Bougainvillea climbs in a palette of pinks along sun-soaked whitewashed walls. Ginger cats nonchalantly splay across terracotta pithos-lined patios. The distant chime of donkey bells echoes until the sudden clash of crockery escapes a tiny home. Chased by an elder cloaked in black and shooing with a wooden spoon and threadbare tea towel, the chicken is long gone.
I’m in Lindos on the island of Rhodes, cruising the Greek Islands aboard Azamara Pursuit, a boutique cruise ship carrying fewer than 700 guests. Azamara excels in destination and immersion-focused journeys, carefully curating its excursions to take in blissfully long days ashore.
Conquering almost 300 steps on the 116-meter ascent, the cypress pine-clad hill reveals the Acropolis of Lindos. The ninth century BC fortress is of cultural importance, with the Temple of Athena Lindia among the Hellenistic and Byzantine architecture.
Many archaeological excavations have taken place here over the years, one exposing the foundation of the propylaea(entrance). Admiring the surviving third century BC Doric columns of the Hellenistic Stoa is humbling. And gazing into the lagoon of St Paul’s Bay from the fortification’s ramparts is dizzying.
Back on the Azamara Pursuit, nightly performances further celebrate destinations visited. In the Cabaret Lounge, I find duo violinists, George and Dimitri. They lead an energetic cinematic performance, blending traditional classics with modern Greek tunes, complemented by the Greek flavors of baklava and ouzo.
A sunrise sail into the volcanic caldera of Santorini is one of the world’s most soul-stirring travel experiences. Gazing up at the rugged rim, icing-coated by its vertiginous settlements in a sea of white, is a traveler’s dream.
Tendered to the island, I climb the 580-plus steps that zigzag up to Fira, the island’s capital, and begin the three-hour meander along one of the world’s most striking walking trails.
The cobblestone and gravel path, narrow and undulating, snakes past exclusive accommodation clinging to the caldera’s sheer walls at upmarket Imerovigli.
The true visual climax arrives at Oia, crowning Santorini’s northern tip.
Jutting out on a conical promontory is the remains of 15th century Castle of Skaros. Its head-spinning panoramas explain the strategic positioning. It successfully deterred the pirates of the Aegean, but it eventually succumbed to centuries of catastrophic earthquakes, the last being in 1956.
Today, the sea-filled caldera basks peacefully, with the volcanic islets of still-active Nea Kameni, Palea Kameni and Thirassia bathing beyond.
The enchanted trail becomes a slideshow of whitewashed chapels, grazing goats and the blooms of lilac sea stock and yellow-horned poppy.
But the true visual climax arrives at Oia, crowning Santorini’s northern tip. The amphitheatrical setting of snow-white cave homes and blue domes steals the breath and captures the heart.
Behind the painfully pretty facade is a hodgepodge of art galleries, designer boutiques and miniature coffee bars fit for a doll’s house.
A new day in a new port introduces the peaceful island of Patmos. It claims a UNESCO World Heritage Monument.
Joining a tour, we drive through the heather and pine-clad hillsides to the vaulted streets of Chora. The island’s medieval town sports windows and doors in duck egg blue, within timeless mantomata (architrave) stonework. They lead to a castle in the sky.
The towering 11th century hilltop complex housing the Monastery of Saint John is a world of Byzantine buttress-arches and crenellations. Behind its impregnable polygonal walls, the museum, library and treasury safeguards ancient jewels, crowns, chalices, icons, scrolls, vestments bound in gold and silver and 15th century texts by Aristotle.
Kallikatsou is also believed to have been a temple of worship for Aphrodite, featuring carved steps, caverns and alcoves possibly used for votive offerings.
Also here is the Cave of the Apocalypse. Saint John is believed to have lived in exile here for almost two years writing the Book of Revelation, making Patmos one of Europe’s most significant pilgrimage sites.
Near the island’s 16th-century windmills, we visit Aloni, a traditional taverna built on an old grain-threshing floor. It’s where wine and meze platters tantalize tongues. Stuffed vine leaves, cheese pies, meatballs and fava beans are devoured at long tables until Greek performers in full regalia invite us to the stage for traditional dancing.
Late afternoon, I visit tamarisk-lined Petra Beach to view the Rock of Kallikatsou. The four-million-year-old volcanic monolith, a conglomerate of lava and stone, overlooks Grikos Bay. Beyond, immaculately painted caïque (fishing boats) bob.
Behind the lichen-encrusted protuberances is a nesting habitat for black cormorants. Kallikatsou is also believed to have been a temple of worship for Aphrodite, featuring carved steps, caverns and alcoves possibly used for votive offerings.
Standing before Panagia Paraportiani, it’s a watercolorist’s world of blue and white Hellenic light.
The curious all-white conglomeration of five churches is contoured in arches, crosses and bells, and capped by one of the Aegean’s most photographed domes. It seems buried in an avalanche of snowdrift that contrasts starkly beneath today’s cerulean sky. Above, gulls fly high. Below, fishermen cast and fly.
I wander through Mykonos’ handsome stone-paved streets. So labyrinthine in parts, they are just wide enough for this neck-craned human as I ogle at rows of pristinely painted balconies in every shade of pastel hues.
The curious all-white conglomeration of five churches is contoured in arches, crosses and bells and capped by one of the Aegean’s most photographed domes.
Behind them, music sings. From them, laundry sways on a languid breeze. Below them, islanders’ hands dip brushes into tins, painting their town white.
Down an alley, a restaurateur drops a fish into the gaping beak of a pink-feathered pelican (Petros is the island’s mascot). Delightfully lost, I stroll through residential neighborhoods, eventually emerging to an impeccably groomed lane flirting with flashy boutiques and glittering goldsmiths.
The paint white beauty of Mykonos is further celebrated back on board. Come sundown, the White Night party (the ship’s signature event) kicks off. And there’s a dress code: all white.
Guests congregate in the Cabaret Lounge where the ship’s dancers inspire all to get up and shimmy. All forms of white linens and leathers appear, from white bikini tops to white cowboy boots that scoot along the dance floor in a sea of whitewashed escapism.
Our last day, en route to our disembarkation port of Istanbul, is spent at sea. I breakfast at Windows Café, before a posture awareness seminar and interactive footprint analysis session realigns my askew body.
Yoga and Pilates classes stretch out my tight White Night dancing muscles, before a deep tissue massage at The Sanctum Spa eases me further. A wallow in the saltwater Thalasso Pool further renews me.
After lunching at Discoveries Restaurant, I enjoy barista-made coffee and gourmet chocolates at Mosaic Café. It overlooks the ship’s grand staircase bedecked in brass and fancy black lacework.
I steal a nap in my picture-windowed Stateroom, before heading to the exquisitely beautiful dark wood library nooks of the Living Room. Its domed ceilings charm the reader with its delightful frescoes of plants and birdlife.
The glitzy spirits bar is where I listen to pianist Barry Miller as I retox on a pina colada (with a serious punch). I struggle to decide whether I’ll enjoy dinner tonight at Aqualina, the specialty Italian restaurant with floor-to-ceiling windows, or Prime C Steakhouse, where sommeliers pair world-class wines.
But it’s the Paint and Sip class that makes my last day so special. Joining other guests with palettes of paints (and wines), we use photos of the Greek Islands as our inspiration.
I chink, with a glass in one hand and a paintbrush in the other, and attempt to blend colors to re-create the sublime scenes I have experienced on this sensory cruise. I choose Oia as my muse, and so begin brush-stroking Santorini’s bewitching beauty that’ll be imprinted in my mind forever.
For various destination immersion-focused cruise itineraries and accommodation categories, visit www.azamara.com.