Zeus' yacht fills the bill for island hopping in Greece

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ATHENS, Greece -- To have seen this country and not cruised the islands of the Aegean Sea is like touring France without having tasted the wine.

Zeus Cruises' Galileo.For thousands of years its turquoise-blue waters have been a playground for ancient gods and heroes and mortals, and sailing among the islands is one of the world's great travel experiences: simple, memorable and beautiful.

Years ago I learned that my idea of an optimum Greek Islands cruise included neither quick-look excursions to legendary sites nor even one jacket-and-tie dinner on big passenger cruise ships.

That discovery was followed by two separate crewed-yacht charter cruises, each in the company of seven friends, that filled the bill beautifully with small-island ports of call and short-haul itineraries.

Looking for a middle ground between deluxe big ship and private charter cruising, I recently asked Zeus Tours if I could sail aboard its 18-cabin Galileo yacht, whose weekly departures from Athens include classic Cycladic islands and off-course ports of call: Santorini, Amorgos, Patmos, Samos, Delos, Mykonos and Kusadasi in Turkey.

One is always nervous that, as a guest, you might have to say nice things about a cruise experience that didn't add up; a friend of mine and I got lucky, for the Galileo is a big and comfortable motor yacht staffed by a top-notch crew and has a near-perfect itinerary for the first-time, as well as repeat, Greek Islands cruise client.

A view of Mykonos, Greece. It also seemed to be a first-class charter choice for group tour cruises that could easily add customized arrangements if necessary.

Further, among the 20 passengers (from the U.S., the U.K. and Australia) on our cruise, there were three honeymooning couples for whom this style of cruising offered freedom and privacy.

Keys to the Galileo's approach to islands cruising are three elements: informality aboard; two rather than three meals a day on board, with breakfast and either lunch or dinner, and lots of time -- mid-morning through evenings -- in most ports. Passengers can take organized excursions, rent cars or motor scooters and explore islands themselves, shop till they drop and sample restaurants in port.

The main drawback to small-ship cruising can be the weather, which is normally sunny May through October but can be unpredictably windy, which can mean getting stuck in a port, missing an island or two and tossing about at sea.

The first leg of our journey, an overnight (and one of two long sailings) from Athens to Santorini, was a pitch and toss for four hours.

Later in the cruise, high winds were predicted between Samos and Mykonos, which required clearing dinner dishes early, tying down everything possible on board, tucking passengers in by 10 p.m. for an early departure and anticipating missing the visit to Delos and Mykonos islands. However, the rough weather never materialized, and the sailing to Mykonos was relatively smooth.

Before arriving at each island, the cruise director would brief passengers on restaurants, vehicle rentals, taxi hire, shopping and so forth.

Shore excursions were offered on Santorini ($40 per passenger) and at Ephesus in Turkey ($35).

I thought that the island of Delos should have had an organized tour waiting, but we all hired an on-site guide who added a special touch to visiting the ancient home of the gods: She was a knowledgeable blonde lady wearing a short pink dress, a pink Barbie doll backpack and a lime-green sun hat and matching umbrella. Her historical overview of Delos was occasionally interrupted to talk on her cell phone.

On board, my outside Category A cabin on the upper deck had a seaview window and, like the rest of the boat, was air conditioned. The cabin was roomy enough for two to live efficiently, with twin beds (many cabins have double beds) separated by a night table with storage drawers and a good reading light, a recessed dressing table and stool and one wardrobe closet.

The bathroom had a big shower, a mirror over the sink, a toilet and fresh towels daily. There was, however, no separate seating area in the cabin and little space to store luggage.

The main bar/dining room lounge was big, nicely decorated and comfortable, with fresh fruit and sweets always available.

Galileo is blessed with a good chef who laid out a copious breakfast buffet of many hot and cold choices, and the day's second meal mixed Greek specialties with other European dishes, accompanied by complimentary wine.

The spacious deck was outstanding, covered on upper and lower levels for outdoor seating, open with lots of lounge chairs and a Jacuzzi on the uppermost sun deck.

All in all, I found the Galileo perfectly suited in style and performance for Greek Islands cruising.

Regardless of how one travels to other islands, one should approach Santorini only by boat. The harbor you enter -- always subject to prevailing winds -- is the caldera of an extinct volcano, and it is faced by ash and pumice cliffs that plunge dramatically to the sea.

A cable car takes passengers up to Thira, clinging to the cliff edge over the Aegean; it is the supreme, much photographed, white Cycladic town, and one I find fatally flawed by tourist razzmatazz; however, not far along the coastal road is Ia, prettier and nicer.

My travel companion and I bought the Galileo's excursion, visiting both Ia and the Minoan site of Akrotori, a Late Bronze Age city which, like Pompeii, was preserved under a blanket of volcanic ash that archaeologists have removed to reveal whole streets, houses and their furnishings and art.

