The Aegean Islands are amongst some of Europe’s most appealing cruise destinations. Nestled into the Mediterranean Sea, between Greece and Turkey, are varied landscapes that all enjoy glistening whitewashed villages, ancient ruins and sun-soaked beaches. An Aegean island cruise is a great way to experience the very best of Greece without stress or organising individual transfers.
Before we discuss the benefits of cruising the Greek islands, let us delve into a little Aegean history. Throughout the ages, the Aegean Sea has been used to connect the people of Greece with Europe and Asia. The waterways were used as trade routes and are largely responsible for the growth of the different Greek civilisations. Over 2,000 islands were settled by ancient peoples, the largest of which is Crete. The first advanced civilisation in the region (of which we know) is the Minoan culture based in Crete. The Minoans had correspondence with the Egyptians, the Phoenicians, the Hittites and the fledgling Mycenaeans from Greece’s mainland. The Minoans were overlords of the Mycenaeans and the collapse of this subservience is remembered in the myth of Theseus and the Minotaur. The Mycenaeans then became ascendant in the region until the aftermath of the Trojan War when the Sea Peoples and Doric Greeks supplanted the Mycenaeans as the strongest power.
The Iliad called it the “wine dark sea”, see why?
Here’s a Pro-tip: During the summer, temperatures at sea (and on land) can top 100 degrees Fahrenheit (that’s over 37°C). Sun cream, light linen clothes, hats and lots of drinking water are a must to combat the heat.
Deciding where to fly into for a Greek island cruise depends on your departure port. Cruises depart from Santorini, Mykonos, Crete, Rhodes, Kos and Corfu, all of which have airports. However, the majority of travellers visiting the Aegean Islands fly into the capital of Athens. From Athens International Airport, it’s a 40-minute drive to Piraeus Athens Cruise Port. Also, you can take the train from the city to the underground and then it’s a short walk to the cruise port.
Here’s Another Pro-tip: For an in-depth visit to the Greek Islands, book your cruise with a cruise line like Azamara, Windstar, Seabourn and SeaDream that operate smaller ships. That way you’ll have the opportunity to stop at lesser-visited ports which the larger ships cannot reach.
When cruising the Aegean Sea, there’s going to be ample opportunity to stop and explore different islands. Below I’ve listed my favourite places to visit, and attractions to enjoy, when embarking on a typical Aegean Island cruise.
- Mykonos – Know as ‘the party island’, Mykonos is a beautiful maze of tangled streets and whitewashed houses surrounded by open spaces and uncovered ruins. Today visitors step ashore to visit the famous White Windmills, tour the nearby Island of Delos and marvel at the Paraportiani Chapel. Other shore excursions include 4×4 off-roading adventures and scuba diving at Agios Stefanos Beach.
Mykonos fish is definitely fresh!
- Santorini – Once the Minoan Island of Thera until a cataclysmic volcanic eruption blew it apart more than 2200 years ago, Santorini is one of the most iconic Aegean Islands, offering a splendid display of Greek culture, architecture and history. Stroll the clifftop town of Oia, discover treasures at the Akrotiri Archaeological Site and swim within the new volcano arising from the sea in the centre of the island.
- Samos – This island was once home to mathematician Pythagoras, philosopher Epicurus and astronomer Aristarchus. Today, the island is home to a UNESCO World Heritage Site (a temple, the Heraion of Samos), the charming fishing village Kokkari and a handful of beautiful beaches (my favourite is Tsamadou Beach).
- Crete – Crete is the largest of the Aegean Islands and a wonderous place to explore. Visit Knossos with its labyrinthian palace that inspired the myth of Theseus and the Minotaur. Other highlights include Rethymno Old Town, Falassarna Beach (one of the best beaches on the island) and shopping in Chania.
Knights and knaves knew Knossos!
Greece is known for its amazing food! From Moussaka (layered aubergine and pasta) to Baklava (honey and nuts-lined pastries and, of course, the fruits of the sea! Below are some of my favourite places to dine when island hopping in the Aegean Sea.
- Funky Kitchen, Mykonos – This Funky Kitchen is one of Mykonos’ most creative fusion restaurants. Expect to dine on traditional dishes with a contemporary twist – I’m looking at you, eggplant mousse! The octopus carpaccio is fantastic.
- Cava Alta, Santorini – At Cava Alta, guests are invited to unlock a complete food experience and enjoy the delights of Mediterranean delicacies. The decor is traditionally Cycladic, and the terrace makes for a beautiful atmosphere. Try the lamb shank, it is spiced perfectly.
Moussaka is a must-try!
- Kalamies Seaside Restaurant, Samos – This traditional tavern restaurant sits close to the port of Kokkari and offers spectacular beach views. The menu features traditional Mediterranean dishes including Gemisto Kalamari, Fava Beans Salad and succulent Lemon Honey Chicken.
The Greek islands are certainly a great place to party (right through until dawn!), but the islands are also home to a number of traditional bars, quaint taverns, and even the odd vineyard or two. Check out my favourite places to enjoy a tipple below:
- Galleraki, Mykonos – Galleraki is arguably one of the most picturesque bars in the Aegean. This pretty cocktail bar overlooks the ocean and boasts an impressive array of signature cocktails. Order the Paradise for an apricot brandy kick.
- Santo Winery, Santorini – Santo Winery is a spectacular winery located in the town of Pyrgos. Join a walking tour before taking a seat on the terrace where you can soak up the sunshine and sea views while sampling the local Assyrtiko whites that are crisp and dry as a night in the desert!
- Iera Odos Art Cafe Bar, Samos – Tucked into the back streets of Pythagorion is a little bar known as Iera Odos Art Cafe. If you’re looking to enjoy a drink off-the-grid, then look no further. Traditional decor, a bar lined with whiskey and locals having a good time. This is a fabulous place to relax.
If this isn’t paradise, you can see it from your window!
- Leto Hotel, Mykonos – Leto Hotel sits on the outskirts of Mykonos port, just a 10-minute walk from all the action. The property, which dates back to the 1950s, is bursting with character and was once frequented by Christian Dior and Jackie Onassis.
- Afroessa, Santorini – Afroessa is an affordable Santorini hotel that offers the luxuries of a big-budget stay. This boutique hotel is carved into a cliffside and offers fabulous panoramic sea views.
- Armonia Bay Hotel – This family-run hotel sits in the town of Kokkari, just a five-minute walk from Tsamadou Beach. The decor is cool and contemporary, and the infinity pool offers a refreshing break from the heat.
Romance, history and culture await you on a cruise around the Aegean Islands. This magical destination combines ancient ruins with glorious coastlines and adds a sprinkling of non-stop nightlife to cap off the experience. Cruise the beautiful islands and pretend you are one with the gods!