Emely is working away at the knots in my back as we sail under the Greek summer sun from Crete to Santorini.
The boat’s gentle swaying lulls me into an almost meditative state while soft Balinese music plays and waves splash up against the window. ‘You needed this, eh?’ she says as my knots unfurl.
She’s right, I haven’t felt this relaxed in months. This might sound like I’m aboard a luxury chartered yacht.
Harriet Sime boards Celestyal’s MS Olympia (above) for ‘quite possibly the world’s cheapest cruise’ – a three-night voyage that takes in four Greek islands and visits the Turkish Riviera for just £234 per person
In fact, it’s quite possibly the world’s cheapest cruise.
Celestyal’s three-night Iconic Aegean sailing starts in Athens and takes in four Greek islands (Mykonos, Santorini, Patmos and Crete), plus a Turkish whistle-stop tour. The price? Just £234 per person. That works out at £78 a night and covers all food, drink, entertainment, tips and up to two excursions.
That’s a bargain when the average hotel room in Santorini or Mykonos comes in at considerably more than £200 a night.
The price of the cruise on MS Olympia (pictured) covers all food, drink, entertainment, tips and up to two excursions
Harriet says that the cabins and suites on the ship ‘could do with a refresh’. Pictured is one of the staterooms
A twin cabin on MS Olympia. ‘While the decor might not be everyone’s cup of ouzo, the ship’s impeccable service, delicious food and brilliant entertainment certainly is,’ says Harriet
There are 1,180 of us on aboard MS Olympia; the boat’s capacity is 1,664, but, like all cruise lines, the Cypriot-owned company is still recovering from the pandemic.
While the cost of hotels and flights across the world have soared, Celestyal’s prices have remained incredibly low. It means that short cruises such as this one are a brilliant option for those wanting a budget break.
We visit two islands each day; one in the morning, one in the evening. Sailing happens during the hottest hours of the day (when I spend my time sunbathing on the top deck and feasting on baba ganoush in one of the four restaurants) and overnight, arriving at a new destination.
But while the island stops may be five star; the ship’s interior is not. Olympia has been afloat for 40 years, starting out as a Royal Caribbean vessel in 1982, and it’s been stuck in the 80s ever since, with swirly blue and purple carpets and red leather sofas.
The hotel’s pool. Harriet reveals that Olympia has been afloat for 40 years, starting out as a Royal Caribbean vessel in 1982
While the ship is sailing between islands, Harriet spends her time sunbathing and feasting in the restaurants. Above is the ship’s Aegean Restaurant
Harriet on MS Olympia. ‘Short cruises such as this one are a brilliant option for those wanting a budget break,’ she says
The most basic cabins have bunk or twin beds and no windows and even the top-end suites, with baths and balconies, could do with a refresh.
But while the decor might not be everyone’s cup of ouzo, the ship’s impeccable service, delicious food and brilliant entertainment certainly is. I’ve only been on board an hour and Ion, the ebullient deputy cruise director, is getting sunbathers scattered around the pool up on stage for some impromptu dancing. ‘Opa!’ he shouts, while demonstrating traditional Greek moves. The crowd on the platform grows as the dancing improves and spectators gather around.
Even those on the upper deck get involved, clapping and cheering as they place their hands on each other’s shoulders and kick their legs in the air.
For those wanting respite from the scorching 33c sun, violins are being played and guitars strummed in the various bars; quizzes on Greek mythology are being held in the lounge and tables are filling up for the afternoon bingo session.
We’re a mixed bunch of multi-generational revellers; grey-haired American couples, Greek and Latin American families and bus-loads of school and college students on tours through Europe.
It’s a pleasingly youthful crowd but I’m baffled not to hear one other British accent, given our love for life on the high seas. It can only be a matter of time.
Ion spots me later in the reception area and shimmies his way across the room. ‘You have to join us for Greek dancing tomorrow. It’s an absolute must for our guests.’
Warm breezes: Harriet watches the sunset among the thronging crowds around the 16th-century windmills (pictured) on Mykonos
I tell him I’ll see how I feel, knowing it will take more than a few glasses of the ship’s surprisingly good Greek chardonnay to get me on that platform at midday.
Before we know it, we’re floating just off Mykonos town and are ferried in to wander around the pristine white streets which burst with falling pink bougainvillea and grape vines.
The small boats come and go to the town every 15 minutes, leaving those who have opted out of an official excursion the flexibility to explore as much as they please.
Historic: The tour stops at Kusadasi on the Turkish Riviera, allowing passengers to hop on board a bus to the nearby ancient city of Ephesus (above)
I spend the evening popping in and out of Mykonos’s boutique shops and bars before settling in among the thronging crowds around the 16th-century windmills for sunset.
Bizarrely, there’s more room to move about on the ship than in the tiny streets on this clogged island. Put it this way, we are not the only cruise ship bobbing about near Mykonos.
We sail through our first night and arrive early at Kusadasi on the Turkish Riviera to hop on board a bus to the nearby ancient city of Ephesus, home to one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World, the Temple of Artemis. We spend an hour exploring the paved streets and magnificent ruins and are back on the boat by midday and heading for the sleepy island of Patmos, my favourite of the five stops.
The sleepy island of Patmos, which has escaped mass tourism, is Harriet’s favourite stop of the trip. Above is the island’s Psili Amos beach
Celestyal Cruises’ three-night Iconic Aegean cruise costs from £234 per person based on the July 29, 2022 sailing. Price includes all meals and drinks, two excursions to Ephesus and the Palace of Knossos, port fees and gratuities (celestyal.com).
The sacred island, in the far-flung northern Dodecanese, has escaped mass tourism, largely due to having no airport and it being an eight-hour slog on a ferry from Athens. So spiritual is the island, it is where John the Apostle is said to have written the Book of Revelation, the final book of the New Testament.
