Artemis, goddess of animals and the hunt, isn’t home – but her cats are. The Greek island of Delos is filled with them: friendly tabbies, blacks and whites meow and purr among the rocks and ancient ruins, seeming to love nothing more than rubbing their heads on the legs of visitors and playing with their shoelaces.
A 30-minute ride by local ship from Mykonos to the sun-soaked island that’s the mythological birthplace of Artemis and her twin Apollo is one of many daily shore excursions Regent’s Seven Seas Explorer offers as it meanders for 10 days through warm isles from Athens to Rome. It’s a voyage of mirth, myth – and more than a few moments that defy stereotypes a first-timer might have about cruising.
Those moments begin with the ship itself. As sunset turns Athens’ port of Piraeus golden and seagulls swoop and soar overhead on the breeze, it’s clear the Explorer is not the kind of vessel with waterslides and rollercoasters. This is evident at Compass Rose, a fine-dining restaurant on deck four of the ship, dripping with crystal chandeliers and glimmering surfaces in which you can see your reflection. The avocado and crab together on the menu doesn’t sound like an especially appetising combination – but it tastes delicious.
“We get our supplies from local suppliers when in port,” says general manager Evan Willemse as we dine together. He was a footman at an event Queen Elizabeth II attended prior to coming to the cruise industry. “Not only does it make a difference for the freshness of the ingredients, but it also makes a real financial difference to the communities,” he says.
Compass Rose is one of several upscale restaurants on board, all of which have views out large windows and room for just a few dozen diners at a time.
Pacific Rim, serving Asian fusion, turns out to be a special treat: the dark décor and Tibetan prayer wheel at the entrance is complemented by such dishes as open-top pork and shrimp siu mai dim sum with black truffle and yuzu sauce. Meanwhile, Chartreuse, looking like a chic Parisian eatery at sea, has a menu to match: the emmenthal-blue cheese soufflé with soubise sauce tastes just like what you can find at a hidden gem tucked away on a little French side street.
The ship is also stuffed with art – so much it’s like a floating museum. There are striking sculptures and antique globes in the cosy library – its dark wood bookshelves, fireplace and huge green chairs can even trick one into thinking they’re in an elegant manor à la Downton Abbey, at least until they look outside at the gently rising and falling blue waves.
But art and pretty details like gold accents are about the only things the ship’s stuffed with. For one, the cabins are spacious: each is a suite. Mine boasts a soft king bed, equally soft blue couches, a walk-in closet, a large marble bathroom with both a shower and bathtub, and of course a private balcony to see the islands and their dramatic rocky landscapes both by day and night, when so many stars are out it seems someone’s spilled glitter on an enormous black canvas.
Such poetic descriptions flow naturally. Perhaps Circe has cast a spell where I’m only seeing the good things, like the pretty white stucco buildings and fuchsia flowers on green vines.
The islands we visit certainly have the same idyllic, timeless quality that sidetracked Odysseus on his quest to get home. This is especially true in Mykonos, our first stop after Athens. The windmills, waterside cafés and cobblestone streets hemmed by white buildings with blue wooden trim feel almost like an illusion as a gentle breeze keeps things cool; surely no place can be this serene.
Not once on our voyage does it rain, either. While the Explorer can carry up to 746 passengers, our sailing seems to have fewer than 500. This means staff really get to know guests – in fact, as Willemse tells me, they’re trained to memorise names and faces, sometimes before passengers come aboard.
Fewer people means it’s easier making friends, too – including on shore excursions. Keith Loh and Johan Grundlingh are from Singapore. We bond while meandering through the villages of Caferli and Kirazli on Turkey’s west coast on the third day of the voyage. The fruit trees, valleys and fields give the area a timeless quality – a feeling enhanced when we share breakfast in the shade of those trees.
Our host is Nazli Deniz. She employs local women to assist her in serving home-cooked meals – including ‘Turkish cheese rolls’ (flat bread wrapped around cheese and fried in olive oil) – for visitors. Money earned goes directly back to the women. The return of cruise ships, she says, means the women can again earn incomes and support their families.
Caroline and David Hutt say they’re happy to support local people, too. The Cotswolds couple are on their second cruise – and loving the experience so much they’re planning a third. They even love the experience taking a small local ferry from Mykonos to Delos for the day – despite the wind-driven waves rocking the boat violently as if Poseidon, or Amphitrite having discovered yet another of her husband’s infidelities, is in a foul mood. Huge waves crashing upon the deck, they say it’s all part of the adventure.
It’s also an adventure on Santorini, where while hanging around a bookshop called Atlantis (sadly, it turns out to be closed) I’m asked if I’m the proprietor. I wish I were: the view down the cliffs across the rooftops and balconies into the volcanic caldera and its sapphire-blue waters is nothing short of breathtaking. Later, after exploring the winding back alleys of the village of Fira and the ancient hand-painted icons inside the Church of Agia Irini – inside which every footstep and whisper seems to echo among the columns and chandeliers up to the domed roof – the cable car back down to the ship sways ever-so-slightly.
A different kind of adventure comes that evening, when I meet Caroline, David, Keith and Johan in one of the bars on board. Keith’s shoes are literally sparkling (he and Johan are the best-dressed people on board), and we chat late into the night over cocktails – which we do every evening for the rest of the voyage.
From the Greek Isles, we head west. A sunset transit of the Strait of Messina – with Sicily and the Italian mainland bathed in the orange-gold glow of the sun sinking below the dark water – is magical as waves gently lap the sides of the ship. Perhaps Apollo has heard we visited Delos and wishes to make up for the fact he wasn’t able to offer us tea. Of all the deities who seem to influence our journey, one who doesn’t make an appearance is Eris, goddess of strife and discord. It’s hard to imagine anything spoiling what’s turned out to be a wonderful first experience cruising. Except, of course, when it finally ends.
Celebrating the culinary traditions of Asia, Pacific Rim delights guests with the perfect balance of delicious flavours and Zen-like ambiance. The interior glows with muted lighting that illuminates intricate architectural details. During dinner, guests are treated to incredible ocean views through windows designed in an abstract lotus shape, a universal Asian motif. To complement the stunning décor, Pacific Rim’s chefs have created a delectable menu of Pan-Asian creations.
Photography by Ben Mack, Stephen Beaduet