Of all the ports on my European cruise on Nieuw Amsterdam, it’s in Corfu that I perfect the art of the stroll. I fall in love with the labyrinth of Corfu town immediately, with its ancient feel and the warmth of its shopkeepers. I’m with my dad and another family who are family to us — an elegant couple and their twentysomething son Vincent, who’s always up for anything. None of us are in rush. When we see what Corfu town is about — the charm of its shops and cafes — we collectively realize that it’s going to be a day of wandering, sitting, eating and shopping. My father loves to buy things on trips, and then has no way to get them home, so he’s actually shopping for luggage.
I, however, am determined not to look like a tourist on our European cruise. To this end, I’m wearing my Corfu-bought Greek fisherman’s cap—textured, very pale gray, with the tiniest of brims. (By the end of the day, Vincent will also be sporting one of these irresistible hats, as will his dad. My own father will be happily wheeling around his new roller bag.)
Of the local products on offer, I’m most taken with the olive tree items. They are everywhere on Corfu, and that’s because, a shopkeeper explains to me, there are four million olive trees on the island. I’m particular about the kinds of gifts I buy on my travels — I go for three things: small, indigenous and unbreakable. So, in other words, the wood products are perfect. I stock up on votive candle holders, carefully select a mortar and pestle, and grab a few cork bottle stoppers.
Once we settle in for lunch, I have to give up my affectation of not being a tourist once I realize that I’ve ordered my first Greek salad in Greece. We’re in a tiny square surrounded by pink- and peach-colored buildings. Bright red bougainvillea spills over the market umbrellas; a statue of Georgios Theotokis, a prime minister who lived more than a century ago, watches over us. We dive into the generous squares of feta. Then Vincent and I start plotting to send our parents back to Nieuw Amsterdam so we can dive into the Mediterranean. We’ve made a pact to get into the water at every port on this European cruise. It wasn’t supposed to be a swimming day, but there you have it.
Now if Corfu is about strolling, Athens is about climbing. No denying that Nieuw Amsterdam has a great, fully equipped gym, but my desire for outdoor exercise is activated when I look up from Syntagma Square and see the Acropolis. It’s a steep climb but not a long one, and soon I’m treading on white stones from antiquity and gazing up to the Doric columns of the 2,400-year-old Parthenon. Iconic is really too weak a word for what I’m looking at: The structure is one of the world’s most instantly recognizable monuments, and even though the Parthenon has suffered numerous cycles of damage, repair, destruction and restoration, its awe-inspiring architecture astounds.
I’m also struck by the Porch of the Caryatids (maidens) at the Erechtheion temple. These enigmatic women appear to hold up the temple’s roofline with their heads — and after so many centuries, the burden must have proved too great. Today, these caryatids are impressive replicas, the originals having been painstakingly transferred to the 10-year-old, very modern Acropolis Museum, down in town (I would go years after my European cruise, and it’s worth a visit).
The last port on the Greek leg of the cruise is the most glamorous and chic of all: Mykonos. The fact that I’ve been here before does nothing to detract from the charm of getting thoroughly lost in Mykonos town, amid its white houses with blue railings and doors, and the gray stones of its footpaths outlined in white. Using the famous windmills up on the hill as a landmark, I make my way to the water.
As the alleys get ever narrower, I reach the part of town called Little Venice, where the wooden tables overlook the Mediterranean and everyone and everything seems perpetually bathed in golden light.
THAT MOMENT IN GREECE WHEN…
…I find Utopia.
Much as I love the charm of town, Mykonos is a world-class beach destination, and I reserve the afternoon swimming from cove to cove on Elia Beach. The water is calm and invitingly clear, and there is no greater pleasure than standing on the sea floor to look back at the land — to the white, cube-like clusters of houses on the hillsides. My eyes wander up to the highest terrace, and I become curious. I ask around. An hour later, I’m at Pavilion, which is a bona fide Relais & Chateaux restaurant, enjoying a concoction of chamomile-infused Tanqueray, Italicus Rosolio di Bergamotto, and some other exotic things. It’s called a Utopia Sour. The drink and the broad sweep of shoreline below are equally intoxicating.
Do I want to sample the local grilled octopus and zucchini pie? Sure, I’ll put myself in the hands of head chef Nikos Moroglou. For me, Utopia is sweet indeed.
Drew Limsky is the founding editor-in-chief of Holland America Line’s award-winning Mariner magazine and currently is a contributor to the publication, making him an ideal writer for Holland America Blog. As a travel journalist for outlets including The New York Times, Drew quickly realized that destination writing not only was a way of experiencing beautiful places, but also a way of meeting people from all over the world and hearing their stories. Drew broke into journalism as a book reviewer for The Washington Post and an op-ed writer for The Los Angeles Times.