THE mere mention of Greek islands conjures up a picture of sun-splashed land jutting abruptly out of lapis-blue water. This image makes you want to drop everything and go - to see for yourself. If you do plan a Greek islands trip, you may find yourself on one of several Greek-owned Epirotiki ships, a line that began back in 1954. ``That was the year that Epirotiki teamed up with the new National Tourist Organization to convert a small liner, the MV Semiramis, into a cruise ship,'' said Andreas Paliuras, purser of the MTS Oceanos. He added, ``Its first cruise carried 150 passengers, including several journalists, who loved it and went home to write about it.'' The experiment proved to be most successful.
Now, of the nearly 30 cruise ships sailing in the Aegean and Mediterranean waters, 11 are owned by Epirotiki.
My husband and I sailed from Piraeus, the port of Athens. On our return, several of Epirotiki's ships were dockside at one time: the small Neptune, the mid-sized Atlas, the large World Renaissance, and our mid-sized ship, Oceanos. It was an impressive fleet, with most ships easily identified by their cream-colored hulls and white tops, and unique blue smokestacks sporting the insignia of a stylized gold Byzantine cross.
To understand why so many of the ships were in port at one time, it's important to know of the variety of cruises offered by Epirotiki. The line offers Mediterranean trips lasting 1, 3, 4, 7, 14, or 20 days, from May to October. We were there in October.
Most package tours to Greece include a cruise segment. Itineraries from Athens vary in ports of call so that a visitor can return many times and sail to different islands. Our seven-day cruise was part of a 14-day Trans World Airlines Getaway package with three days in Athens before the cruise and a 3-day motorcoach land trip following it. The itinerary included a stop on the island of Rhodes, the ports of Alexandria and Port Said, Egypt; Ashdod, Israel; the island of Patmos; Kusadasi, Turkey; and back to Piraeus. Optional shore excursions were available in each port.
Incidentally, this summer may be a bumper year for travel to Greece, as the exchange rate is favorable and tours take advantage of pre-booked fixed hotel rates along with air and shipboard costs. The biggest savings may be in cruises that include meals and entertainment.
Room with a view
On board the Oceanos, we were pleased with the layout of the ship, which has a large protected rear-deck space for enjoying the sun, the pool, and views of the sea and islands.
Cabins on the Epirotiki ships are attractive, as are the common rooms with themes from famous Greek legends and myths, rendered in strong, clear colors in plush wall decorations, statuary, mosaics, and paintings. Artist Arminio Lozzi and movie set designer Maurice Bailey collaborated on the d'ecor.
The cabins were comfortable though not enormous. Ours had a double bed. Some have an extra fold-down berth to accommodate a third person at a reduced rate. Prices quoted for most packages include inside cabins on lower decks, with an added charge for a cabin with a porthole. We opted for the view.
Food with a Greek flair
The Oceanos specializes in Continental cuisine and features a wide variety of food with a definite Greek flair - which we enjoyed. Theme nights on board coordinate meals, entertainment, and dress - such as Greek Night, when we had Greek dishes, wore the flag colors of blue and white, and watched a Greek entertainment.
In typical cruise fashion, there were numerous courses and generous servings at mealtime, starting with delicately flavored seafood appetizers, tasty soups, and salads generously heaped with late-season tomatoes, cucumbers, and Greek olives. Then came the entrees of native fish, lamb, beef, and pork, with a good variety of vegetables.
Happily, the dinner dessert choices were simple, usually with only one hugely rich dessert, a selection of ice cream, or fresh fruit and cheese. Conversely, a wide variety of temptingly rich desserts appeared on the lavish buffet table served on the upper deck at noontime.
Heading for shore
The excursions in each port were prearranged so that immediately after docking you could board a motorcoach for the destination. Some passengers on our cruise were disappointed, saying ``the shore time was too short.'' For example, the time allowed on Rhodes was sufficient, except that a delay in leaving Athens meant a late arrival. And the excursion to Lindos on the other end of the island had to be rushed to get passengers back on time for the ship to sail. Later, at dinner, captain Dionisios Papanikolatos explained that ships leave on time, because ``we are charged for port time and fined heavily for late departures.''
In some cases, as in Rhodes, taking an optional excursion away from the port eliminated any time for shopping. Mediterranean ports have lots of trinkets to sell, so, if shopping is a priority, don't sign up for the excursion.
Many languages on board
Oceanos provides two exceptionally well-trained Greek guides who give brief talks previewing the ports-of-call. ``Vanna Theodoridou and I were trained at the National Tourist Organization School for tour guides at the University in Athens,'' said Anna Mellberg, who has sailed on cruise ships as a guide for five years. She continued, ``I give the talks in Spanish and French, and Vanna gives the English, German, and Dutch. Between us we cover seven languages.''
This is one of the pluses of Epirotiki cruises, since passengers come from all over the world. Our cruise had more people who spoke Dutch, German, Spanish, Portuguese, Greek, and Hebrew than ones who spoke English. We particularly enjoyed meeting and making an effort to communicate with non-English speakers at mealtimes, or on the sundeck. For excursions, passengers are assigned to motorcoaches by their language group.
Until four years ago there was little entertainment aboard Epirotiki's ships. But now it has become part of each cruise. Sharron Emmins, the cruise director and a most attractive tall blonde who comes from Essex, England, introduced each show. ``There are 15 entertainers on board. They're booked through a booking agency in London and shows are coordinated by our band director, Tony Christian,'' she said. ``His combo, Tony Christian Sound, accompanies each show and plays for dancing,'' she added.
The nightly shows at 10:15 included a magic act; a delightfully funny clown act; a song and dance man from Scotland; two talented women vocalists; and a group of four energetic dancers. Although the level of sophistication in staging and costumes wasn't quite up to some glitzy shows on other cruise lines, most of the entertainment seemed to ``work'' all right for this part of the world.
What to wear?
There is a less formal dress code on Epirotiki's cruises than on some lines. ``The longer cruises tend to have more formal occasions, shorter ones only first and last night out,'' said Miss Emmins. My observation was that street length dresses for women and business suits for men were appropriate on formal nights.
Since Greece has a hot sunny climate, be sure to bring a sun hat, sunglasses, lotion, and cool clothing for shore trips. A plastic canteen for carrying water from the ship is handy since pure drinking water isn't easily found in this arid region. Some religious sites don't allow bare shoulders and shorts for women. Since most sites are usually high on a hill reached over well-worn and slightly slippery paths, good walking shoes are a must. A sweater is handy on deck most nights.
If you go
Several cruise lines sail in the Mediterranean: Epirotiki, Sun Lines, Cycladic, K Lines, and others. To book a Greek Islands cruise, contact your travel local agent or a firm specializing in cruises.
Sonia W. Thomas is the Monitor's travel editor.