Greece & The Dalmatian Coast

You’d think anyone with two degrees in literature would have made a trip to the land of Homer and Euripides well before qualifying for an AARP card. Now that I’ve finally visited, it’s clear just how appealing the Greek islands are, with or without the lure of Argonauts and Odysseus. Like Sirens beckoning you toward twinkling waters and monastery-filled mountains, the southern peninsula called the Peloponnese offers visitors a picturesque Greece of cobblestoned lanes and bobbing fishing boats.

Departing for a cruise called 7-Day Dalmatian Delights, on the Seabourn line, we arrived in Athens, where it was 110 in the shade—higher at the hilltop Acropolis, where we were wowed by what remains of the monuments to Athena, the city’s namesake. But it’s the other legendary ‘city states’ that captivate the imagination on this cruise, including archrival Sparta on nearby Monemvasia, and the tiny Peloponnesian isles that confounded the legendary Odysseus for 10 years before he finally reached Ithaca.

In fact, the promise of following in the footsteps of Western civilization’s icons is no small part of the allure here. The birthplace of Western culture, Greece is rich with sites and experiences that bring to life so much of what students of the humanities read and learn about in art history, philosophy and literature classes. You can see the birthplaces of Sophocles, Aeschylus, Pythagoras, Archimedes, Phidias and Plato. And visit the enchanted grove where the Olympics began in 746 A.D. What’s more, you can follow the exact path early Olympians took to enter the stadium—the first in the world—which seated 45,000. Can you imagine that many souls traveling over land and sea nearly three millennia ago? While today’s headlines about Greek monetary and migrant woes might give tourists pause, we neither saw nor heard a thing about these while we were there in September. In fact, I found Greece the perfect place to lose yourself in the past and forget all about the present.

Our ship, the Seabourn Odyssey, made that very easy to do. The most exclusive nameplate under the Carnival Corp. umbrella, Seabourn is rated a five-star cruising experience. With a 450-passenger capacity, our ship was serviced by 346 crew members. Accommodations are ‘all-suites,’ offering lovely verandas from which to enjoy those idyllic islands as you glide past. None other than Thomas Keller of The French Laundry fame is an adviser on the food service, which is gourmet by any standards. Interestingly, St. Louisan Arnold Donald has headed Carnival Corp. since 2013, and under his leadership, Seabourn has added two new vessels, set to launch in 2016 and 2017.

The pace on a cruise like this is mellow, a blend of lying around the pool and strolling around the ruins. And when I say strolling, that’s exactly what I mean. Land excursions include leisurely activities like spending the morning in Monemvasia, a Byzantine town that looks pretty much the same as it did in the Middle Ages. Ancient stone homes are built up into the mountainside and accessed by steep stone pavers.

Gliding from the Aegean to the Ionian Sea, a visit to the island of Lefkada reveals a hilltop monastery dedicated to the Virgin Mary. Monks in long, black robes still conduct services in the gilded sanctuary, a colorful vision of goldframed saints and apostles, with a ceiling of turquoise from which Jesus looks down on all who enter. A walk around town offers a mix of tourist shops, tavernas and beachside cafes from which to admire the Ionian Sea.

Most ports of call were the smaller, less-visited ones, which gives you a calmer, more ‘authentic’ Greek experience. One exception, to the ‘calmer’ part anyway, was Corfu, a bustling and glamorous port where you almost expect to see Jackie O crossing the Spianada town square built by the Venetians during their commercial domination here, from 1386 to 1797. The cosmopolitan island, located between Greece and the boot heel of Italy, was ruled variously by the Italians, French and British for 500 years, which explains its exciting vibe. Under the arches of a stunning esplanade called the Liston, arcaded buildings house elegant cafes, boutiques and restaurants.

