Michael Turtle finds himself in the midst of sunset overtourism – but finds a way to avoid it on a cruise ship.
Three blue-domed churches, perched on a coastal slope among white-painted houses, have become one of the most iconic images of the Greek islands, gracing the covers of guidebooks and the Instagram feeds of every amateur influencer. And while the glittering Mediterranean scene seems so idyllic, it doesn’t show the real picture of what’s happening at the town of Oia in Santorini, where the photos are taken. For behind every camera are long queues to get that perfect shot, and intense crowds pushing their way through the narrow laneways just to get a glimpse.
I get my own taste of Oia when I arrive in the late afternoon and am confronted with a phalanx of tourists filling every available spot for sunset – sitting on walls, climbing onto the roofs of houses, standing four-deep along the cliff-top path. It’s hardly a relaxing summer evening.
The silly thing, though, is that there are so many beautiful sunset spots in Greece. With about 2000 islands (227 of them inhabited), it’s easy to find areas where you’re not competing with hordes of visitors simply walking down the street. On board the Celestyal Crystal cruise ship for a week, I get a taste of some of them.
Pulling into port on the island of Syros, the main city of Ermoupoli rises up to two hills, each topped with a church, one founded by the Greek Orthodox community and the other by the Catholics. Thankfully there’s no need to walk to the top of either because there’s enough to see at sea level, with magnificent public buildings around the central square, hip streets with bars leading off them, and markets laden with local treats just a short stroll away.
Taxis can take you to one of Syros’s beaches, where the rows of sunbeds and the trendy beach club at Poseidonia, for example, wouldn’t look out of place in Mykonos (but cost just a fraction of Mykonos prices).
When it comes to beaches, the island of Milos has some of the most spectacular, as the volcanic terrain creates dramatic rock formations around the clear turquoise water. Most striking of them all is Sarakiniko, with bone-white rock covering the foreshore like a lunar landscape, complete with natural pools and ledges to jump from. And while the beaches are the highlight of Milos, its picturesque villages of white-painted houses – many enveloped with bright bougainvillea – are just as photogenic as any blue-domed churches.
Getting away from the ports and the larger cities is easy – and essential to truly appreciate the Greek islands. When the Celestyal Crystal pulls into Crete, I join a shore excursion that whisks me out of the capital Heraklion and up into the countryside, past rolling hills covered with a grey-green carpet of olive trees. It’s in a small village that I meet Vassilis, who tells us that “in every house in Crete, you must have a bottle of wine, a bottle of raki and a bottle of olive oil”. As it so happens, Vassilis makes his own wine and raki (I don’t notice if he also has olive oil), so we settle in to taste some.
Although Crete – the fifth-largest island in the Mediterranean – is hardly undiscovered, its size means it rarely feels crowded. There’s more than enough here to make it a holiday destination in itself, including the Palace of Knossos, the ancient complex that’s said to be the site of the labyrinth that held the mythical Minotaur.
Millennia of great empires have left plenty of history to discover around the Aegean Sea, and it’s not all ancient temples. Although the Acropolis of Lindos, a hill of temples built from about the 4th century BC, is one of the most popular sites on Rhodes, I think the island’s highlight is its 14th-century medieval city, which stands just metres from where we dock.
Grand boulevards lead to the enormous castle-like palace, and warrens of alleyways make the Middle Ages come to life. There’s a reason Rhodes is considered to have the best-preserved medieval city in Europe and it’s easy to spend the whole day exploring it.
One of the advantages of taking a cruise through the Greek islands is that you can get a taste of a variety of them, something that’s much harder when you’re travelling independently. A visit to the island of Patmos, a stop on Celestyal Cruises three-day itineraries, is a perfect example of this.
One of the smallest inhabited islands in the Aegean Sea, it seems at first glance like a quiet haven of untouched nature. But Patmos also has one of the most important Christian sites in Greece, for it’s here that John the Apostle is said to have written the Bible’s Book of Revelation when he was exiled in the 1st century.
From Paradise to Super Paradise – the party island of Mykonos could not be further in style from Patmos, yet still they often appear on the same cruise itineraries. There’s no denying that Mykonos is one of the busiest and most expensive islands in Greece, with direct flights arriving constantly from across the world. Yet it is possible to get away from the crowds and see a different side.
The beaches on the northern coast are much less developed, many of the small traditional villages on the interior hills have peaceful tavernas, and even the main town of Hora is easy to explore (but harder to navigate) as you move away from the water.
But you don’t come to Mykonos for peace and quiet. You come for the vibrancy. And what I’ve found so enjoyable about a week travelling through a variety of islands is that the occasional busy town is just what you want in the mix of history, food, beaches and sun that make the Greek islands a perfect summer holiday.
Take me there
Fly: Return flights from Sydney to Athens start from about $2300 on Emirates.
Cruise: A all-inclusive 7-night Idyllic Aegean cruise with Celestyal starts from $1526 per person for an interior stateroom, up to $3296 per person for a balcony suite.
Stay: A modern room at The Alex at Piraeus Port is about $170 a night.
Dates: There are frequent sailings between now and October 2022, restarting in April 2023.
Explore more: celestyal.com