of anticipation, we departed from JFK International on March 24, and landed in Athens 12 hours later. It was an incredible trip packed with some unforgettable experiences.

Over the next few weeks, I’m going to share my stories, photos, and videos from the cities of Athens and Kusadasi, on the islands of Mykonos, Patmos, Crete, and Santorini, and on the decks of the Aquamarine. It was all part of the Athens and 3-Day Greek Isles Cruise. Check back for my first post, Arriving in Athens and boarding the Aquamarine.

About Peggy

Peggy Goldman is a specialty tour operator and travel expert, who owns and operates Friendly Planet Travel, a full-service company that specializes in tour packages to exotic worldwide destinations at affordable prices.   More about Peggy

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