Stella Solaris September 28, 1998 Aegean Discovery Cruise
I became completely captivated by the dramatic landscape and stark beauty of Greece many years ago as a college-bound teenager, and vowed to return as soon as I could. It took far too many years, but finally all that changed this September when I planned a return that would satisfy my long years of yearning. I took a few days in Athens and then a week's cruise around the Greek Islands and to Turkey aboard Royal Olympic Cruises' mts Stella Solaris. It turned out to be just the ticket!
In Athens, you must go beyond the chaotic traffic, the ceaseless noise and the press of humanity to get a feel for the enigmatic Athenian people. You'll surely have this opportunity, at least through a tour guide. Engage them in a conversation, and you'll be charmed by their warmth and sociability. See the mainland (Delphi!) and tour the Peloponnesus if you can. At least tour Athens, see the Acropolis, eat at a restaurant in the young and vibrant Plaka, try the half-day tour to the temple of Poseidon at Cape Sounion (the coastal water views alone are worth it). The National Archaeological Museum should be required of every visitor. It contains wonderful artifacts from sites all around the Aegean. If you save it until after the cruise, you will then have the context in which to place these deeply evocative pieces from the very heart of western civilization. I forbid you to just go from the airport to the ship!
Being mid-fall, the temperature dropped slowly from the hot days in very warm (90's) Athens, making for lovely long evenings. Then it is cool in the morning. If you're out in the country, the early evening drop can be more sudden. On the water, it seemed to stay in the moderate 70's almost all the time.
The Stella Solaris has been marketed in the United States for quite some time. At 18,000 tons and carrying around 620 passengers, she actually feels much larger. Originally entering service in 1953, and having since had two other incarnations, today's Stella Solaris still makes a good first impression . . . but then I have a high appreciation for the really good design that came out of the 50's, when designers were stretching and expanding boundaries and creating a new modern look. The large bas reliefs in the staircases and several public rooms, especially the room divider for the Piano Bar, are fine examples of the best of that period. The rest of the public room furnishings are in the general style of the 50's as well, reassuring and familiar shapes for some, tired and too plain perhaps for younger passengers. The interior of the ship is very well maintained.
She also has a spacious full circle promenade, for that evening "turn around deck." Unfortunately, the decking needs some serious repair and maintenance, particularly forward. In the absence of a forward facing lounge, the aft Piano Bar has an open, relaxed feeling, with huge windows all the way across the back of the ship - the perfect evening spot to watch the lights of the day's port falling astern.
Drinks are more expensive than usual and no tip is added to the check. It is the custom on Greek-flagged ships that there is just one lump-sum tip, at the end of the cruise, which is pooled, then split equitably. Just below the Piano Bar is the modern, well-equipped Daphne Spa with a difference from the standard shipboard Steiner product: a Greek company is in charge here with Ahava beauty preparations from the Dead Sea - a pleasant change. The usual wide range of services are provided professionally and competently.
Deluxe and Superior outside cabins are very roomy and well maintained, if "spartan" and short on some of today's contemporary conveniences. You can turn off the very frequent (and in five languages) public address announcements (food time, show time, and you-know-what time). The phone has no dial - you just pick up the receiver and someone will come on to help you (and they have caller ID). There is a bucket of ice. The room service menu (not available 24 hours) offers sandwiches, fruit, a salad, a soup, a dessert, and beverages. There is one 110-volt plug in the bathroom. Water pressure is great, toilets are quiet, and the tub and sink are very large. The top of the dresser pulls out as a handy desk.
