I grew up watching Love Boat, an American television show that was on every Saturday night for 10 years. I still remember the names of all the characters — Doc, Julie, Gopher, and Isaac — but I mostly remember Captain Stubing. And don’t even get me started on singing the song. So imagine my delight when I had the chance to meet a real-life sea captain; this time named Captain Angelos Vassilakos.
My husband, Jason, and I were aboard the Celestyal Crystal for 7 days cruising the Aegean and exploring the Greek Islands. I had the chance to meet the captain on the bridge and asked him to share his tips for cruising the islands. A few days later, we had dinner and continued the conversation.
To set the scene, Captain Vassilakos has spent his entire 35-year career on the sea. He started working on cargo ships, then served in the Hellenic (Greek) Navy, and finally moved into the cruise industry. He’s a proud Greek citizen and resides with his wife and family in a small seaside town.
1. Choose A Small Ship That Can Visit Smaller Islands
The trend in cruising has leaned toward larger ships, some accommodating over 5,000 passengers. These mega-ships have added basketball courts, climbing walls, and water parks to attract a wide audience. During our recent cruise, we sailed past a few of these extra-large ships and I admit that those extra amenities looked intriguing.
But on the flip side, as Captain Vassilakos pointed out, larger ships aren’t allowed to visit smaller islands — and there are hundreds of small islands in Greece. All cruise ships will visit the wildly popular islands of Mykonos and Santorini, but smaller gems like Milos, Patmos, Kavala, and Volos can only be enjoyed with a smaller ship.
Captain Vassilakos recommends ships no longer than 220 meters (about 722 feet). Our ship, the Celestyal Crystal, was just 160 meters (525 feet), so it could easily reach many of the smaller islands in the Aegean.
Pro Tip: If you have the chance to cruise the Greek Islands, I highly recommend an itinerary that includes Milos. This is the place where the famous Venus de Milo statue was discovered in 1820. And because it isn’t on the itineraries of larger ships, there are far fewer tourists than on the better-known islands.
2. Eat As Much Local Food As Possible
The Celestyal chefs offer Greek specialties for all meals. One night, I was fortunate to dine on a generous portion of moussaka, a traditional Greek eggplant casserole. Another night, I opted for the sweet and sticky baklava for dessert. And not a day went by that I didn’t enjoy a Greek salad.
But the ship can’t possibly offer specialties from all the different ports, so Captain Vassilakos encourages passengers to seek out some of these hyper-local dishes while on land. One of his personal favorites is a cheese pie called bougatsa, available only in Thessaloniki.
Jason and I took the captain’s advice to heart. During our excursion in Milos, our guide recommended we try the island’s specialty — karpouzopita (watermelon pie). Never one to pass up dessert, Jason and I immediately headed for the local bakery to try this pie. It was delicious.
While exploring Mykonos, we popped into the oldest bakery on the island, Gioras, and sampled local versions of cheese, spinach, and potato pie — all tasty.
Pro Tip: If you’re a wine lover like me, I’ll add to the captain’s tip and recommend that you try all the local wine. There are many grape varieties in this region that I had never tried but found that I really enjoyed. I was also pleasantly surprised to find wine throughout Greece to be very affordable.
3. Let The Cruise Line Help You Enjoy The On-Board Food
Much of the food served during our cruise was Greek, a cuisine I’ve long loved. But like any international cuisine, it has ingredients we may not be used to or aware of compared to our home foods. To help passengers best enjoy the Greek food served on the ship — and stay healthy — the captain recommends getting in touch with the cruise line prior to your departure to notify them of any dietary restrictions or allergies. They are more than happy to accommodate all types of diets and want passengers to thoroughly enjoy local cuisine.
Pro Tip: I enjoy a pescatarian diet. Fortunately, Greek cuisine is well-suited for anyone who prefers this. The range of dips, salads, and fresh seafood is not only delicious but also very healthy.
