There may be other seas in the world with water as clear and blue as the Aegean, but they are not the seas of Homer or of Aphrodite. And there may be other islands in the world as ruggedly beautiful as the Greek islands, but no others are so deeply and indelibly rooted in the history and myths of Western civilization.Skip to next paragraph
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That is why it is not scenic charm alone that makes a cruise of the Aegean and its hundreds of bleached islands the stirring feast for the eyes and the imagination that it is. To follow the course of Odysseus, sailing past olive-tree-covered hills, crumbling marble temples, and aquamarine coves, is to journey over millenniums as well as miles.
But while modern sailors of the Aegean may cherish the vision of Odysseus plying the waters in his wooden ship, they can choose from an array of vessels unimaginable to that ancient mariner. Among them are luxurious cruise ships, interisland ferries, the speedy hydrofoils called ''flying dolphins,'' chartered motor and sailing yachts that include a skipper and crew, and simple ''bareboats'' that can be chartered by those with sailing knowledge and skill.
On a recent visit to Greece I sampled two of these options, taking short cruises on a pair of vessels which shared a first name in common, but little else. The first was the SS Stella Solaris, an elegant liner which traveling companions and I joined on the island of Rhodes for a cruise to Samos and the ancient city of Ephesus in Turkey. The second was the Stella, a graceful white motor yacht that took us to the lovely and tranquil island of Poros, a mere three hours from the bustle of Athens and the nearby port of Piraeus.
Our acquaintance with the Stella Solaris came during the last three days of a week-long cruise of the eastern Mediterranean. Joining the ship when it called in at Rhodes, we boarded the impressive blue-and-white vessel that is the 18,000 -ton, eight-deck flagship of the Greek-owned Sun Line. After settling into our staterooms we joined the shore excursion tour of the old city of Rhodes.
Because I had always associated the Greek Islands with little whitewashed villages and classical ruins, the town of Rhodes came as a surprise: Once the domain of a largely Italian order of knights during the time of the Crusades, much of the old section of Rhodes looks like a stage setting for Camelot. Medieval fortifications guard a town, a meandering enclave of cobbled streets lined with golden stone buildings that recall the age of chivalry rather than of Alexander. There is even a deep, dry moat that adjoins the fortifications, a gorge filled with flowering pink oleander trees and graceful herds of brown and black deer.
As lovely as the medieval buildings are, the highlight of the tour is the collection of the ancient Greek art at the Archaeological Museum. Housed in the somewhat incongruous setting of the 15th-century Hospital of the Knights, the vaulted rooms and courtyards contain excavated treasures, some of which were unearthed during hotel construction on the island. Of these the most famous is the small, exquisite statue of a kneeling Aphrodite drying her long tangled hair after a bath. The perfectly intact marble treasure is believed to date from the 1st century BC.
Heading back toward the ship after the tour, I followed the curving Mandraki Harbor and tried to imagine what it looked like when the Colossus of Rhodes, the mountainous statue of a man built in the 3rd century BC and considered one of the seven wonders of the ancient world, guarded its entrance. Although the Colossus has long since toppled, the harbor is still impressively embellished, now with a lighthouse enclosed in a medieval fortress, three stone windmills, and a pair of columns that are each topped with a bronze deer.
When the Stella Solaris sailed out of Rhodes that evening, the tooth-edged city walls receding against the darkening sky, we had a chance to get to know the ship. Just as the staterooms are large and tastefully decorated, mostly in shades of green and rust, so are the library, lounges, theater, entertainment area, dining room, and even the wood-paneled discotheque. At dinner that evening attentive waiters brought plates of sweet local melon, heavenly Greek salad, and succulent roast lamb.
After a walk out on deck to admire the constellations casting a silvery light on Homer's ''wine dark'' sea, it was easy to be lulled to sleep by the gentle lapping of the Aegean. So lulling was it, in fact, that I awoke with a start the next morning to see the outline of a minaret outside my porthole; we were fast approaching our next port of call, the town of Kusadasi and the nearby ancient ruins of Ephesus.
Promptly at 8, we filed off the vessel into waiting buses for the short trip to Ephesus. As we wound above the chalk-white cliffs falling into the sea below, an occasional rug-draped camel and grove of silk trees told us that we had entered both another country and continent.