On this photogenic island (aka the “Emerald Isle” for the lush beauty of its landscape) cruise ships dock at the New Port (Neo Limani), about a mile west of the old town. A shuttle bus takes passengers into the main terminal; another shuttle goes into the old town. Passengers who want to “see everything” will probably want an organized tour, such as the City Tour, which hits highlights like the Old Fortress and the Archaeological Museum. Focused tours include those to the Achilleion Palace, the Monastery of the Virgin Mary or one of the popular beaches. Seasoned travelers may choose to simply stroll the historic town center, do some shopping, visit a couple of museums, enjoy the local cuisine at a taverna - or take a taxi to a particular attraction, perhaps the Corfu Aquarium, which has a fine collection of international reptiles.
There are three ports on the island: Iraklion, Souda and Aghios Nikolaos.
In the port of Iraklion, shuttles transport passengers to the cruise terminal. From there it’s an easy walk to Old Town (taxis are also available). Neighboring the harbor are remnants of the 16th century Venetian port; the city is still enclosed and defined by the Venetian wall. In the southernmost of one of the seven bastions (a long walk or a taxi ride) is the grave of Nikos Kazantzakis, who wrote Zorba the Greek, inscribed: “I hope for nothing. I fear nothing. I am free.”
For passengers who self-direct their shore time, a public bus at the main square goes directly to the gates of the Knossos Palace, the principal Minoan complex on the island. Other attractions, including the Archaeological Museum, are easily walkable; so are shopping (crafts, jewelry, typical souvenirs) and grazing options (think flaky pastries and juicy gyros).
Here, as in other island ports, there are beaches for swimming, sunning and water sports, all a taxi ride away. One of the formal tour options is a hotel/beach package to a five-star resort. Other possibilities: a bus tour of the island; a guided tour through the Knossos Palace and the village of Arolithos; a number of active tours that include hiking or mountain biking; a lengthy Taste of Crete tour that includes a visit to a well-known winery and a taverna lunch.
Some ships dock at Souda Bay near Chania, the second largest city of Crete and the site of the ancient Minoan settlement called Cydonia (Kydonia). There is no great palace here as there is at Knossos, which is about 2.5 hours away, but artifacts of the Minoan era are housed in the Chania Archaeology Museum, considered one of the best small museums in Europe.
The city’s rich history is reflected in historic buildings and monuments with Venetian, Turkish and Greek architecture. Remnants of the coastal buildings of the Venetian area can be found at the Venetian port. To the west are a number of inviting beaches, and outside the city are the caves at Kournas Lake and the Askordalos Botanical Garden. All of these are included in various excursions.
Passengers on their own can enjoy strolling the picturesque streets, shopping for all kinds of leather goods on Leather Alley, sampling local olive oil, honey and the unique Chania bougatsa, phyllo pastry filled with sweet, creamy mizithra cheese.
Crete, Aghios Nikolaos
Cruise ships (generally smaller luxury vessels) dock in the heart of the town, which is built around Lake Voulismeni, also known as the “bottomless” lake where the goddess Athena is said to have bathed. Around the lake are restaurants, cafes, bars and shops selling traditional Cretan art work, jewelry, embroidery and copies of ancient artifacts. Most attractions, including another fine archaeological museum and a folklore museum are within walking distance.
Shore excursions include one from the port of Elounda to Spinalonga, which locals call “the island of tears” - as the old Venetian fortress here was used as a leper colony until 1957. The excursion also offers free time in Elounda, either for shopping or a swim at the beach. Others go to Knossos; to the Mirabello Mountains; to eastern Crete and the Cave of Zeus.
This romantic and stunningly beautiful island (site of one of the world’s most violent volcanic eruptions in ancient times) looks exactly as it does in all those gorgeous photographs in glossy magazines. No wonder so many weddings and honeymoons take place in Santorini, named by US News and World Report as “#1 Best Honeymoon Destination.” Given its popularity, Santorini gets quite crowded during cruise season and it’s not unusual to see as many as four or five ships there on a single day.
Ships anchor off Santorini and tender passengers into Skala Fira, the small port below the capital, Thira (aka Fira). Some ships provide transfers to Athinios, the ferry port; from there, it’s possible to reach the top of the cliffs by bus. The other options are to make the trip to Thira, which sits atop 1,000-foot cliffs, by bus, funicular - or donkey.
While it’s possible to spend an enjoyable day strolling Thira’s cobbled streets, exploring the enticing high-end shops, dining on authentic Greek dishes at clifftop restaurants with dazzling views, there are tours to Akrotiri, where archaeological digs date back to the Minoan civilization and to picturesque Oia, which has been described as the most beautiful village on the island.
If Santorini is the island for romance, then cosmopolitan Mykonos is surely the island for fun. In the early 1960s shipping magnate Aristotle Onassis “discovered” Mykonos and brought Jackie Kennedy here; soon the island became an exclusive playground for celebrities like Grace Kelly, Brigitte Bardot and various members of the Versace family.
