QH Editor Natalie Bannister embarks on a journey like no other, immersing in the rich cultural heritage and captivating beauty of Turkey and Greece on an epic 11-night boutique luxury voyage from Istanbul to the Greek Islands with Azamara Cruises.
I must admit, I never considered myself to be someone who would enjoy a cruise. However, after recently returning from a remarkable trip around Europe with one of the world’s top luxury cruise companies, I can confidently say that I am now a convert to the cruise experience!
Unlike the massive ships that previously deterred me from cruising, Azamara Cruises offers a more intimate and boutique atmosphere. Embarking on my first voyage aboard their ship, the Azamara Quest, I was not only pleasantly surprised but also amazed as my (already high!) expectations were exceeded.
During an unforgettable 11-night luxury cruise from Turkey to Greece, we had the opportunity to indulge in extraordinary travel experiences that went far beyond just collecting passport stamps. We visited historic destinations and sought out idyllic spots along the Turkish coastline, as well as iconic Greek islands like Mykonos and Santorini. Whether exploring charming seaside villages or discovering secluded areas inaccessible to larger vessels, we were constantly surrounded by the beauty of the Aegean Sea. We immersed ourselves in the rich local history, marvelled at breathtaking landscapes, relaxed on sun-kissed beaches, and savoured mouthwatering cuisine.
It’s all about bespoke luxury and destination immersion with Azamara, and it all started for us in incredible Istanbul …
Istanbul: A Melting Pot of History & Culture
As the official capital of Turkey, Istanbul, also known as the Republic of Türkiye, is a vibrant and diverse city that captivates us from the very beginning. Positioned at the crossroads of Europe and Asia, its architecture, cuisine, and inhabitants are a testament to Istanbul’s rich and intriguing past. From its humble origins as a small town along the Bosphorus, it has evolved into a magnificent capital city during the Byzantine and Ottoman Empires.
Istanbul has an enthralling narrative to share, and though we only have a day to explore before our cruise departs, there is much to discover. Fortunately, our ship, the Azamara Quest, is docked at Galataport Istanbul, right in the heart of the city. This convenient location allows us to easily access the main tourist attractions for a few hours of exploration, including iconic landmarks such as the Hagia Sophia and the Blue Mosque, also known as the Sultan Ahmed Mosque, as well as the Grand Bazaar, one of the world’s largest and oldest covered markets, where you can shop everything from exquisite jewellery and intricate carpets to colourful spices and traditional ceramics.
We make time for a stop at Topkapı Palace, the former residence of Ottoman sultans for over 400 years, and head underground to the incredible Basilica Cistern, an architectural marvel hidden beneath Istanbul’s historical peninsula, which served as a water reservoir for the Great Palace and offers a fascinating glimpse into the genius of the Byzantine Empire.
Exploring the Historical Sites of Türkiye with Azamara Cruises
Azamara Cruises takes great pride in its approach of focusing on destinations, offering passengers unique shore excursions that delve into the captivating history of each port. The Turkish coastline is brimming with countless historical sites waiting to be explored, providing a remarkable journey through time and a glimpse into the ancient civilisations that once thrived in this remarkable region.
Our first stop is Canakkale, a vibrant port city in southwestern Turkey. Here, passengers can visit the archaeological site of the ancient city of Troy. Canakkale is also nestled near the Gallipoli Peninsula, which serves as a poignant memorial to the lives lost during World War I. Passengers of Azamara Cruises can take a guided tour to explore this sacred ground, which is a deeply moving and powerful experience.
Located on the country’s western coast, Ephesus is an ancient city with roots in various empires — a must-visit destination on our Azamara Cruises itinerary. This UNESCO World Heritage Site offers a captivating glimpse into the rich cultural traditions of the Hellenistic, Roman Imperial, and early Christian periods.
During our Azamara shore excursion, we joined Tura Turizm, guided by Ozan, an expert in Ephesus history. Ozan shared stories and insights, immersing us in the echoes of ancient civilisations.
One of the most awe-inspiring sights was the open-air amphitheatre, accommodating 25,000 people. Imagining the grand performances and vibrant atmosphere that once filled this magnificent structure was captivating. Equally impressive was the Library of Celsus, housing over 12,000 scrolls and standing as one of the Roman Empire’s remarkable architectural achievements.
But our time in Ephesus doesn’t end there. Ephesus also sets the stage for Azamara’s AzAmazing Evenings, which are tailor-made celebrations showcasing the local culture and heritage of each destination. These events are included in our cruise package and exemplify Azamara’s commitment to providing unique and immersive cultural experiences.
