Have you ever taken a cruise? I hadn’t, until this summer, when I took a Celestyal cruise in the Greek islands.
I’ve always wanted to take a cruise. I love being on the sea, and I imagined an easy-going existence with beautiful sunsets. I could be lazy – read a book or admire the sea – or I could be active: take a swim or walk the decks.
The closest to a cruise I’ve ever experienced is the trip I took on the Hurtigruten mail boat up the coast of Norway. That ship had cruiseship-like qualities: bars, comfortable cabins, good food. However, there was no entertainment, since it is meant more as a ferry than a cruise. The port stops are very short, ranging from ten minutes to three hours.
The closest to a river cruise I’ve done are the two Boat Bike Tours I’ve taken. Again, these weren’t about luxury; they were meant to be active vacations.
So I was thrilled to be invited on a press trip on a “proper” cruise: the Celestyal Crystal on its “Idyllic Aegean” itinerary, which stops at a different port every day.
Disclosure: This article is sponsored by Celestyal Cruises, meaning that I received the flights to Greece, the cruise and all excursions free of charge in exchange for my coverage. Nevertheless, all opinions are my own; Celestyal has no say over what I write.
Another disclosure: This article contains affiliate links. If you click on one and make a purchase, I will receive a small commission. This will not affect your price.
Not your usual cruise
What I didn’t realize was that the Celestyal product isn’t a typical cruise at all. Its cruises differ from most in two ways. First of all, as cruises go, this ship is quite small, with a maximum of about 1200 passengers. If you don’t usually take cruises, that may sound like a lot, but cruises can often carry in the 3000-4000 range. Some of the very high-end cruises are smaller, but in Celestyal’s moderate price category, this is classified as a medium-sized cruise.
Secondly, Celestyal Cruises purposely emphasizes ports of call. It’s not about the ship, which serves primarily as a floating hotel and mode of transportation. It’s about the destinations. They also generally include a few less-traveled destinations on their itineraries: places where larger ships don’t or can’t visit.
For example, the island of Milos was one of our stops, but the island has no place for cruise ships to dock. Ships need to use tenders – small boats – to ferry passengers from ship to shore. This was also true in Santorini, but, unlike Santorini, Milos doesn’t have its own tenders and has very few buses. The Celestyal Crystal is able to stop there by using its lifeboats as tenders. The number of passengers is small enough that this does not become too huge and time-consuming of an undertaking.
About Celestyal cruise line
Celestyal Cruises operates out of Piraeus, near Athens, which positions them as experts on Greek travel. They only have two ships: the Celestyal Crystal (up to 1200 passengers) and the Celestyal Olympia (up to 1500 passengers).
Besides the Idyllic Aegean itinerary in the Greek islands, Celestyal Cruises runs other routes in the eastern Mediterranean which may include Turkey, Israel, Cyprus and/or Egypt as well as Greece. It wouldn’t surprise me if they expand to ports of call in Italy eventually as well.
Celestyal’s parent company is Louis plc, which is based in Cyprus and operates 23 hotels in Cyprus and Greece.
The company’s cruises have a relatively low price, especially if you consider that they are more or less all-inclusive. The published price includes a number of items that are normally not included in cruise pricing:
- Tips: On many cruises, tips are added separately at 10 or 15 dollars per person per day.
- Drinks: A surprisingly extensive drinks menu means there is no need to spend extra cash on drinks. However, if you have a preferred premium whisky, for example, or a high-end wine you prefer, it’ll cost extra.
- Food: The food is included, except for a special menu that offers expensive items like lobster, and, for some reason, you have to pay extra for ice cream on the pool deck as well.
- Shore excursions: Two of the excursions are included. The rest cost extra.
By the way, if you’re wondering how they managed pandemic safety on the Celestyal Crystal, read my article over at the 50Connect website.
My experience of the cruise
As a newbie to cruise press trips, I was excited to learn I would get a “junior balcony suite.” It turned out this was a fancy term for a bigger room than a regular standard cabin (15m2 / 49ft2 as compared to 12m2 / 39ft2 ). It contained a double bed, a very small desk, a sofa and an armchair. All of it was pleasantly decorated and well-thought-out, with touches like a USB port and light switches near the bed.
