Sunday, June 5, 2016

Part 2: Greek Island Hopping, an Aegean Sea Cruise

For the second part of our trip, we booked a 7 day Aegean sea cruise on the Celestyal Crystal cruise line. Unlike the massive, mega luxurious ships sailing through the Caribbean sea, this ship was a small and more agile for navigating through the shallow waters of Aegean sea and the small ports of the various Greek islands. The ship had approximately 450 staterooms to support 1200 people. The ship was comfortable, had buffet style food service as well as ala-carte restaurants, daily evening entertainment and all modern conveniences. The ship is more like a 3-4 star hotel. The cruise itinerary was port intensive. During the 7 day trip we visited the 10 ports listed in the order below. One of the fun things we did on each island was to look for the traditional Loukoumades.

Mykonos, Greece - A small island with narrow, whitewashed streets,  clustered cubicle houses with their tiny balconies and colored doors and windows. Tiny gardens, windows sills and streets lined by bougainvillea. Numerous little churches and chapels dot every corner. Looking up on the hill are the island's distinguishing and famous landmarks, the Mykonos windmills. Mykonos is beautiful, lively, lots of restaurants right by the waterfront. The streets are not only narrow but also very confusing. It
seems the pattern of the streets was intentionally designed without a pattern to confuse the pirates in the years past. As you walk around the labyrinth of these little streets, the aura of Mykonos is unmistakable.

Kusadasi, Turkey - Kusadasi is a Turkish port in the aegean sea. The day long stop allowed us to  visit the ancient city of Ephesus, a popular destination for tourists visiting this harbor town and on mediterranean cruise. By car it takes approximately 30-40 mins from Kusadasi. The trip takes you through a fertile valley of fields and orchards.
Marble road - Ephesus

Celsus Library - Ephesus

Ephesus' greatest claim to fame was its temple to the goddess Artemis. It is one of the "seven wonders" of the ancient world, and is claimed to be four times larger than the Parthenon in Athens.

There is much of the settlement left to show the deep history and the splendor this settlement must have been. Two things struck me most about this settlement. One, was the marble road, the main road through the middle of Ephesus and being awed at how prosperous this ancient city must have been. The columns, the art, the science (of water flow and medicine) as evident in various artifacts excavated, all indicate the importance and prosperity of this city. Two, the public bath and toilets. The ancient city is one of the earliest constructions of public bath houses and public toilets using water to clean the sewer system.

Samos, Greece - I don't remember much about this island. But all greek islands are beautiful. Samos is one of the low key, off the beaten path island. 

Milos, Greece - The island of dramatic rock formations. Milos has the most extraordinary rock formations we saw at any of the islands due to its volcanic past. if you have ever seen pictures of boat houses right on the sea with brightly painted doors and the living quarters on the upper floors, that is the picture of the village of Kilma on the Milos island. After docking at the port, we rented a private minivan. The van took us to Kilma (village with the colorful boat houses), to the pumice rock formations at Sarakiniko and the blue sulfuric water at Papafragas. 
Boat houses
Rock formations

Syros, Greece - This is one of the off-the beaten path islands. There was nothing remarkable about the island, except that it was beautiful and quaint. 

Cesme, Turkey - Cosme is a resort town of Turkey along the Aegean sea. It is a popular sun and surf town. We chose to sped our day in this town by the beach, our first this whole trip. The sun was high, the water was warm and kids had a great time. We caught a cab and drove about 10 mins to a beach further out from the city, a beach recommended by the cab driver. The area seems to have many popular beaches.

Kos, Greece - is one of the larger islands close to Turkey. The ship ports in Kos Town. The first thing we noticed as we got off the cruise ship were the masses of refugees. The port, the parks, and the streets close to the port were full of refugees sitting, sleeping, and eating. Volunteers from ARC distributing tents for shelter, water etc. Families children sleeping on little mats on the street or any patch of green they could find. The locals were complaining about theft and violence with the onset of refugees. We probably were the first batch of tourists to greek islands who saw the refugees coming in droves from the shores of Turkey into Greece and its real impact on the local greeks. The combination of refugee crisis and the austerity measures being enforced in Greece leading to the high cost of daily necessities (food and water). 

At the entrance to the port is an ancient castle (castle of Knights of the order of Saint John). Right outside the castle is the site of the Hippocrates Tree. It is said that the father of modern medicine (Hippocrates) lectured his students under the shade of this tree. The tree is not marked, but it does have low stone fence around it. We hopped on a little tourist train that for 8 Euro per person gave a small tour of the Kos town. From the water front area (port), it goes until Asclepion and back. Asclepion is the site of an ancient hospital/sanatorium called Asklepeio, a ruin surrounded by cypress trees. It is believed that Hippocrates was a student here. 

Ios, Greece - is known as the International party lsland that supersedes all spring break locations in the U.S. Since we were traveling with the cruise ship, we never saw the partying side of the island. But what we did see was a typical port village, with cafes and restaurants lining the main square. We saw a lot of college age kids seemingly backpacking through the island hanging out at Starbucks eating croissants. We walked a little bit along the harbor and saw the typical white geometric houses with blue domes lining the hillside. The locals and the travel books will tell you that as the sun goes down, these little white houses open their doors and become clubs, discos and bars. All the young people lounge by the beaches in day time and disco until the early morning hours at night time.

Santorini, Greece - When people think of Greek Islands, they are thinking of Santorini.  It was by far the most beautiful and spectacular though cliched island. The beauty of Santorini was formed by volcanic action that submerged all ancient parts of the island, and created a large volcano crater filled with sea water. A caldera deep enough for cruise ships to anchor and sail. This is the island that all paintings and picture postcards showcase, the azure blue waters, white geometrical houses, and the churches with blue domes. It is a dessert island and other than rain there is only a single source of fresh water. From the port, you take a bus that takes you to Oia. Oia is a small village with a huge traffic of tourists, narrow cobbled paths between touristy shops of painting, trinkets, bards and restaurants. The dramatic views from Oia is overshadowed only by the stunning sunset views. 

Santorini vs Mykonos
Santorini has stunning scenery, natural beauty, sunsets, fine dining, wineries, boutique hotels, boat tours of nearby islands, and volcanoes. Beaches are kinda far (have to go way down to get to a beach)

Mykonos has easy access to beaches, nightclubs, dancing, and partying, fun times wandering the labyrinth of narrow streets.

if you see any of the greek island postcards, paintings and any other form of art, they all show whitewashed houses, narrow lanes, prominent blue colored dome or shutters, churches and chapels and island windmills. Each of the islands we visited had all of the above but each island also had a few distinguishing feature; the caldera on Santorini, the boat houses on Milos, the windmills of Mykonos and so forth. While Island hopping gave us a great flavor of the various greek islands, we did miss out on the night life, on visiting the beaches, on absorbing the aura and ambiance of any one island. If there is another opportunity to go to Greek islands, I will prefer to spend few days at just one island. 

Islands such as Milos, Syros, Samos are very pretty and off the beaten path.  If I had to pick an island that was low key, and beautiful I will probably pick Syros. If I wanted to stay at one of the highly visited and dramatic island, it would be Santorini. 
Loukoumades (Greek donuts)


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