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Credit: Variety Cruises

Ouzo, secluded beaches & Byzantine castles - small ship sailing in the Greek islands

Author: Jeannine Williamson

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Variety Cruises explores tiny Greek islands that are inaccessible to larger ships - often with a few surprises along the way. World of Cruising headed to Greece to try a taste of small ship sailing.

"Ouzo is life," explains our cruise coordinator, Sid. "It gives you the ability to dance, sing and speak in many languages."

Reflecting that I have ample scope for improvement in all three of the above, I order another glass. Well, this is my first ex-UK cruise for a year and I’m determined to throw myself into the whole experience aboard Variety Cruises’ Galileo – a ship with all things Greek in its DNA.

In June, Galileo became the first cruise vessel to resume sailing in the eastern Mediterranean. And this handsome 49-passenger motor sailer is exceptional in other ways, too, feeling more like a private yacht with a floating house party on board (sociability encouraged by free-flowing cocktails on the first night, followed by ouzo-tasting later in the week).

Greek-owned Variety, which operates a fleet of small ships, is all about authenticity, and that includes everything from the onboard food and hospitality to the choice of port calls.

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Galileo and her fleetmates steer well clear of the tourist hotspots, and guests are positively encouraged to immerse themselves in the local lifestyle and culture. As we soon learn, this can also mean expecting the unexpected and going with the flow.

Our original itinerary, the all-new ‘Hidden Greece: Unexplored Greek Islands’, was meant to include some of the lesser-known Cycladic and Dodecanese islands in the southern Aegean. But on our first evening Captain Yiannis welcomes us aboard with the news that we’ll be heading north instead, to places even he has rarely visited.

- READ MORE: Embrace ancient wonders & hidden islands with Seabourn -

Powerful winds often blow through the Cyclades, which would mean a very rough passage on the 157ft Galileo. So Variety always has a plan B, with the captain heading to calmer waters and then, if conditions allow, returning to complete a section of the planned voyage.

On our cruise, the weather is not so cooperative and the route is completely changed. But after some low-level grumbling below decks on the first night, the mood among my fellow guests visibly lifts the next morning as we anchor at Skyros.

Greece cruises: Skyros is overlooked by a seriously impressive Byzantine castle. Credit: Shutterstock

This pretty little port town is overlooked by a seriously impressive Byzantine castle, perched on a 600ft rock that’s the highest point for miles around. A sightseeing excursion, seamlessly arranged after the itinerary change, takes in the island’s highlights, including a conservation centre for endangered Skyrian horses (said to be descended from those carved on the famous Parthenon friezes).

I really like the fact that passengers can take or leave the excursions. There’s no hard sell, and Galileo moors at tiny harbours in the centre of town so it’s easy to explore under your own steam. You’d be hard-pressed to get lost, and even if you did, a friendly local would soon point you in the right direction.

- READ MORE: Top 10 islands to visit in Greece -

Following a lavish breakfast spread each morning, most days include either lunch or dinner aboard Galileo (always fresh and delicious), with other meals taken ashore during long port stops, often stretching into the early hours.

We tuck into Greek salads, dips with home-baked bread and freshly caught local seafood, washed down with refreshingly large bottles of Mythos beer and local wine, all reasonably priced. Chattering Greek families surround us and there’s a decidedly un-touristy feel everywhere we go.

Greece cruises: Most days include either lunch or dinner aboard Galileo. Credit: Jeannine Williamson

Some of our impromptu ports of call are truly tiny. These include Agios Efstathios, one of the most isolated specks in the Aegean, with a population of just 250. In the one and only town we look around the museum, housed in an old school building, and discover the island’s poignant history: once a place of exile for political detainees, it was devastated by an earthquake in 1968.

On a couple of larger islands, including Lemnos, we hire cars. Sid arranges for these to be brought to the dock, and we embark on our own off-the-beaten-track adventure, which includes stopping along the way in tiny villages, taking photos of windmills with distinctive pointed roofs and, memorably, pulling up at a tiny beach for a late-afternoon swim.

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Ports of call may change but aboard Galileo the daily routine remains the same. Each day we anchor for a swim stop, jumping into the clear sea from steps leading down from the deck, splashing around with paddleboards, kayaks, snorkels and fins. You can even take the ship’s RIB inshore for a few hours lazing on gorgeous secluded beaches.

The onboard atmosphere is laid-back, casual and fun. There’s no need to dress up and nobody bats an eyelid if you decide not to change for the evening. Nonetheless, we all scrub up a bit for the captain’s dinner – though even that is well down the sartorial scale from the bib-and-tucker affairs you get on bigger ships.

Greece cruises: On a couple of larger islands, including Lemnos, we hire cars. Credit: Shutterstock

Protocols are strict, however, when it comes to health and safety, with lateral flow tests before boarding, daily temperature and blood oxygen tests, and all staff wearing masks.

But Covid rules don’t cramp our style, and everyone seems happy and relaxed enough to join the on-deck dancing on Greek night, accompanied by a couple of talented local musicians.

On our last evening, heading back to Athens, we lie back in padded loungers on the sun deck, fanned by a warm breeze, and gaze up at a blanket of stars in the inky sky.

With the help of an app we play a celestial game of join the dots, picking out the Great Bear, the Greek hero Hercules and the equally mighty Ophiuchus, also known as the Serpent Bearer and said by some to be the 13th sign of the zodiac. It’s a moment of pure magic.

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Later we are gently rocked to sleep for a final time in our cosy wood-panelled cabins.

As Morpheus, the Greek god of sleep beckons, I reflect on a wonderful week and the feeling of utter delight to be cruising outside the UK once again. This really is the stuff that dreams are made of.

Get on board

Seven-night ‘Hidden Greece: Unexplored Greek Islands’ cruise aboard motor yacht Callisto, round trip from Athens, departures July 1 and 15 and August 5, 2022, from £2,342.

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