As well as an overnight stay in Athens’ most elite hotel, Lee had the luxury of setting sail on one of Variety Cruise’s very own cruise ships – the newly rebuilt Mega-Yacht, the Harmony V. This cruise ship is a modern, elegant yacht with a sleek high-tech look, very similar to the private yachts to be found in many famous ports of the world. The 56 metre long 8.4 metre wide Mega-Yacht was launched back in June 2009 and complies with Eurosolas safety regulations while its powerful engines, generators and state of the art twin stabilisers allow for safe and comfortable cruising.
Onboard, a spacious lounge with classy seating and an American Bar leads into a dining area, decorated with warm colours. Both areas offer large windows, providing the most beautiful views of all destinations the ship cruises to. The 200m-squared sundeck offers a shaded outdoor area for all day dining, and an additional bar as well as sun chairs and loungers. The swimming platform on the Harmony V stern allows for easy access to the ship and for a wide range of sea-related activities.
Lee took the pleasure of lapping up all that the country and its surrounding islands had to offer…
“My adventure started on August 18th when I flew from the UK to Athens. I’d been to Athens before, but knowing l was about to embark upon a completely new experience made the whole process a lot more exciting. In usual circumstances, I would have flown out on the Friday, being transferred to Marina Zea by direct road transfer. However, I decided that I was going to take full advantage of the trip by staying at one of Athens’ most impressive hotels; Hotel Grande Bretagne, where I rested up on the Thursday night. Friday morning came around very quickly and, after a sound night’s sleep, I was prepared to embark on my week-long adventure. I made my way to Marina Zea – admiring the beautiful Greek views along the way – where I was to board the luxury yacht and start my adventure in the afternoon. There wasn’t a huge amount of people on board, making the experience all the more intimate and, knowing everyone was in the same boat (no pun intended) it was easy to make friends with my fellow cruisers.
“On board the ship was Joseph Serafimidis, Director of Operations, who I became very fond of throughout the week. When on a small ship like this, or on any cruise for that matter, everyone on board is given a daily briefing, informing the passengers of the schedule and what to expect from each destination. Joseph was incredibly humorous and lightened the mood during these briefings, making it a lot easier for everyone to take in the information. Joseph was also a talented man, speaking in English, Spanish and Greek, showing the true versatility of the Variety Cruises staff and how they adapt to cater to the needs of their passengers. The staff on board were incredibly attentive throughout the week.
With trips like this, and cruising in particular, it’s expected that things might go wrong. For example, sometimes the weather prevents you from certain stops or activities, yet the Variety Cruise employees almost always found ways around these issues to ensure everyone on board had a great time regardless.
“So we set off on our journey to the island of Kea, departing via Cape Sounio. I must say, the whole boarding and setting off process was quick, efficient and frankly, stress-free, leaving me with nothing but faith in Variety Cruises for the remainder of the week. On our way to the island, I spent my time admiring the beautiful views that surround Greece; calm blue waters, the blinding sun blurring my view of the horizon, and everyone on board taking pictures of the landscapes with their smartphones and digital cameras.
The Mani, in southernmost Greece, is a land where myths were born,gods once roamed, and the people are as proud and rugged as the mountains they call home. Jim Yardley gets lostin one of the last great undiscovered corners of Europe.
Somewhere in the Taiyetos Mountains, I was driving along a winding, two-lane road past thickets of prickly pear, navigating blind turns and pushing deeper into the Peloponnese peninsula of mainland Greece when the GPS device in my rental car suffered a fatal seizure.
Big problem. I couldn’t read the Greek road signs, and I didn’t know the route to the stone tower house converted into a tiny hotel where I had booked a room. I was planning to spend five days exploring the Mani, one of Europe’s most isolated and starkly beautiful regions, as well as the setting for several key scenes in Greek mythology. The ancient Greeks claimed it was here that Orpheus descended to the underworld; today, this primeval landscape remains largely undiscovered—meaning visitors will, in all likelihood, have it mostly to themselves.
That I was suddenly GPS-less seemed fitting, as reaching the Mani has never been easy. Over the centuries, Maniots have fought off invading Turks, slaughtered mercenary Egyptians, and unleashed homegrown pirates onto ships plying the trade routes between Venice and the Levant.
When they weren’t fighting outsiders, Maniots fought among themselves, blasting cannons or firing rifles, one clan against another. More recently, they resisted the leftist politics that swept through the rest of Greece as the country straggled to recover from its economic crisis. The feuding ended long ago, but civilisation did not immediately fill the vacuum. Man walked on the moon before a paved road reached southernmost Mani.
