Updated: Aug 10, 2021
On June 30, 2021, Cynthia and I began our first international trip in over a year. Not that we hadn’t tried earlier. Our first Covid Casualty trip wasn’t, strictly speaking, international. Rather it was to see Hubbard Glacier in Alaska via the inland passage.
Next was an extended trip planned for London.
Undaunted, we booked a cruise leaving from Barcelona and ending up in Venice, where we’d planned to spend time walking along the marvelous canals and visiting friends living in nearby Padua.
Cancelled - the pattern was discouraging, if not hard to understand.
Finally, we signed up for a Greek island cruise that included a stop at Limassol, Cyprus. Because the cruise departed and arrived back at the same port, Athens, transportation from the US was simpler to arrange than if different points of arrival/departure had been the case, but at least one simplification at the outset was welcome. Also, my previous time in Athens had been on business, so we were happy for an opportunity to visit such a locus of Western history, civilization and philosophical thought as tourists. This time, the stars aligned; the trip was a go!
International travel these days involves, well, certain Covid Complexities. Firstly, in order to board a flight to Athens passengers needed proof of having been fully vaccinated. As the gate agent examining our documents in Salt Lake City quipped, “those [vaccination records] are gold these days!” We’re keeping careful track of ours and, as an aside, we’re also strongly in favor of locales/venues requiring vaccination evidence a great deal more broadly.
Our flight to Athens connected in New York’s JFK. With the layover, total travel time to Athens was about 17 hours. Our main cabin seats were exit row, so we were more comfortably ensconced than we might have been otherwise. Still, that much time in the air is uncomfortable for anyone not experiencing First Class, lay flat seats. We were not.
Arriving in Athens suitably exhausted, we navigated the entry process without undue difficulty, grabbed a taxi (train access into Athens from the airport is robust, but we had no appetite for anything more uncertain than “Take us to the Athens Gate Hotel,” where our reservation awaited.
Although we arrived earlier than the posted check in time, rooms were available and we were cheerfully accommodated. In fact, the Athens Gate Hotel, where we stayed both before and after our cruise, deserves mention in its own right: The Athens Gate Hotel does not present as luxurious upon entry, but our real-world experience there was, in fact, luxurious. To a person, the staff were friendly, courteous and helpful. "Helpful," actually, is quite an understatement. Our first morning I thought I'd visit one of the nearby coffee shops and bring coffee back to the room. When I entered the lobby, the bellman on duty sprang to his feet to ask if I was looking for something. When I said "coffee" he had me follow him to the lobby bar, where he prepared 2 cups, one with milk for my Cynthia. Our room was on the first floor and I expected I'd just climb the stairs to get there. The bellman beat me to the punch, opening the elevator door and ushering me in. That kind of "what can I do to assist you" attitude was as consistent/reliable as daily sunrise and sunset with every person on staff we encountered.
The daily (included) buffet breakfast is lovely and features a wide array of delicious food, not to mention excellent coffee. The restaurant also serves dinner, which was both delicious and made appreciably more pleasant by the very attentive, warm, waitress serving us. The next day was her birthday and she was fairly giddy with anticipation of the plans she'd made for her special day off - it was a pleasantness that overflowed into her every encounter with us.
My career encompasses more than 30 years working in and around hotels. I've been fortunate to experience some of the world's best and can say without hesitation that the Athens Gate service is as good as any, anywhere.
On top of that the location is perfectly fabulous. Athens’ famous attractions are an easy walk away, as are abundant shops and outside eateries. When we return to Athens at some future time we will certainly stay there again!
The View From Athens Gate Hotel Roof Top Restaurant
Another feature of our trip was a requirement that we pass a health screening prior to boarding the cruise ship; in this case the nearly brand-new Celebrity Apex (more about the ship later). The scheduled cruise departure was July 3 and I’d been required to designate a time for our health check. We had checked Google Maps and learned the cruise port was roughly 6 miles away from the hotel, so we decided we’d just walk to it. The trek through Athens introduced us to portions of the city not likely featured on tourism guides but fascinating just the same. One area in particular struck us both: an open-air market stretched for several blocks that featured everything from a dizzying array of produce to abundant meat and seafood, to simple knick knacks. Some of the semi-industrial stretches lacked passable sidewalks or shoulders (sidewalks were often pressed into service for car parking) but passing motor vehicles gave us room. The day was hot and, as we neared the port, we stopped at an inviting looking café for water and wine. Relaxed and refreshed, we set about finding the spot for our health check.
