Discover bucket-list ports, tasty Mediterranean fare, and Greek disco on board the Celestyal Crystal.
Who knew Greek disco was a thing? Not me. But here I am on the dancefloor of M/V Celestyal Crystal, sashaying under a strobe light to a thrumming disco beat and strumming bouzoukis. I switch dance partners often—from hubby Peter to wild Stewart, a Brit who loves to dance, to smiling Marios, young, Greek, and charming. We're floating somewhere on the Aegean Sea, returning to Athens, where our seven-day, three-continent cruise will end. If I could, I would stay on board forever.
I knew this would be an unforgettable cruise. Its ports of call are on everyone's bucket list: Egypt, Israel, Turkey, Rhodes, and Cyprus—not to mention Athens, a city that deserves a few extra days to explore. In each place my husband, Peter, and I have seen history and culture up close, touched it, even smelled it. Add in a steady diet of healthy Mediterranean food, carefree excursions, onboard ship activities, a chance to explore the roots of modern civilization, not to mention Greek disco, and all I can say is this has been The. Best. Cruise. Ever.
Embark with us on our Eastern Mediterranean adventure, as we sail in Odysseus' wake and encounter adventures at every port.
Feel the Energy of the Great Pyramid
Explore Precious Artifacts at the Egyptian Museum
Let's start with the ship. M/V Crystal accommodates 1000 passengers in comfortable staterooms and offers many amenities large ships offer, along with stellar service. Restaurants range from fully loaded buffets to elegant dining venues. Our favorite, Amalthia, serves an array of continental cuisine with a Mediterranean flair. A stand-out dish we try one evening is moussaka ("a secret recipe," our server said).
One morning the ship's executive chef gives a cooking demo: shrimp saganaki, another crazy-good dish that comes together in a jif. Shrimp sautéed in garlic and olive oil with a splash of ouzo are bathed in a rich tomato sauce and sprinkled with feta cheese and an extra swirl of olive oil. Served with fresh herbs and crispy crostini, this recipe is a keeper. (I've included the recipe below.)
Another time we taste delicious Greek wines in a seminar led by Adrian, the ship's maitre'd. I learn about hard-to-pronounce varietals such as agiorgitiko, assyrtiko, malagousia, mavrodafni, mavro kalavritino, as well as the main wine regions in Greece, one of which—Nemea—we visited earlier in our Greek adventure. Adrian tells us wine has been a part of Greek culture for millennia. In fact, the very first sommeliers were Greek. "After Greece joined the EU, the wine industry took off," he said.
Greek wines are ideal for pairing with Greek foods. Assyrtiko, for example, is perfect with oysters and fatty fish, whereas agiorgitiko, my favorite, complements roasted meats. Every night with dinner I enjoy getting to know these wine varietals better.
While many veteran cruisers love the feasts enjoyed on board, Peter and I chose this particular cruise for the ports of call and look forward to dining in some of the cities we visit.
Our first port of call—after a day at sea—involves taking a two-hour early morning bus ride from Alexandria to Cairo, Egypt, a destination that's been on my bucket list for a long time. Who doesn't dream of seeing the Great Pyramids rising up from the sand dunes? A fabulous guide and Egyptologist, Hany Tawfik, comes along and shares stories, legends, and history during the bus trip to Cairo. He's especially excited to show us the pyramids. "I want you to feel their energy," he says. Soon we spot the pyramids in the distance, shadowy, like apparitions against a pale sky.
While Lawrence of Arabia doesn't appear on one of the nearby sand dunes, camels and horses and men wearing head scarves mill about—plus busloads of tourists. We scramble up stone stairs leading into the Great Pyramid, passing through a cave-like passageway, and ascend deep into the heart of history.
Constructed as a tomb for Khufu, a pharaoh who ruled in around 2500 BC, the Great Pyramid contains 2.3 million limestone blocks, according to Egyptologists, some weighing as much as 80 tons. Inside Peter and I climb a very steep—and claustrophobic—stairway to the King's Chamber, a small room with stale air. It's empty, of course, having been plundered centuries ago.
We share the space with about a dozen people, who take selfies in the dim light. One Asian woman hugs a wall with her whole body as if she's absorbing ancient energy. While it's thrilling to be inside such an icon, I am glad to return to the fresh air and vibrant scene outside.
Next we go for a camel ride through the desert. Peter wears his newly purchased red-and-white scarf and looks like a sheikh. Our guide, Mohammed, leads our camels and takes photos of us. He even lends me his scarf for picture taking and tenderly wraps it around my head. I soon discover riding a camel if bumpy, especially when it trots, but I love being way up high and seeing the pyramids as they have been viewed since they were built—from the back of a camel.
After lunch at a lovely spot overlooking the Nile, we take a tour of the Egyptian Museum. We notice the museum is in a state of disarray, and Hany says a new museum is opening in 2021 nearer to the pyramids, and this location will close. The museum houses approximately 160,000 objects covering 5,000 years of Egypt's history. We see artifacts of every description: mummies, coffins, statues, precious jewelry, gold-covered tombs. We hurry through, mindful of our schedule, but I wish I could linger and learn more about the proud Egyptians and their contributions to mankind.
But another bus is waiting to take us back to port, where we'll embark to our next destination: the port of Ashdod and gateway to Bethlehem and Jerusalem.
