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Cruising the Greek Isles Trip Log: October 16–25, 2019

Trip Logs

Cruising the Greek Isles Trip Log: October 16–25, 2019

By Kristin Wornson, A&K Expedition Team | October 16, 2019

October 16, 2019 | Athens, Greece

Today, we converged on the city of Athens to mark the beginning of a much-anticipated luxury cruise to the Greek Isles. With over 6,000 islands scattered throughout the Aegean and Ionian seas — 227 of which are inhabited — it would take a lifetime to fully appreciate the depth and diversity of this enchanting part of the world. And we couldn’t wait to get started.

Hailing from all corners of the globe, we arrived at the beautiful Hotel Grand Bretagne. Originally constructed in 1842, this glamorous institution retains the opulent style of its time: stained glass ceilings, potted palms and antique etchings lining the corridors. Nestled in the heart of Athens and overlooking the Parliament and the National Garden, this neoclassical gem was the ideal location to begin exploring the city.

We spent the afternoon settling into our rooms, resting and enjoying leisure time. Some of us had lunch at the lovely rooftop café with a breathtaking view of the Acropolis; a swim in the pool; or a stroll through the narrow streets of the nearby historic Plaka neighborhood. This evening, we gathered for a welcome cocktail party in the Grand Ballroom, where we got to know each other. We also received a brief introduction to the next day’s itinerary and met the A&K Expedition Team, who would accompany us throughout our voyage.

October 17, 2019 | Athens

We awoke to our first full day in vibrant and bustling Athens. One of the oldest cities in the world, it has a rich history spanning 3,400 years and is home to a third of Greece’s population. Icons blend harmoniously with modern cafés and lively restaurants, creating a fascinating combination of old and new.

The morning was filled with excitement as we dispersed to explore some of the country’s most extraordinary archaeological sites. Some of us chose to explore the city’s highlights, beginning with the Acropolis, an ancient citadel perched on a flat-top rock above Athens containing remnants of several historically significant buildings, the most famous being the Parthenon. Perhaps the finest example of classical Greek architecture and built as a sanctuary for Athena, the patron goddess of Athens, the Parthenon was the first and greatest project of the Golden Age. We learned that this magnificent temple flourished under the leadership of Pericles, an Athenian statesman and general. After making our way down the steep slope and back into the city streets, we strolled through Plaka and the market area, enjoying stops at a local coffee shop, a meat and cheese tasting, and a lesson in traditional Greek dance.

Some of us left the city for a scenic drive to the Peloponnese peninsula, with views of the Argo-Saronic Islands and lush, green pine trees, followed by visits to several important archaeological sites in the lovely region of Argolis. We stopped at the 19th-century Corinth Canal, an engineering marvel connecting the Gulf of Corinth with the Saronic Gulf in the Aegean Sea. Cutting through the narrow Isthmus of Corinth and separating the Peloponnese from the Greek mainland, the canal is nearly four miles long and only 70 feet wide, making it impossible for most modern ships to enter.

We arrived at the UNESCO-listed Ancient Theatre of Epidaurus, considered to be the most acoustically perfect Greek theater. Interestingly, it is still in use today. We took the time to climb its myriad steps for a staggering view from the top, envisioning a time when 14,000 spectators sat transfixed by the performances below. Our last stop was the archaeological site of Mycenae, once a military stronghold that dominated much of southern Greece, Crete, the Cyclades and parts of southwest Anatolia. We passed through the imposing Lion Gate to view the Royal Tombs, climbing a path graced with wildflowers and olive trees, until we reached what remained of a palace.

Art lovers spent the morning immersed in some of the world’s greatest masterpieces as our expert guide led us through the famous Benaki Museum, perhaps the finest museum in Greece. With three floors of impeccable treasures from the Bronze Age to World War II, this museum contains Byzantine icons, works by the famous artist El Greco, as well as an extensive collection of Asian art and Greek regional costumes.

The evening concluded with a private event. Afterward, we were swept off to a lively street party featuring rows of open-air cafés offering endless Greek specialties, wine and cocktails. With the Acropolis enchantingly illuminated beneath the night sky, we savored our first taste of the country’s rich traditions through traditional Greek dance mingled with laughter and conversation.

