Greece exhibits the beauty of islands and archipelagos’ like nowhere else. With no further delay after the pandemic lockdown, it is finally time to board the new Celebrity Beyond and breeze through the Aegean coast.
Blindingly white sugar-cube villages set against azure skies, powdery cream-hued beaches, and the dusty ruins of ancient monuments… These were the images that made up my impressions of Greece before I got to visit.
These childhood impressions were gleaned from reading about Greek mythology and watching Saturday matinees, like the 1981 Clash of the Titans with Harry Hamlin as Perseus. Despite being an intrepid traveller, I had not made the journey to the Greek isles before, because of the logistics and planning involved in a such trip. Until this summer.
With 6,000 islands categorised into six main groups and two standalone ones, Greece is diverse and wide – stretching from the Ionian Sea to the Aegean, straddling the Mediterranean. This means that to see the archipelago properly, multiple ferry transfers and domestic flights are necessary. As beautiful as the isles are, scheduling such an epic trip is a Herculean task.
The obvious answer to those seeking a convenient option to see the Greek islands is to join a cruise. Yet, I was resistant to it because I didn’t like the idea of dropping by a city – especially one rich in history – just for a few hours. Unfortunately, this is usually how a cruise ship does it before sailing to the next port.
But the pandemic has changed the way many people feel about things. Many who have put off visiting their bucket list destinations have decided to tarry no further. They went about making plans for travel as soon as restrictions were lifted. And there are some like me, who decided to finally tick Greece off my bucket list, even if it means going on a cruise. That is simply the easiest way.
Serendipitously, I chanced upon Celebrity Cruises’ seven- to 10-night Greek itineraries, many of which take guests to the islands I have always wanted to visit: Rhodes, Santorini, Mykonos, and Katakolon, where Olympia is. Celebrity Cruises’ Greek voyages also include other countries – whether a start at Rome or Barcelona and stopping by at Malta while journeying through Greece. Istanbul is also featured on some such itineraries.
So I signed up for a June cruise on the magnificent Celebrity Beyond, the third and latest ship to join Celebrity Cruises’ Edge class fleet. Beyond made its maiden voyage at end-April this year.
The Edge series is meant to be edgy – pun intended. Since the launch of the first Edge in 2018, Celebrity Cruises has revolutionised traditional ship-building methods. Mega cruiseliners are usually held together by a solid hull but in an Edge class ship, the spine is moved to the centre of the ship, opening up the sides. This not only allows maximum light to reach the insides of the ship, it also frees up space around the ship to create an unprecedented experience.
Staterooms are 23 per cent larger and are extended right to the ship’s edge. The floor-to-ceiling windows of the staterooms in an Edge-class ship can retract like a garage door, becoming an infinity verandah, thus bringing the seafaring experience right into the cabin.
But of course, we care more about the suites. Celebrity lives up to its name by injecting star quality through the experts engaged to leave their mark on the Edge fleet. Design genius Kelly Hoppen did the interiors in The Retreat, a collection of 196 suites. She is also responsible for The Retreat’s communal spaces, which are fashioned like a private deck with cocoon chairs suspended over the pool. There are also a lounging area and restaurant available only to the top echelon of guests.
At the top category are the Edge Villas spanning two decks. Each comes with a private plunge pool. Families might want to book one of the two Iconic Suites situated at the top of the bridge. The ship’s biggest cabins can accommodate up to six. Objets d’art curated by Hoppen adorn the interiors.
What’s also revolutionary on the Edge series is that it has done away with traditional tendering. Yes, the awkward experience where one boards a small boat to get to a port. Instead, guests get on the Magic Carpet, a cantilevered deck that can move up and down the side of the ship and function as a tender. The Magic Carpet gets transformed into a splendid dining deck in the evening. While the ship entreats guests to stay aboard to enjoy the wide range of facilities and experiences, they are also encouraged to explore the city when the ship docks.
