An authentic sailing through the Aegean with Variety Cruises
As the early afternoon sun filters through the overhead trellis spreading a dappled light on the tablecloth I lean back in the chair; replete after a huge Greek salad, fresh bread dipped in olive oil and an outsize bottle of Mamos beer served with an ice-cold glass. I already have the bill when the waiter comes back to the table and sets down two huge desserts and shots of the sweet liqueur Mastika. “Please, drink,” he says.
Earlier I mentioned we’d recognised him from a YouTube video about rare Skyrian horses. I pulled it up after discovering we’d be visiting Mouries Farm, a breeding and conservation centre on the island of Skyros. The neighbouring taverna is linked to the farm and he is clearly so chuffed with my remark that he returns the compliment with these extra treats.
The kind snapshot of everyday life epitomises philoxenia, the Greek word that translates as the ancient custom of showing friendship and hospitality to strangers. This is no “hello, how may I help you?” corporate training school patter, but an authentic and genuine welcome that permeated so many aspects of our week travelling to hidden islands in Greece. I didn’t even know most of them existed before embarking on our journey in Athens aboard Variety Cruises 49-passenger Galileo.
As well as exploring well-known hotspots such as Santorini and Mykonos, the Greek-owned line goes out of its way – in every sense at times – to showcase the side of Greece that most visitors never get to see. We were amongst the first passengers on an inaugural itinerary called Hidden Greece: Unexplored Greek Islands. It certainly lived up to its name when it came to discovering lesser-known atolls, albeit not the ones we originally expected to see after Mother Nature took charge.
This is an important point to bear in mind as Galileo is a small ship, measuring in at 157ft, and if the wind gets up much, which it often can in this part of the world, it will not make for very pleasant sailing. If this happens, as it did in our case, the captain will choose a completely different itinerary with better sea conditions, which in our case meant abandoning the Cyclades and Dodecanese altogether and heading north to the Sporades. So it pays to go with the flow, quite literally, and be open-minded.
However, a constant on all sailings are languid swim stops, with the opportunity to swim off the boat or head to small beaches and secluded coves aboard the ship’s RIB. Time spent in ports of call is equally unhurried, often with Galileo setting sail in the early hours. Cruises are half-board, so this allows plenty of time to indulge in long lunches and dinners. More often than not we were the only visitors, surrounded by local families including multigenerational groups at dinner where youngsters stay up late in the balmy evening heat after taking an afternoon nap. It was noticeable that none of the restaurants served contrived children’s meals, just smaller portions of the dishes featured on the menu, and everyone was chatting with hardly a mobile phone in sight.
Despite the change in itinerary, none of the islands we visit disappoint, and we never fail to delight at the sight of blue shuttered white houses in tiny ports, cats basking in the shade and winding, narrow stone streets topped by churches. Optional excursions are arranged for those who want them, whilst independent souls head off on foot or venture further afield in hire cars, which the cruise co-ordinator can arrange.
Everywhere we learned something new. On Skyros there was the visit to the farm which is home to around 50 endangered Skyrian horses, a breed which does not exist anywhere else in the world. Small in stature, the 350 left today are believed to be direct descendants of the horses carved into friezes on the Parthenon. On the island of Agios Efstathios, one of the most isolated in the Aegean that was once used to house political exiles, the human population is even less and stands at just 250. We swell the numbers to such an extent at one small tavern that it runs out of the day’s supply of home-brewed beer.
Back on board the atmosphere on Galileo is relaxed and casual, with no dress code other than to be comfortable. When the ship is sailing passengers head to the sun deck, stay in the cool of the lounge or have a snooze in their cabins. Mealtimes are on an open-plan seating basis and as the ship is so small, friendships form quickly. There’s a very inclusive vibe, too. Variety attracts a fair number of solo travellers, many of them who have sailed with the line before and are welcomed back like family members.
Menus feature Greek specialities, starting with olives on the sizable breakfast buffet, and all the food is fresh and tasty. There’s also a good wine list with the opportunity to try local wines. When the sun dips the most popular spot is the al fresco bar at the back of the ship. There is no entertainment as such, as the ship and the destinations are the star of the show, apart from one night when two local musicians come aboard and there’s some lively Greek dancing led by crew members. There are also cocktails on the house at the captain’s welcome and farewell.
The time finally comes when we had to wave goodbye to Galileo and the ever-cheerful crew members. It has been an enthralling week where we learned about local lifestyle and culture first-hand along with the meaning of another Greek word, meraki, which means to do something with love, passion and soul – something Variety Cruises achieves on all counts.
Galileo sails on seven-night cruises in the Aegean and eastern Mediterranean, and cruises can be combined back-to-back to create a 14-night holiday. Land stay add-ons are also available. Seafarer Cruises represents Variety Cruises in the UK and the new Hidden Greece: Unexplored Greek Islands cruise starts from £2,659 with flights and transfers.