October 18, 2019 | Athens

After breakfast, we gathered for a private lecture. Ancient history lecturer Dr. Steve Kershaw introduced and examined the sophisticated Bronze Age culture of Minoan Crete and discussed its noteworthy public buildings, frescos, painted pottery and enigmatic writing systems. He also assessed some intriguing theories relating to that culture’s demise.

Enlightened post-lecture, we checked out of our rooms and set off for a visit to the magnificent Acropolis Museum, located on the southeastern slope of the Acropolis hill. Designed by Swiss architect Bernard Tschumi in collaboration with Greek architect Michael Photiadis, this modern glass structure is filled with stunning objects bathed in natural light.

An archaeological museum built to house every artifact found on the rock and surrounding slopes, it’s nestled over the ruins of ancient Athens, which is now protected under glass floors. Statues dominate the first floor, offering some of the earliest examples of Greek art in marble. The style progression can be seen in the clothing, from the simply contoured Doric to the more elegant and elaborate Ionic designs, corresponding to advances in history. Making our way to the top floor, we viewed the Metopes of the Parthenon — marble plaques originally placed above the columns of the Parthenon, arranged as they would have been on the Parthenon itself.

We sat down for a lovely lunch at Dionysos Zonar’s. After eating our fill, we boarded the buses for a panoramic city tour, bidding farewell to the mainland as we made our way to the Port of Piraeus to board the ship, ‘Le Bougainville.’ Cruise Director Paul Carter introduced us to our new home away from home, and Expedition Director Suzana Machado D’Oliveira briefed us on tomorrow’s excursions. Then, we settled into our cabins, sipping Champagne on the deck overlooking the azure sea. Eager to take advantage of the ship’s offerings, many left to explore its immaculate interiors as ‘Le Bougainville’ set sail for Crete.

October 19, 2019 | Crete

We arrived at Crete, the largest and most populous of the Greek islands. Crete was the remarkably advanced center of Minoan culture from 2700 BC to 1400 BC. In fact, it was the earliest-known civilization in Europe. Strategically located in the southernmost part of the Aegean Sea, the island is characterized by fertile plateaus, valleys and gorges, and mountains crossing from east to west.

We disembarked in Heraklion, a modern, bustling city and the fourth largest in Greece. As we pulled into the harbor, we were struck by the massive Venetian walls that once fortified the city — and here, they shed light on its turbulent history. Some of us chose to visit the renowned Heraklion Archaeological Museum, home to the finest collection of Minoan artifacts in the world. Our expert guides led us through a staggering quantity of objects, from entire walls of arrowheads to pottery to an extraordinary collection of gold jewelry. One of the more memorable pieces was the famous Gold Bee Pendant from the Palace of Malia, which depicted two bees arranged symmetrically around a drop of honey.

From there, we took a short drive to Knossos, the largest Bronze Age archaeological site, for a guided tour of the most noteworthy of the ancient Minoan palaces. After wandering the countless rooms and passageways, we drove through the countryside to Arolithos, a modern rendition of a typical Cretan village. Here, we were treated to a delicious lunch of local specialties, along with traditional entertainment and visits to artisan workshops.

Those who stayed in Heraklion visited the Koules Fortress or, as the Venetians called it, Castello a Mare. Located at the entrance to the old port of Heraklion and built by the Republic of Venice in the early 16th century, the fortress boasts three entrances, two stories and 26 rooms, including a prison, storage rooms, a water reservoir, a chapel, a mill and a bakery. Its massive limestone walls, almost thirty feet thick at some places, were capable of withstanding a 22-year siege, though they eventually fell to the Ottomans after the Venetians surrounded the entire city.

Later, we toured the Historical Museum of Crete, a private museum offering a comprehensive overview of Cretan history, with sculptures and architectural pieces from the Byzantine, Venetian and Turkish periods. We left the museum for a short stroll through the town center, just as the rain started to fall. Making our way to the Platia Venizelou — or Lions Square we admired the Morosini Fountain, once the city’s main source of fresh water, before retreating to various coffee shops for shelter and a roasty beverage. Then, we enjoyed a lovely meal in the village.