My 10 days on board Celebrity Beyond went by in a flash. During the cruise from Civitavecchia to Barcelona, the ship took us to Katakolon, Mykonos, Santorini, Athens, Rhodes and Malta. Depending on your interests, different tours that run the gamut from cultural to culinary in each city we dropped by, are offered to guests.
We first stopped at Katakolon, a small port town on the Ionian coast and the gateway to ancient Olympia, home of the original Olympic Games. Many of the ruins that date back to 776 BC are still standing, and quite a sight to behold. Next was the Cyclades, the most visited group of islands in Greece as they are home to picturesque Mykonos and Santorini – famous for their white-washed houses and churches with bright blue domes and vivid purple bougainvillaea lining narrow streets.
I was rather disappointed that Santorini, while picturesque, was so over-run by tourists that it was impossible to walk through a short stretch of its winding cobbled alleys coursing through the hilltop village of Oia without having to dodge someone. As Santorini is also famous for wine-making grapes, our sojourn concluded with a visit to a local winery, where we sampled wines and Greek cheeses.
Mykonos was everything I had imagined. While you could still find crowds in the restaurants along the beautiful sandy beach, it felt more peaceful.
A trip to Greece is not complete with a visit to Athens, home to what was once the world’s most powerful and civilised empire. Still standing today are the columns of the Parthenon, which were built as homage to Athena, the goddess of war and wisdom.
At Rhodes, the largest of the Dodecanese Islands, I opted for a free-and-easy tour of the picturesque old town that is rich in Byzantine history.
The last port was Malta, known for the many fortifications built by the Knights of Malta, who had watched over European pilgrims and crusaders travelling to and from the Holy Land. The walled capital city of Valletta founded in 1565 by the Knights of St John remains a masterfully preserved medieval treasure. Also pulling in the sightseers is the Co-Cathedral of St John, which houses Caravaggio’s The Beheading of St John.
Speaking of art, enthusiasts can while away most of their sea days (days when the ship doesn’t call at any ports) at Celebrity Beyond’s unique gallery, where many of its 4,500 art pieces are displayed. There is also a wide range of attractions and activities aboard to keep guests busy and happy.
On the Celebrity Beyond, there is a dazzling selection of F&B choices. They include Eden, a three-story hybrid “experiential” restaurant; Raw, a Japanese-Asian establishment serving healthful cuisine; and Le Petit Chef at Le Grand Bistro, a unique dinner restaurant that features a 4D animation projected on guests’ plates throughout the meal.
My favourite dining experience was at Daniel Boulud’s Le Voyage. Unlike other open-air restaurants, Le Voyage is a wrap-around venue tastefully furnished in creams and gold. While the menu is minimalist, the courses are rich in taste and textures. With just 50 covers per night, it is imperative to make reservations even before boarding the ship.
For some post-prandial indulgence, there is the choice of a stylish craft cocktail lounge and a convivial Martini Bar, where mixologists juggle shakers and glasses. The Sunset Bar overlooks the ship’s wake and offers guests unrivalled views of the sunset – a must-see when the ship is on open water. Night owls and party animals will be pleased to know that there is also a nightclub, theatre and casino.
Fortunately for me, who prefers to check into the spa before retiring for the night, wellness is a huge focus on Celebrity Beyond. One can book from over 120 face and body treatments. My pampering experience started with a coconut poultice massage to moisturise my skin, and to relax and de-stress the muscles – fabulous after days of exploring the ports. Chilling in the sauna, steam room, and finally, one of the healing salt rooms at night was the perfect way to end a day.
In addition, classes like F45, yoga and spinning are offered during the day, while the well-equipped gym ensures fitness warriors do not miss their regular workouts. Because of the emphasis paid to wellness aboard, Covid felt like a thing of the past on the cruise. Judging from the happy and assured faces all around, it seems that many have become used to living or travelling during these unusual times.
By the end of my trip, I realised I didn’t mind the brief stays in each city or town. Seeing the Greek islands via a cruise offered me a sampler of each of these destinations I had wanted to visit for a long time. Now, I know which ones I will skip and where I’d return to in the future – to linger longer and make new discoveries.
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