Unfortunately, my brain had performed one of its all too commonplace hiccups and told me the health check was to take place July 2nd. It was scheduled for the 3rd. Trust me when I tell you that epic frustration is inevitable when you search for an expected service, after walking several miles in triple digit heat, that turns out not to be there at all.
Still believing the error was the cruise’s, we began our return to the hotel as I composed a scathing remonstration to Celebrity in my head. One building near the port displayed what looked like a Celebrity logo in front, so I entered and asked about getting our health check. Turns out, Celebrity had once been officed there, but that was some time ago. Even though they doubted my information was correct, the on-duty staff energetically set about trying to find out how we had gone wrong.
The Greek service culture is ubiquitous and impeccable in our experience. This was but another example. We did have the good sense to use a taxi for getting back to the hotel.
On July 3rd we reported, all baggage in tow, to the cruise port for our health check. Identifying the correct departure gate was simple – it was the one where the impressively imposing Celebrity Apex was docked. Here, we not only had to produce our Covid vaccination documents, we also had to be interviewed closely about symptoms and tested again for Covid. Having passed these hurdles, we were directed on board.
At least to date, we are not frequent cruisers. The melee of sorts we experienced for boarding an earlier cruise had interested me in the advantages of booking a suite. Agreed, it’s a pricy decision, but I bit the bullet and signed up for the least expensive (“cheapest” would be a horrible misnomer) suite available. All Celebrity suite guests, regardless of suite type, are afforded a stunning array of benefits: a personal butler available 24/7 for whatever request strikes your fancy, access to select restaurants, pools and bars, together with the premium drinks and on-board internet package. I think it fair to say Celebrity cruise guests are pampered. Celebrity suite guests are PAMPERED!
Another guest aboard our cruise was a widow who redefines “frequent cruiser.” So much so that she was recognized at a Captains Club reception with thanks and a beautiful bouquet of flowers. She’d brought her daughter along for this cruise and, as several of us were gathered at the reception, someone asked “do you get treated especially well because of your frequency?” Not missing a beat, her daughter replied, “they treat everyone that way.”
Day one was a day at sea, so we spent an hour or three exploring the ship. The only other cruise line I’d ever sailed with catered to what I would call a party atmosphere. Celebrity, in this and my previous experience, seemed to me more aligned with classy than party. This is not to say “dull.” Rather, I’d call it civilly refined. Spaces are filled with framed artwork, objet’s d’art, and architectural nuances that differ intriguingly from deck to deck. Devoted shoppers will find merchandise not unlike what one would expect in Milan or New York. Buffet fare is reliably tasty, and various specialty restaurants are arrayed to satisfy an equally varied array of culinary preferences. In sum, the ship is a floating first class hotel, art gallery, meeting venue, shopping mall, spa, gymnasium and eating/drinking extravaganza.
Our first port of call, Limassol, Cypress, was one where we’d booked an off-ship excursion – a hike to some locally popular waterfalls and luncheon served at a working area farm. The excursion literature described the hike as strenuous, but we found it more tricky than strenuous. By “tricky” I mean strewn with rocks, some quite large, step ups and downs that were rather sheer, an occasional stream crossing, etc. Otherwise the rigor was fairly mild, I thought. That said, the area was gorgeous and well maintained. A formally designated “nature trail,” placards identifying trees and other flora were plentiful. The trail is accessible from either top or bottom – our excursion began at the top, but most of the local hikers we encountered were coming from the bottom. Judging from some of their comments I’d say our approach was the better one. Maybe that’s just me. Our lunch was interesting and offered a glimpse into local fare, but it was more memorable for the local flavor than its excellence. Truly enjoyable all the same.
