The Magic of the Greek Islands - With Santorini the Icing on the Cake

Many experienced travelers will tell you, "See Naples and Die." However, Naples doesn't hold us as a romantic destination when compared to the Greek island of Santorini.

The Greek Islands, “irresistible—magic to make the sanest man go mad.”

Homer, The Iliad

Homer was writing about the heat of love, but what passengers on a cruise have not felt that love, that magic, the first time they sailed into the caldera of Santorini in the island group of the Cyclades, and beheld the old city of Thira rising a thousand feet above them on the lip of the volcano? The magic would increase when they heard the story that, when this volcano blew in the 16th century before Christ, the tsunami that followed destroyed the Minoan civilization in Crete and this very city on the volcano island itself, Atlantis, now called Santorini.

Wow! What island needs a marketing or public relations consultant with a history or mythology like that?

The caldera rim seems like the frosting on a wedding cake. Fishing boats dodge around the larger cruise ship.

Sailing serenely into Santorini is a mystical experience not unlike navigating into New York Harbor and, appropriately humbled, gazing upon the Statue of Liberty. There are, of course, other places in the world with signature landmarks that thrill visitors, Niagara Falls, for example, and Machu Picchu and the Eiffel Tower and maybe even London Bridge, but there’s a particular tranquility in reaching this Greek Treasure Island easily on a placid sea. You don’t arrive exhausted, bombarded with noise as you might if you are there to see the Pyramids.

Most people cruising Greece apparently say that of all the islands they visited, the one place they would want to return to for a second time would be Santorini. Indeed the most traveled of any group are inclined to respond that “See Naples and Die” is nonsense. Even if Naples didn’t have its crime and pickpocket offenses against tourists, it could never hold its own as a romantic destination in comparison to Santorini.

Let’s talk about cruising the Greek islands for a moment. It was complicated even before amateur politicians in charge of Greece really started to lose their way. The cruise lines have not had a proper grip on what the public really wants which is: cruise lines not building huge ships that would dominate any island visited and destroy the essence, the charm, the very identity of the island itself. This concern is not unique to Greece cruising. We see it in the Caribbean where ships too large for the Panama Canal are also essentially too large for the harbors of the Caribbean islands so the cruise lines with those gargantuan ships have constructed places to tie down, artificial islands, if you will, where shore excursions don’t bring cash to Mom and Pop island shops selling straw hats and native crafts but to retail stores owned by the cruise line. As is said, “Follow the money!”

It’s further complicated by the reality that Greek timetables are not in any way related to, say, super-efficient German ones like the train timetables at Deutsche Bahn. The ferries servicing the islands swing round them in loops rather than direct to each. The numbers of ferry passengers vary widely so boarding times are never a constant. Furthermore Greek is surely the language of the sea. For example, siga-siga means “slowly slowly,” exactly the right speed for a sailing vacation. There is even a word in Greek, methavrio. It means “the day after maňana!”

We know professional travel writers who choose to specialize in one destination. We have Durant Imboden (Europe for Visitors), Tom Brosnahan (Turkey), and we’ve heard of Matt Barrett (Greece Travel). Given the uncertain state of Greece tourism and the fact that the cruise line we sailed with in the Greek Islands is no longer in business, we think you might want to check out Barrett’s website. He seems to offer a lot of down-to-earth advice and is quite upfront about how he works. USA Today also had some advice on luxury cruises to the Greek Islands but its advice is five years old!

Unless you love the slow travel aspect of sailing you might need help to plan your route to get expeditiously from one island to another. What you want is a small ship cruise that leaves and returns to Piraeus. The major cruise lines, even classy Silversea, don’t offer a Greek island cruise. Its Mediterranean cruises suggest it believes most passengers would want to include Istanbul or Rome or other close by nations. Nothing wrong with that, except that it deprives you of other Greek islands. On our cruise we did stop briefly at Mykonos but the beaches were dominated by nude Rubens-like German sunbathers and the streets by somewhat inebriated and bellicose tourists so our cruise passengers all pulled back to the ship. The Greek Islands, even remote Kos, suffer at times from special tourism offers that bring masses of young undisciplined German and British tourists enjoying both all-inclusive group travel and the liberal limits on alcohol consumption.

The map below might be helpful.

We have marked the island map with red dots for attractive islands and ports with Santorini colored purple to distinguish it. If you were going to limit your island cruise to islands in the south east of Athens you might look for a ship that cruised from Santorini to Crete then some in the Dodecanese such as Rhodes (we will talk about Kos later: so close to Turkey, it’s not a common island for most Greek lines). And then back into the Cyclades for, always interesting, Patmos, the island where John, supposedly, wrote the Book of Revelation.

Crete leads you by way of its restored palace of Knossos to Rhodes the island that seems suspended between its classic history and Crusader past.

Knossos is the largest Bronze Age archaeological site on Crete and is considered Europe’s oldest city. Long mentioned in Greek mythology (see reference to Cape Sounion), it brings us to yet another outsider archaeologist, this time Englishman Arthur Evans, obsessed with the references to King Minos and his palace in Greek mythology. The palace is vast, so large you can see the parallels to the mystical Labyrinth. But what you are looking at is the restoration, the reconstruction in the 1920s by Sir Arthur Evans.

Although the volcanic eruption on Thira 1,600 years before Christ was born ended Knossos, its neighboring island of Rhodes was still vital when the Crusaders came and besieged the island. Rhodes surrendered to the Knights Hospitallers in 1309 who became a more militarized force. They had to be. Now known as the Knights of Rhodes they were attacked by the Ottoman powers several times but when in 1522 (in the long drawn-out way religious wars seem to last forever), 600 Ottoman warships arrived and conquered the island the knights relocated to Malta in 1530 where they remained for 268 years.

Lindos, one of the three major cities on Rhodes, is a delight to visit if you are up to climbing on what seems like a goat trail past peasant hovels that overlook a panorama that almost makes you dizzy. “Tarpaper shacks with a million-dollar view,” says an elderly American woman struggling with the climb on a very hot day. She had forgotten to carry water and was exasperated.

If you are on a regular cruise ship, where you go next will depend on the ship’s routine. It probably will not be going to Kos but will probably head back to Athens-Piraeus via Patmos, the island where John was imprisoned in isolation for preaching the word of Jesus.

A young Greek sits on a wall on Patmos with his back to the view. He has seen it and its cruise ships many times. The cave interior where John is said to have the vision. The Vignali painting, courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Rome used this small island to exile those who deviated from its beliefs. John was challenged by the Roman governor for preaching the faith in AD 95, which date surely raises skeptics’ eyebrows. There is further skepticism about whether he truly wrote the book about the Apocalypse and whether it should ever have been written. Who knows?

A monk came a thousand years later in 1088 and the monastery gradually arose. It was reinforced later as a citadel, a defense against pirates.

Our ship drops us off in Piraeus, the port of Athens, the largest passenger port in Europe and the third largest in the world.

Our Greek island choices now are either Kos or Corfu -- or both!

Photography by the authors

The Andersons, who live in San Diego, are the resident travel & cruise columnists for Physician's Money Digest. Nancy is a former nursing educator, Eric a retired MD. The one-time president of the New Hampshire Academy of Family Physicians, Eric is the only physician in the Society of American Travel Writers. He has also written five books, the last called The Man Who Cried Orange: Stories from a Doctor's Life.