Cruising the Greek Isles and Mykonos With Family In Tow
Cruising the Greek Isles with the fam
There was a time, growing up, when the idea of a “gay cruise” brought to my mind huge party ships full of gay men, dancing into the wee hours to the beats of club music. But decades later, thanks to growing acceptance of queer people, marriage equality, and the desire for some LGBTQ+ folks to have or adopt children, the concept of LGBTQ+ families taking a summer cruise is no longer a head-turner.
For the past decade, my husband, Lance, and I have taken our two sons (Joshua, 21, and Matthew, 15) on a weeklong summer vacation, trying to expose them to the different parts of the country — as well as other cultures around the world. Our family vacations have varied from a quiet hiking trip in Montana’s glorious Glacier National Park to a busy, immersive visit to dynamic Hong Kong and its surroundings.
This year, frustrated with the time and travel opportunities lost to the pandemic, our family decided to go big again. So we ventured to Greece for an Aegean cruise, excited by the opportunity to see some history, as well as experience the country’s stunning beaches and take in plenty of sunshine along the way.
We chose the award-winning Celestyal Cruises, a smaller line that’s Greek-owned and prides itself on unique itineraries and culturally immersive experiences. We took the “Idyllic Aegean” itinerary, a seven-night cruise that began and ended in Athens and included stops at famed islands like Mykonos and Santorini. But it also featured stops you likely won’t find on mega-ships, such as delightful Thessaloniki, Greece’s second largest city; Kusadasi, Turkey, with its incredible ruins; and tiny Milos, recently named the world’s best island.
The perfect size
We cruised on the Celestyal Crystal with about 700 passengers and 500 crewmembers. We appreciated the smaller size, which was big enough to feel like a real cruise ship, yet not gargantuan and impersonal. Coming into dock, our ship’s passengers never overran the port towns, and we never felt crowded.
We opted for two cabins directly across the hall from each other. The kids had an Interior Stateroom, while our Junior Balcony Suite was perfect for the adults, and it featured a larger shower, queen bed, sitting area, and a comfortably sized outdoor area with chairs and a small table. During time at sea, we’d often leave both doors open so the kids could come hang out with us and/or watch the stunning blue Aegean and the myriad islands we passed.
Our two room stewards, Ahmed and Daniel, picked up our rooms and delivered fresh towels twice a day, as needed, and always seemed to be in the hall whenever we needed anything. They quickly picked up on preferences, such as us wanting ice in the evenings, and we didn’t have to ask again. Room service is also available 24 hours a day. All rooms have adjustable air-conditioning, a hairdryer, a safe, and television. Our suite also included a refrigerated minibar.
Getting onboard in Athens was a breeze. At the time of our trip in July, none of the countries we were transiting/entering on flights (Germany, Greece, Canada, and the United States) required Covid-19 tests for fully vaccinated passengers. The cruise line does still require a negative antigen test taken the day before departure, but we easily got that out of the way on the way to Athens, during a long layover in Munich. Masks are required in public areas, but are not in your cabins, outside areas, or in dining rooms when eating. We never felt unsafe about illness while cruising, as both passengers and staff were courteous and respectful about the rules.
Celestyal has several restaurant choices for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Leda on Deck 9 is a buffet choice for all three meals. Amalthia Restaurant is the largest space, on Deck 8, and is also open for all three meals, but offers a choice between buffet and a la carte for breakfast and lunch, but only a la carte for dinner. Olympus Restaurant was our favorite, on Deck 5 — it is only open for a la carte dinner, but it had a more intimate, clubby feel that we enjoyed. The food choices on any given evening weren’t as extensive as on some larger ships, but they were more than sufficient for the four of our palates. Food quality was excellent, and we enjoyed all of our meals onboard.
Part of Celestyal’s charm is that so much is included, including gratuities. As part of the cruise fare, each passenger receives two complimentary tours, one in Kusadasi and one in Rhodes. Additional tours can be purchased in advance or even the evening before, and there are combination packages available, as well.
Both alcoholic and non-alcoholic “classic” drinks are even included, such as house wines, beer, and favorites like Bloody Marys, Mai Tais, standard liquors, and even a variety of hot and cold coffee beverages. You can also upgrade either adults or kids to premium packages, where you can enjoy premium wines, dessert wines, champagne, milkshakes, freshly squeezed juices, and more. There are also some other upgrades you can pay for, such as premium steaks, a Greek wine tasting, and special dinners with the menu curated by famed “My Greek Table” author, chef, and TV host Diana Kochilas — a special partnership with the cruise line.