Our next stop was Santorini, which is thoroughly striking to behold. On previous visits to Mesa Verde I’d determined that the Anasazi disappearance wasn’t especially difficult to account for – eventually enough of them fell to their death that the remaining survivors found less perilous living circumstances. Viewing Santorini for the first time gave me a similar sense of profoundly hazardous geography. White is the dominant color of visible architecture, and much of it is perched atop a formidable escarpment of cliffs. Getting into town involves either a tram ride (which is how we made the ascent), a hike or donkey ride up stone step switchbacks to the shops and dwellings above (walking the steps is how we made our descent. Should we return at some future time we would use the tram in both directions). Once atop the sea-facing cliffs, one finds Santorini views considerably expanded.
Dwellings and businesses are concentrated most densely near the cliffs’ summit, but the land beyond that arete resolves into a gentle slope leading to a mountain that appears mostly devoid of buildings. On the facing slope, however, several neighborhoods dot the landscape, creating a somewhat populous contrast to the surrounding patchwork of farms.
One last, especially notable, Santorini feature is the sunset. So much so that as dusk begins to signal evening’s onset, boats of all sizes, and automobiles on seaside roads, gather for tourists and locals to watch the sun literally sink into the western horizon, its fiery orange hues reflecting brilliantly as the Aegean swallows it up for the night. A fitting coda to beautiful day.
Our next port, Rhodes, was among our favorites. Until I’d read some of the city’s promotional literature, I’d always pronounced the name “roads.” It is correctly pronounced “Rhodos,” and spellings of it commonly use both “Rhodes” and “Rhodos.” Nothing remains of the Colossus at Rhodes (one of the Ancient Wonders of the World) but other surviving historical artifacts are everywhere. Narrow streets beckon, with lush greenery and flowering bougainvillea cascading from windowsills throughout the city. Numerous municipal fountains grace city squares with sculptures and plantings, and coffee shops/cafes line nearly every street. Ancient castles, churches and municipal plazas are in spectacular repair – truly artifacts of times long past. Stirring.
Although we came to Greece for the Greek Island cruise, we could not visit Athens as merely a gateway stopover. Following the cruise we had reserved an additional four nights at the Athens Gate Hotel. Getting from the cruise terminal back to the hotel reminded us that the art of scamming tourists knows no boarders. Our ill-planned, pre-cruise walk to the cruise port spanned a bit more than 6 miles. The taxi driver who picked us up from the port, unaware that we’d earlier traversed the distance on foot, performed what in Las Vegas is termed “long routing.” In Las Vegas it is the illegal practice of taking a longer route to a fare’s destination than necessary, thereby jacking up the fare amount. Whether legal or not (I suspect not), our cab driver accomplished the trip in something close to 20 miles, clearly a long routing feat. That shenanigan’s sting did not last long and is the only negative (a mild one at that) of the entire trip.
The city of Athens is breathtakingly vast geographically. From the smart, comfortable restaurant atop Lycabettus Hill (the city’s highest point), one’s view of the city stretches from the seaport to as far as the eye can see landward. Not unlike other major metropolitan areas, traffic is reliably heavy. Quite a few locals navigate the congestion on motorcycles and motorbikes, often taking what seemed to me rather harrowing chances. Private automobiles are abundant, but in the downtown area taxis and busses dominate. One type of city bus was something I’d not seen before – full size, sleek looking and 100% electric! Something else we noted – there is a teeming police presence in the touristy downtown areas. What appear to be paddy wagons (full size police busses with metal screen window coverings) are placed here and there, pairs of officers in automobiles, typically one behind the other, and teams on motorcycles – 2 officers per motorcycle and 2 motorcycles traveling together. Despite their abundance, the presence seemed mostly unobtrusive.
Covid precautions are everywhere! No buildings we saw permitted unmasked entry. On streets, especially crowded ones, mask wearing is commonplace. Assuming (perhaps too generously) our hotel experience to be generalizable, masks inside are ubiquitous. For the buffet, both masks and light, disposable gloves are required. If there is fallout among locals over masking or other precautions, we neither witnessed nor heard of any. Visitors entering Greece must provide proof of being fully vaccinated. Visitors leaving Greece must also present proof of a negative Covid test taken within 72 hours of departure.
In short, the entire trip served as a spectacularly memorable stimulus to all one’s physical senses: sight, smell, sound and taste. The invisible spectrums of curiosity and soulfulness were at least equally satisfied.
In closing I will observe simply that Greece is a place with which it is sublimely easy to fall in love!