Michael McHugh takes to sea as he cruises around the beautiful Greek islands.
As I reclined in a hot spring pool on the island of Kos, I realised there is only one way to explore the Greek islands: catch the boat.
Preferably one as grand as Azamara Quest, a sleek 30,000-tonner with an elegant interior decor so strongly reminiscent of the 1930s that you expect to bump into Noel Coward on the promenade deck.
The two ships in the Azamara fleet both reflect the commitment of Larry Pimentel, the Azamara president, to ‘boatique cruising’- which means getting into small ports that the superliners cannot reach.
That was how, en route from Istanbul to Athens, we slipped into Kos, arranged cycle hire in the main town and headed for the cauldron-like springs of Thermes.
The springs were a welcome contrast to the tourist tat of the busier parts of the island, with simply a few rocks to change behind and a handful of thatched shacks selling hot and cold drinks for bathers who venture down a steep and rocky path to one of the island’s greatest charms.
The baths are also easily accessed from Kos by bus along a coastline with wonderful sea views if you don’t trust pedal power.
A rather back-breaking piece of cycling took us on to Zia, where landmarks include an old watermill, and shops selling thyme-scented honey and hand-made soaps.
Kos blends stunning views with sites of historic significance. On one hilltop, the Asklepion archaeological site reveals the school of medicine where Hippocrates studied.
Casa Romana, Greece’s largest Roman villa, dating from the third century AD, features mosaics, frescoes and marble floors in its 37 rooms.
Amongst the Greek islands, however, the best views are often found back on board.
One night, we watched the sun set over Santorini’s black volcanic rock cliffs while we sipped cocktails and nibbled Greek hors d’oeuvres laden with juicy olives.
As we cast off, the shadows lengthened and the rays turned the rocks pink, while pinprick lights from tourists on the island’s volcano rim were clearly visible.
Created by volcanic eruption, Santorini has a natural beauty unspoiled by pockets of development. To reach Fira town, perched on dramatic cliff tops high above the compact port, you take a donkey ride up a narrow cobble-stoned path or step into a five-euro cable car.
From the peak, a partly paved clifftop path with picture-postcard views of the Aegean took us to the town of Oia, which appears like an incongruous snowfall of white-painted buildings against the black earth of the island.
A quick lunch of chicken-filled bread in a local bakery was a relief after several hours walking. Truffles, cakes and succulent-looking banana bread also tempted the weary rambler, but we caught the bus back to Fira.
Beaches are another essential part of a Greek islands odyssey, the golden sands of Mykonos providing some of the best. Wandering around the palm-lined Mykonos town, with narrow streets of whitewashed houses and large blue-painted windows festooned with flowers is a charming experience, with the smell of Greek cooking wafting in the air.
Little Venice nearby is an area of tall Venetian-style houses built in water with waves breaking beneath them.
There was a more sombre feeling when Gallipoli’s Suvla Bay hove into view. This was the setting for massive British, New Zealand and Australian losses as the Allies tried to secure the Dardanelles from Turkey in 1915.
Simple gravestones and memorials bear silent testimony to the bloodshed at that access point from the Mediterranean to Istanbul, the Black Sea and Asia.
Turkey has enjoyed an uneasy relationship with its Greek neighbours, a former colony in Ottoman times, and nowhere is that more apparent than at the Parthenon. The structure became the symbol of modern democracy from its perch high on a hill overlooking Athens, even though it was built using slaves.
Dedicated to the Greek god Athena, it was mortared in 1687 by the Venetians after Ottoman rulers used it to store gunpowder. Now under scaffolding, it remains an enduring symbol of Greece’s immense contribution to western philosophy.
Between their discoveries on shore, Azamara passengers drift from one magnificent meal to the next.
There were candle-lit dinners in corner tables with attentive waiters and, with elegant armchairs everywhere, you can rest at any time, rarely far in time or space from tasty morsels.
