ATHENS – Celestyal Cruises and American Airlines (AA) invited a group of journalists from the U.S. on a press trip to experience the Idyllic Aegean Cruise aboard the Celestyal Crystal July 3-10. For a few in the group, including the author, it was the first time experiencing Celestyal's award-winning hospitality and service, and the convenience of flying non-stop with AA in the comfort of Flagship Business to Athens.
It was certainly a unique time to be traveling anywhere and for those who prior to COVID-19 visited Greece at least once a year, witnessing the difference in the crowds on some of the islands between 2019 and 2021 was disconcerting, but also meant it was easier to maneuver through the crowds.
The trip began with Flagship check-in at JFK's Terminal 8 and then a tour of the Flagship Lounge where the group convened and then relaxed prior to boarding.
The flight took about nine and a half hours from rainy JFK to the sunshine of Eleftherios Venizelos Airport in Athens where a bus awaited to transport the group to the Grand Hyatt where some of the group relaxed while others explored the city before a group dinner on July 2.
Celestyal Cruises Public Relations Manager Frosso Zaroulea and PR Executive Irene Proestaki joined the group as did Gordon Dirker, the company's Vice President of Business Development in North America, and AA representative Derek Stewart, Manager of Global Cruise Partnerships.
The group traveled via cable car to the top of the famous Lycabettus Hill for dinner and stunning views of Athens and the Acropolis from the Orizontes Lycabettus restaurant. Deputy Minister of Tourism Sofia Zacharaki also joined the group for dinner and welcomed everyone to Greece. She wished everyone the best and thanked the organizers of the event for their efforts in helping to promote tourism in Greece during these difficult times.
The group set sail from Piraeus on July 3, after presenting negative PCR COVID test results taken up to 72 hours before the cruise, and after rapid tests taken at the port. The helpful staff guided the passengers through the process and after a short wait, the passengers boarded the ship where the safety procedures were explained and the mandatory safety drill took place.
The Celestyal Crystal is a well-proportioned ship with cabins that are comfortable and charmingly decorated. Cabins with balconies are also available. An onboard spa, gym, swimming pool, duty-free shopping, photo shop, various dining options, bars, lounges, live entertainment, and shore excursions are also available for guests to enjoy.
Stops in Patmos, Rhodes, Santorini, Lavrio/Athens, Mykonos, Milos, and Agios Nikolaos in Crete offer a unique experience for guests who can choose shore excursions and activities suited to their tastes and interests. In Patmos, a visit to the Monastery of St. John and the Cave of the Apocalypse was followed by a private boat ride to the small, nearby island of Marathi for a swim and lunch at a local family-owned taverna, Stavragos, where roasted goat with potatoes and goat kleftiko were among the items on the menu.
In Rhodes, an excursion to the Acropolis of Lindos was followed by a walking tour of the Medieval City and lunch featuring grilled fish at Vasilis restaurant.
In Santorini, the excursion included a visit to Megalochori and the Symposion Music and Mythology Cultural Center where the press group participated in an entertaining and educational presentation. Symposion is a cultural center that hosts a broad range of activities and performances inspired by the nine muses of the arts. Symposion is owned and operated by Argy Kakissis (Managing Director) and Yannis Pantazis (Musical Director/Musician/Instrument Artisan), who envision an immersive experience of music and mythology for their guests.
As Kakissis explained, Symposion's architecturally unique premises in Megalochori, built at the turn of the last century by the master artisan and winemaker Zorzis Ioannis Saliveros, once housed his winemaking facilities and his livestock.
The next stop was the volcanic island's black sand Perissa beach and lunch at Korali, followed by wine tasting at Venetsanos Winery with its impressive view of Santorini's caldera. In the village of Oia, tourists flocked to stake out their spot to watch the sunset, perhaps not in the droves of the past, but enough to suggest that things may be getting back to normal soon for the islands that rely heavily on tourism.