Lido lunch is surprisingly nice, if not of a wide or varying selection: a crisp green and several dressed salads, real tomatoes(!), cold cuts and cheeses, sliced poor boy sandwiches that are moist and tasty, and Greek spanikopita and baklava treats. In the bars, the whiff-of-oregano dusted potato chips are out of this world. Lunch and Dinner menu selections are brief: two appetizers, one salad, two soups, four entrees, two desserts, ice cream and cheeses. Some dishes were better than others, but overall it was good. One evening I had the best shipboard soufflé of my life, light and tender. I quickly learned that our outstanding waiter (Steward of the Month for the current and last five months) knew what was best. The dining room experience is elegant with fine linen, good porcelain, hand-etched crystal and Italian silver. This is an area where a humble ship can pick up points. I had good fortune with my delightful tablemates. We came to seek each other out, had dinner together up at the Lido buffet, and even went on shore excursions together.
Entertainment was generally very good. We had a lovely and superb classical pianist aboard who performed several times to a packed theater, and was very popular around the swimming pools. "Moscow Magic" needed no interpreters. Our Cruise Director performed as a mime in the sweetest little skit. The European lead singers filled the Main Lounge with very good popular melodies, international favorites. The versatile and clever dancers fancied themselves as the Soviet Spice Girls, and the costumes and lighting were professional. The multi-talented Romanian orchestra backed up everything with style.
Gambling is in-house produced, taking in US$ and paying out Greek Drachma.
The ship's daily program is generic by day, that is, for example, Wednesday is Rhodes and what happens will be the same as every Wednesday in Rhodes. There are no indications of where the gangway will be located, no Performer's names, etc., as those details may change. Very little information was given or presented on the ports of call. If you are interested enough, you may want to do some research in advance, in order to fully enjoy what you will be seeing. Any decent guidebook is sufficient. The shore excursion tour guides, all natives, are required to have a very good knowledge of what they are showing, and I found them to be excellent throughout the region.
We cast off on a Monday evening into a warm, clear night, with an ambitious itinerary: Tuesday in Crete and Santorini; Wednesday in Rhodes; Thursday in Patmos and Kusadasi, Turkey (for Ephesus); Friday afternoon in Canakkale, Turkey (for Troy); Saturday in Istanbul; and Sunday afternoon in Mykonos. There were several half-days at sea, yet often it felt more like a hectic experience of the Grandeurs of the Golden Aegean, than it felt like a cruise. But there couldn't be a better way to see all these legendary locations than by ship, and the sea even helps keep everything in perspective.
There's a strange system for disembarking and embarking the ship. In the entrance hall at the gangway is a large board with every passenger's name and number on it, and then a large board with each number on a little plastic chip on a hook. The first time out (and perhaps more), you must discover your number, then you must collect your chip before disembarking. Upon your return, you must show and then replace your chip. Once the ship sails, empty hooks require passengers' names to be called repeatedly over the P.A. system, until the chips are replaced. What's wrong with this picture?
Crete is so large it really should be a country all by itself. The dry scrub and rocky landscape of Greece reminded me of many areas of California. The main shore excursion for Crete begins at 7:15am and lasts about 5 hours. The Monastery of St. George is pretty and popular, but only a small stop on the hour's drive from the port city of Heraklion travelling east to the picturesque town of Agios Nikolaos on the Gulf of Mirabello. The town center is like a little hill village and has a small but gloriously painted cathedral.
Nearby, there is also an unusual fresh water lake connected to the sea. And dotted all over the island, on often remote sites, are little "Saint's Chapels," tiny one-room chapels where a service is held only on that saint's day each year, though visitors may come to pray or meditate at any time.
There was a brief presentation on our next three ports that afternoon (and a couple other short port lectures during the cruise), but I regret to tell that I slept through it, as well as Santorini. Darn! I just saw it as we were pulling away in the dusk - a delicate bracelet of canary yellow diamonds floating high in the night air on the island's steep volcanic crater cliffs, with a few glowing fallen stones below at the water line. One of my tablemates, an experienced traveler, said the volcanic island was like nothing he had ever seen. I already thought it must have come into being from some Greek goddess' elegant fantasy.