Where do you go if you’re planning a family holiday for five couples of varying ages – plus your darling, 90-year-old Uncle Ted? We had to find something that fitted the bill for the entire clan and, finally, it dawned on us: a cruise. After all, what other holiday caters to your every want and whim, lets you explore somewhere new and magical almost every day – and ensures you only have to unpack your bags once? Welcome to the wonderful world of cruising. Countless emails and international calls later, the tickets were booked and our bags were packed, ready for an 11-night Eastern Mediterranean cruise with MSC Cruises, on board the MSC Armonia.
We set sail from Venice – and what an incredible place to begin the journey. Wandering its labyrinth of streets is akin to being a kid running around an old-world maze. Will you ever find your way out of this magical place? And do you really want to? Let’s face it, it’s not often that you can turn a corner by mistake and end up in somewhere as fantastic as the Piazza San Marco (St Mark’s Square). And, of course, romance is everywhere. It’s embedded in the glorious Venetian architecture, and blooms in the vibrant potted flowers that adorn the buildings in its narrow backstreets. Romance abounds in the city’s many bistros, bars and meeting places, and twinkles on the water of its canals. Little wonder then, that ccoples flock from all over the world to experience a gondola ride with their loved one. We were no exception – it had to be done.
Onboard, everyone in our party settled into shipboard life very easily. Being a European cruise, there was a mix of nationalities and from day one we were one big melting pot of people, all out to have a great time. Sailing out of Venice down the Grand Canal was sheer sensory overload. As the ship slipped through the water, magnficent buildings such as the basilica of Santa Maria della Salute and Doge’s Palace faded into the distance as we cruised towards our first port Ancona.
In the Greek capital, a centuries-old neighbourhood has more to offer these days than souvenir shops, thanks in part to a new hotel with a bar worth lingering for.
If you’re still under the impression that Athens merits little more than a pit stop – just enough time to glimpse the Parthenon before moving on to the islands – then you should book a night or two at the recently opened AthensWas. The hotel’s rooftop bar and unobstructed up-close views of the Acropolis are major draws, as are the 20 mod-ish rooms with Le Corbusier armchairs and Warren Platner coffee tables. But the real selling point is the hotel’s location in Plaka, smack-dab in the middle of historic Athens. Though it’s full of tourists (especially since Greece’s economic outlook has become sunnier than it was ast summer), there’s more to do here than tour the ruins. Here’s our cheat sheet on how to fill the time between sightseeing and toasting during happy hour on the roof.
Snack. Housed in a refurbed Neoclassical building, Manimani specialises in dishes from the rugged south-eastern Peloponnese region of Mani, known for its simple but strong flavours and for recipes centred around fava beans and the orange-tinged Cured pork called siglino.
Spice. Newly opened by a former journalist, Daphnis and Chloe is a tiny shop selling foraged and cultivated culinary herbs for which the Greek islands are famous, all beautifully packaged. Speciality food shops and top restaurants around the world are already fans.
Shop. The Plaka neighbourhood is known more for its souvenir shops than for its stores with style but Forget Me Not offers an antidote to the tourist dreck with its playful edit of home décor items, clothes, toys and beauty products – all from contemporary Greek designers.
Sip. The classic Plaka café Yiasemi makes an ideal step for a mid-afternoon caffeine fix – locals love an iced frappé or a hot shot of Turkish coffee (just be sure to call it Greek). Bright-green al fresco bistro tables and chairs climb a set of stone stairs in a charming street leading to the Acropolis.
How do you define luxury? Is it being cocooned in a huge dressing gown with a butler serving you tea on a silver tray, with bone china and little silken bags of the finest organic brew? Is it quality Champagne on tap and a Michelin-worthy dining experience? Or is it superlative service where your every need is constantly anticipated and fulfilled?
For me, luxury is all of these, combined with meticulous attention to detail and a feeling of exclusivity. And it can be found on every deck of Crystal Serenity.
An aptly-named vessel, Serenity is the quietest, most tranquil ship I have ever experienced: annoying announcements are kept to an absolute minimum, service is ultra-discreet, the Ink Spots croon softly while you eat your Cornflakes and even the obligatory handwash is soothing. As an extra bonus, the sea seems to be mimicking a millpond.
We board in Athens and our first destination is Monemvasia, a massive rock sitting a quarter of a mile off the coast of the Peloponnese mainland and often referred to as the ‘Gibraltar of Greece’. Accessible by a single causeway that winds into the charming old Castle Town (known locally as Kastro), it is a labyrinth of medieval cobbled alleys set against a backdrop of the bluest Aegean sea.
Eye-catching little shops and tavernas line the main street, with top marks going to the Edodimopolio Honey Shop. Thanks to its zealous and generous owners, Fotini and Paraskevas, this is a retail experience to be savoured (their honey mead and ouzo with walnuts should be available on prescription).