There was a nice variety of entertainment for a ship the size of the Crystal, with a main Broadway-type show each evening, usually at 9:00 p.m. and repeating at 10:30 p.m. The cast of the nightly-changing show was a combination of singers, dancers, and acrobats, and we enjoyed the performances, which were first class. I made it clear to the kids that they had to come to the first one, but I wasn’t going to force them for the rest of the week. But to my surprise and pleasure, they insisted on coming to the show every night after that.
Daily, other options are presented throughout the morning and afternoon, including kids’ activities (which seemed to be mostly geared toward teens), dancing lessons, some arts and crafts type activities, bingo, quizzes, and video games. The pool and hot tub here were on the smaller side, and we really didn’t even pay them much attention, we were so busy with other things. There’s also a small casino onboard for those who feel lucky.
In the evenings, the multitude of bar and lounge areas on the ship were host to different musicians, from traditional hits to Greek classics, and even disco. Our favorite was the nightly “International hits” program by “Duo Jaleo,” a delightful married couple who genuinely love to make music, and who interact with the crowd so warmly. Even after being married for years, you can still see them off the boat holding hands, wandering the port towns.
An adventure at each port
Each of the seven stops on our itinerary offered multiple tours to please a wide variety of guests, and the quality of all the ones we sampled was excellent. Some highlights included:
• In Kusadasi, we were bused to the ancient ruins of Ephesus, where St. Paul once preached, and Mary is said to have lived until her death. While the temperature soared to 100 degrees, we were among the happier visitors there, as the guide arranged for us to be dropped off at the higher entrance and picked up at the lower entrance, allowing for us to slowly descend through the city, stopping for shade as he described different portions of the city, only 20 percent of which has been excavated to date. On the return journey, we also stopped at local merchants, where we saw artisans weaving silk and making Turkish rugs.
• At Crete, we journeyed to the center of this beautiful, mountainous island. It’s the largest Greek isle and the fifth largest island in the Mediterranean. We spent a morning with Mr. Vassilis, a third-generation farmer who shared his winemaking techniques with us, as well as his family history and beautiful philosophy of life (the more love you give to people, the happier you will be). After being treated to some traditional dancing, we tried some of his family’s wines and raki, a regional liquor. We also had some of the most delicious yogurt I’ve ever tasted, topped with honey and special local yellow raisins that were sweeter and juicier than what you’d find in America.
• Thessaloniki was a delightful stop, and one most cruisers don’t know of. While it is Greece’s second-largest city, it’s located in the northern part of the country, further away from the more famous islands that are further south in the Aegean Sea. Our professional local guide told us fascinating stories about the city and its various rulers over the centuries. Thessaloniki was great for shopping, eating, and just wandering about to see its architecture and experience its friendly people.
• Mykonos is a beautiful, sun-drenched island surrounded by incredibly clear water. The main town is a delightful place to get lost in, as big streets turn into tiny alleys and there are colorful flowers seemingly growing over every doorway. We saw countless gay couples wandering the street and even checked out the local gay bar, JackieO’, named after the former first lady who so loved this island. Make sure to check out the island’s iconic windmills, a definite Instagrammable spot.
• Sometimes the best cruise experiences are the unexpected ones. The night before our Thessaloniki stop, one passenger raved to us about two bakeries located across the street from each other, near the city’s famed White Tower. She had been to them before when in Thessaloniki, and quickly found photos of shops’ names and the bakery displays on her phone. Intrigued, we took snapshots of her images and managed to track the shops down the next day. She wasn’t wrong that they were some of the best pastries around, and the kids really enjoyed this impulsive sort of scavenger hunt.
• On our day in Rhodes, we decided we were a bit toured out, so we instead opted for a beach day. We walked about 20 minutes from the city port to popular Elli Beach, where a nicely mixed crowd of all ages enjoyed the crystal-clear waters of the Aegean. The beach was rocky instead of sandy, with small, polished stones. The mountains of southwestern Turkey are visible across the water, truly a dramatic sight. A roughly 20-foot-high diving platform was anchored about 100 feet offshore, and many bathers took the opportunity to swim to it and plunge off it into the cool water. (We did not!) We paid 10 euros each for comfortable lounge chairs, towels, and umbrellas, and ordered pizza and drinks off the bar menu at our leisure from the handsome young Greek waiter.