On Rhodes, I had once before been down the southeast coast to Lindos, walked the town and climbed the hill to the great fort (Knights of St. John) that has a fallen-down temple on it and incredible views all around. This season they had added some time at the perfect crescent of beach on a quiet bay at the foot of Lindos town, but I passed on this excursion. Since we did have a whole day here, I figured I'd sleep in and wander the Old Town with my trusty Guide Michelin Greece when I was good and ready. The classic green Guide served me well, with directions for a colorful walk around the huge old fortress that is the Old Town. It included a tour of the Palace of the Grand Masters of the Knights of St. John, a formidable fort-within-a-fort.
Many of the sites in the Old Town are under reconstruction and restoration, but the shopping in the whole area is astounding, reminiscent of St. Thomas in the Caribbean. Shop after shop of gold and jewelry, and furs are said to be a good bargain here as well.
I got the scoop on Patmos the next morning from a tablemate. She found the Monastery of St. John, built 900 years ago, and the Grotto below it very moving. She could not believe the riches that had been hidden and preserved (buried in the walls) over the centuries from everyone who invaded, "and that was everyone."
At the pre-luncheon repeat passenger party (I'd been on the Epirotiki World Renaissance in another part of the world 12 years ago), I enjoyed speaking with the Cruise Director, Paul Becque, whose voice was several of the languages I'd been hearing on the P.A. system. We had mostly English-speaking passengers aboard (380); the second largest contingent is usually Spanish-speaking (only 50 this time), but we had a large conference of French doctors (140); then there were Germans (5) and Greeks (20), so we were about 590 passengers.
For the tour from our afternoon call at Kusadasi, we were first taken to a place said to have been the last home of the Virgin Mary. It is a stunning location, high atop a remote mountain with long land and sea views from several points. This is a humble place of religious pilgrimage, sweet and cool in the autumn mountain air, a retreat, a sanctuary.
We then proceeded down and around the bottom of the mountain to the ancient city of Ephesus, said to be one of the best excavations in the world. The site reached its peak of population and culture during the Classical Period of Greece, 500-300 B.C. The most famous and photographed remnant here is the Library of Celsus, its' intact 80-foot tall stone facade elegant and graceful, glowing in the warm sun. Next in importance is the Great Theater, the largest of antiquity, with a capacity of 24,000. It was still used until recently, when a famous pop singer's volume level cracked the top sections' foundation. It is now fenced off and closed. More excavations proceed adjacent to the current site, so in time there will be more to see.
Our caravan of buses followed along to a Turkish carpet production center, to learn the ins and outs of these magnificent creations (the techniques used for silk were most interesting), and also received a rousing demonstration of folk dancing from Thrace and Eastern Anatolya. The movements were smooth and geometric for the couples, then quite athletic for the men, including fast, complicated footwork and flying jumps where they land on their knees and swirl in circles.
The following day's early afternoon cruising brought us to the entrance of the Bosphorus Strait, a waterway rich with history. On the low hills of the northern shore at some distance is a monument with a simple, tall open box shape. It is dedicated to all those who gave their lives in the fight for the freedom of Europe. I'll bet it is even more powerful in person, as it seems to make it's presence felt from several miles, as if it were a sentry of sorts, a warning.
My afternoon excursion from Canakkale, a small beach vacation town now, went first to the local archaeological museum, also small but with a few very well-preserved and interesting pieces. The continuation to Troy brought repeated warnings not to expect anything like we had seen at Ephesus, and these were right. At Troy, there are clearly wall works of different ages, and some beautiful Roman fragments - even a small theater - but this legendary locale is today mostly just rock and stones ajumble. They've learned that there have been nine main incarnations of Troy here, and it is complicated how each is layered on the previous one. Our guide kept switching periods as we walked the various excavation areas themselves, and then would say very sternly, "Do not be confused!" I assure you it was all pure confusion. Most everyone on the ship had heard that Troy was a bust, so they had canceled their tickets. Unless you're a diehard archaeological enthusiast with a good imagination, you may prefer to just check out the little town at your leisure and call that good.