Also unearthed were breathtaking frescoes, now on display at the National Archeological Museum in Athens.

Our next landfall was the port of Aegiali in the north of dramatically rugged Amorgos. While there was not time to drive to and explore the spectacular Monastery of Chozoviotissa in the central part of the island, a scooter ride took us up to the village of Tholaria, named for its vaulted holos tombs from the Roman period and to the pretty village of Langada.

One of the reasons I sailed on Galileo was to see Patmos, only accessible from the sea, whether aboard a cruise boat, a private yacht or an excursion boat from Kos.

There are pretty beaches here and fine scooter drives, but we came to see first the Monastery of the Apocalypse, and, high above, the Monastery of St. John, with the chapel-tomb of its founder and a dazzling treasury of religious art. We did this "pilgrimage" on foot but hiring a taxi for the outing is more highly recommended.

Cruising into Turkish waters, we tied up in Kusadasi, the port city gateway to Ephesus, the most dramatic and most visited of all ancient sites in Turkey; here Alexander the Great as well as Anthony and Cleopatra once walked along its white marble streets, lined with dazzling remnants of luxurious homes, temples, baths and fountains, a great theater that once accommodated 25,000 spectators, the grand Library of Celsus and newly uncovered mosaic floors.

The tour also included a visit to a country carpet factory, Bazaar 54 Sultankoy, to learn about rug production and view part of the vast rug inventory over tea and coffee; we all invested heavily in Turkey's most famous craft.

We returned to the Greek islands at mountainous Samos, whose hideaway monasteries and traces of past greatness are hidden in a landscape heavy with forests and wildflowers.

We rented a car to cross the island to the northern port of Karlovasi, stopping en route to buy pottery and thyme honey and to barrel up dirt tracks to churches, many of which are abandoned.

The scenery is spectacular along the rugged north coast road that leads to Samos town, whose weather-beaten old mansions line the bayside waterfront.

It's a long sail to Mykonos from Samos, with a stop en route to anchor off Delos; the tiny island, once the hub of Greek political and religious life and revered as the legendary birthplace of Apollo and Artemis, has been reduced by time and pillage to a dusty and deserted ruin.

But oh, what a wondrous remembrance of things long past, from its famous line-up of marble lions to its newly found mosaic floors in ancient hilltop temples.

After a short sail from Delos, Galileo tied up at Mykonos' Paradise Beach, a favorite of sun worshippers in various stages of dress and undress; our group dove right in, mostly swimming and snorkeling from the boat.

Only the truly antisocial seem to be able to resist a call at Mykonos, Greece's most famous small island; it retains a style and chic that other out-and-out tourist islands have lost.

The harbor teems with luxury yachts and brightly painted fishing boats, while narrow cobblestone streets thread through the white-cubed village of little chapels, art galleries, pastry shops and chic boutiques.

Most visitors come to sit in cafes by the sea beneath the landmark windmills and watch the sun sink below the horizon, before choosing a restaurant and consuming huge platters of grilled shrimp and calamari.

And what better end to a Greek Islands cruise than a sail to and visit of the temple of Poseidon on Cape Sounion, en route back to Athens?

Charter operator's brochure is not quite shipshape

By Carla Hunt

NEW YORK -- The Zeus Greek Islands Yacht Cruises brochure needs a good rewrite and new photos for agents to sell this program knowledgeably.

First, the three Zeus yachts are positioned as "casual cruises," and that seemed indeed to be true, for we docked next to two out of the three, and I went aboard both to take a peek.

At a quick glance, the decor of the public lounges and dining areas is spartan and unimaginative, and the cabins looked adequate and dreary.

However, passengers seemed to be having a very good time, particularly on Zeus II, which I was told has a particularly agreeable captain in command; passengers I talked with said the food was good, and, like me, they enjoyed traveling on a boat that left plenty of day and night time ashore.

The cruise price ($1,320 per person, double, for a main/upper deck twin) is right.

The Galileo fills a slot called "deluxe cruise." Whereas it is indeed far more upscale and comfortable with, I am sure, far better service than its sister ships, it is no Sea Cloud.

Many people on our cruise were disappointed that the yacht never hoisted its sails, as was shown in the brochure for the Galileo as well as for Zeus I and III. However, these vessels do not cruise under sail.

The brochure indicates that Galileo passengers embark and disembark in Marina Flisvos in Athens. Well, that has been changed to Marina Zeas in Piraeus. (You guessed it: They held the boat for us.)

Added to next year's brochure will be the new, deluxe, 164-foot Sea Wind vessel, making its debut in May and sailing on the same routing as the Galileo. The yacht will be fitted with 22 cabins, including four suites

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