The bathroom was very small, and didn’t seem to have been renovated as recently as the room itself. Nevertheless, it was spotless and had what I needed, with some good quality toiletries included.
A wardrobe had enough space to hang clothing – though my dresses could not hang entirely freely – with drawers, a small fridge and a safe inside. More drawers in the desk meant I had enough room for all my things, though I’m not sure if that would have been so if I had been sharing the room with someone else.
The real selling point – and the reason I’d suggest splurging on the junior balcony suite – is the balcony. It was big enough for two chairs and a small table, and I loved being able to go out there in my moments of free time and watch the sea go by. At night there was something mesmerizing about standing alone in the warm night, leaning on the rail, hearing the loud rush of the water, staring out into the pitch dark or down to the brightly-lit water flowing along the ship’s side. It was a delight each morning to throw the curtains open to see what new scene would greet me.
All of it was spotlessly clean and my assigned stewards – Irene and Rocky – tidied my cabin twice a day, leaving a small Greek sweet on my pillow each evening.
I got to see some other cabins as part of the press group. The least expensive is an “interior stateroom,” which was smaller than mine but less claustrophobic than I expected. That may be because one wall is covered with a large photo, so if you squint you might be able to pretend it’s a view.
The next price level is a similar size but with portholes or windows so there’s at least some natural light. The next step up was like mine, but with windows rather than a balcony. And, of course, you can spend more and get a suite with a separate living room area and much more storage space, with or without a balcony. As far as I was concerned my “junior suite” was perfect for me, largely because of the balcony.
While there are several restaurants on the Celestyal Crystal, the food was pretty uniform in all of them. I did not try any of the premium meals, and the included food was all at least acceptable, but varied quite a bit. The menu changed every night, with a set menu or a la carte choices. In the Olympus restaurant, where I ate my dinners, the starters were tiny and often excellent, but the main courses varied more, from just okay to delicious. Their Greek dishes were best, in general, and there’s always at least one of them on the menu. I particularly liked the moussaka they served one night. Desserts were quite good, and if none of the choices appealed, there was always some really tasty Greek ice cream.
Service at dinner was always friendly and eager, but sometimes rather inefficient, so that I might be offered a piece of bread several times but have to wait a long time to get a drinks menu, despite asking repeatedly. Apparently, since the pandemic, Celestyal – like the whole hospitality industry – has had trouble finding staff. Training many new hires at the same time makes things difficult. I assume efficiency will improve as they settle in.
Passengers can have breakfast or lunch in a full-service restaurant or a buffet. I liked the buffet better for breakfast since there were more choices and it was simply quicker. It offered the usual buffet fare: hot items like eggs and bacon, cold items like fruit, yogurt, cereal and bread.
On a ship this size, there isn’t a lot of choice in terms of entertainment: just two bands and one show in the theater, repeated twice most evenings.
The bands – one Greek traditional and one more standard lounge music – were both excellent.
A Cuban group called Cirque Fantastic performed a different show each night in the small theater, combining music, dance and acrobatics. I wasn’t terribly impressed with these shows. The dancing and acrobatics were excellent, but the sound system wasn’t great, giving the singing a somewhat tinny quality. The two female singers were very good, but one of them in particular did not articulate well, tending to slur the words together and make them unrecognizable. One of the two male singers just wasn’t as good as the others: his voice didn’t project as well and he didn’t quite hit the notes at times. Nevertheless, with friends and a few drinks, it was a fun way to spend an hour in the evening.
What is there to do on the Celestyal Crystal?
Since Celestyal cruises emphasize ports of call, most of the travel from island to island happens at night. During the day, most passengers get off the ship, either on an excursion or on their own. Nevertheless, passengers who want to stay on board can certainly find enough things to do.
The ship has one small pool. It’s really more for cooling off and having a chat than for any real exercise, since swimming a lap would take perhaps two or three strokes. The water is only 1.4 meters deep (4.5 feet).
There’s one jacuzzi on an outside deck at the stern of the ship. When I first boarded, I thought that one jacuzzi wouldn’t be enough for so many passengers. The fact was, though, that the weather was so hot that very few people used it.