Others ventured to Agreco Farm in the countryside. Along the way, we caught glimpses of ‘Le Bougainville’ steaming steadily over the glassy waters to rendezvous with us later in the day. Agreco Farm, an organic enterprise perched on the hills above Rethymnon, overlooks the serene Mediterranean. Our first task was to prepare the traditional ovens for baking bread. Once ready, loaves were served warm, paired with the farm’s organic extra virgin olive oil and a sprinkle of sea salt.

Next, we prepared stuffed vegetables for lunch, filled with a mixture of rice, fresh tomatoes and herbs from the farm. While these were baking, we continued our tour among the herb-lined paths, tasting everything from freshly sliced beefsteak tomatoes, olives and cucumbers to wines, cheeses and potatoes.

Some of us tried milking one of the goats, and the milk was turned into a delicious cheese for sampling. An enormous spread crafted from the farm’s organic produce was served on the farm’s shaded terrace. For our final course, we rolled and filled small cheese pies, which were fried in olive oil and drizzled with Cretan thyme honey. A shot of raki — a strong alcoholic spirit flavored with anise — along with traditional Greek coffee, completed this feast, and many of us welcomed a well-earned nap on the bus ride back to ‘Le Bougainville.’

Our buses made their way to the old preserved Renaissance city of Rethymnon. We spent some time wandering the narrow alleyways on our own before returning to the ship. Once aboard, we had our first enrichment lecture with Tour Manager and photo coach Richard Harker, who provided an introduction to iPhone photography.

October 20, 2019 | Santorini

This morning, we awoke to the breathtaking views of Santorini as Captain Thomas McCandless deftly maneuvered ‘Le Bougainville’ inside this volcanic island’s enormous central caldera. The southernmost island within the Cyclades, named for the circle it forms around the sacred island of Delos, Santorini is the largest of a small archipelago and marked by a dramatic past. Sightseeing began with stunning whitewashed cuboid buildings, traditional of the Cycladic architecture, built on steep cliffs that seemed to tumble into the sea.

Once a sophisticated Minoan outpost, Santorini was the site of a major catastrophic eruption that destroyed much of the island 3,600 years ago. Considered to be one of the largest volcanic eruptions in recorded history, it generated an eruption column 19 to 22 miles high and tsunamis ranging from 115 to 492 feet high, which devastated the northern coastline of Crete. Its magnitude is estimated to have been four times greater than that of the 1883 eruption of Krakatoa.

Others chose to visit the ancient archaeological site of Akrotiri, where evidence of this once thriving Minoan society still exists. Paved streets, an extensive drainage system, and the production of high-quality pottery all point to the level of sophistication and prosperity achieved by the settlement. Buried under volcanic ash for thousands of years, the site is remarkably well preserved, revealing frescos, furniture and numerous pieces of pottery. The frescos, painted using mineral-based pigments in earth-tone colors, depicted life in this magnificent city.

Another industry nearly as ancient as the ruins themselves rests firmly in the island’s history: wine. It wasn’t long before the oenophiles among us set off to discover the oldest vineyards in Greece — some of the oldest in the world. A Mediterranean climate combined with nutrient-poor soil composed largely of volcanic ash and rock lend the wines of this region a unique character, and we spent the morning learning about the painstaking manual effort that goes into the production of this beloved pastime.

We began with a guided tour of Argyros Mansion, a beautifully preserved home once owned by a family who played an important role in winemaking and wine exportation. From here, we trekked into the fields, where the grapes are grown and harvested, and witnessed the harsh conditions these vines must endure.

We also learned of a unique vine-training system called koulara. Using this method, vines are woven into baskets that provide protection from the strong winds and harsh sun. Our final stop was Hatzidakis Winery for a firsthand look at the fermentation and production process. This was followed by a tasting of some of the island’s indigenous grape varieties — including Assyrtiko, Athiri and Aidani — guided by renowned wine expert Nico Manessis.

