Saturday, July 6, 2019

Greece Cruise: Santorini, Mykonos, Athens, Katakolon

I’ve never been to Greece but have seen the photos, of course. Azure waters, walled cities, ancient ruins — it’s been on my bucket list for so long. So when my cousin suggested that our families go together on a Mediterranean cruise through the Greek islands, we were eager to get on board, literally and figuratively. It turned out to be a great way to get a taste of Santorini, Mykonos, Athens, and Katakolon.

We decided to sail with Royal Caribbean for this trip. The Jewel of the Seas is an older ship, but it was well run, with an excellent staff and surprisingly fantastic stage performances each night. The food was generally very good, and we liked being able to come aboard at the end of a long day out and know that dinner was waiting. 

For the excursions, I did a lot of research and booked most of our tours with independent companies that don’t have a contract with the cruise lines. I hate crowds, and didn’t want us to be herded off the ship and onto an enormous bus at every port. There are many well reviewed small companies that do the same thing as those larger ones, for less money and with a more personal touch. This way, it was also easier for us customize our itinerary each day, instead of being compelled to accept the set packages that the cruise offers. Here are the excursions we did, and who we went with.

What to Do and Eat in Santorini

Santorini was the location that I was most interested in visiting. Who hasn’t seen the iconic photos of the blue domes and dizzying views down to the sea? Our cruise ship docked in the town of Fira, but I knew I wanted to see Oia – the town with those legendary blue domes. So I hired a guide through Santorini Road Trips that would pick us up in Fira and take us to Oia, about 40 minutes away. We would also make stops at a local farm to taste the wine, and Perissa, a black-sand beach.

As it turns out, Santorini was our most hectic (and my least favorite) stop. So many cruise ships docked there that day that it became a nightmare to reach Fira from the water. Fira is situated at the top of the mountain, straight up from the coast, and there are only two ways to get up there – by walking (or riding a mule) up an ancient, switch-backing road covered in mule poop, or by taking a cable car.

It seems that the vast majority of visitors opt for the cable car, even though the line to get on can get insanely long. This is what we did as well, as we were advised that the footpath can be quite strenuous (and even dangerous) to climb. If you’re accessing Santorini via cruise ship, my only advice is to get off the boat as fast as you can, so you can get to the head of the cable car line. We ended up waiting nearly an hour to get on.

Once we were on the cable car, however, the five kids in our group, ranging from ages 5 to 10, were totally thrilled. It’s a steep and speedy ascent, and they shrieked at every rumble over the posts. Once at the top, we were greeted by the bustling town of Fira. This is where we met our tour guide, who whisked us through the packed, narrow streets and into a private van. We were driven to a farm that the tour company recommended for a wine tasting, but I can’t say that we particularly enjoyed the wine or the farm. The kids did like feeding their donkey.

Next, we were driven to the black sand beaches of Perissa. The water is absolutely beautiful and clear here, and the kids spent an hour trying to catch the small, silver fish swimming around their ankles. The adults mainly relaxed on the sun beds that you can claim for free if you purchase food or drink from the local eateries.

After that, we were driven to Oia so we could see the blue domes for ourselves. It turns out, however, that everyone else on Santorini had the same idea. Oia was an absolutely zoo when we visited. Walking down the narrow paths that lead to great views of the coastline was nearly impossible. Everyone was doing the same thing and wanted the same views and photos. My husband and cousin joined the throng to get a couple of shots, but the rest of us hightailed it to the wider and less congested main street. I actually couldn’t wait to leave Oia and head back to Fira for dinner.

Dinner turned out to be the best part of Santorini. I’d made reservations for a restaurant called Naoussa, which is perched right at the edge of a cliff. All the tables are outdoors, and it’s the perfect place to watch the sun set. The food is fantastic as well – get the grilled octopus and the moussaka. Being able to dine at Naoussa was the highlight of our brief tour of Santorini. Don’t forget to make reservations in advance!

What to Do and Eat in Mykonos

We didn’t know what to expect from Mykonos, but all ended up falling in love with it. The Old Port section consists of narrow, winding streets that are impossible to navigate without Google Maps. We were told that the streets were designed this way to confuse and get ahead of the pirates that would invade the town. They are certainly confusing – and so much fun to wander through. Here's a nice map of the area.