Celestyal Crystal has a small spa with the usual range of treatments, run by Sana Spa, part of Flair International. I had a massage and facial from a Polish woman named Claudia who has absolutely magic hands. Seriously, I think this may have been the best massage I’ve ever had.
A small gym has what looks to me like the usual array of workout equipment. Since I don’t do that kind of exercise, I can’t tell you if the selection is good.
Walking or running
While it is not officially for this purpose, level 5 is the only level, I discovered, that has a promenade deck all the way around the ship. Unfortunately, the bow end is sometimes blocked off and the stern end is filled up with tables and chairs and a bar. Nevertheless, you could at least do walking laps of a sort on this deck. Or wait and walk on land during the port stops. If you want to go for a run, do it on land or on a treadmill in the gym.
Lounges and bars
The ship has a range of bars and lounges. I liked the one at the stern of deck 5 best, since you can sit outside but in the shade. The indoor lounges tend to be louder because one or the other band is likely to be playing. The sports bar was, not surprisingly, quite crowded in the evenings when I sailed, since the European Cup soccer competition was going on. Guests can order from the included menu or from the extra paid menu at any of the bars or lounges.
I glanced briefly into the casino, which only operates while the ship is not at port, so this form of entertainment is only for times when the ship is underway. It’s a single room, and has lots of slot machines and a gaming table.
The shop has a pretty generic collection of duty-free goods much like what you’d find in an airport duty-free, and some good quality souvenir items as well. One section offers other more practical things like toothpaste, though with so many port stops, you could just as well do this kind of shopping on land.
The ship’s crew also runs a series of activities all day every day. These are things like trivia quizzes, Greek dance classes, lessons in mixing drinks or napkin-folding, and so on. While some of them sound like fun – I love a trivia quiz – they didn’t seem worth staying on board for, so I did not attend any of these.
The Idyllic Aegean ports of call
The ports of call on the Idyllic Aegean cruise are:
Athens/Piraeus: This is their home port and where the cruise starts. It’s also home to the the Acropolis, which is a must-see, in my view.
To play it safe, you should arrive ahead of time and spend at least a night in Athens. I stayed at the Grand Hyatt Athens which has an amazing view of the Acropolis from its rooftop pool. Use the map below to book your stay in Athens:
Patmos: Our second stop was Patmos. This is an example of how such a local company can improvise. Patmos is small and not a usual cruise ship stop. Normally the Idyllic Aegean itinerary goes to the Turkish port of Kuşadası to allow passengers to take excursions to Ephesus. Because of the pandemic, we had to stay in Greece, so Patmos became the substitute.
Patmos is known as the place where John received the revelations he wrote about in the Bible. Our excursion visited a monastery dedicated to him as well as the cave/chapel where he is believed to have received the revelations.
Rhodes: The medieval city, right next to where the ship docks, is tremendously picturesque. So is the village of Lindos, which some excursions go to.
Santorini: The town of Oia is a very popular stop, famous for its whitewashed buildings and blue-domed churches high on cliffs above the sea. It was as gorgeous as I had heard, but very crowded, even in a year with very little tourism. It must be overwhelming when it’s at its usual tourist numbers. I think in a normal year I would choose an excursion that goes somewhere else on the island, or perhaps a boat trip of some sort.
Lavrion: This is not an island; it’s on the Attica peninsula south of Athens. The ship returns there because passengers can choose to start and end their cruises in the middle of the week, boarding in Lavrion rather than in Piraeus. It also gives the passengers who boarded in Athens/Piraeus a second chance to take an excursion to Athens. Instead, our excursion took us further south on the peninsula to see the ancient temple of Poseidon at Sounion.
Mykonos: We stopped at Mykonos in the afternoon after our morning stop at Lavrion. Famous for its row of windmills and popular especially for its bar scene, Mykonos is the only stop the ship stays at until late at night so passengers can go clubbing. Since I’m not into noisy bars or clubs, I didn’t make full use of the time ashore.