Today it’s more democratic -- a noisy, bustling, bursting-at-the-seams place with something for everyone, from singles to gay couples to families: quiet stretches of sand, party beaches, waterfront cafes, shopping in every price range (both international brands and local crafts), water sports and delicious food (especially fresh fish). Scores of people, looking to experience the beaches and pulsating nightlife, descend upon the tiny island during the packed high season, which lasts from the Greek Orthodox Easter celebration (usually in April or early May) through September.
Cruise ships dock at the new port in Tourlos; however, when no space is available, they anchor in the harbor and tender passengers to the old port in Hora (known simply as the old port or the harbor.) This leaves passengers within easy walking distance of the center of town and its attractions. First among these are the famous white Venetian windmills (Kato Myli); built by the Venetians in the 16th century, they were used to grind wheat until the early 20th century. Some have been restored, all are popular subjects for photographers and artists.
A self-guided tour might include the Byzantine church Panagia Paraportiani, the oldest in Mykonos; the Mykonian Folklore Museum, displaying period furniture (most from the 19th century) that shows how middle-class residents lived; the Archaeological Museum, which houses collections from various excavations; the Aegean Maritime Museum - and photogenic Little Venice, so named for the medieval houses with balconies that overhang the water.
The top tour for anyone interested in Greek history, mythology and archaeology is the one to nearby Delos, the spiritual and geographic center of the Cyclades island chain. (Advise clients that the dry, rocky island can become brutally hot in summer.)
Sometimes called “The Jerusalem of the Aegean”, this World Heritage site was designated as “Holy Island” by the Greek parliament; this is where Saint John wrote the book of Revelation. The principal attractions are religious, though the town at the port of Skala is a pleasant place to stroll. Only small ships can dock at the port; others will anchor in the bay and tender passengers into Skala. Shore excursions generally go to Chora, located at the top of a hill, to visit the Monastery of St. Johan and the Cave of the Apocalypse. (It’s also possible to take a public bus from Skala to Chora.)
Ships dock at the port (which can accommodate several ships at once) located on the north tip of the island, an easy walk into the Old Town. One of the most photographed spots is the place is represented by two small columns, where the famous Colossus of Rhodes, one of the seven wonders of the ancient world, is said to have stood. Most of the tours include the story of the giant bronze Colossus statue, built after a monumental victory and completed in 228 BC to honor Helios, the patron god of Rhodes - and destroyed during a catastrophic earthquake.
Sightseeing tours include the 14th century palace of the Grand Master of the Knights of Rhodes, medieval fortress walls that surround the old city and the 16th century Mosque of Suleiman.
Another popular option is the half-day tour to Lindos (aka “the white town”), about an hour’s drive from the capital, Rhodes; the principal attractions include a hilltop Acropolis overlooking a town of cobbled streets, shops and restaurants.
Large ships tender, small ships dock in front of the customs building on this large island located a stone’s throw from Turkey. Less crowded than the more popular islands, it offers beautiful beaches, medieval villages, monasteries, museums, groves of mastic trees and the Koraes Library.
Points of interest include the public gardens, the ancient theater, the Maritime Museum, the statue of Kanaris, the ruins of the walls of ancient Chios and the Genovese Castle.
The must-see attraction is the village of Pyrgi, the most impressive of the mastikahoria, the mastic villages of Chios. These are fortified villages built in the 14th century during Genovese rule with an economy based on the cultivation of mastic, a gum-like sap from the mastic trees that are unique to the island and were so prized that the Genovese built fortresses to protect them. The houses are adorned with xista, an ancient form of graffiti made up of geometric black-and-white designs.
According to locals, Pirgi is the ancestral home of Christopher Columbus, and what is said to be his house bears a plaque placed there by the European Union.
Also important, the Nea Moni Monastery, a UNESCO World Heritage Site. Built by Emperor Constantine in the 11th century, it is famous for its Byzantine mosaics. UNESCO World Heritage Site.
Passengers are tendered to the port of Mytilini, where they’ll see the city’s most popular attraction -- the ruins of the fortress/castle overlooking the harbor, a 15-minute uphill walk. Its foundations were laid during the time of Justinian on the ruins of an even older fortification. Used and rebuilt by Romans, Byzantines, Venetians and Turks, it is now used in summer for cultural events.
Attractions include the Cathedral and the Church of St. Nicholas, converted from a mosque, the Archaeological Museum, the art museums and the picturesque old Turkish mansions in the old quarter near the waterfront.
Tour options include the 15th century Molyvos castle and village tour; an ouzo-focused trip to the Ouzo Museum, with tasting; an excursion to the Roman Aqueduct; the Petrified Forest; Birdwatching at the salt lakes close to Kalloni, in the center of the island; three monastery tours, one to Ipsolu, one to Agios Raphael and another to Limonas (women not allowed in some areas).