Sunday, July 7, 2024

With Travel, Never Say Never

 When it comes to travel, we should 'never say never'.  We know that now.

In fact, I reminded myself of that a couple weeks ago in Santorini while having our photo taken by seat mates in a cable car that was dangling above a cliffside whisking us down - way down - to our cruise ship.

Santorini cable car to cruise ship port

'We'd never take a cruise through the Greek islands,' we've adamantly proclaimed for years, usually adding, 'and certainly never in summer!' 

Yet there we were on Santorini, our first port of call on a weeklong cruise through Greece - in summer! Never say never!

In a cable car off a sheer cliff in Santorini.

While we love cruising, we have long maintained that in order to get the real flavor of Greece -- nightlife in a village, driving those narrow winding roads that lead through small hamlets, or waiting for sheep or goats who have roadway priority -- you need more time than afforded on a cruise ship tour. You need to spend days and nights exploring this adopted country of ours.  

As for traveling in Greece in summer: no matter the mode of transport, it can bring on heat stroke and/or agoraphobia, a fear of crowds.

But sometimes reality and circumstances can challenge one's mantras about travel, which isn't necessarily a bad thing.  

Blue and white of Greece's Santorini

Travel reality for us right now is limited to Greece. As expats who've reapplied for residency permit renewal, we can no longer travel in most of Europe without risk of fines and/or deportation for overstaying our time in the Schengen Zone. 

So, we'll be 'Doin' Greece' for a while. The good news is, that there is plenty of Greece remaining for us 'to do'. 

The Scout had been working on some travel options for June, and it didn't take long to conclude that a cruise would cover more territory and be as cost-effective and more time-efficient than traveling by ferry, staying in hotels, and eating out. 

Our room with a view - Celebrity Infinity

That's why we found ourselves setting sail on the Celebrity Infinity two weeks ago. The trip began with an overnight stay in Athens. It is good to get a taste of the big city after months of living in the rural Peloponnese, where we make our expat home.  

[Travel tip: We used an app, Free Now, to nab a taxi to the port the next morning - it worked like a charm -- establishing the rate and route upfront while bringing a driver within minutes. We recommend it highly.]

Athens' nightlife is vibrant

The ship would visit Santorini and Mykonos islands, as well as cities Thessaloniki and Kavala on the country's northeastern coast. One day was spent in Turkey, (Kusadasi, gateway to Ephesus). Turkey is not a Schengen country so we could travel there. Another day was a sea day - a mesmerizing way to spend a day.

Cruising in Greece

Access to and from the ship, cable car (on the left) or trail

Our first port of call was the Cyclades Island of Santorini, the postcard perfect poster child for Greek tourism. It has become such a popular destination that officials in 2018 began limiting the daily numbers of cruise ship visitors to 8,000. On the day we visited four cruise ships brought 7,000 visitors. Even with that number we can attest to the need for limits!

A single bus load of cruise passengers heading to Oia.

The cruise ship port offers three ways to access the island:  take a ship's tour so you can tender to the larger ferry port with vehicle access, or you go up that aforementioned cliff on foot or use the cable car. Donkeys were available, but thankfully, were not being hired often. We were warned in advance that cable car waits could reach a couple of hours in both directions.  

We opted for a ship's tour that left early and got us back before the brunt of cruisers came ashore.  We had no wait coming back in the cable car, but by early afternoon the lines were already endlessly long waiting to go up.  Temperatures in the high 80's discouraged many from tackling the cliffside stairway, which is shared with the donkeys and their poo. 

Waiting to get near that blue domed church in the distance

It has been more than a decade since we visited this island with a year-round population of about 15,500 residents and 40 taxis. Yet, it hosts about two million visitors a year.  It might be another decade before we go back but it was interesting to see it again, if even for a few hours.

Whitewashed, brightly trimmed home in Mykonos

Mykonos another insanely popular island in the Cyclades group, was our last port of call. While Santorini draws hordes of tourists, Mykonos is a magnet for the world's rich and famous. We were there a week before the Princess of Morocco arrived. Media report that a huge motorcade transported her and her son from the island's airport to the villa they'd rented. Ten of the vehicles carried their luggage.  She reportedly didn't like the way the villa was furnished, so she had furnishings, and decor flown in from Morocco - it took three trucks to deliver those items later.  

Street scene Mykonos Town

In comparison our island arrival was pretty incognito.  Only two ships were in port -- a new port has been built outside Mykonos Town since we were last there. A shuttle bus transported those going ashore independently as we were to the old port. From there, we walked into town following its labyrinth of streets - originally designed to confuse 18th century pirates and still does a good job confusing day-tripping tourists.

Meeting up with friends is a plus of travel

Our stop here included a visit with fellow Americans Jeffrey Siger and his wife Barbara Zilly. I've mentioned him before on TravelnWrite: he left his law practice in New York and came to Mykonos to write whodunnits set in various Greek locales.  His books - there are 15 now - are as much a travel guide as they are crime fiction. In fact, we met on a Greek travel social media site more than a decade ago when he offered us some travel suggestions for the Peloponnese as he'd just written a book (Sons of Sparta) set there.

Port of Thessaloniki as the sun sets

Our stops in Thessaloniki and Kavala were the destination highpoints of the cruise for us. We've vowed to return to both cities, and I'll tell you more about them in a future post.  

Thessalonik's main square opens to the sea

Thessaloniki, Greece's second largest city, is about an hour's flight from Kalamata, the airport serving our area of Greece. It was great fun arriving and departing by ship as it is located on the Thermaic Gulf tucked away in a corner of the Aegean Sea. Our ship docked at its port, so close to the city center that we got around without need of tours or taxis.  It is a vibrant city known for its festivals, events, culture and cutting-edge culinary arts.

City Hall Kavala

Kavala, just to its east, on the Bay of Kavala, is the principal seaport of eastern Macedonia. A city of some 70,000 that is filled with picturesque neighborhoods and historic sites.

Kusadasi, Turkey 

Kusadasi, Turkey will long be remembered for its heat - high 90F's/30C's - and its gauntlet of shopkeepers all wanting to sell me a leather coat. "Hey, lady, come try on. You want a leather coat from my shop." (It made me sweat just typing that memory.) And no, I didn't try on nor buy a leather coat!

Were we right or wrong?

Captivating sea scenes a favorite part of cruising

By week's end, we were in agreement that it had been an enjoyable cruise filled with pleasant moments and destinations that call out for a return visit.  We still think Greece needs to be experienced with longer stays than a cruise stop affords.  

The weather was indeed hot - record breaking hot in June - and impacted our experience. Summer is not the time to visit Greece. The heat and high winds in a couple of ports prompted us and many fellow passengers to cut shore exploration short. It simply wasn't pleasant to be outside. Spring and fall are beautiful times to explore Greece for those who can schedule travel then.

The tourist numbers were high, but not as bad as we had expected them to be. The worst congestion was on Santorini. We may have to visit it again on some November getaway.

Heading back to the cruise ship 

It was a good reminder that saying 'never' to something we've never tried, could cost us some great travel moments.  So, with a lot of Greece left to explore, we can only wonder what is up next!  Have you ever said 'never' to a travel experience then tried it? Tell us about it in the comments below or shoot us an email.

We thank you for the time you spent with us today and say welcome to our new subscribers!  We will be back with tales of expat life soon. In the meantime, safe travels to you and yours~  

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