A cruise is the perfect way to experience the best of Greece, allowing you to hop from island to island without worrying about ferry timetables and hotel reservations. Not all Greek island cruises are created equal, however. Popular islands such as Santorini and Mykonos feature on the itineraries of all the main cruise lines, and although they undeniably have their charms, they can be overrun with day-trippers during the summer high season. A small ship cruise, on the other hand, allows you to visit the smaller, quieter islands that the big ships can't reach, places where you'll have idyllic beaches and stunning ruins almost to yourself.
Most cruises focused on the Greek islands will be round-trip itineraries from Athens, but you'll also find voyages that combine Greece with Italy, Croatia and the Adriatic, using Venice or Rome as turnaround ports. Some cruises also include the Holy Land or pass through the islands on repositioning voyages towards the Middle East, and cruise lines are starting to return to Turkey following careful security assessments, with a few voyages beginning or ending in the wonderful city of Istanbul.
The season usually runs from May to October, with July and August the busiest (and hottest) time to visit. On a cruise visiting the smaller islands you'll almost always be tendered ashore, and each island has its own appeal, whether you're interested in history, cuisine, beaches, nature or all of the above. Our clients are often surprised to discover that the number of Greek island cruises on offer each summer is quite limited, so it pays to book early.
Here is our guide to eight of the best small ship cruise lines visiting the Greek Islands:
A firm Mundy favourite, the intimate yachts of SeaDream carry just 112 lucky guests, with a laid-back, al fresco style that is perfectly suited to exploring the sun-kissed Greek islands. Itineraries include the glamour destinations of Mykonos and Santorini, as well as smaller islands such as rugged, fertile Naxos and the upmarket island of Patmos, where Saint John is said to have written the Book of Revelations.
The small ships of Windstar Cruises are particularly popular with first-time cruisers, as well as those who prefer a more casual ambience on board, and their destination-focused itineraries visit many of the Mediterranean's smaller ports. The 148-guest sail-assisted yacht Wind Star operates a number of round-trip voyages from Athens, calling at islands including Rhodes, Crete and Santorini.
Multi-award-winning Crystal Cruises are one of the best in the business, with a luxury all-inclusive product that includes fabulous dining, sumptuous accommodation and the very highest levels of personalised service. Their bijou 62-guest yacht Crystal Esprit spends her summers in the Med, with itineraries calling at islands including Mykonos, Paros and Delos, the island venerated by the Ancient Greeks as the birthplace of the gods Apollo and Artemis.
French cruise line Ponant is currently in the midst of significant expansion, and their stylish new yacht Le Bougainville offers an extensive Greek islands programme. An Athens round-trip ticks off the big hitters like Mykonos, Rhodes and Crete, while more unusual itineraries call at traffic-free Hydra, beautiful Lesvos and off-the-beaten-track Limnos. Ponant are also one of the first luxury lines to resume cruising between Istanbul and Athens.
For those who love the romance of sail, Star Clippers is the perfect choice. The magnificent four-masted Star Flyer is a throwback to another age, and is a true sight to behold as she sails through the warm waters of the Mediterranean. You'll be the envy of other cruisers when you arrive at islands such as Skopelos, Skiathos and Santorini, and with just 170 guests the ship is able to visit those smaller ports that the bigger vessels can't reach.
Silversea pioneered the all-inclusive luxury cruise concept, and are renowned for their personal service and varied itineraries. Their 'classic' fleet ranges in size from the 296-guest Silver Wind to the recently lengthened Silver Spirit, which accommodates 608 guests, and they offer a number of Greek island itineraries. Silversea tend to stick to the better known islands such as Rhodes, Corfu and Santorini, though they also visit less common ports of call including Chios, Hydra and Kos.
Seabourn's fleet of small ships is the most modern of all the ultra-luxury lines, with three 458-guest sister ships and the recently launched Encore and Ovation, both of which carry 604 pampered travellers. Seabourn is a great choice if you're looking for a longer Greek islands cruise, with 14-night voyages that include Skopelos, Naxos, Santorini and Kos, as well as calls in Malta and Sicily. There are also some itineraries that combine Greece with Croatia and Slovenia, and occasionally you'll find even longer cruises that carry on to Dubai and beyond.
If your primary motivation for visiting the Greek islands is history and culture, Voyages to Antiquity is the obvious choice. Their little 378-guest Aegean Odyssey is not the most luxurious ship at sea, but the informal style and superb programme of lectures, guest speakers and included tours make her a hugely popular choice for those seeking an enriching holiday experience. The sociable ambience and excellent single fares mean it's also a fantastic options for solo travellers. Greece is at the heart of Voyages to Antiquity's programme, with itineraries visiting key sites of historical interest such as Delos, Heraklion and Rhodes, and you also have the option of extending your trip with included pre- or post-cruise stays in Athens.