In the village of Fira, tourists also browsed among the shops as the group headed for the cable car with dramatic views down to the port for the tender boat back to the ship.
At Lavrio, where some passengers disembarked after the shorter cruise option and others boarded for the rest of the cruise, there was an excursion to the nearby Cape Sounion and the Temple of Poseidon, one of the major monuments of the Golden Age of Athens.
As the ship set sail for the next stop, Mykonos, the group met onboard with Captain Vasilis Gazikas and Celestyal Cruises CEO Chris Theophilides who welcomed the group and thanked them for being there for the restart of not only the cruises but for the restart of all travel. He noted the efforts to come back including developing safety protocols and the tweaks made along the way so the experience and safety are together as things ramp up gradually and to ensure that the reality is up to expectations. Theophilides also mentioned the new reservation system being upgraded and working with a growing team, including Gordon Dirker, and while he would not guess about this year's numbers, he noted that the cruise is a product that North Americans enjoy. With a new vessel set to sail in March of 2022 and cruise options offering a feel for the culture and something experiential, passengers will certainly appreciate Celestyal even more.
In Mykonos, the group visited the Mykonos Thexenia Hotel/ Louis Hotel (member of the Louis Group, Celestyal's parent company) where General Manager Stefanos Niakas noted that the list of famous previous guests included shipping tycoon Aristotle Onassis and his wife Jackie Kennedy Onassis. The hotel will soon undergo a renovation with a Delos theme, he said. Following dinner at a local restaurant, there was time for a stroll and a cocktail before returning to the ship.
Milos is the southernmost of the Cycladic Islands and features dramatic landscapes and geological formations as well as beautiful beaches and turquoise waters. The group stopped at the famous Sarakiniko Beach with its impressive rock formations, took a mini cruise to Kleftiko with a dip in the waters once frequented by pirates. Lunch was at Enalion Taverna at Polonia Beach where the group sampled traditional favorites of the island including tomatokeftedes- tomato fritters and little cheese pies made with local cheese. A tour of Plaka village included a visit to the fascinating Sand Gallery `Marmara' and culminated in dessert at Palaios pastry shop where the local karpouzopita (watermelon pie) is a favorite.
In Agios Nikolaos, Crete, a visit to the traditional village of Kritsa included a stop at the Platanos Kafeneion where it would have been very easy to sit for hours and enjoy the charming atmosphere and the shade of the plane tree.
A tour of Bluegr Minos Beach Art Hotel with Manager Stratos Patsakis pointed out the works of art on display in the hotel lobby and also outdoors on the grounds of the property. A swim followed in the refreshing sea and then lunch at traditional Cretan taverna Karnagio beside the iconic Voulismeni lake. Agios Nikolaos Mayor Antonios Zervos, Agios Nikolaos Chamber of Commerce President and Deputy Mayor Thomas Haritakis, and Minister for Shipping and Island Policy Ioannis Plakiotakis joined the group at the taverna and welcomed everyone warmly. Plakiotakis hoped everyone enjoyed their stay in Greece, noting the ongoing safety measures and the vaccination program that is being ramped up in the country. Local media covered the event in an article with photos and video posted on the fonien.gr website on July 9.
Back on board the ship, a wine tasting was held in the Amalthia Restaurant and rapid tests were taken ahead of the return trip to New York. Later on, at the farewell dinner in Olympus Restaurant, the journalists were surprised when a cake decorated with the American flag was wheeled out and served in their honor.
The farewell lunch was held at The President souvlaki taverna in the Athens suburb of Glyfada after which the group returned to the Grand Hyatt to relax and then explore Athens for the rest of the day and the next one, the final of their trip.
Following check-in at the airport, the group relaxed in the lounge before the flight. Some of the journalists worked on their articles and caught up on email while discussing the most memorable moments of the unique trip which highlighted the return of tourism to Greece, the most sought after destination for travelers.
More information about Celestyal is available online: https://celestyal.com/us/.