Walk in Jesus' Footsteps in Jerusalem
Explore the Acropolis of Lindos in Rhodes
The next morning we board a bus to explore holy Christian sites and walk in the footsteps of Jesus as he carried the cross to the hill where he would be crucified. I've dreamed of seeing these places and can hardly believe I'm here. First we stand in a crowded line to visit the place where Jesus was born in Bethlehem. Once a manger, the site is now the Church of the Nativity in Bethlehem and holy place of pilgrimage. It's crawling with people, and I find it hard to feel a connection to the site's spirituality.
Next we visit some of the stations of the cross, which are found in the souk, or market, in a warren of streets in Jerusalem. I love exploring the markets, where vendors sell sweets, pomegranate juice, fruit, and spices. We arrive at the Church of the Holy Sepulchre, and the first stop is at the top of stairs where some folks patiently wait in line to kiss the spot where Jesus died. Nearby is the site of the cave where Jesus' body was taken.
Our December visit coincides with the Christmas pilgrim rush, so crowds are everywhere. Which, it turns out, is the perfect environment for local thieves to do their dirty work. As Peter and I stand gawking at Jesus' tomb, a thief steals our camera bag, probably using a knife to slice the strap. Luckily, Peter's carrying his camera. Unluckily, our passports are in that bag, which along with the thief melts into the crowd before we even realize it's gone.
Dusk has fallen and it's time to go back to the ship. Will we be able to get out of Israel? Will Cyprus, our next port of call, let us enter without passports so we can obtain emergency passports at the U.S. Embassy? Or will we be confined to the ship and miss the next three ports of call? Hmm, this is starting to sound like "As The Ship Turns."
Happily, the fixers on the ship arrange everything, even passport photos, and the next day in Nicosia the kind folks at the embassy present us with shiny, new passports. We miss the excursion in Cyprus, but forget our disappointment the following day in Rhodes as we explore the windswept ruins of the Acropolis of Lindos. Spectacular views—even a rainbow—add to the dramatic landscape, but the best part of our Rhodes' visit is lunch at a rustic restaurant, where we feast on juicy lamb, tzatziki, and fresh Greek salad.
Explore Well-Preserved City of Ephesus
Drink Authentic Turkish Coffee in Sirince
Our next port, Kusadasi, located on the western coast of Turkey, is the gateway to Ephesus, one of the most well-preserved ancient Greek-Roman cities. A highlight is the excavated ruins of homes belonging to Ephesus' wealthiest residents. Huge mansions, buried underground for millennia, feature elaborate Roman baths, mosaic scenes, and frescoes of animals, birds, gods and goddesses, their colors still vibrant even after thousands of years.
But what's special about Ephesus is knowing that the white marble stone streets we're walking on—polished smooth by the centuries—were also traveled by Marc Antony and Cleopatra, St. Paul, perhaps even the Virgin Mary, who is said to have come from a village not far away. Talk about walking in the footsteps of history.
We lunch at a lovely hotel in the nearby village of Sirince, once the home of a Greek community that left after WWI. The Mediterranean-style food is hearty, spicy, and oh-so good. Lunch is served with a red wine from Turkey, which I love. Learning about new wines in exotic places is always fun.
Sirince's winding streets, colorful market, and friendly people are so full of life compared to the dusty ruins of Ephesus. We stop for Turkish coffee in the market and watch an amazing ritual as the server slides a small pot in circles in hot sand—shhh, shhh, shhh—until the brew bubbles and foams. The woman smiles as she pours steaming coffee into my cup.
Traveling is about more than bucket lists, I realize. It's about leaving behind the ordinary and embracing the extraordinary. It's about slowing down and experiencing all your senses. Most of all, it's about connecting with people in the places we go.
Editor's Note: While cruise ships aren't operating currently, they are anxiously waiting to welcome you on board. In fact, they need you desperately. Visit www.celestyalcruises.com and peruse the amazing variety of cruises that are on offer. Follow them on Facebook, and keep in touch with your travel agent so you'll be among the first to know when cruises commence. Bon voyage!
Shrimp Saganaki (6 servings)
1/4 c. chopped yellow onion
4 lbs. raw shrimp, deveined
1 cup feta cheese, crumbled
2 1/2 cups ripe tomatoes, chopped
2 garlic cloves, chopped
1/4 cup dry white wine
1/8 cup ouzo
1/4 cup olive oil
1 T. fresh parsley, chopped
1/2 tsp. dried oregano
Salt and black pepper To taste
· In a heated pan, sauté chopped onion in olive oil until onion is translucent and add in chopped garlic.
· At this point add in the shrimp, stir well and deglaze with the dry white wine.
· Cook on high heat for a few minutes and transfer all the item including the leftover juice into a clean bowl.
· In the same heated pan, add olive oil, chopped onion, chopped tomatoes, garlic and sauté well.
· Simmer a few minutes together with all the juices from the chopped tomatoes.
· When the sauce has become slightly thickened. add the finished cooked shrimp back into the pan, add in the ouzo, chopped fresh herbs and check the final seasoning.
· Do not overcook the shrimp, take off from the heat and top with feta cheese and the remaining chopped parsley.
Serve with toasted crostini.