THE NIGHT BEFORE my departure for a weeklong classical music cruise, my 2-year-old daughter cupped my cheeks in her hands and sang to me in a high, sweet voice, “You are my sweetheart, and my best friend, and my mommy. Don’t you cry, just go to sleep,” as if she knew I wouldn’t be there when she woke. Twelve hours later, my plane touched down in Athens, Greece, just as her preschool was letting out.
Arriving at the port of Piraeus that day, I recalled the words of Nikos Kazantzakis, who wrote that to sail the Aegean in the autumn months is “the joy most apt to transport the heart of man into paradise.” That’s exactly what I felt 10 years earlier. Ferrying from island to island with people I’d met at a hostel in Corfu, I spent hours reading borrowed books (including Kazantzakis’ Report to Greco) on ship decks as the sea teased and tossed us, my heart full.
The events that propelled me there were anything but happy. Fired from a European dream job with a badly bruised ego in tow, I drifted across the continent, delaying my return to America and its 10-vacation-days-only grind as long as I could. At some point during my Greek island trip, my heart lightened. Without being able to pinpoint why, I felt carefree for the first time in months.
Back in America, I quickly assumed the responsibilities that come with falling in love, becoming management and starting a family. Although I felt blessed, I remained restless and achy for Greece, its sea, sunsets and salty people.
Feeling like a negligent wife and mother but unable to help myself, I booked passage for an eight-day cruise from Athens to Istanbul on a ship called L’Austral, which means “coming from the South.” I later learned from its captain that its other itinerary is Antarctica. As he spoke of that unknowable terrain and its constantly shifting glaciers, I felt a tug to keep traveling. To see that land which cannot be mapped. But I also knew I couldn’t justify leaving my family for more than a week. It would have to be a family trip … and she was still just a toddler.
Most people prefer companionship on trips. I prefer traveling alone because then I never get tired of or cross. I go at my own pace, and when I change plans, there’s no one’s feelings or expectations I have to consider.
Of course, I wasn’t completely alone on this cruise. I had my daughter’s teddy bear, Jack, with me so I could send picture postcards and videos of our adventures to my family. I arranged in advance to have an international phone and data package for the week to make this cheap and easy.
L’Austral belongs to the only French cruise ship line in the world, Compagnie du Ponant. All announcements were in both French and English, and my companions were largely men and women in striped bateau tops, white slacks, Jackie O shades, sun hats and sensible, low-heeled shoes. Typically, anything I wear is covered in a fine layer of goldfish crackers and milk by 7 p.m., so the elegance of L’Austral was the perfect balm, even if I no longer had the “formal” clothes to wear during the ship’s special occasions.
I enjoyed five-course meals with wine pairings almost every evening, never missed a high tea and watched the sun rise over several islands as I lounged on my private balcony in pajamas. I felt pampered and far more sophisticated than the girl who traversed the same waters a decade ago with a backpack, calico-colored hair and a pair of spiky rubber flip-flops.
My state room, a standard cabin, encouraged that expansive feeling. On other cruise ships that means a windowless closet with a cramped shower. On L’Austral, it means floor-to-ceiling windows and glass-walled showers, buttery linens and dark wood details, leather-upholstered cabinets hidden cleverly behind what looks like a wall and enough storage space for a monthlong voyage.
At the nightly concerts I realized it’s rude to applaud between symphonic movements, no matter how moved you are. I’m no sophisticate, and I may have understood the announcements made in French, but it wasn’t until I attracted stares that this occurred to me. And during my hot stone massage at the ship’s spa, I jumped a little when certain body parts got special treatment — Americans definitely have a larger “no-touch” zone than Europeans.
SIZE DOES MATTER
Did you know that people rate how exclusive your ship is by its number of cabins? I didn’t until a fellow passenger informed me that others would envy our experience. My “private yacht” cruise boasted a modest 132 cabins. Its size allowed us to dock in ports other cruise ships couldn’t come near.
And that’s one of the beauties of small-ship cruising. You don’t overwhelm the local population. You can wander the streets without running into people you saw at breakfast. It’s possible to meet the locals and have honest interactions with them.
