A cruise with no frills, but lots of thrills
Last year St-Tropez, this year... Saranda. Cathy Packe joins easyCruiseOne as the ship visits the Albanian Riviera for the first time – and is swept away by the experience
Saturday 19 April 2008
Just before noon local time two days ago, a sleek navy-and-white ship, with a discreet but distinctive orange stripe along its side, glided towards the Albanian port of Saranda: easyCruiseOne had arrived, bringing the era of low-cost cruising to this former Stalinist enclave.
The harbour hardly looked able to cope; we docked, after much shouting of instructions from the Greek crew to Albanian port workers, at a concrete platform under a crane that looked ready to hoist us ashore. Although the hydrofoil that links Saranda with Corfu was moored alongside us, the place appeared better equipped to deal with freight than human cargo.
The town, as far as any of us could see from the deck, looked only partially built. Half-constructed hotels and apartment buildings dotted the landscape, though with little sign of life.
Visiting Albania was the main attraction for many of the passengers on this voyage – but we were not here for Saranda. We'd docked in southern Albania's biggest town to visit Butrint, an archaeological site a few miles to the south. A Greek city from around the fifth century BC, it was developed by the Romans and later occupied by Byzantines, Bulgarians, Venetians, French and Ottomans before being abandoned in the 18th century.
The road from Saranda to Butrint was built for a visit by the Soviet leader Nikita Khruschev in 1959, who recommended turning the ancient city into a submarine base. Luckily, it has been excavated and is protected.
A walk around the site reveals a city of considerable size. Building began at the top of the hill with an acropolis larger than the one in Athens, and over the years construction continued downhill. There are walls from the Greek times, a Roman bathhouse, a vast early Christian basilica, a tower and castle that were the work of the Venetians. Most of the remains are shrouded in vegetation, which gives them an ethereal quality, as if covered in green dustsheets.
Saranda was the fourth stop on our voyage, a trip that otherwise concentrates on Greece's westernmost islands – Ithaca, Paxos, Zakynthos and Kefalonia are all on the itinerary. In most places we were offered an excursion, although there was no obligation to do anything, other than, perhaps, enjoy a beer or a coffee in a local café.
But in addition to Albania, the route included a few mainland stops that gave us the chance to .............................. explore some of Greece's cultural highlights.
Monday's port was Itea, a typical, if uninspiring Greek harbour town; its selling point is that it is a half-hour bus ride from Delphi, one of the most important religious centres of ancient Greece and the place to which pilgrims from all over the Greek empire came to consult the oracle.
Shortly after we docked, an air-conditioned coach took us up to the site. There Christina, a local guide, took us through the museum, explaining the importance of the god Apollo and the origins of the many statues on display. She then took us to the ruins, identifying each building and then leaving us on our own to explore the vast Temple of Apollo and the theatre and stadium higher up the hill.
The spectacular countryside was bathed in sunshine, tall, dark green cypresses standing out against the dustier olive trees and red rocks.
Some passengers made their own way to Delphi, preferring the challenge of the local bus for a fare of €3.20 (£2.60) rather than the excursion price of €55 (£44). They arrived too late to see the museum, but they did manage to visit the Temple of Athena, lower down the valley.
Price was the main attraction for many of the 78 passengers on the cruise. Joan, a widow from Manchester, appreciated not having to pay a hefty single supplement for a cabin. Nick and Stephanie were backpackers from Canada. They'd concluded that an easyCruise was the cheapest way to see the Greek islands; the fare they paid worked out at around £10 each a night – and that included transport as well as accommodation.
The basic price of an easyCruise buys a cabin for the 11-night trip. Standard cabins are ensuite; an outside cabin costs extra, as does a superior room, which comes with a sofa, bathroom products and slippers. Four couples had bagged luxury cabins on the top deck, with private balconies. But the rules are egalitarian: you get what you pay for. There is an extra charge if you want your cabin cleaned, or need clean sheets or towels. There's a bar, a laundry service, and a spa where massages, facials and pedicures can be booked. You can buy a meal package – a continental breakfast and a three-course lunch or dinner – for €12 (£9.60) a day. This suited some people; others preferred to eat ashore, eating on the ship when the fancy took them, or when the local restaurants didn't appeal.
Plenty was thrown in for free: a hot-tub on deck (extremely popular), dolphins beside the ship, and gorgeous scenery as the ship sailed through the islands of the Ionian Sea.
On the first morning most of us turned out on deck to witness easyCruiseOne slide into the narrow Corinth canal from the Saronic Gulf to the Gulf of Corinth, towed by a tug.
The first attempts at building a canal through the narrow strip of land that joins the Peloponnese to mainland Greece were made by the Roman emperor Nero; it was eventually completed more than 1,800 years later, in the late 19th century. The canal is some four miles long, spanned by bridges; at the far end is a road that sinks down into the water when a ship is sailing out, rising again to let cars cross on their way in and out of modern Corinth.
But watching the canal come and go was a rare opportunity to view the world from the water. The key to an easyCruise is that very little time is spent at sea – at least during waking hours. On most days the ship sets sail between two and five in the morning, arriving at the next destination before midday. So there was time for a long lie-in and a leisurely breakfast before going ashore to explore.
The ship is relatively small (a maximum of 200 passengers), so she can dock at small ports. In Ithaca, we moored at Vathy, an attractive if sleepy little port. Excursions were offered, but most of us preferred to go off on our own. We were too early for the island's bus service, which doesn't start until May, so one group hired a car while another booked the services of a local taxi.
Some easyCruisers went hiking, up steep hills and through fields of wild flowers and breath-taking scenery to the Arethousa spring. Ithaca is believed by some experts to have been the home of Odysseus, and this is where his swineherd is supposed to have brought his pigs to drink. The most adventurous hired scooters and roared off.
When we reached Paxos the following day, most were inclined to relax and enjoy the picturesque surroundings of Gaios harbour. The town has a pleasant little square lined with tavernas and bars, although most were deserted.
We'd come to Greece ahead of the summer season, and there was an air of anticipation as hotel owners spruced up their properties in readiness for the tourist invasion. In Corfu, by comparison, there were a few more visitors and opportunities to pick up bargains in Corfu Town.
This maiden Albanian cruise of easyCruiseOne ends in Athens next Thursday. There are places to visit before then, including the ruins of Mycenae. But midway through the cruise, reactions seem positive.
Dana Herbst, a retired naval officer from Florida, speaks for many of the passengers. He is on his 201st cruise, and is loving it. "The ports of call are different," he says, "and the crew are all fun people. This is an adventure."
Athens is served by British Airways (0844 493 0787; www.ba.com), easyJet (0905 821 0905; www.easyjet.com) and Olympic Airlines (0870 606 0460; www.olympicairlines.com). Next month, Aegean Airlines (00 30 210 626 1000; www.aegeanair.com) flies from Stansted.
To reduce the impact on the environment, you can buy an "offset" through Abta's Reduce my Footprint initiative (020-7637 2444; www.reducemyfootprint.travel).
Nine, 10 and 11-night cruises of Albania and the Ionian islands are offered on easyCruiseOne (0871 210 0001; www.easycruise.com). The ship departs from Marina Zea near Athens and double cabins start at £180 for nine nights, room only.
Greek National Tourist Office: 020-7495 9300; www.gnto.co.uk.
Albanian Tourism: 00 355 4 273 281; www.albaniantourism.com
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