The 13th-century Paleokastritsa monastery in Corfu is a remarkable site, built into the mountainside. It includes bougainvillea-strewn arbors, richly scented jasmine and the classic trio of bells in its bell tower. Our local guide, Marilena, explained that the typical Greek Orthodox basilica is a singlehalled sanctuary with the number three symbolic throughout: three church bells, three altar steps, a tri-part altarpiece, etc. Once home to 35 monks, the monastery now houses seven, and they produce olive oil from their lush gardens, as well as wine. Clusters of ripening grapes dangle invitingly from overhead trellises. She also explained that Greek Orthodox priests are expected to marry, while monks, an omnipresent sight in their long beards and ankle-length robes, are forbidden to do so.

The end of the cruise gave us two days in Croatia, a country whose natural beauty rivals any on the planet. Mountainous and having 3,600 miles of coastline, this Balkan country is one of seven now-independent states that once comprised Yugoslavia. The bloody civil war of 1991 is hardly detectable today in the country’s most heralded city, Dubrovnik, a Unesco site. While it had been heavily shelled, the city was rebuilt, with funds from Unesco, to reflect its former glory and charm.

The Old City is walled and has three gates, which the townspeople opened in the morning and closed at night during medieval times. The only people besides residents allowed to stay overnight within the walls were Jewish merchants, and the city still has an old synagogue on Judioska Street, right near the main square and the Pile Gate. It is the second-oldest synagogue in Europe and is still used by the 14 remaining Jewish families in town. Game of Thrones fans will no doubt recognize many of Dubrovnik’s promenades, towers and staircases, since the popular HBO series has been filmed here for the past five seasons. The show’s main city, King’s Landing, is in fact old town Dubrovnik.

Land excursions are available at each port visited by Seabourn Odyssey, and there’s plenty of onboard entertainment in the evenings, including informative presentations prior to landing at certain destinations, so guests can have a context for what they’re about to see. As luck would have it, the week we were there, a very special evening program was offered: an impromptu talk by Academy Award-winning producer Jon Landau, who happened to be on the cruise as a guest with his wife Julie. He shared insights about the making of Titanic and Avatar, the two largest grossing films in history, which he created with director James Cameron.

Even with all that’s offered, it’s not uncommon for guests to just spend the day on the ship, engaged in more leisurely activities, most notably relaxing by the pool. The inviting Deck 7 area contains two hot tubs shielded from the sun by canvas tarps and a long pool surrounded by teak seating. If ‘vacation’ is supposed to be synonymous with relaxation, this is your spot. The sky’s the limit in terms of what you can have brought to your poolside lounge chair, and in fact, tempting drinks like a BBC (Bailey’s, banana liqueur and Champagne) or Miami Vice (rum, pina colada and strawberry daiquiri mix) are offered continuously. One guest said it all when she reconsidered a suggestion from a server passing by with a tray: OK, I guess I will have some Champagne with my caviar.

[if you go]
eat: The main dining room is artfully subdivided to offer guests a more private and intimate dining experience than its capacity of 450 implies. There is another dinner option at Restaurant Two, which offers an innovative, 5-course tasting menu. Reservations are required, and it fills up early. And, of course, there are opportunities at every port to sample Greek food while overlooking some of the prettiest waters in the world.

stay: Seabourn rooms are spacious, even the bathrooms. A laundry facility is available onboard, so you can pack lighter. There is at least one formal night, which requires a suit for men, a dress for women. The staff, from cabin stewards to poolside waiters, are friendly and efficient.

play: I recommend going on a daily land excursion. These last usually about three to four hours, and are relatively inexpensive, $60 to about $90 a person. They are led by expert guides and will give you some historical background and context for the wonderful sites in Greece. Try to participate in the evening entertainment, which ranges from magicians and dancers to lounge singers and violinists. Do not miss a visit to Olympia, where you will walk in the footsteps, literally, of every famous Greek historical figure from ancient times.

shop: Each little port has both trinket shops and nicer galleries. The latter offer many lovely items, especially intricate gold jewelry engraved with Greek motifs. The onboard gift shop, too, has a wonderful assortment of items at surprisingly good prices.

Photos: Marc Weiner