Somehow, the feeling of being pampered and spoiled never seemed to end. The red carpet and ropes and plants on the gangway suggested elegance while staff were ever-helpful. The guest whose umbrella perished in Gallipoli’s stiff breezes was swiftly handed another.
Each morning, at each new stop, local tourist information representatives came on board to detail local sights and to warn of money-making wheezes by local cabbies.
As the scenery changed, each day felt like the first day of our holiday. Some guests were Azamara veterans, happy to pay more for the privilege of being among fewer passengers (694 in all) enjoying personalised service.
Three a la carte restaurants, a buffet with culinary themes from around the world and quaintly English features, like afternoon tea with scones smothered in strawberry jam and clotted cream, defined the cruise.
Our cabin, or stateroom, offered a welcome of scattered rose petals, red and white balloons and an attentive “butler”.
With champagne on ice, a welcome flow of goodies was maintained throughout the voyage, with dark chocolate-coated strawberries a special favourite.
Though our cabin lacked a bath, the bed was large and we had plenty of room. The balcony was a huge plus, perfect for leaning on the rail by moonlight.
Azamara captures the comforts of a larger ship, without the crowds and impersonality of a superliner. Port lectures focus on history and archaeology, and deck parties reflect local food and culture.
From the moment he invited us to the bridge for the sailaway from Istanbul, with the minarets of the Blue Mosque diminishing into the distance, Captain Carl Smith, an unassuming 30-something from the Isle of Man, hardly put a foot wrong.
Fellow passengers, mostly retired, came from the US, Australia, Britain and mainland Europe, and music and entertainment on board largely reflected that.
A violin duo, Laszlo and Claudia, played tango, jazz, classical, folk and favourites from films, while other entertainment included an Abba night and a Beatles evening.
Wine is included with lunch and dinner, other alcohol is extra and a variety of cocktails always available. Onboard gratuities are also inclusive.
To eat in some restaurants, like top steakhouse Prime C, passengers happily pay extra, but there is no need to do so. Discoveries, open to all at no extra cost, offers superb New York strip steak, salmon and perennial favourites, with the menu changing each day.
In Windows Cafe, a smorgasbord of offerings was themed each evening around a different country, from Indian tikka masala to delicately-flavoured Moroccan couscous. Elaborate breakfasts ran to pancakes, waffles and unusual egg dishes on potatoes jostling with fresh honeydew melon.
Of course, there’s a premium to be paid for an upmarket cruise. Some customers said they felt obliged to eat more to get value for money.
Our only worry was finding a sunlounger on days spent entirely at sea. Competition could be fierce, and the battle for running machines even tighter.
But the sound of the waves on a moonlit night, languid with hot air, was a special thrill. The only snag with our Azamara voyage was that after seven days we had to get off.
Key facts - Azamara Quest Cruising
:: Best for: Sunseekers keen to combine dramatic scenery and historical insight with a tan and fine food.
:: Time to go: The boat cruises year round, covering Australasia, the Middle East, Europe and the Americas.
:: Don’t miss: The ship’s specialist restaurants with choices of fresh seafood, meat and vegetables.
:: Need to know: Ship-organised excursions can be expensive, so it may be cheaper to arrange your own when you disembark.
:: Don’t forget: Bring a camera for remarkable seascapes - and sunscreen for potentially fierce rays year round.
:: Michael McHugh was a guest of Azamara Cruises which offers Greek Island fly-cruises from £1,930 per person (two sharing inside stateroom) with return flights ex-Heathrow in mid-July 2012. Reg deps include Manchester (£2,000) and Glasgow (£1,995).
:: Prices includes return flights, transfers and cruise ex-Athens to Kusadasi (Ephesus), Kos, Rhodes, Santorini, Crete (Chania) and Nauplion. Price includes wines with meals.
:: Azamara Cruises reservations: 0844 493 4016 and www.azamaraclubcruises.co.uk