Along the coastline, the waves constantly splash onto the walking paths because Mykonos is always windy and the surrounding waters very turbulent. The kids loved this, of course. It made for a really fun walk as we searched for Paraportiani, the 14th-century church that looks like a giant sandcastle, and the iconic windmills of Mykonos, overlooking the "Venice of Mykonos."

The best part of the day, however, was when we hopped on a bus at the center of the Old Port, in Fabrica Square, and rode it for 10 minutes to Gialos Beach. (Fabrica is also where we had the best gelato ever, at Trio Bambini.) At Gialos, there are so many restaurants to choose from that look out over the beach. We bypassed the swankier looking ones and settled down for lunch at the more family-friendly Yialo Yialo, where the food was once again excellent and fairly inexpensive.

After lunch, we piled onto the beach. The kids spent the next few hours splashing in the crystal clear waters, searching for small fish and unusual rocks, while the adults lounged on the sun beds, which cost a nominal fee. It was a truly relaxing way to while away the afternoon in Mykonos.

What to Do and Eat in Athens

The main attraction in Athens is the Acropolis, the fortified hill upon which the Parthenon sits. We booked a kid-friendly tour through Athens Insiders to explore this ancient wonder, and while our tour guide was not particularly into kids, the tablets that she provided to show us what the sites on the Acropolis looked like in ancient times were very educational. 

After having just seen the Colosseum in Rome, I actually preferred the grandeur of being on the Acropolis, which you must climb up many steps and platforms to access. At the top, we got a breathtaking, 360-degree view of Athens.

You really feel like you're a god at the top of the world, looking down at all the mortals. The Parthenon is a crumbly version of its former self, but through the kids' tablets, we got to see what it looked like in its glory days, which was really neat. 

Back on earth, we decided to forego the New Acropolis Museum and visit the cute neighborhood of Plaka instead, in search of stray cats. Plaka is full of cute shops and restaurants, and we had lunch outside at Byzantino Taverna. The food was again excellent and inexpensive, and we got ice cream bars to go from the magazine stand next door. 

I had other items on my Athens itinerary, including the Temple of Olympian Zeus and Mount Lycabettus, but it was so hot in the late afternoon and we'd already done so much that we decided to just head back to the ship instead.

What to Do and Eat in Katakolon

I'd never heard of Katakolon before this trip, but have since learned that it's where the Ancient Olympic games were held, thousands of years ago. To visit the ruins of that Olympic village, I booked a driver through Visit Katakolon, who would first take us to Olympia, then to visit a honey farm, and finally to a local beach. 

We saw Olympia on a hot and humid day, and despite the oppressive weather, everyone wanted to sprint across the stadium where the fastest runners once raced. All the visitors around us was racing with their family and friends, and it was a really fun experience.

The grounds are extensive, but it's difficult to know what you're looking at without a guidebook. Fortunately, we got one from our driver. Unfortunately, our kids were too hot to care, so we didn't stay very long.

Near the Olympic village is the Olympia Archaeological Museum, which is filled with replicas and artifacts from the Ancient Games. It's not very big, but the collection is impressive. Most importantly to the kids, there was air conditioning!

Next, at our driver's suggestion, we went to visit Klio's Honey Farm. I wasn't expecting much, but this stop turned out to be one of my favorite parts of the entire trip. The owner, a woman named Klio, runs a beautiful farm with her mother and a few workers, and gives a formal one-hour tour that includes a very interesting lesson on beekeeping, plus freshly made juices and snacks (including a deep-fried phyllo that you drizzle with their freshly made honey). 

I can't get over how fascinating Klio's talk on beekeeping was. She exudes a humble passion for her work and is obviously highly educated in this field. She's also excellent with the kids, fielding their questions with enthusiasm and inviting them to examine various pieces of her equipment. Her mother was also wonderful, filled with warmth and Greek hospitality. We all enjoyed our time at Klio's Honey Farm.

And finally, we visited our last Mediterranean beach of the trip, St. Andreas. There's only one restaurant above the beach, and that's where we ate our final Greek meal. The view from the restaurant was gorgeous, but unfortunately the food was expensive and kind of terrible. Oh well  we'd been lucky with all our other meals!

After lunch, we headed down to St. Andreas Beach for an hour of relaxation. The kids got right into the water to resume their fish- and rock-hunting. The sea was so irresistibly warm and beautiful that day that even I waded in. It was heavenly!

What's Nearby

Our trip started off in Rome, which is a really fun city for kids. Here's my complete itinerary on what to do there, including a kid-friendly tour of the Colosseum and Gladiator School!

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