Sparkling azure seas, miles of sandy beaches, ancient olive groves, sleepy villages of tumbling white washed houses and endless sunshine – these images are synonymous with mainland Greece and her 6,000 islands. Alone they would be reason enough to make it an ideal destination for escape and exploration but these attractions are only part of the picture. Greece is a nation steeped in history, ancient culture, myth and legend. Everywhere one finds evidence of the many cultures and nations which have ruled and inhabited these lands, beginning with Neolithic man and progressing through Roman, Venetian and Ottoman periods among others.
This colourful and varied history, influenced by so many different cultures, has left each island a little world unto itself - each has its own legends, traditions and something which marks it as unique.
Greece cruise itineraries vary widely, although many of the more popular ones focus on a specific group of islands such as the Cyclades. This large, central Aegean island group is typified by quintessentially Greek villages and towns with low, white washed and flat roofed houses. Ports of call can be numerous but may include the cosmopolitan and vibrant Mykonos, the haunt of celebrities, interwoven with tiny alleys and, according to Greek mythology, the site of the battle between Zeus and the Titans. Stops on a Greece cruise at Mykonos usually include its tiny neighbour – Delos. This uninhabited island is home to an archaeological site of enormous historical significance. Ancient market squares, temples and ceremonial avenues of great carved lions are just the tip of the iceberg.
Also lying within the Cyclades group is Santorini, formed when an ancient volcano exploded in the Late Bronze Age, creating what is believed to be one of the largest eruptions ever to occur on earth. Whitewashed villages give the appearance of being impossibly perched on cliff edges and the rich volcanic soil means Santorini is renowned for many crop specialities, particularly a species of extra sweet cherry tomato.
Kynthos, which boasts more than 70 beaches, is another popular port of call for Greece cruises. Many of the tiny winding streets are unable to take vehicles so locals on donkeys are a common sight. Low key is the island's theme and centuries old traditions linger on. The Katafiki cave here is one of Greece's largest and the island is also home to natural thermal springs with healing properties.
Folegandros, with its towering cliffs, large cave and architectural and cultural influences coloured by a history of Athenian, Venetian and Ottoman occupation, is another typical Greece port of call.
The Dodecanese islands, which lie between Crete and Turkey, are another group which often feature on cruise itineraries. For many, the island of Patmos within this group is an essential stop because of its spiritual significance. Patmos is mentioned in the bible through the visions of St John the Theologian, an island inhabitant. The site of these visions was reportedly the Cave of the Apocalypse and the Monastery of St John, founded in 1088, is a famous island landmark. Both sites, which are UNESCO World Heritage Sites, are popular with tourists and Christian pilgrims alike.
The Saronic islands, which are among the closest lying to the Greek capital, Athens, are popular ports of call for both cruise ships and day tripping island hopping. Pretty little Aegina produces cotton, almonds, olives and figs but is most famous for its pistachios. Sited here is the Temple of Aphaea which dates from 500 BC and is a romantically ruined, columned structure. The Saronic island of Hydra on the other hand, has only one town, which is also its port, but is a bustling mix of shops, open air restaurants and cafes, markets and galleries.
Greece cruise itineraries will often begin or end with a visit to the hugely significant historical and cultural city of Athens accessed via Piraeus. It is almost impossible to wander around Greek's capital city without stumbling across some evidence of its ancient culture and colourful history which dates back more than 3,000 years. As the central seat of Greece's ancient and classical culture for arts, philosophy and learning, it would be impossible to list all that there is to see and do in Athens and equally impossible to visit it all. The most famous of all Greece's ancient landmarks is the Parthenon while other notable tourist destinations are the National Archaeological Museum which houses the largest collection of Greek antiquities in the world, the Agora market, the stone theatre known as the Odeon of Herodes Atticus and the Stoa of Attalos which are ruins of an ancient covered portico.
A Greece vacation typically combines a mix of beaches, culture and history and, depending on the cruise length, may visit one, two or even more island groups along with certain mainland ports.