Award-winning specialist tour operator Anatolian Sky offers a range of fantastic holidays and bespoke boutique cruises. Personal service and attention to detail is paramount to their philosophy, and Anatolian Sky’s small ship cruises generally have no more than around 50 guests on board. They are relaxed and friendly sailings for people who like to discover new places, unwind and enjoy good company. You will be spoiled with truly attentive service, with up to 19 crew members on board a 25-cabin small ship. And their small ships can moor right in the heart of ports, meaning there are plenty of opportunities for guests to explore on shore.
Anatolian Sky’s Adriatic Cruise is one of their most popular itineraries. Guests can choose to begin their journey in either Split or Dubrovnik – two of Croatia’s most picturesque coastal cities – and cruise the glittering coastline. Stop off at tiny islands such as Mljet, where you can swim in the salt lakes of the national park, or Hvar, with its glitzy nightlife and magnificent Italianate architecture. You could also spend some extra time at the beginning or end of your cruise staying in Split or Dubrovnik, where you can sightsee or simply soak up the ambience.
For a more international cruise programme, the Adriatic Odyssey takes in Croatia plus highlights of Montenegro, Greece and Albania.
Greece is the cradle of civilisation and there is no better way to discover what this fascinating country has to offer than to take a small ship cruise. Visit the site of ancient Olympia, birthplace of the Olympic Games, or discover charming islands such as Santorini, Delos or Mykonos, with its enchanting whitewashed houses and renowned nightlife.
Fancy travelling further afield? Anatolian Sky has cruises that operate all year round to destinations as diverse as Cuba, the Seychelles, Costa Rica and Panama.
Whether you want to enjoy a relaxing voyage with other like-minded guests, stay on shore for longer with a tailor-made cruise-and-stay holiday, or choose to fly from any UK airport, Anatolian Sky has a boutique cruise for you.
Brewing in London
The Bermondsey Beer Mile is a welcome new map label in London: a clutch of small breweries set up under the railway arches that strike out from London Bridge station towards Kent – the home of English hops. Most only open for tastings on Saturdays, and a weekend trip is also the best bet to experience UBREW, where visitors can craft their own brews. The six-hour, all-grain course starts from scratch, and ends with – a few weeks later – a truly unique beer to bring home. In the meantime, take a stroll via the old riverside warehouses of Shad Thames to the nearby George Inn, a National Trust-owned beauty from 1677 that gives a glimpse into past centuries of London beer-drinking.
Go Wild in Yorkshire
Sometimes there is such a thing as a free lunch; at least, once you’ve paid to learn how to forage for food safely and legally in the British countryside. Taste the Wild runs a variety of courses in North Yorkshire, where they own a plot of woodland in pastoral country near the town of Boroughbridge.
The Wild Food Weekend is stretched over two breakfasts, two lunches and two dinners, with foraging walks and classes on preparing wild game and cooking over a wood fire. By the time you head home, you should be converted to the joys of salting your own foraged mushrooms and making stockpiles of preserves from future weekend walks.
Cooking in Ireland
Wicklow is the first county south of Dublin, and it helpfully gathers some of the best Irish experiences in one place for those short on time, from driving past mountains and ruins on the old Military Road to expanding your cooking skills over a weekend at the ivy-clad, 19th-century Ballyknocken House. Its owner, the Wicklow-born celebrity chef Catherine Fulvio, has added Italian influence to the Irish menu, so at dinner you can expect the likes of sorrel soup with soda bread to be followed by spinach and ricotta-stuffed rosemary chicken. A Foodie Short Break for Two includes a night’s accommodation, Irish breakfast, a four-course dinner and two places on one of a variety of half-day courses.
Bread-Making in Scotland
For something so basic, bread can be hard to fathom: a foodstuff far more than the sum of its parts, whose success can turn on the slightest of factors. Bread Matters aims to take most of the mystery out of the process with its courses in the renewably powered Macbiehill Farmhouse, overlooking the hills of the Scottish Borders. The most popular is the two-day Fundamental Course. After some theory, to show what’s going on with yeast and flour at a microscopic level, there’s time for plenty of practice, ending up with a half-dozen types of bread to take home.
A Wine Tour In Spain
La Rioja may be Spain’s best-known wine region, but Ribera del Duero can claim some top vintages, in more sense than one. Prized wines from this stretch of the Duero river include Vega Sicilia and Dominio de Pingus; and at around 800 metres in altitude, the vines grow higher than in most Alpine vineyards. SmoothRed offers a three-day taster, with chauffeured tours and tapas lunches that bring out the best in the Tempranillo-based wines.
