Can a young adult who cut her teeth on shipboard children’s programs aboard mainstream cruise lines find happiness on a small-ship voyage through Greece and Turkey?
This was my mission when I set out on back-to-back Celestyal cruises aboard the 836-passenger Celestyal Odyssey and the 1,200-passenger Celestyal Crystal with my daughter, Chloe, a veteran of more family cruises than I can count.
I needn’t have worried. Both of the ships (the Odyssey has been replaced by the Celestyal Nefeli since our trip) were appealing, comfortable and family-friendly, but the real draw was the powerhouse combination of two can’t-miss destinations, experienced via ships small enough to explore them in ways their bigger rivals can’t.
Best of all, the shore excursions offer a mix of kid-friendly beach days and intriguing journeys into ancient history.
The cruises out of Athens use both the Port of Piraeus and the smaller Port of Lavrion, and the boarding process was so easy that by late afternoon on embarkation day we were already in Mykonos. There was plenty of time for a tour and dinner at Kuzina, a picturesque beachside restaurant with a menu diverse enough to appeal to even picky kids.
Because the Odyssey portion of the trip focused on iconic destinations, some of the ports of call were already known to us, but I looked forward to introducing a few favorites to Chloe.
They included Kusadasi, Turkey, where she was stunned by her first look at the imposing ruins at Ephesus, followed by some serious shopping near the port.
Parents with very young children might find this excursion challenging, but most kids middle school age and above would likely be drawn in, thanks to the astonishingly well-preserved ruins and frescoes, brought to life by the lively narration of professional guides.
In stark contrast to the mega-popularity of Ephesus was Patmos, a quiet, lesser- known island where St. John is said to have written the Book of Revelation.
The grotto and monastery were intimate and charming, but we also loved just wandering around the island, shopping for souvenirs and snapping pictures — and, OK, a few selfies — of the dramatic views.
Other highlights included Heraklion on Crete, where we explored ancient Knossos; Oia on Santorini, where we were able to explore the picture-postcard town on our own, followed by free time in Fira to shop and take the cable car back to the ship.
The next day we disembarked in Lavrion and transferred to the Crystal for a four-day Idyllic Aegean itinerary, which focuses on lesser-known destinations.
The first of those turned out to be the Temple of Poseidon at Cape Sounion, a Parthenon look-alike with virtually no other visitors; Ermoupoli, the capital of the Cyclades islands, a Unesco world heritage site; and Cesme, Turkey, where we spent an entire day at the Sole & Mare beach club swimming and lounging in a setting reminiscent of the French Riviera.
The adults among us enjoyed the wine tasting on Kos at a family-run winery at the foot of Mount Dikeos, while Chloe ate her first honey direct from a honeycomb at an apiary in Kefalos. We drank fresh lemonade and contemplated getting pedicures at the fish spa in Zia.
In Ios, we again mixed sightseeing with fun as we traveled back in time to a prehistoric settlement, Skarkos, then swam at Manganari Beach, an outing suitable for kids of any age.
Back on Santorini, we visited the ancient village of Akrotiri, a settlement abandoned by its inhabitants before a volcanic eruption in the 17th century B.C.
Of course, much of the success of our cruise experience was due to the appeal of the two ships.
Parents who are used to mainstream cruise lines and their blockbuster children’s clubs with supervised activities won’t find that here, but there is a modest children’s play area on the Crystal, as well as a swimming pool on both ships.
Unlike larger cruise ships, passengers aren’t plied with food 24/7, which Chloe and I didn’t mind at all.
Instead, dining took place at meal times at the Aqua Marine restaurant on the Odyssey and the Amalthia restaurant on the Crystal, although snacks were available at the pool.
Despite our busy schedules, we took advantage of the spas on both ships for first-rate massages, and we also hit the respective gyms when time allowed.
The shipboard entertainment was more destination-specific than on a mainstream cruise, and one of our favorite evenings was a re-enactment of traditional wedding ceremonies, complete with lively Greek dancing.
Both the Iconic and Idyllic cruises are available in three-, four- and seven-night versions and can be combined in a number of ways. By prearrangement, passengers can stay ashore after the ship sails, for example, stay in a Louis Group or other hotel for several nights, then re-embark the ship on its return.
Children of all ages are welcome to sail, including babies 3 months and older and toddlers, but school age and up makes the most sense for most families. Kids of ages 16 and younger pay only port taxes when staying in a cabin with two paying adults.