In grade school I was always the kid who eagerly awaited the newest issue of National Geographic magazine. I remember devouring each story, especially when it involved one of my favorite destinations — Greece. Reading about the Greek islands was thrilling. For a while, I had a bookmark with a photograph of the Parthenon in Athens.
Such treasures seemed so far away to a young Midwestern girl, but recently I visited those dreamed-about destinations in the best way possible—aboard Grand Circle Cruise Line’s M/I Athena.
Titled “Hidden Gems of the Dalmatian Coast & Greece,” the two-week itinerary included a night before the cruise at an Athens hotel and three nights afterwards in Zagreb, Croatia. Places we visited on the 10-day cruise: Delphi and Corfu in Greece, Butrint in Albania, Kotor in Montenegro, and Dubrovnik, Korcula, Hvar and Split in Croatia.
My cruise had 32 passengers. Grand Circle welcomes solo travelers, and there were four on my cruise, plus me. Founded in 1958, Grand Circle specializes in offering travel to Americans over age 50. Alan and island of Korcula, a port visited by Grand Circle’s Athena. The town claims to be the birthplace of Marco Polo.
Ivo Blocinaf Croatian National Tourist Board Harriet Lewis acquired the company in 1985, and it now has a dedicated fan base. On our cruise, only two of us had never traveled with Grand Circle before. Two couples in the group were taking their 13th trips with Grand Circle, the ultimate compliment.
A highlight of my first day in Athens was visiting the Acropolis and the $175-million Acropolis Museum, opened in June 2009. A strikingly modem building with glass galore, the museum sits on an archaeological site about a quarter-mile from the Acropolis. Glass floors in the entryway and elsewhere let you see excavations that may contain treasures yet undiscovered.
Next stop was the guard-changing ceremony at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Athens. The two Greek soldiers known as evzones are self-disciplined almost beyond belief. Every 15 minutes, the guards change positions in an impressive slow march with highly stylized movements.
Stepping onto our tour bus, we left Athens to head to the ship. Resembling a luxurious yacht, the 50-passenger Athena is big enough to be comfortable but small enough to dock easily at islands that big ships seldom get to visit. My cabin was an outside stateroom (all Athena staterooms are outside) with a balcony, flat-screen TV, refrigerator, plenty of storage space and large walk-in shower.
The next day I was ready for our visit to ancient Delphi, a 40-minute drive from Itea, a town on the Corinth Canal, the east-west passageway that connects Athens to the Ionian Sea. On each shore excursion, passengers were divided into two groups with different program directors and local guides. Our tour itineraries varied slightly so that all 32 of us were not converging on the same place at the same time. Both groups saw the same things, just in a different order.