Herald editorial cartoonist Rod Emmerson travels the Greek Isles and Turkish coast on a seven-night cruise aboard the luxurious Azamara Journey.
The midday sun is belting down and a group of us are sheltering in the welcome shade of a tavern in Ano Mera, a small inland village on the Greek island of Mykonos. The stunning 16th century monastery Panagia Tourliani is across the courtyard and surprisingly, Australian gum trees and bougainvillea are everywhere.
"Yiamas!" said Amarylis, our local guide. "Yammuz!" I offered. Her patience waned instantly. "Noooo ... Yiamas!" This time, her arm was waving like a conductor.
"Yiamas!" I got it. Cheers all round, then with glasses raised, we slipped into our shot glass of Ouzo, followed quickly by a selection of mezze, the customary Greek tapas. This became a toast to our first day ashore of a luxurious seven night cruise through the Greek Isles and Turkish Coast on the very elegant mid-sized cruise ship The Azamara Journey.
Our destinations are Mykonos, Kusadasi, Kos, Rhodes, Marmaris, Santorini and back to Piraeus - the port of Athens, where we joined the cruise.
Coupled to this, is what Azamara Club Cruises call an AzAmazing Event - an exclusive classical concert in the Odeum of the ancient ruins of Ephesus in Turkey; something we are all quietly looking forward to.
All these ports are heavily layered in ancient Greek and Roman history, mythology and religion, but these days Mykonos is famous for its Cycladic architecture, turquoise waters, sun-bleached beaches and party atmosphere.
The gorgeous white buildings with sky blue trim are packed and stacked right to the water's edge in Little Venice, then dissected by narrow stone-paved alleyways and divided again into quaint shops, taverns, restaurants and clubs.
he three famous Mykonos residents are its pelicans, who stroll the cafes and laneways, constantly holding up pedestrian traffic. The Church of Panagia Paraportiani I have seen on countless calendars, and is by far, the most unusual building on the island. With an average of 14 hours or more at each port, there's ample time to swim and explore.
The view from Little Venice wine bars is as dazzling as the price of sunset drinks at water's edge. Heat-weary, we eventually head to the ship's tender, which transfers us back to our ship waiting offshore.
The Azamara Journey is a plush mid-sized French-built cruise ship, fully focused on premium destination cruising. Reminiscent of royal livery, it has a capacity for 694 passengers and could well be mistaken for a floating American country club. There is no glitzy bling statements here. Rich carpets, quality furnishings and tasteful artwork are evenly spread throughout its 11 decks, and life aboard is pampered at every corner.
Dining is divine in the various restaurants, and balanced well by the numerous bars and entertainment areas, with all interests catered for. The gentrified ambience continues to our stateroom (cabin). Well designed and comfortably furnished, the verandah becomes our regular venue for breakfast. Staff and crew at all levels display the finest in manners and are quick to engage in a cheery greeting. Our cabin is serviced meticulously daily, followed by a welcome turndown service at day's end.
Day 3, and while we are enjoying a healthy three course breakfast on our verandah, the ship glides into the bustling Turkish port of Kusadasi. In ancient times, the port for this region was Ephesus, a half hour coach journey north and now lies victim to silting some 9km inland. It takes considerable stamina to avoid buying a Turkish rug within minutes of setting foot on Kusadasi soil.
The tourist trail from the ship hypnotically steers you towards a large bazaar brimming with rug and jewelry stores, all primed with a vigorous sales pitch. But Ephesus is the real reason we are here. Although now in ruins, its vast examples of Greek and Roman architecture are considered the best preserved of the Mediterranean. Its reference in history spans both the biblical and classical periods, hence a must-see on anyone's list.
At dusk, we are there for an exclusive two-part concert by the celebrated Camerata Izmir Orchestra who perform pieces from Bach, Boccherini, Handel, Borodin, Mozart, Gardel and Brahms. This is the second concert Azamara Club Cruises have arranged in the small Odeum. Beyond that, you must go back over 2000 years. All this adds immense value to the evening and an event passengers will dine out on for years.