After freshening up on board, passengers gather for a brief coach journey from the ship’s dock in Kusadasi back to the ruins of Ephesus. The backdrop is magical as the sun sets. We take our seats in the Odeon Theatre, surrounded by ancient columns, as music fills the air under a starlit sky and an orchestra performs captivating pieces by Bach and Mozart. It’s mind-blowingly beautiful and an experience to cherish forever.
Çesme: Where History Meets Seaside Charm
Located on the Aegean Coast of Turkey, within the Çesme Peninsula, is the captivating town of Çesme. This seaside paradise is rich in history and serves as a delightful stop during our cruise. As we meander through the town’s cobblestone streets, we pass by the magnificent 14th-century Genoese fortress. Some passengers explore the renowned beach clubs while we head to the charming village of Alaçati, just a short drive away.
Alaçati exudes a distinct allure with its vibrant Aegean character and well-preserved stone houses. The Greek heritage permeates the air, and as we stroll along the bougainvillea-framed cobblestone streets, we are transported to a serene Greek island. The stone houses of Alaçati epitomise charm, many of which have been transformed into boutique hotels and unique shops, further enhancing the town’s appeal. Quaint bars and picturesque restaurants beckon us to indulge in the cool shade, enticing us to embrace the relaxed ambience fully.
Patmos, Greece: Beaches & Biblical Beauty
We awaken on our first morning in Greece as the Azamara Quest gracefully sails into port on the enchanting island of Patmos, renowned as the Island of the Apocalypse. Our first stop is Skala, the main port and largest town on the island, which charms us with its delightful square surrounded by enticing shops and delicious restaurants.
Venturing beyond Skala, we find Chora, a picturesque settlement about four kilometres away. Accessible by taxis or buses from the port, Chora offers a journey through time with its white mansions, fortified structures, and medieval architecture. Perched on a hill, Chora is crowned by the Monastery of Saint John the Theologian, a sacred sanctuary that attracts Christians worldwide, which has an austere elegance and offers the perfect perch to take in panoramic views of the surrounding landscape.
Back in Skala, strolling along the long promenade, we settle in for a meal at a waterside taverna with views of fishing boats and luxury yachts in the small port. We feast on sizzling saganaki cheese, dolmades, white beans in a tomato stew, and Horiatiki, the traditional Greek salad of tomato, cucumber, fetta and olives — all washed down with chilled ouzo and bottles of Mythos beer —before taking a refreshing dip in the crystal-clear waters of the nearby Skala Beach. It’s soon time to return to Azamara Quest to get ourselves ready because tonight is dedicated to Azamara’s White Night Party, where guests are encouraged to dress in their finest white attire and dance the night away beneath the twinkling stars.
While Azamara’s focus is on elegance and refinement, the White Night Party is a standout event for a late night of entertainment. At sunset over Patmos, the pool deck becomes a dinner party at sea, with Veuve Clicquot champagne flowing and cocktails to accompany a sensational buffet.
After dinner, guests hit the dance floor, where a live band plays and beckons us to let loose and enjoy an evening of partying and indulgent fun.
Kavala and Thessaloniki: Portside Destinations in Greece
Continuing our journey aboard Azamara Quest, we reach mainland Greece and discover Kavala, a historic port city near the ancient city of Philippi. Known for its magnificent Kavala Castle, this vibrant city offers a blend of history, culture, and a welcoming atmosphere. We enjoy a delicious Greek feast at a charming tavern tucked away in an alley, fully embracing the laid-back ambience and immersing ourselves in the local way of life.
Another captivating destination on our itinerary is Thessaloniki, Greece’s second-largest city. Known for its vibrant street markets, Byzantine architecture, and lively nightlife, Thessaloniki combines old-world charm with modernity. We spend a day exploring the bustling streets and shopping at stylish boutiques and malls, enjoying the contrast of the city’s eclectic energy.
A Feast of Flavours: Food and Drink Aboard Azamara Quest
While exploring Turkey and Greece, we can enjoy the culinary traditions of both countries aboard the Azamara Quest. The dining options on this cruise ship offer a variety of flavourful dishes and exquisite presentations that will please even the most discerning gourmands.
Windows Cafe offers a buffet with themed nights featuring global cuisines. Each day, there is a special “Dish of the Day” highlighting the local cuisine of the port we are visiting. The breakfast buffet provides stunning views of the Aegean Sea, making it a perfect start to the day.