The evening was one to remember. We enjoyed a sunset cocktail party on the back deck of ‘Le Bougainville’ and were introduced to our fantastic crew. This was followed by an elaborate multicourse dinner in Le Nautilus restaurant just as the ship pulled away from stunning Santorini toward our next destination.

October 21, 2019 | Rhodes

We arose this morning to a magical sunrise, a radiant orange sun hovering above the water on the starboard side. ‘Le Bougainville’ sailed alongside the historic island of Rhodes, the largest of the Dodecanese — a group of Greek islands famed for their medieval castles. Rhodes is known throughout Greece as the “Island of Roses,” blooming with brilliant red and purple hibiscus, great boughs of pink bougainvillea and countless other flowers coloring the island.

The first group to depart set out by car toward Lindos, rolling past vineyards, fruit groves and olive trees. Beneath this modern village lies one of the most important ancient cities of Rhodes and the Eastern Aegean. Here, the Acropolis rises dominantly on a steep, 380-foot-high cliff overlooking the sea, framed by mighty fortress walls. Rhodes was thought to be a place of significance for the cult of Athena in ancient times, and we viewed the Temple of Athena Lindia, a sanctuary once dedicated to this goddess. Though the original statue was burned in 342 BC, it was replaced by a Doric-style temple in the late fourth century BC. From there, we drove to the Savvas Pottery studio for a demonstration of the region’s ceramic style and an opportunity to paint our own pottery piece.

For those choosing to visit the historic medieval Old Town area, it was as if we had stepped centuries back in time. Declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site in 1988, it’s one of the most beautiful urban ensembles of Gothic-period architecture. From 1309 to 1523, Rhodes was occupied by the Order of Knights of the Hospital of Saint John of Jerusalem, who had lost their last stronghold in Palestine in 1291. The knights transformed the island capital into a fortified city capable of repelling terrible sieges, and our expert guides enthralled us with a fascinating history lesson as we walked.

We entered through the d’Amboise Gate, made our way down the cobblestone streets and into the 14th-century Palace of the Grand Master of the Knights of Rhodes. The palace was filled with fanciful interiors adorned with intricate mosaic floors — everything from fish and dolphins to the head of Medusa. Leaving the palace, we strolled the famous Street of the Knights and ended at the Archaeological Museum of Rhodes. Boasting a fascinating collection of relics, this museum is housed in the edifice that was originally the Hospital of the Knights of Saint John. Among its treasures are Crouching Aphrodite, a striking statue carved in the first century BC.

Some of us opted for a hands-on cooking demonstration, so we returned to the bus and drove to a local restaurant. Once inside, we donned aprons and toques and found our cooking stations, already catered with an appetizing array of fresh vegetables, meat and seasonings. After a shot of the local firewater, raki, to get us in the spirit of things, we prepared traditional Greek moussaka: a layered dish of potato, baked aubergine and minced lamb in an herbed tomato sauce, crowned with rich béchamel and grated cheese.

We wrapped up the evening with an al fresco gala, just a short bus ride from the breezy coastal site of Kallithea. Everyone savored cocktails and appetizers overlooking the sea, then tucked in to a traditional Greek dinner.

October 22, 2019 | Mykonos

Nicknamed “the Island of the Winds,” Mykonos has become one of the most popular of the Cycladic islands. Boasting 25 beaches, tiny coves, whitewashed houses, and narrow streets lined with bougainvillea, churches, restaurants and boutiques, this quintessential island is not to be missed. Due to impending weather, Captain McCandless, Suzanna and local Greek guides worked around the clock, rearranging our plans to make our visit to this spectacular place possible.

Some intrepid sailors among us chose a boat outing to the small island of Delos. We set off for a 20- minute ride to one of the most important sites in Greece. As we made our approach, we could behold the astonishingly preserved, massive marble columns, remnants of this historically prosperous city.

Strolling through once thriving city streets, we stepped into the footprints of small shops and working areas, grand residential living quarters decorated with inner courtyards and great marble columns, large statues of lions that once roamed the area, and intricate mosaic-tiled floors — perhaps the most memorable of which was Dionysus, the Greek god of wine and revelry, seated on a panther.