The morning of Day 4 and we're strolling round the ruins of the Asclepeion on the island of Kos, the much lionised home of the father of western medicine, Hippocrates. The first person to split religion from medicine, his passive approach decreed that disease was a consequence of health and environment, rather than meted out by superstition. As the numerous hand-wash stations around our ship remind us, he was definitely on to something. To salute his achievements, we head to the Swiss-like mountain top village of Zia, for a well-earned lunch and a taste of Mythos beer, but not before washing our hands.
With an overnight stay in Rhodes on Day 5 , we spend a chunk of it exploring the Acropolis and Doric Temple of Athena Lindia in the cliff-hugging village of Lindos. Only taxis or local cars are allowed down to the village. This still keeps the traffic controllers busy directing who goes where and when. Not for the weak at knees, it's a dizzy 300-step walk up to the Acropolis gates, or a five euro donkey ride for the adventurous.
The medieval Old Town of the city of Rhodes is a World Heritage Site, and the Collossus of Rhodes once stood at the harbour entrance. Now gone, there is simply no escaping the historical references to this strategic island.
Relentlessly invaded over the centuries by Greeks, Romans, Persians, Turks, The Knights of St John of Jerusalem, Italians, Germans and not surprisingly, now tourists. For the well-heeled with mega yachts and time to spare, this is where you would base yourself for that extended Mediterranean vacation. The best part of the night we spend ashore sampling the bars and restaurants, even indulging in the Greek tradition of smashing plates!
An early start on Day 6 and we're climbing into river boats in the Turkish town of Dalyan, near our port of Marmaris. This is the only way you can travel to the famous Loggerhead Turtle sanctuary of Iztuzu Beach, made famous by the environmentalist, David Bellamy.
On the way, we pass the spectacular Lycian Tombs carved into the cliff face; have a scamper over the ancient ruins of Kaunos, then chug our way through acres of thick river delta marshland, before finally walking across the boardwalks of Iztuzu Beach. Small metal cages pinpoint buried turtle eggs that dot the beach, seemingly unnoticed by the throng of tourists here for a swim. The beach is closed at night for any turtle traffic to move freely.
Day 7 and the tourist mecca of Santorini is as close as man could come to living like the gannet colony of Muriwai. Built on top of the jagged rim of one of the world's largest volcanic eruptions, the 300m-high cliffs are capped with classic white Cycladic buildings that hug, burrow and seemingly hang on for dear life. At its widest, the land mass slopes away from the caldera side, down to arid pastures and on to numerous exposed beaches.
Fifteen thousand people live perched like gannets in the most barren of landscapes, that offers the most spectacular views across the collapsed caldera and into the Aegean. To reach the main town of Fira, you can take the cable car, donkey trail, or bus it to the top.
The heavily exposed terrain provides scarce nourishment for a local wine industry, although the vines are curled up in circles and laid on the ground to shelter from the heat and winds. The winery has a splendid terraced area where you can sample fine wines, while taking in the views over lunch. Fira, the main town, is honey-combed with numerous small specialty shops, countless cafes, bars and restaurants. It's the museum that provides a unique glimpse into life pre- and post-eruption. Locals wanting to escape the swarm of tourists have built a separate town on a neighbouring island.
That evening, it's an early away-anchor, for the night's journey back to the Athenian port of Piraeus. As a subtle salute to our week drawing to a close, the captain puts the ship through a slow 360 manoeuvre as our last Mediterranean sunset traverses the ship's windows.
A fabulous journey and great shipmates, there is no better way to experience the Greek Isles and Turkish coast. Yaimas!
Getting there: The Azamara Journey has another trip around the Greek Isles and Turkey departing from Athens on July 30, 2015. See cruiseworld.co.nz for more details or call 0800 500 732.
Rod Emmerson travelled courtesy of Azamara Club Cruises and Cathay Pacific.