On our first Crystal Cruise, my friend and I chose a round-trip Istanbul itinerary that carried us through the Greek Islands on the elegant Crystal Serenity, a sanctuary of gracious style, including ports of call that dreams are made of—Santorini, Mykonos and Istanbul.
Santorini is a circular archipelago, island remnants of a collapsed caldera bathing in the Aegean Sea. Visiting Santorini requires scaling the cliffside up to the bustling town of Fira by your choice of donkey or funicular. We chose the funicular and clambered into the cable car with an Italian family, singing “Funiculi Funicula” all the way to the top. The rewards at the top include views of islands jutting out dark against deep Aegean blue. Oh, and wonderful shopping. Fira is a marketplace brimming with silver and leather, food stands and taverns, most opening onto those dramatic views.
But I dreamt of getting lost in the whites and blues of a quieter Santorini. So we hopped a local bus to visit Oia (pronounced EE-ah), a nearby village with fewer tourists–and where my travel dreams came true.
Oia is a bright maze of white geometrically-shaped homes and shops dotted by those iconic blue domes. Riots of hot pink bougainvillea exploded over pergolas and laced between the storefronts. From the main pedestrian street—narrow and peopled with Europe’s most cosmopolitan couples—we could look down past the steep bleached labyrinth of homes hugging the cliffside all the way down to the water. As we ambled from shop to shop, each offered more unusual artistic wares than the last. So many finds, so much to bring home! We escaped the mid-day sun to lunch on succulent prawns, then lingered in this charming village not wanting to miss a single shop, a single artisan–ceramics, jewelry, textiles, sculptures. As the sun began to set, we longed to stay on in the cool of the lengthening shadows until the very last tender zipped us back to the Crystal Serenity, anchored in the bay.
At dusk we sailed away from sparkling Santorini, a shimmering necklace draped atop the cliffs. What could possibly rival our Santorini, our Oia? When we awoke the next morning we found out. Mykonos!
The Old Port of Mykonos is presided over by five stout, thatched windmills worn by the sea-winds. This enclave of Mykonos was once a lively trading center and, so, a favorite target of pirates. Waterfront homes featured basements with windows just above sea level…and cannons! The intrepid inhabitants regularly had to fire their family’s cannon to fend off invaders.
Wander off the waterfront and you enter what is lovingly called Little Venice, a warren of bone-white alleyways studded with colored doors, stairways topped with shutters in shocks of reds and blues. Shopping here is a joyful romp through a labyrinth of crafts and trinkets. After our shopping lists were complete, we visited a Greek Orthodox monastery, its plain exterior belying the ornate golden iconography inside. A quick swim and drink at a local beach and the sun was setting on another gem of a day. We left Mykonos behind for a full day of sailing, headed for our last stop, Istanbul.
We sailed into Istanbul at two in the morning. Party boats were anchored off our portside and dance music played for the revelers, revealing Istanbul to be a lively destination for millennials.
A few hours later the parties had died down and a watery quiet came to rest on the bay. The sun still far from rising, I looked from our balcony out over the silent shoreline with Istanbul’s mosques and minarets sparkling in the darkness. Knowing that each mosque has its own muezzin who calls worshippers to prayer with warbling incantation, I wondered if a city this large has one main muezzin who sings to his city or if each muezzin chants his own call to prayer. Within minutes I found out. From every corner of this sleeping city muezzins sang out the day’s first call to prayer, deep bass voices underpinning the higher warbling tenors, rising, falling in a glorious holy cacophony. Istanbul’s Blue Mosque and colorful spice market punctuated our adventure in true Turkish style. Thank you, Crystal, for the cruise of a lifetime.
Lisa Kallen, Alamo World Travel