Have you ever noticed that a Mediterranean cruise is always priced higher than one in the Caribbean, even when discounted by consolidators? There are several reasons for this, including higher operating costs in Europe and heftier air fares in Europe's shoulder season (April through mid-June, and mid-September through October) and especially during the high season (mid-June to mid-September). You could spend as much as $16,000 on an 11-day cruise (on the upscale Seabourn line).
Yet there are also several options in the Mediterranean that are surprisingly affordable. Granted, all will cost more than the average Caribbean cruise, but the rewards are worth it, especially in many of the Greek islands, with their remarkable scenery, beaches and, above all, the awesome remnants of more than 3,000 years of Hellenic history.
For maximum savings, you could take advantage of the extensive system of ferries, hydrofoils and catamarans that connects the islands with Athens' port of Piraeus as well as with each other. The 5 1/2-hour ferry from Piraeus to Mykonos, for example, costs as little as $11.50 each way (if you want to cut that to three hours, take the $23 catamaran). But then you have to cope with uncertainties, such as finding your own accommodations and dealing with delays and cancellations, especially during the windy month of August.
If you have limited time to spend and want to concentrate on the marvelous sights, consider the following cruises:
With 15 cabins, the Viking Star is a homey, well-equipped yacht with seven-night cruises departing Piraeus weekly from April through October. It visits Mykonos, Delos and Santorini, and smaller islands such as Tinos, Ios, Paros and Naxos. The cruise-only cost, with breakfast and lunch plus two hotel nights in Athens, is $1,195 through the Greek Islands Cruise Center, telephone (800) 341-3030, Internet http://www.gicc.net.
Renaissance Cruises offers a more traditional cruise-liner experience, with its fully loaded, 684-passenger ships crossing regularly between Athens and Istanbul, Turkey, dropping anchor at Santorini, Rhodes and Kusadasi, a resort town on the Turkish coast near the spectacular classical ruins of Ephesus. Through the end of July, five nights at sea plus two nights each in Athens and Istanbul cost as little as $1,299 to $1,599 per person, based on double occupancy. What's even more amazing is that this includes round-trip air fare from New York to Athens. Tel. (800) 590-8863, Internet http://www.renaissancecruises.com.
American cruise consolidators such as Cruises International, tel. (800) 255-7447, Internet http://www.cruisesinternational.com, and Los Angeles-based Spur of the Moment Cruises, tel. (800) 343-1991, Internet http://www.spurof.com, are already selling discounted inside cabins (without windows) on several ships, and more and better discounts should become available as the weeks progress. A sampling:
Costa Cruises' Costa Classica has a seven-night itinerary departing June 19 from Venice, Italy; it visits the Italian seaport of Bari and gorgeous medieval Dubrovnik (Croatia) across the Adriatic before heading to Katakolon, Greece (where the original Olympic Games were held), Santorini, Mykonos, Rhodes and Athens, returning to Venice, all for $1,133. Costa also throws in two hotel nights in your choice of Venice, London, Paris or Rome.
A similar itinerary (minus the post-cruise bonus) is offered as of September by First European Cruise Lines' Mistral for $1,059.
Through August, Royal Olympic Cruises' Stella Solaris offers a seven-night cruise and one hotel night in Athens for $993; ports of call include Iraklion, Crete, Santorini, Rhodes, Patmos, Kusadasi, Mykonos and Istanbul.
For more information on the Greek islands, try the Greek National Tourist Organization, 645 Fifth Ave., New York, NY 10022; tel. (212) 421-5777, fax (212) 826-6940, Internet http://www.gnto.gr, or http://www.greeceathensaegeaninfo.bizland.com. You also can access the Cruise Lines International Assn. Web site at http://www.cruising.org.