Mykonos was historically a major commercial and trading center, and we were told about the myriad international merchants who arrived by ship to trade goods. Our group took a few minutes to admire the Archaeological Museum of Mykonos, which displayed significant artifacts. Considered by ancient Greeks to be the birthplace of Artemis, goddess of the hunt, and her twin brother, Apollo, this sacred island and its once cosmopolitan city were an astonishing sight for all of us.

Others visited the Monastery of Panagia Tourliani, located in the village of Ano Mera, which was renowned for its eye- catching whitewashed architecture. Founded in 1542 by two monks, it fell into disrepair but was later rebuilt in the 18th century and dedicated to the protectress of Mykonos. In front stands an ornate bell tower with triple bells; upon stepping inside, we discovered carved marble and wood, Byzantine frescos and crystal chandeliers. Its massive Baroque altar screen, created by Florentine artists, showcases intricately carved icons depicting scenes from the New Testament.

After leaving the monastery, we crossed the street to a taverna for ouzo (a Greek anise-flavored liqueur) and some light appetizers. Our next stop was the Church of St. John, located in the settlement of Agios Ioannis. Built overlooking a beach, the church boasts some of the most stunning views on Mykonos, including the sacred islands of Delos and Rhenia.

We met our wonderful Greek guides for a stroll through the narrow, winding streets — a labyrinthian design meant to confuse pirates who plagued the town in the 18th and early 19th centuries. Passing numerous jewelry shops on the main road, we made our way to Matoyianni Street, lined with stores featuring fashionable Greek designers. Afterward, we paid a visit to a medieval bakery and sampled twisted bread coated with sesame seeds, a local specialty.

Following refreshments, we made our way to the region’s iconic windmills, many of which were built by the Venetians in the 16th century. Primarily used to grind wheat, they were a vital source of income for the inhabitants and are found throughout the Cyclades. We ended with a walk through Little Venice, one of the most romantic neighborhoods in Mykonos. Many travellers have fallen in love with this charming quarter, particularly its breathtaking sunsets backdropped by the Aegean Sea. The muse of many an artist or artistic rendering, Little Venice is now one of the most photographed neighborhoods in all of Europe.

October 23, 2019 | Patmos

This morning, we arrived at the peaceful island of Patmos, which is shaped like a seahorse. Here, lush green pine and cypress trees carpeted the hillsides, small fishing boats floated quietly in the port and water lapped against the shoreline. Arguably one of the most beautiful of the Dodecanese, it was a refreshing contrast: only a few tourists meandered about, and casual tavernas lined the beach, their white-cloth-covered wooden tables nestled in the sand. We looked out to small, tranquil coves and a peaceful boulevard with palms tucked along the streets. We felt instantly more relaxed.

One of the northernmost of the Dodecanese, Patmos is close to the coast of Turkey and has a population of roughly 3,000 inhabitants. Its highest point is 882 feet above sea level, with an area of only 13 square miles.

Proclaimed the “Holy Island” by the Greek Parliament in 1981, Patmos offers a stunning landscape and a culturally rich history. Its lacelike coastline, sheer cliffs and volcanic soil make it an ideal destination for nature enthusiasts.

Our morning started with a tour of the Monastery of St. John the Divine, a Greek Orthodox monastery founded in AD 1088 by devout monk Hosios Christodoulos in the hilltop village of Chora, the capital of Patmos. Dedicated to this beloved disciple, the monastery was declared a UNESCO World Heritage Site and has been a place of Greek learning and pilgrimage since its founding. Upon arrival, we climbed a steep, narrow cobblestone path lined with shops and cafés and photographed pastel-colored doors and sleeping cats before reaching the top. The imposing Byzantine structure is a unique creation integrating monastic values. It is also home to a remarkable collection of manuscripts and artwork.

We descended the hill and explored some of the local shops, then boarded the buses to visit the Cave of the Apocalypse. Located on the hillside halfway between the port towns of Skala and Chora, it’s allegedly where St. John of Patmos wrote the Book of Revelation. We sat tightly together underneath the low-hanging rock as our local guides introduced us to the history of this sacred place. We also took time to reflect, surrounded by lit candles and detailed paintings of saints and religious icons.