Feasting In Athens
Long before its link with rice pudding, ambrosia was the food of the gods in Greek myth, believed to confer immortality. That delicacy is sadly not available beyond Mount Olympus, but an Athenian Ambrosia Cooking Experience is open to all who wish to find out what powers modern Greeks. Taught by Athenian Eleni Melirrytos, the one-day class heads to a local market to pick up ingredients, before tackling a menu that might include cheesy filo pies, stuffed aubergine, and pistachio-filled baklava. The next day, see what the city’s most exciting restaurants are doing with Greek produce at addresses like Athiri and south Greece-inspired Mani Mani.
A Norman Conquest
Its combination of long sea coast and rich farm country has always made Normandy a welcome guest at the French dinner table, with specialities from scallops and salt marsh lamb to Camembert and calvados. Irish-born Sinéad Allart has spent a decade helping visitors master the culinary nuances of her adopted home through courses at La Blonderie, an 18th-century manor house just inland from the beaches of the Cotentin Peninsula. Excursions to a local cider maker and the market in medieval Bricquebec provide changes of pace in between sessions concocting Norman favourites such as poulet Vallée d‘Auge (chicken in a creamy apple and calvados sauce) and teurgoule – local rice pudding.
Perched on seemingly inaccessible pinnacles of rock 1,000 feet above the Peneus Valley, what remains of a once-flourishing monastic community is as removed from earthly distractions as possible. The spikes, cones, and cliffs of this otherworldly landscape were created by the sea that submerged these plains 30 million years ago.
Meteora means, literally, “in the air,” and there are more than sixty pinnacles, looking like chimney-top storks’ nests. The earliest religious community was established here in the 10th century, and by the 16th century there were twenty-four monasteries and hermitages. Four survive essentially as museum pieces, while just two others function as religious outposts, with a handful of monks.
Of those that can be visited, Megalou Meteorou is the grandest and the highest, having held sway over the area since it was built of massive rocks on the highest peak (1,360 feet) in the 14th century.
All the monasteries open to the public are worth visiting for the religious artworks collected over the centuries, the views, and the chance to observe the life of hermits and ascetics and some of the weirdest real estate on the planet.
Until the 1920s the only way to reach them was by retractable ladders or nets. Since then steps to the monasteries have been hewn into the rocks. The adventure world has discovered Meteora’s rock forest, and rock climbers can usually be spotted in the distance, looking like flies as they inch their way up the vertical pillars.
Your first sight of Hydra will be the lovely quasi-circular harbor town and many fine sea captains’ houses fanning out and up into the rocky hills. All motor traffic (including kamikaze mopeds, thank goodness) is banned from this mountainous and barren island, where the people have always looked to the sea for their livelihood.
Donkeys and horse-drawn carriages are the primary means of transportation. Once famous as a rendezvous spot for artists, writers, and the glitterati, Hydra still retains an image as one of the country’s most stylish destinations. Tavernas are rustic but frequented by a handsome crowd.
The quietly chic Bratsera Hotel was created within the shell of an 1860 sponge factory; the doors, made from old packing crates, still bear the name of Athens’s port, Piraeus. It is an unpretentiously elegant hotel, whose minimal nautical decor and spacious layout complement the local Hydriot character and history: exposed rich stonework, wooden beams, and relics of its former incarnation.
On an island whose name mistakenly implies an abundance of water, the Bratsera’s pool is a joy, and the only one on the island.
The Byzantine Empire may have ended with the fall of Constantinople in 1453, but tell that to the monks of Mount Athos. Women (even female domestic animals) have not been allowed to set foot in this 140-square-mile semiautonomous monastic state since the 11th century, but male visitors with the appropriate permit can step back 500 years to the time of this theocracy’s heyday, when more than forty monasteries housing 40,000 monks flourished.
Today there are twenty monasteries. Most of them resemble fortified castles from the outside, reminders that the monks once had to fend off pirates, Christian crusaders, and the Ottoman Turks.
Today’s population of about 2,000 brothers carries on an unbroken 1,000-year tradition of study and liturgy. Priceless artwork and manuscripts have been amassed over the years, and the sacred clutter of relics and icons may be seen by visitors participating in morning and afternoon prayers.
Visitors are also welcome to dine in the refectory with the monks (meals are vegetarian). Some monks are gregarious and welcoming, others oblivious to the limited but almost constant stream of guests during summer months, when it is most difficult to procure a permit.
There is no land access to Athos, a heavily wooded area where wildlife abounds. Unrestricted numbers of Greek men may visit Mount Athos, but only ten foreign adult males per day may enter, spending no more than one night at any given monastery.