8 reasons my first trip to Greece was better than I expected
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Greece has taken up residence on my bucket list for years, but every time I considered planning a trip there, it either felt too daunting or something else would come up and force me to put it on the back burner.
Finally, an opportunity presented itself — a cruise on a brand-new ship out of Athens. With Greece serving as the place to be for cruises in the Mediterranean this summer, I jumped at the chance to go.
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Having watched “Mamma Mia!” and “The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants” more times than I’m fully comfortable admitting, I assumed Greece was all whitewashed buildings, stunning beaches and occasional ABBA singalongs (kidding), but I was wrong. It’s a lot more; here are eight reasons why.
It was easy to get in
Travel to many places in Europe is difficult right now, with some countries only allowing Americans to enter if they prove they’re vaccinated, fill out appropriate government forms, provide test results and quarantine for a significant length of time before any sort of actual exploration can begin.
Greece, however, allows U.S. travelers to enter with a quick form and proof of either vaccination or a negative PCR test. It was a relatively painless experience.
It was easy to get around
In Athens, taxis are plentiful, so it was easy for me to arrange to head downtown from my airport hotel the day before I boarded the ship. On the day of, it was also a cinch to get to Piraeus, the port for Athens, which is about 45 minutes from the airport, with no traffic.
But, part of why I always thought a land-based trip to Greece would be a logistical nightmare is because of the travel between the different islands. When I arrived, I noticed that there seems to be no shortage of ferries that can transport vacationers back and forth, but since I was on a cruise, it was something I didn’t have to worry about.
On my sailing, we visited Santorini, Mykonos and Rhodes (with a stop at Cyprus in between), and it was cake to wake up in a new place every day.
With the exception of Santorini — a tender port that requires passengers to book a shore excursion or find alternative transportation to visit points of interest once they’re ashore — the ports were all fairly easy to manage on foot.
Although the cruise line offered a free bus to town from the cruise port in Mykonos, it’s walkable for people who are fit. Once there, a warren of meandering stone streets takes you to pricey boutiques and tucked-away restaurants with stunning ocean views.
As for Rhodes, I merely stepped off the gangway and found myself in a UNESCO World Heritage site where millennia-old structures are a mix of ruins and functional buildings still used as residences and souvenir shops (most of which sell tacky trinkets).
It’s always sunny
I’m not sure why but I always imagined Greece to be both hot and humid — much like my home state of Pennsylvania. I got it half right, anyway. Although the islands see little rain (which means super low humidity), the weather in the summer is positively sweltering.
I slathered on SPF 50 multiple times throughout my trip to avoid burning under the blazing sun. This was especially true during my post-cruise day trip to the Acropolis, where I dove into the shade of the Parthenon to avoid melting as I eagerly snapped photos and sweated straight through my clothes. (It was so bad, I booked a day-use rate at the airport Sofitel just so I could shower before my flight home.)
Most surprising, though, was just how big of a difference shade does make. When I was out of the sun, it immediately felt cool and pleasant, often with breezes so magical, I found myself closing my eyes and sighing contentedly.
The views are just as gorgeous at night
The night before boarding my sailing, I hired a local driver to take me to the major Athens landmarks. I was worried that I might miss out because the sun had set, but he assured me the darkness would only enhance what I saw.
The Acropolis was closed, so I wasn’t able to get close. However, the view of the Parthenon from the restaurant at the Acropolis Museum made my jaw drop. After that, no matter where we went in the city, it seemed to be there every time I looked up, shining from its perch in well-deserved glory.
Although the cruise ship sailed overnight instead of remaining docked, we did occasionally depart late enough — or arrive early enough in our next port — to see the lights of the other cities from the water. Like wise, ancient eyes, they shimmered down from the hills, making for phenomenal photo opportunities.
Each port has its own personality
Athens is sprawling, densely populated and decidedly urban, with colorful graffiti decorating walls downtown. Meanwhile, run-down buildings mingle with new architecture, but few structures, if any, are allowed to exceed a certain height in an effort to avoid blocking out views of the Acropolis.