Milos: This was my favorite: it’s one I’d love to go back to and stay for a while. The vocanic landscape is stark and dramatic and the water is brilliant blue. A boat ride along its shore was heaven. The town too, is breathtaking: white-washed houses with blue trim, brilliant pink bougainvillea, against a blue sky and even bluer water.
Agios Nikolaos, Crete: This resort town is at the eastern end of Crete. It was the only stop where I didn’t join an excursion, but it turned out not to be a terribly interesting place, as cities go. I’d recommend taking an excursion at this stop to see something outside of Agios Nikolaos, or to go to a beach.
Our last stop, of course, was back in Athens/Piraeus.
How are the Celestyal shore excursions?
Since the focus is on ports of call, most passengers take shore excursions or go off on their own each day. Given the limited time at each port – usually something like six hours – your best hope for seeing the highlights of each stop is to take an excursion.
Two excursions are included in the ticket, so any others come with an extra cost. They range from about €20 for a transfer to a beach or a walking tour without transportation, to €95 for a jeep safari. Some tours cover the highlights of an island, while others are themed, like the Akrotiri Village Excavations tour on Santorini, focusing on archeology. Most of the themed or highlights tours that include transportation by bus cost about €70. At each island our cruise had anywhere from three to six different options available, but the ship was only about half-full. They may offer more when the ship is full.
Alternatively, you can take a non-Celestyal excursion, which you can often arrange ahead through sites like Get Your Guide. You’re taking an added risk, in that case. When you take an excursion arranged by Celestyal Cruises, you can be sure that the boat won’t leave without you. To me, the price difference isn’t big enough to take that risk.
I’d suggest only going with a non-Celestyal excursion if it’s something short and close by. For example, on a stop in Rhodes, you could take a two-hour walking tour of the medieval old city without worrying about missing the ship. You’d always be within walking distance of where the ship docks. If you wanted to visit Lindos, which is about an hour’s drive away, I’d stick with the excursion Celestyal offers.
I can’t give a complete idea of how the Celestyal shore excursions go, since our press group was given separate excursions. They included more and we were a smaller group. I’m also not a person who enjoys group travel, so I chafed sometimes at having to wait for other people or at having to leave a place I would have liked to see more thoroughly.
What I can say is that you need to do your homework: check out each destination on the itinerary ahead of time and choose what you’d most like to see there. Read the descriptions of the excursions and see if one covers that particular sight. Decide if the downsides of excursions are worth getting to see it.
If I had taken this cruise on my own rather than with a press trip, I think that on some islands I would not have signed up for an excursion. I would have seen less, but enjoyed being alone. To stick with the Rhodes example, I would not have gotten to see Lindos, but I would have seen the medieval city of Rhodes – so picturesque! – where the ship docked, in more detail.
Update added September 2022: Celestyal has added what it calls “Authentic Encounters,” a new set of shore excursions that go into more detail on cultural topics like traditional cuisine, crafts, etc. They’re more expensive but would fit my style more than the larger more general excursions. For example, you could take a tour of Ephesus led by an archeologist or learn the art of mosaic making on Mykonos. These tours have limited spaces and must be pre-booked.
Cruise ships have a bad reputation as far as their carbon footprint is concerned, but all cruise lines have been working to improve, and that includes Celestyal. I asked the company’s marine operations director, Captain Vassilios Gazikas, about this and he pointed out a number of changes that have been made.
First of all, as the Crystal is an older ship, it will eventually be phased out as the company moves to newer, more energy-efficient ships.
Captain Gazikas explained that the company has switched to 0.1% sulphur fuel in the past year, the same as automotive diesel fuel. As of January 1, 2020, a limit came into effect on shipping worldwide that requires a reduction from the old limit of 3.5% sulphur content to 0.5% sulphur. The limit in the Mediterranean will go down to 0.1% in a few years, but for the moment, Celestyal is ahead of that requirement.
The company has implemented a “total fuel management system” to reduce its fuel use – and therefore its carbon footprint:
- One way that fuel consumption is reduced is by optimizing the ship’s speed as it moves from port to port, not traveling at full speed.
- The company is working on reducing energy use on board, for example by installing energy-efficient lightbulbs and similar measures. This means less demand on the on-board generators, which means lower fuel use.