That evening we cruised slowly across the Sea of Marmara, the smallest sea in the world, on our way to Istanbul. The moon was coming round to full and the lights of Asia Minor faced the lights of Europe across the water. I wondered if there would ever be peace here. The bitterness between Greece and Turkey is tangible: the Turks will mostly only refer to the Greeks as Hellenistic or even Ionian. Sometimes Western Europeans are called "the Latins." At least we have a seeming good truce.
The entire ship was up before dawn for a long day in the exotic, ancient and endlessly fascinating city of Istanbul. You must see to believe the unique balance between east and west that commingle on this spot. Billboards in Arabic and English are an example that come easily to mind. And again be prepared to experience the traffic, smog, noise and dirt of an emerging nation. After crossing a bridge over the Golden Horn, our full day tour with lunch included the following: the 17th century Blue Mosque; the 4th century Hagia Sophia (meaning "Holy Wisdom" in both Christianity and Islam); a little shopping for "jingle jangle" (our guide's term for gold and jewelry) on a visit to the covered Grand Bazaar (3300 shops); an excellent lunch in an old hotel; the extensive Topkapi Palace; and the 16th century Suleyman Mosque, one of the finest examples of classic Islamic architecture, the stained glass windows alone without comparison. All these sites are on the European continent. This is only perhaps one-tenth of what there is to see here, but a good selection of highlights.
I will only touch on the two places that brought me most unforgettably under their spell, Hagia Sophia and Topkapi Palace.
Originally the most renowned Byzantine cathedral in the world, Hagia Sophia has fallen to flame or fallen down (from impossible construction as well as earthquake) more times than about any other remaining sacred structure in the world. It is notably altered for the practice of Islam, embellished with fine Islamic works, but is now a museum. Many parts of the original and successive early structures and decorations are visible here and there, such as an impressive first use of matched flitches of marble, and the massive wooden doors which were part of a restoration by Justinian in the 6th century, and through which it is said he rode his horse and declared, "Solomon, I have surpassed you!" It is magnificent.
Topkapi Palace, which dates from the 15th Century, is so extensive it almost defies description. The most stately features are the glorious gates and portals, the richly bejeweled Imperial Treasury, the Privy Chamber containing many of the most sacred relics of Islam, the Finance Treasury with it's displays of arms and armor from all through the ages, and the Kitchens which have been remodeled to display the superb collections of China, celadon and other outstanding porcelains from around the world. Elsewhere there is even a large ceremonial throne of solid gold, and many other grand chambers, towers and rooms. To be in the presence of great treasures so meaningful and priceless certainly brings alive the embattled history of this strategic city straddling two continents, especially the great empire that thrived here for three and a half centuries. The Topkapi has been a museum since 1924.
Another beautiful morning's cruising in the bright sun and calm blue water brought us to our final port, famous Mykonos. The quality of light here at the very center of the Aegean is so unusually sharp and clear, it is surreal. The town and surrounding hillsides, bleached pale to white, and the aquamarine blue sparkling water somehow call for a much longer visit. I took a tour across the short stretch of water to the Sanctuary of Apollo on the island of Delos. For 500 years, Delos was the religious and commercial hub of the entire Aegean, so the ruins are far ranging and, having been deserted for many centuries, have been protected and are in good order. Intact are brilliantly colored mosaic floors, five famous Naxian marble lions from the 7th century, and, high on the side of the lone mountain, the pillars and pediment of the Temple to Apollo.
It is hard to imagine a more enriching and fulfilling experience in such a short time, as is a week around the Aegean and to Istanbul on the Stella Solaris. She may be a little dated and skimpy in some areas, not a great bargain and not to everyone's taste. But the itinerary is hard to beat; I enjoyed the ship and the food and the entertainment, the warm staff, the spacious cabin, and the unpretentious atmosphere. Her name translates roughly to Sun Star, and in that spirit she'll always have a place in the firmament of my cruising heart.
Tim Josephson is a long time San Francisco-based Mariner, passionate about blue water cruising, and frequent contributor to the SeaLetter. He can be reached for questions or comment at: TimJosephson@juno.com.
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