Despite its hustle and bustle, the city is still charming. Pedestrian streets near the Acropolis Museum are lined with trees and devoid of traffic. I walked around after my museum visit and stopped to buy some local ice cream, which was seriously calling my name.
Santorini is a tender port, which means you can’t simply step from the ship onto dry land. After a local boat tendered me to shore, I found myself at the base of a mountain traversed by a road that zigzagged to the top. Running on three hours of sleep, I boarded a van for a ship-sponsored tour of the entire island and held my breath as our driver skillfully navigated the hairpin turns.
After checking out the ancient city of Akrotiri, which was partially unearthed in the 1960s after being buried by a volcano thousands of years ago, we ventured to a local winery for a tasting and “I can’t believe I’m actually here” views of the caldera before heading to the iconic cliffside town of Oia. (Think the terraced whitewashed homes and blue-domed churches you see in photos.)
Until Mykonos, Santorini was my favorite, but when the time came for me to check out the former, I was smitten. With buildings similar to those found in Santorini, Mykonos’ main area is more accessible from the port, and its narrow, winding stone streets formed a maze that made it easy for me to lose myself in way-too-expensive clothing boutiques and jewelry stores.
Because the buildings there slope gradually up a hill, rather than straight up the side of a cliff, it felt more like I was immersed between them instead of hovering above them and looking down, as was the case with Santorini. I made my way through the part of Mykonos known as Little Venice and stumbled on a nondescript restaurant where I had lunch on my own outdoor balcony with sweeping ocean vistas so magical that I felt like I was living in a postcard.
Continuing the “each island is better than the last” trend, Rhodes stole my heart. Somehow the blend of medieval buildings, aggressive restaurant owners and souvenirs shaped like human privates creates a whimsical magic that’s equal parts amusing and surreal.
Inside the walls surrounding the city, I discovered a delightful embroidery shop, where I bought a few items for people back home. The owners thanked me for coming in and tearfully told me I was their first cruise ship customer in more than a year. After dipping my toes in the water at a nearby beach, I returned to the ship in such a great mood that I didn’t even care when the wind — ever-present at the pier in Rhodes — blew my favorite baseball cap straight into the sea.
The historic value is immeasurable
When I think of Greece, my first thought is of the Parthenon. Association with the ancient structure is natural, given that precious few places can claim to have landmarks that are still standing thousands of years after they were built.
Staring up at Hadrian’s Arch and what’s left of the nearby Temple of Zeus during my night tour of Athens, I wondered what it must have been like back then. Using rudimentary machinery and sheer skill, workers transported, carved and hoisted marble into position, creating homages to legendary gods and goddesses whom children still learn about in school.
Today, we boast modern technology and machines that can construct buildings in half the time, but they aren’t nearly half as grand, nor do we expect them to exist for half as long.
At Akrotiri, my imagination filled in the blanks, reconstructing collapsed walls and broken pottery and creating bustling streets filled with people in my mind’s eye.
Even now, as I’m back at home, I continue to wonder what it was about these spectacular places that has allowed them to withstand weather, wars and even volcano eruptions.
The food is phenomenal
I have long been a fan of Greek food, but as you might expect, nothing tops eating that food in its country of origin. (Something about it just feels more authentic.)
Gyros are a given, of course, with chicken and tzatziki sauce so tasty my mouth is watering now just thinking about it. I’m not much for seafood, but the fresh local fish — mainly sea bass and salmon — was so delicately prepared that I almost felt bad eating it. And the salads. Oh, the salads! I’m now fairly certain Greek veggies are the only ones I’m meant to consume.
Follow it all up with a bit of Greek ice cream for dessert, and there’s not much about a Greek culinary experience that this picky eater would turn down.
It was super uncrowded
Tour guides, locals and even the Greek captain of the ship told me, on repeat, how empty each place was when we visited. “These streets are usually shoulder-to-shoulder people,” they said, emphasizing how it’s both a blessing and a curse for the crowds to be so thin.
The bottom line is that Greece is a lovely place to travel, and if you’re someone who dislikes crowds or long lines, 2021 could be the right time for you to visit.
Featured photo by Ashley Kosciolek/The Points Guy.
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