On the island of Sifnos, I discovered a little pottery shop selling miniature versions of the ornate chimneys the island is known for and face jugs that reminded me of North Georgia. The artist’s daughter tended the shop and recommended a taverna/inn across the beach for lunch. I walked a long, dusty road until I discovered Delfini. The owner took my order, while his son did homework in the bar area, his wife cooked and his daughter kept her two grandmothers company on the patio. I watched people dive and swim off the back of the ship (a L’Austral tradition in smaller ports) as I enjoyed a chilled carafe of wine and a two-hour lunch during which we discussed how to properly describe the color of the Aegean Sea. (Turquoise blue was hokey we decided, azure too pretentious, wine dark should be left to poets and deep blue, although not quite descriptive enough, was, at least, accurate.)
Inspired by a rumor of a marble pathway from Santorini’s capitol city, Fira, to its northernmost cliff city, Oia, I spent three hours walking along the island’s spine, past goats and churches, brilliant white guest houses and shocking pink bougainvillea, over pebbly hills and rocky cliffs, past caves inexplicably stuffed with abandoned washing machines, and sailboats exploring the island’s caldera. When I stopped to celebrate my arrival in Oia, my waitress was impressed — it’s uncommon for anyone to walk the full path anymore. I continued to the tip of Oia, where I descended hundreds of steps to the port of Amoudi Bay and watched the sunset from the same taverna my friends and I had discovered a decade ago.
On Rhodes, I stumbled upon an archaeological museum housed in a former hospital on the famous Street of the Knights. As others wandered the medieval city’s only straight street, wondering at its row of former hotels and wilting in the heat, I watched from behind a wrought-iron gate, surrounded by statuary and shady palm trees, galleries stuffed with the country’s treasures arranged around me.
I enjoyed the guided tours, too. Especially because they were led by locals. On Nisyros, our guide showed us a house museum, where families of more than 10 used to sleep in one room. As he explained the uses for the tools on display, he cracked, “No one before my father’s generation was fat. Life was too hard.”
With a wicked twinkle in her eye, our guide on Patmos pointed out the icon screen in the Cave of the Apocalypse, where St. John the Divine wrote the Book of Revelation. Instead of a painting of the Virgin Mary with the infant Jesus, there was a icon of St. Anne with her infant daughter, the Virgin Mary, on her knee. The child’s hand held a wisp of smoke. “Some people would say — and of course, I wouldn’t because I wouldn’t want to be sacrilegious — but some people would say that was a feminist version of the Holy Trinity,” she grinned. “Who knows why it’s here? But it’s one of a kind.”
Everyone on board wondered about the future of Greece. Government workers, after all, were holding “austerity” protests the day we left. But it became clear, as we toured, how resilient the Greeks are. On island after island, we saw how they adapted to land where rain never fell and food didn’t grow. We learned how vulnerable they had been to pirate attacks, Turkish massacres and Hitler. The Greek spirit had survived invasions, Italians and volcanos: What did they care whether they’d be using the drachma or the euro a year from now? The next generation was already preparing, re-learning the traditional ways of fishing, farming and craft that sustained their families for generations. “And after economic crisis,” laughed one guide, “we just become a bargain destination. More people will be able to come and see us.”
I looked forward to the nightly concerts as a way to process all that I’d experienced during the day. Sometimes there was a solo pianist, an Avery Fischer Career Grant winner whose music could move me to tears. Other times, there was a full chamber orchestra filled with Fulbright scholars and professors, all masters of their art. Each night had a particular theme that teased out the idea of mythology, water and classical music itself. Before each piece, the musicians explained their personal connection to the works, the stories behind them and links between them. A Mozart quintet for clarinet introduced one night, for example, might have inspired a Schubert composition played the next.
A champagne toast marked the end of our voyage. Minutes later, I watched a Turkish captain climb aboard to help us navigate the perilous Bosphorus Strait. I awoke in Istanbul, just in time to head to the airport. As my taxi sped along, I thought about the girl I was the last time I was here and wondered how the city might have changed since I ate roasted chestnuts by its mosques and explored its spooky underwater aquifer. But there was another little girl waiting patiently for me to return. I wondered how old she’d be before we could take that family cruise to Antarctica.
VIDEO HIGHLIGHTS FROM L’AUSTRAL: The music you hear is the sound of Gilles Vonsattel rehearsing for that evening’s concert.
Compagnie du Ponant also offers cruises to North America and South America. Its themed itineraries include jazz, family, golf, diving and photography adventures. For more information, visit en.ponant.com.
Kristi Casey Sanders is VP/Creative and Chief Storyteller at Encore Atlanta. She’s also an adventurous and well-traveled traveler. Want to see more images from Greece? You can view the album here.