- The ship produces its own water using desalination, which again takes energy. Using less water means using less energy. The fleet commander claims that the ship has reduced water usage by about 30%.
I also asked about disposables like single-use packaging and water bottles. Captain Gazikas acknowledged that plastic water bottles are still sold on board, but pointed out that their garbage is separated so the plastic goes to recycling. I noticed no plastic cups or straws, though meal service did involve some single-use packaging for things like pats of butter. I’m not sure, but I think that may be a temporary situation because of the focus on Covid prevention.
Still, traveling by cruise ship produces more carbon emissions than, say, flying somewhere and staying in a hotel. This may improve over time as cruise ships improve. If cruising is something you still want to do, I’d suggest buying a carbon offset. You can do this through sites like MyClimate, where you can calculate your carbon consumption and buy the offset. Or you could join Tomorrow’s Air to support carbon removal.
7 reasons to take a Celestyal cruise
- You like port stops more than ship life. The main choice between a Celestyal cruise and a larger cruise is whether you want to focus more on the experience of being on the ship or the destinations. If the latter interests you more, I’d certainly recommend Celestyal.
- You’d like to see some less-common ports of call. You’ll see some standard cruise ship destinations like Santorini and Mykonos, but the company’s smaller size and its knowledge of Greece means you’ll get some less-traveled stops as well.
- You want to travel in the eastern Mediterranean, particularly Greece, with a company that specializes in the region.
- Crowds are something you really don’t like.
- You don’t need constant entertainment when you’re on the ship.
- While you want comfort and cleanliness, you don’t need over-the-top luxury. This is not a luxury cruise. I’d give it four stars in general (i.e. comparable to a four-star hotel), though the personal service is definitely five-star.
- You don’t want to be concerned about running up your bill for drinks, tips, etc. Celestyal’s prices and the almost all-inclusive formula mean you’ll know what you’re getting into.
7 reasons not to take a Celestyal cruise
- To you, the point of cruising is the ship, not the destinations.
- You’re traveling with kids who need a lot of entertainment. Or you want to hand your kids off to a kids club to take care of them all day. There is a kids club on Celestyal that offers various activities throughout the day, if there are enough kids. It sounds, though, like it’s not full-time babysitting like you’d get on some of the bigger ships. On the other hand, each destination that our cruise stopped at had a low-priced excursion that was essentially just transportation to a beach. That could be a really pleasant week: all the food the kids can eat on the ship, a comfortable cabin, and every day at a different beach. I guess it depends on what would keep your kids and you happy.
- You want lots of entertainment and activities to choose from, all day, every day. Celestyal Crystal is older and comes without the bells and whistles of the newer ships. There are no multi-story water slides or tennis courts or surfing pools or any of the other over-the-top features many cruise lines are adding. It’s really a bit old-fashioned, and if that doesn’t appeal to you, don’t do it.
- You want a range of specialty restaurants and shops to choose from.
- To you, the idea of a big ship with lots of people sounds wonderful.
- You want an extremely luxurious cruise experience. To some extent you could get this on the Crystal if you booked a big balcony suite and made full use of the spa and the premium menus, but it wouldn’t be the same as the newest, most luxurious ships.
- Money isn’t much of an issue for you. You don’t mind running up a tab for drinks and other extras.
My impressions of my first cruise
As I expected, I felt a little frustrated at first on my first cruise. A day in each port is simply not enough for someone like me whose general state of being is “I want to see everything!” But once I settled into it and focused on the experience itself, I realized I actually like cruising … a lot. I love the ease of it; the feeling of being pampered. As I pointed out when I took a Boat Bike Tour, the floating hotel is a luxury: no packing or unpacking for a whole week. No cooking or cleaning either. Of course, you can get that at any hotel, but it was an easy way to enjoy being on the water and to get a glimpse of several Greek islands.
I’d certainly like to take more cruises. I’m curious about the more well-known cruise lines that sail much bigger ships. Would I like just staying on a cruise ship and letting activities on board be my focus? Or would that make me feel constricted and/or overwhelmed? I don’t know, but I’d like to find out.
Celestyal cruise news
Have you ever taken a cruise? If not, have you considered taking one?