4. Learn All You Can About Greek Culture
The history, language, and culture of Greece have had considerable influence on the rest of the world. Captain Vassilakos encourages all of his passengers — and anyone cruising through the Greek Islands — to take the time to learn more about his country. Fortunately, this process can begin right on the ship.
On the first day of our cruise, a short class was offered to passengers who wanted to learn common words and phrases in Greek. Before our first excursion to the ancient city of Ephesus, we attended a lecture about these ruins. A few days later, I attended another lecture about olive oil, which was originally cultivated on the Greek Island of Crete 3,500 years ago.
In between, there was a cooking demonstration, Greek dance lessons, and another lecture about Santorini. All of these learning opportunities augmented our experiences on the islands, so I couldn’t agree more with the captain. Take advantage of them.
5. See As Much As Possible On Each Island
I was constantly in awe of the layers of history we saw during all of our shore excursions and have never seen a place with such a density of ruins and archeological sites. It’s for this reason that Captain Vassilakos recommends seeing as much as you can while visiting each port.
Do some research before your cruise and decide what sites interest you and how best to see them. At times, these sites may be within walking distance of the ship in port. We opted to skip a tour in Mykonos since the famous town of Chora and its centuries-old windmills were easy to walk to.
But in some ports, the top sites aren’t nearby, so an organized tour will be the best option. One of the highlights of our cruise was a tour of the Acropolis of Lindos which is a 45-minute drive from the port.
Pro Tip: Much of our time on the Greek Islands involved walking over uneven, slick surfaces as well as navigating slopes. If you have any mobility concerns, be sure to check in with the staff at the excursions desk for guidance on the best tours or sites for you.
6. Consider A Cabin With An Ocean View
One of the many attractions of cruising is affordability. With inclusive food and beverages and nightly entertainment, it’s a great way to know exactly what your trip will cost. And for people really looking to save, reserving an inside cabin (one without a window) can be perfect.
However, Captain Vassilakos encourages guests to think carefully about their cabin choice. Some people regret not having a window to watch the ship sail between the islands, especially on longer itineraries. While an ocean view is nice on any cruise, the Greek Islands are exceptionally beautiful, and the joy of seeing them from your cabin as you wake in the morning can’t be overstated.
Oceanview suites with balconies are the priciest accommodations on the ship and inside cabins are the most affordable. We had the in-between option, an oceanview room, which I highly recommend, and found the pricing to be reasonable, especially considering how much is included.
7. Don’t Forget To Bring Nice Clothes For The Gala Night
Most cruise lines, including Celestyal, offer a gala night — a designated evening when guests are encouraged to dress up. This is typically cocktail dresses for women and a suit jacket for men. The captain says that guests who bring only casual clothes may find themselves sitting awkwardly in the dining room in shorts and flip-flops surrounded by elegantly clothed passengers.
For the gala night on our ship, the captain and his senior crew — all dressed in their finest attire — were introduced to all the passengers. It was fun to learn where each of the crew members came from and to hear that most of them are native to Greece.
Our gala night began after departing the island of Rhodes on our way to Crete. It was a lovely scene as guests dressed for the evening gathered on the decks enjoying drinks and recounting stories from their day. You could feel the excitement after a great day of excursions and anticipation for more to come.
8. Don’t Leave Home Without This One Accessory
When I asked the captain about recommendations for what to pack on a Greek Islands cruise, he surprised me with the answer, “A good watch,” and then laughed. He understands that as passengers are strolling through the streets of Mykonos or admiring the views from Santorini, it’s easy to lose track of time. He’s often heard guests talk about lingering a little longer over a meal while dining next to the ocean. He’s passionate about his home country and understands these sentiments, but whenever someone is running late, it leaves him in a dilemma: leave that passenger behind or get to the next destination late. Neither is a good option.
Be sure to bring either a good watch or check your cell phone, but be courteous to the many other passengers who are on board and ready to set sail for a new island.
Pro Tip: If you will be relying on a cell phone for time, be sure it is reflecting the local time. While this should happen automatically, I have occasionally found glitches with our phones. I’d hate for this to happen and find out that the ship sailed without us.
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