Aqualina offers Italian flavours, while Prime C serves steaks and seafood. Discoveries Bar and Restaurant provides a warm atmosphere for romantic meals with fine wines and unforgettable dishes.
On board the ship, you’ll find a variety of bars to choose from. Our evenings start with pre-dinner drinks in The Den, a sophisticated piano bar. The Den offers the Atlas Bar Experience, featuring carefully crafted cocktails made with fresh juices, handmade syrups, and a curated selection of spirits. Each cocktail is served creatively, taking guests on a sensory journey reflecting their voyage.
To fully immerse oneself in the Atlas Bar Experience, do as we did and upgrade to the ultimate beverage package. This includes unlimited access to premium wine and spirits as well as specialty cocktails and is perfect for those wanting to indulge in the finest libations throughout their voyage.
Azamara Cruises: The Pinnacle of Luxury Boutique Cruising
Azamara Quest is a luxury cruise ship with a cosy atmosphere and a capacity of only 702 passengers, making it a unique boutique cruising option. We stayed in a Veranda Stateroom, which had modern decor and a spacious verandah from which we could sit, relax and enjoy the refreshing ocean breeze and stunning views during each docking and departure.
Our stateroom had all the luxurious amenities of an upscale hotel, including a well-stocked mini-bar, plush slippers and robes, and a generously sized wardrobe. Every detail was meticulously taken care of by our own Stateroom Attendant for our comfort and convenience.
The indulgence of luxury extends beyond the confines of our sleeping quarters. Aboard all Azamara Cruises ships, relaxation and wellness are paramount, as exemplified by the Sanctum Spa. This haven offers an array of indulgent treatments such as massages, facials, body wraps, and my personal favourite, the steam room—a daily indulgence that allows me to unwind completely. For those seeking to stay active, the fitness centre boasts state-of-the-art equipment, complemented by daily yoga and pilates classes.
Cruising Santorini and Mykonos: The Ultimate Greek Island Romance
Our Azamara Cruises journey reaches its peak as we arrive at Santorini and Mykonos, the legendary Greek Islands synonymous with this magnificent region.
Renowned as the Jewel of the Aegean, Santorini enchants with its white-washed villages perched on cliffs, breathtaking vistas, and mesmerising sunsets. Azamara Quest docks just off the vibrant town of Fira, nestled on the edge of a 900-foot caldera above the sea. With its charming cobblestone streets and bustling shops beckoning, we board our tender and ride the cable cars that transport visitors up the steep, rugged cliffs for exploration.
While some passengers go on shore excursions or hike to Oia, known for its sunsets and blue-domed churches, we choose to indulge in a leisurely day. We dine at a cliffside restaurant in Fira, enjoying a three-hour lunch of Greek cuisine and local wines overlooking the caldera and white-washed boutique hotels and villas spilling down the cliffside to the sea: simple pleasures and an unforgettable day.
Mykonos, a Greek island known for its iconic Cycladic windmills, narrow winding streets, and breathtaking sea views, is a must-visit destination on Azamara Cruises’ luxury Mediterranean cruise. This cosmopolitan island offers a perfect blend of romance, relaxation, and vibrant nightlife. To ensure a more exclusive experience with fewer crowds, Captain Johannes of the Azamara Quest has adjusted the itinerary for our voyage, ensuring we can arrive early on the penultimate morning of the cruise, beating the arrival of other large cruise ships.
With a full day to explore the wonders of Mykonos, passengers eagerly venture out to discover its delights. However, some, like us, choose to disembark here instead of continuing on to Athens, the historic capital of Greece, where the cruise officially concludes the following day. We have a special reason to extend our stay here on Mykonos, with uber-luxurious accommodation booked at one of the island’s most prestigious destinations. You can read all about our stay at the incredible Naia Myconian HERE.
A Perfect Mediterranean Luxury Cruise with Azamara Cruises
As our luxury Mediterranean cruise aboard the Azamara Quest ends, we reflect on the remarkable moments, scenery, and cuisine that elevated our adventure at sea. Thanks to Azamara Cruises‘ impeccably curated itinerary, we immersed ourselves in each destination on our travels from Turkey to Greece, forging our own path and relishing in the joy of discovery. And, amidst it all, we unexpectedly fell in love with boutique luxury cruising. Our first journey aboard Azamara Cruises will most definitely not be our last!
The writer travelled as a guest of Azamara Cruises