Small ship line Variety specialises in taking passengers to secluded destinations – sometimes with the help of Mother Nature.
After driving round and around a few rows of parked cars going nowhere in the tiny port in Skyros the petrol station attendant waved us over and said it was fine to leave the hire vehicle next to the harbour wall. The next issue was how to contact the rental company so we could hand over the keys.
Earlier in the day the cruise co-ordinator on the Galileo had arranged for the car to be dropped off by the gangway, so we went back aboard to seek Sid’s advice. A quick call later and he told us to put the keys under the driver’s mat. He smiled as he saw the look of utter amazement on our faces and said it was typical of many Greek islands where leaving front doors unlocked is also commonplace. That morning we’d already been pleasantly surprised at what a fuss-free and relatively inexpensive exercise the whole thing had been. No mass of inexplicable forms or hard sell for unnecessary insurance; a cursory look at the driving licence and one signature later we were off around the largest and southernmost island of the Sporades; albeit just 81 square miles and with a population of around 3,000.
The car hire scenario was among many refreshing and unexpected experiences on our week-long voyage around unexplored islands in the Aegean; an all-new itinerary for the Greek-owned line that promises journeys curated with meraki, which means love, passion and soul.
I’d joined the round-trip sailing in Athens, flying in a day early to ensure I’d got all the necessary paperwork in order with the current enhanced health protocols. After a night at the trendy new Asomaton Hotel, which has outstanding views of the Acropolis and is an easy journey to the port of Piraeus, I got my first glimpse of the masted and blue-hulled Galileo which stood out from the swanky cookie cutter gin palaces bobbing in the harbour.
Launched in 1992, rebuilt in 2007 and renovated in 2016, Galileo is not a modern cruise ship; indeed, it’s nothing like your average cruise vessel. But that’s all part of its charm and the reason so many of my fellow passengers – an interesting and well-travelled bunch from America and Europe – were repeat passengers; one on her eighth Variety cruise. Carrying a maximum of 49, fewer at the moment due to the rules covering post-pandemic cruising, it’s a cosy wood-panelled motor sailer with a pleasingly maritime décor. Accommodation is small with limited storage so it can be a bit of an effort to keep everything shipshape, but that hardly matters as most of the time is spent outside and cabins are just for sleeping and washing.
Galileo has sails, and very impressive they looked too as they were raised when we first set off, but they are really just for show as the ship is propelled by engine power. As a small ship with no stabilisers, you really feel that you’re at sea. In turn, this means the weather can affect itineraries as we found out on the first night. As passengers on the maiden voyage of the new itinerary we were expecting to sail in the Cyclades and Dodecanese but discovered we were going to be pioneers on a completely different sailing in the northern Aegean.
Captain Yiannis explained that fierce winds were blowing through the Cyclades and even if these dropped there would still be big waves making for a very bumpy sailing, potentially jeopardising swim stops and being able to reach harbour. He announced a Plan B that would take us to calmer waters and other islands, including several he had only visited a few times in his 35-year career. Any fleeting mutinous thoughts were rapidly suppressed by common sense and free-flowing complimentary drinks during the extended welcome cocktail hour.
Days soon fell into a blissful pattern of anchoring off secluded beaches – usually with nobody else there – for swimming interspersed with ports of call and unhurried meals. Aside from a small library, there are few amenities on Galileo but, again, they’re not needed. The ship is surrounded by its own infinity pool and passengers that choose not to be whisked to the beach by RIB can jump in and swim around the boat. Snorkels, fins, kayaks, a paddleboard and swim floats are available. Alternatively, there are loungers and day beds on the sun deck.
Our unplanned ports of call included the tiny island of Agios Efstathios with a population of just 250 and Skopelos, which shot to fame as a filming location for Mamma Mia! Despite the heat I couldn’t resist scaling the 200 plus steps to the church of Agios Ioannis Kastri, improbably perched on a soaring rock and where the exterior doubled as the wedding chapel in the feel-good film.
Everywhere we go people are genuinely friendly and seem delighted to see us. Often, we are the novelty as the only overseas tourists in small towns and villages. On days when lunch or dinner isn’t served on board, we eat at local tavernas where seafood dishes depend on what has been caught that day. The ship moors until late at night, leaving plenty of time to linger over cocktails and watch the sunset. Even in the most spectacular of locations they’re not overpriced, and drinks are served with generous free bowls of olives and nibbles.
Back on Galileo the crew members were equally delightful, and nothing is too much trouble. When waiters Vick and Avni realised I need industrial quantities of English tea at breakfast they replaced the modest coffee cup with a mug. Food is fresh, traditional and delicious, most notably the amazing lunchtime salads.
All too soon it was time for the last sundowner of the trip. A pebble used to hold down paper napkins on the al fresco bar is inscribed with a quote from Canadian author Sandra Lake which reads: “With age, comes wisdom. With travel, comes understanding.” The latter part certainly epitomised our leisurely Greek journey which gave us a real insight into isolated islands and a lifestyle the majority of visitors never get to see at crowded tourist hot spots.
Tel: +44 (0)208 324 3117
On Board Facilities: One restaurant, lounge bar, al fresco bar and sun deck.
Number of Cabins: 24 cabins
Price Band: Medium
Insider Tip: It’s well worth setting your alarm – even if just once – to get up in time to see the sunrise. Galileo often sails during the night so if you’re a light sleeper take earplugs to muffle any engine noise.
Reviewer’s Rating: 9/10
Factfile: Galileo sails on a variety of seven-night cruises in Greece and there are options to combine two itineraries back to back, such as Classical Greece or Jewels of the Cyclades, to create a 14-night cruise as well as cruise and stay options. The Hidden Greece: Unexplored Greek Islands sailing is available on July 1st and 15th, and August 5th, 2022, starting from £2,650, including flights, transfers and port charges. Fares cover all meals and snacks on board (half-board on most days), Zodiac transfers to beaches and watersports equipment. Wi-Fi and gratuities are not included.
Known as the ‘River Cruise Queen’, Jeannine Williamson is an award-winning travel writer, cruise expert and our cruise correspondent, who has clocked up thousands of nautical miles.
Photographs by Variety Cruises and Jeannine Williamson