About ten years after my first visit to Europe, my husband and I started to talk about returning. We now had two children who we'd be travelling with, so organising a trip like this was going to require some careful planning and budgeting, and we decided to give ourselves 18 months lead time and return to Europe in 2000.
Just as we'd made our decision and pencilled in 2000 as our year of return to Europe, hubby and I were invited on a trip with his business which consisted of a couple of nights in Athens and a five night Greek Islands cruise. Of course we couldn't refuse, so in May 1999 I returned to Europe 11 years after my first visit.
We'd visited Greece back in 1988 and did a Greek Island cruise as part of a Contiki tour on that occasion, so we had a bit of an idea of what to expect. It only added to our excitement to be returning - especially as this time Santorini was on our itinerary!
After the long-haul flight from Australia, our coach load of Aussies were transferred to our hotel. I can't remember the hotel we stayed at but I can remember the Greek tour guide pointing out the Greek beaches we passed on the way from the airport and telling us how beautiful they were. She didn't appreciate the sarcastic remarks from the Aussie beach-lovers onboard who scoffed at the pebbly, narrow beaches - they weren't a patch on Aussie beaches and our guide was somewhat offended.
We spent a couple of days in Athens visiting the iconic sites of the Parthenon, Olympic Stadium and the Plaka area, and enjoying some fabulous Greek food and then it was time to head to the port of Pireaus to board our cruise ship. We settled in on board before sailing off into the Mediterranean. The great thing about the cruise was that we generally sailed overnight and had most of the day on an island.
Our first port of call was Patmos, where St. John wrote the Book of Revelations. A guided tour of the Cave of Apocalypse, where the gospel was written, was very informative and we then had time to wander the narrow alleyways and explore the town of Skala. Here we hired a moped for a couple of hours to see what else the island had to offer and as it is (or certainly was then) less touristy than some of the other Greek islands, it was a great way to get about.
Back onboard the ship we had plenty of dining and entertainment options to keep us busy whilst we sailed overnight to Rhodes. The old town was very impressive and walking through the fortified walls into the old town was like stepping back in time. Shopkeepers were selling their wares and endless cafes and restaurants beckoned you to stop and enjoy a delicious lunch (which we did!). After lunch, we hired a taxi to take us to Faliraki Beach for an afternoon on the beach. Faliraki Beach is a popular tourist destination where paying to rent a sun lounge and umbrella is definitely the norm.
Our next port of call, albeit a fairly brief stop, was the city of Heraklion on Crete. After wandering the busy market, we headed to the Palace of Knossos, the largest Bronze Age site on Crete. Excavated in the early 20th century, the ruins show what an impressive building it would have been in its day. The first palace on the site is believed to date back to 1900 BC. As often happens when I'm in Europe, I was in awe of the building feats of those who lived centuries ago.
The final two ports on our Greek Island cruise where two of the most famous of all - Santorini and Mykonos. This was my first visit to Santorini and I was absolutely blown away! As there is no harbour at Santorini (the island is a volcanic crater), the ship dropped anchor at sea and we were brought ashore by small boats known as tenders. Dropped at the bottom of the island we had a choice of three ways to get to the top where the main town is located. The first option was a cable car, but not being a cable car fan, I ruled that one off the list. The second option was to hire a donkey (and his guide) for a bumpy ride to the top - with hundreds of steps to navigate, I wasn't too sure the donkey wouldn't lose his footing and I'd come crashing down with a thud (and I felt a bit sorry for the poor donkeys), so I opted for the third way of reaching the top - walking.
After a very decent climb, we reached Fira, the main town on Santorini. The views were stunning. Whitewashed buildings clung to the rocky cliff faces and everywhere you looked a sparkling blue ocean glistened. It was truly breathtaking and I could have just sat and taken in the views all day. There was, however, some souvenir shopping and exploring to be done and then the long walk down to the tender.
Arriving in Mykonos brought back some memories from my previous trip and it was great to be back. After the obligatory photo of Mykonos' famous windmills and a Greek salad at a busy cafe, it was time to head to the beach for our final few hours. All too soon we would be sailing back to Athens and then on our way to the airport for the flight home. With a backdrop of flat-roofed, whitewashed houses with blue shutters, our sun lounges under their thatched umbrellas were the perfect place to while away the time and reminisce about all we had seen and done on our amazing cruise.
Despite having returned to Europe more than half a dozen times since this cruise, I haven't managed to return to Greece – yet. It's definitely on the wish list for future trips - unfortunately there are so many other places to see, too.
UPDATE: I have since returned to Greece, spending a week on the island of Kos in July 2015.
What's your favourite Greek island, or which one would you most like to visit?
(Apologies for the quality of the pre-digital era photos!)