After a dip in the wonderfully clear sea, I get chatting to Corray and Glenda, from Baltimore, Maryland, at a wine bar in the fishing village. They’re on an 11-day tour through Europe.
‘The staff and entertainment are what we’ve been impressed with,’ Glenda says.
‘The ship is not luxurious. I’ve been pampered on cruises before and I don’t feel pampered but I’m definitely having fun.’
So am I. And that’s all down to the staff who wear cheery smiles under their face masks (mandatory for all when walking around the ship) and are ready to sing, clap and dance at a moment’s notice.
Another day, another port (or two). This time it’s a morning exploring Crete’s capital Heraklion, iced latte in hand, before heading to Santorini.
From the top deck, the white houses that tumble down the cliffs to rocky beaches draw closer as the sun begins to drop. It’s a fitting final stop.
‘I’ll be back,’ I tell Ion, as I leave the ship at Athens the next morning.
And I mean it — because, as the cost of living crisis escalates, bargains such as this might not be around for ever.
As MS Olympia approaches Santorini, pictured, Harriet watches the sun setting over the white houses that tumble down the cliffs to rocky beaches
TEN MORE TANTALISINGLY AFFORDABLE CRUISES TO CONSIDER…
No single supplement is music to solo travellers’ ears on Avalon Waterways’ A Taste of the Danube four-day river cruise to Vienna. Price from £429 pp, based on July 14 sailing (capacity 166) from Budapest through Austria’s Wachau Valley with a call at Slovakia’s capital Bratislava and Melk, home to one of Europe’s largest monasteries, before discovering Vienna. (avalonwaterways.co.uk, 0330 058 8243).
Kids sail for £1
Ambience’s 14-night Hidden Nordic Treasures multi-generational cruise stops in Helsinki, pictured, with prices for adults starting from £699pp
Learn to juggle at circus workshops on Ambience’s 14-night Hidden Nordic Treasures multi-generational cruise where children sail for £1. Depart London Tilbury to Scandinavian capitals Helsinki, Stockholm and Copenhagen with on board entertainment including the former Cirque Du Soleil aerialist, Renato Pires. Adult prices from £699pp (capacity 1,400) (ambassadorcruiseline.com, 0808 102 8030).
Tour the vineyards of Bordeaux with stops in Blaye, Libourne and Saint-Emilion on MS Cyrano de Bergerac’s (capacity 174) five-day Bordeaux round trip from £699pp based on July 20 departure (saving £223pp). Price includes all meals and drinks (croisieurope.co.uk, 020 8328 1281).
MSC Virtuosa’s two-night Guernsey Taster from Southampton – a mini-sailing – costs from just £279 per person. Above is the ship’s pool deck
Try a mini-sailing from the UK if you are new to cruising. MSC Virtuosa’s two-night Guernsey Taster from Southampton (6,300 capacity) is a chance to sample the bars, restaurants and entertainment — including party nights, West End-style shows and children’s clubs. August 25 departure from £279 pp including tips (iglucruise.com, 0203 3733 5305).
Call into a new port every day including Cadiz, for Seville — where you can enjoy superb flamenco — and Lisbon, Portugal, on Norwegian Sun’s 11-night Europe: Spain, Morocco, Portugal & Gibraltar cruise from Malaga, Spain (capacity 2,400). With a 35 per cent discount, fares now start from £599 pp and £250 pp airfare credit (ncl.com, 0333 2412319).
Beautiful Ajaccio, Corsica (pictured), is one of the stops on Marella Discovery’s seven-night all-inclusive Treasures of the Mediterranean cruise, which costs from £690 per person
Mix it with days on the beach and tours to ancient cities during Marella Discovery’s (capacity 1,830) seven-night all-inclusive Treasures of the Mediterranean cruise from £690 pp with flights when booked online. Departs Palma, Majorca, for Palamos, Spain; Ajaccio, Corsica; Civitavecchia (for Rome) and Naples (for Pompeii & Capri), Italy and Cagliari, Sardinia. Depart July 19 from Birmingham (tui.co.uk, 0871 230 2800).
Enjoy winter sun and white sand beaches during Celebrity Constellation’s five-night Western Caribbean cruise on November 6 (capacity 2,170). Depart Gatwick for a pre-cruise hotel stay in Tampa before sailing to ports including Belize City and Cozumel, Mexico. Prices from £998 pp including flights (celebritycruises.co.uk, 0330 057 3826).
Enchanted Princess’s (capacity 3,660) Iceland & Norway 14-night Southampton round-trip to Haugesund, Flaam, Andalsnes in Norway and Akureyri, Isafjordur, Grundarfjordur and Reykjavik in Iceland has been reduced from £999 pp to £880pp. Includes full board, gym, children’s clubs and 24/7 room service (seascanner.co.uk).
This Christmastime, wander in the traditional markets near Cologne’s 12th-century cathedral (pictured) on a four-night Rhine sailing on A-Rosa Aqua, with prices from £605 per person
Now’s the time secure a great value Christmas markets cruise. Spend a night in Cologne, to wander in the traditional markets near the 12th-century cathedral, before a four-night Rhine sailing on A-Rosa Aqua (capacity 204). Depart December 1 for calls to Mannheim, Strasbourg and Mainz with prices from £605 pp (destination2co.uk, 01244 957904).
Sail Croatia’s Game Of Thrones-inspired cruise, to mark next month’s release of House of the Dragon, departing Split on August 20 with prices from £939 pp. Yacht Mali Ante, with 21 cabins, calls into film locations including Dubrovnik, Lokrum Island and Klis Fortress (sail-croatia.com, 0204 525 7534).
By Lesley Bellew