Dazzling whitewashed houses cluster on steep cliffs, scarlet bougainvillea shades a maze of narrow cobble-stone lanes, and weary donkeys carry lazy tourists up steep paths from Santorini’s waterfront to the main town of Fira.
On this Greek holiday island’s sun-kissed beaches bared bodies bake as the bluest of skies brighten yet another poster-perfect day. Life here is remarkably upbeat despite the eurozone’s recent financial woes.
This is the land of mythical characters such as Zeus, Hercules, Apollo, Artemis and Odysseus, who was the hero of Homer’s epic poem, and we sail there aboard the cruise ship Azamara Journey as dawn breaks each day.
With a late-night departure ahead, there is time to explore Santorini at a leisurely pace, take a dip in the warm Aegean Sea, then sit on a restaurant deck that hangs off a steep cliff face to drink in the glorious views and sip sweet, strong coffee in a tiny cup that is one-third thick sediment.
Truly, this is paradise. Even the mahogany-skinned old men and black-garbed women who sit in local squares to watch the world go by are in no hurry to leave.
At Mykonos, another of Greece’s popular holiday islands, Azamara Journey is anchored in the bay, where I watch the ship’s tenders take passengers to and from the shore at regular intervals.
Taking a cruise is so much easier than the rigours of catching a plane to a Greek island, then a taxi to the main town, before lugging a case several hundred meters (or more) to a hotel; the central areas of these holiday islands are invariably cobble-stoned and traffic-free with a maze of narrow winding lanes.
It is only days into the cruise and already I am looking at Azamara Journey as “home”.
There are 700 guests onboard representing 16 nationalities, mainly British, Americans seeking a change from their annual Caribbean cruise, chilled-out Australians and a good mix of Europeans.
The crew probably doubles the range of nationalities, while English is the language all public announcements and shore excursions.
Most Greek islands we visit have a dramatic rocky landscape, where gnarled olive and citrus groves struggle to exist and farmers with scrawny donkeys struggle to till stony fields.
Island food ranges from grilled octopus to moussaka, dolmades, stuffed tomatoes, cucumber, olives, figs, and feta cheese, all washed down with retsina, the local wine that is an acquired taste, or the aperitif ouzo that has a distinctive aniseed flavor.
Along the shore, small hotels crowd sandy beaches while fishermen repair nets beside modest boats. In the towns, tourists jostle one another in a crowded labyrinth of lanes.
On Santorini, I visited the traditional village of Oia, renowned for glorious sunsets, and found refuge in the cool interior of an ancient monastery where three elderly monks still live. The interior is rich with frescoed walls, ornate statues and encrusted gold ornaments.
A monk sitting quietly by a doorway has a gentle smile and a flowing white beard. He sees my camera and his nod indicates that I may take his photo.
It is a picture I will treasure, of a gentle man at peace with the world.
Some guests rarely leave Azamara Journey as they enjoy life on board so much. It is rather like staying at a luxury resort on land with no end of pampering.
However, just about everyone on board ventures out when we sail into Kusadasi, on Turkey’s Turquoise Coast, for an exclusive evening at the World Heritage-listed Greco-Roman ruins in Ephesus.
The site has closed for the day, and we stroll among massive marble columns and mosaic pathways bathed in soft lights to sample Turkish meze and local wine before sitting on steeply tiered marble steps in an ancient amphitheater for a magical orchestral concert.
Azamara cruises are all-inclusive, including onboard gratuities, as well as alcoholic and non-alcoholic drinks which are free at bars, by the pool and in the main restaurants, though there may be additional cost for specific labels.
Extravagances such as caviar are extra, as are organised land tours to distant attractions from port.
The writer publishes australiancruisingnews.com and travelled as a guest of Azamara Club Cruises.
This article previously appeared in The West Australian newspaper on August, 31, 2013.