In the marina at Piraeus, a harbour city near Athens, there are superyachts and ferries the size of tower blocks. The Galileo – a mere 157ft long, four masts, wooden decks – looks as if it has slipped in unnoticed from another era.
For me and my wife Annie, it’s love at first sight. The Galileo is a proper ship, not a hotel with an anchor. She will take us through the Cyclades, the necklace of fabled islands that dangle southwards towards Crete, at a gentle 11 knots. It will feel more like an odyssey than a cruise.
The 24 cabins host a mix of Britons, Spaniards, French, Germans and Americans — mostly couples, mainly retired. Over the eight-day voyage, we will mingle happily, swapping tables and life stories, in the saloon, the sun deck and the bar.
The best cabins are above the waterline. Ours isn’t, and you get used to the sight of floating kelp outside your porthole. The decor is a bit tired but the food is terrific, the crew is super-helpful and you never have that feeling of being pushed from one activity to another.
We have chosen one of the last cruises of the year. Dodgy weather is a risk, and indeed our departure is delayed by the Zeus of all thunderstorms in Athens. Thereafter, it’s balmy and clear. I pity the frazzled souls who will be roasting on deck and baking in Delos (the main archaeological site we visit) come high season.
Charming: Mark Jones sets sail on Variety Cruises’ tour of the Cyclades islands in Greece aboard The Galileo (pictured), which he describes as ‘a proper ship, not a hotel with an anchor’
It’s been four decades since I last sailed through the Cyclades. What strikes me most is how smart these islands have become.
The tat — the plastic models of the Parthenon, the cheap laminated menus — has gone. The tourist villages and harbourside towns have embraced the ‘greige’ colour palette. The little square in Poros, where we once drank ouzo and ate chargrilled squid fresh off the boat, is now a place of serious restaurants and boutiques selling elegant scarves and tote bags.
Later in the cruise, we make a stop in Paros (not to be confused with Poros — though I do confuse them, constantly). That’s even swisher. If you have been to the classy French Atlantic Ile de Re you will know what to expect: the villages all look as if they are waiting for some upmarket interiors magazine to come along and feature them.
The Galileo – a mere 157ft long, four masts, wooden decks – looks as if it’s from another era, writes Mark
Guests aboard The Galileo can mingle happily in the saloon, the sun deck (above) and the bar
Mark makes a stop in Paros, where the villages ‘all look as if they are waiting for some upmarket interiors magazine to come along and feature them’. Above is the village of Naousa
Paros is just south of the island that’s now most dedicated to Plutus (the god of luxury and fruitfulness): Santorini, the rockface that launched a million postcards.
This vertiginous volcanic island suffered badly from the blight of overtourism before Covid. Always a must-do for Europeans and Americans, the island has become a must-do for Asian travellers and their billions of Instagram followers.
Our plan is to enjoy those winding streets before the weather brings the crowds back. It’s a limited success. We still find ourselves squeezed into alleyways and against whitewashed walls while people saunter and selfie.
The Lycabettus restaurant in Oia on Santorini is quite the escape, however: an oval terrace jutting out over the cliffs. We call for blankets with our glasses of rose. Mountains of steel-grey clouds offer a dramatic backdrop to those famous white walls and blue cupolas.
The best cabins on The Galileo are above the waterline, Mark reveals
Mark says that the island of Syros, pictured above, ‘is a delight’. ‘Its wide, walled harbour is magnificent at sunset,’ he adds
Mark Jones travelled with Variety Cruises, the eight day full-board Antiquity to Byzantium sailing is from £1,348pp. B&B doubles at the Asomaton Hotel (asomaton.com) from £170. BA (ba.com) London to Athens from £89 return. Airport transfers with greeceprivate transfer.com.
The other most celebrated island, Mykonos, is a bit of a let-down. It has that telltale out-of-season tiredness. Without the influencers, the beaches and bars have a hungover feeling.
Nearby Syros, though, is a delight. The town was largely constructed as a port in the 19th century. The trade later moved to the mainland, leaving a legacy of splendid merchants’ houses and quiet squares. Its wide, walled harbour is magnificent at sunset.
There is time for just one more stop before we say farewell to the turquoise waters. Aegina island is close to Athens and the bustling streets, stalls selling big bags of pistachios and busy cafes prepare you for a return to that great city. At sunset, there is time for an ouzo at a cafe on the rocky foreshore. Fish souvlaki costs 12 euros, an ouzo a lot less.
The tables are that vivid shade of cornflower blue which never looks quite the same on your garden shed. There’s a golden pathway leading across the sea from the setting sun to our table. How could I have forgotten? There’s nowhere like the Greek islands.