From here, we took a scenic drive to the other side of the island, stopping to photograph the old historic windmills on the hilltops and the island from its highest point. The afternoon was at leisure, and we had options of spending time meandering through Chora, relaxing at the beach or enjoying the luxurious accommodations of the ship. It was a gorgeous day, with clear blue skies, a radiant sun and mild temperatures. We swam in the crystal-clear water, read books by the sea and browsed local shops for souvenirs. Those interested in enriching their cultural experience joined our local guide, Filitsa Bouzioti, for her talk entitled “The Female Figure in the Art of Ancient Greece.”

For dinner, we had a choice between onboard cuisine or local specialties, just a brisk walk from the ship to town. Afterward, we joined geology and oceanology lecturer Gary Griggs in the theater for “Crisis on the Coast: Climate Change and Sea Level Rise.”

Our exciting day was capped off with a cocktail on the back deck, live music in the main lounge or a drink in the Blue Eye.

October 24–25, 2019 | Syros & Athens

This morning, we arrived in Syros, an island awash in pastel-colored villas cascading down a hill, their warm hues appearing even brighter as the sun rose over the horizon. Shockingly, only 21,507 people live on the island. Its capital, Ermoupoli, is also the administrative capital of the Cyclades. As ‘Le Bougainville’ pulled into the port, we watched the lines that expertly secured our vessel being thrown against the pier. It was our first glimpse of this authentic Greek working town.

As we toured Ermoupoli on foot, we learned it was founded during the Greek Revolution of the 1820s by refugees who rapidly transformed the city into a leading commercial and industrial center. The Greek Steamship Company, established here in 1856, built thousands of ships over the next few decades; during this time, the island experienced a golden era and wealth was abundant. This cultural boom led to a rise of the bourgeoisie, flourishing arts, and the construction of schools, mansions, neoclassical buildings and museums.

We made our way past the waterfront, admiring the marble streets and sidewalks. Then, we headed for the market area, outfitted with countless stalls filled with everything from freshly caught seafood and produce to locally grown medicinal herbs. We even sampled a famous sweet treat: loukoumi. Also known as Turkish delight, these multicolored candies are made from a gel of starch and sugar, molded into cubes and dusted with icing sugar. Next came the monumental Town Hall on café-filled Plateia Miaouli, considered one of the prettiest in Greece.

We also visited the Byzantine Cathedral of St. Nicholas. Completed in 1870, the building is framed with marble columns, a two-story temple with a marble bell tower and a stunning marble staircase. The interior was equally impressive, showcasing striking crystal chandeliers, stained glass windows and a silver-plated icon of St. Nicholas.

We continued on to the iconic Apollo Theater. Once inside, we were treated to a private Greek comedy performance, and a few brave women in our group participated.

Our final stop was the Church of the Assumption, where we climbed a steep marble street to see the charming Rococo and Baroque architectural details of this beautiful Orthodox temple. The main attraction was the Byzantine icon depicting the Dormition of the Virgin Mary, painted by El Greco. This incredible piece is estimated to be one of his earliest works, dating back to 1562, when he was studying the art of hagiography in Crete.

We ended our afternoon with some free time to explore this city before returning to the ship. Our last full day on board, we had our final disembarkation briefing followed by Steve’s fascinating talk entitled “The Elgin Marbles.” Later, we thanked the A&K Expedition Team for making our journey so wonderful, and watched a slide show that graced everyone with an unforgettable look back at our journey.

The evening began with cocktails on the back deck at sunset while Captain McCandless introduced his incredible staff. As we mingled with the new friends we had made and took a few more photos, the Captain maneuvered ‘Le Bougainville’ in order to bring the Temple of Poseidon into view just off the stern. Soon, it was visible in the distance, perched high on a hill in mainland Greece. To add to the memorable moment, the sky turned a fiery orange. Everyone soaked up the brilliant setting one last time before reconvening in Le Nautilus for a specially prepared farewell dinner.

After breakfast the following morning, we reached the end of our expedition with Abercrombie & Kent. It had truly been an extraordinary voyage, and one we would certainly never forget.

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