AH, GREECE . . .

Still the beautiful, exotic destination where lifetime memories are made. Colonnaded cradle of civilizations and land of a thousand gods. Gods both ancient and modern, clamoring for attention.

Perhaps my wife, Lynn, and I were oversold on one ancient Greek diety -- the traditional god of hospitality. Our prayers got little response, at least in Athens and Thessaloniki. But invocations to a more mordern god -- money -- seemed to revive the graciousness we naively expected everywhere.

Nonetheless, Greece was fabulous.

For years, we had contemplated the perfect Grecian sojourn. Using the resources of a travel agent for the first time, we charted a honeymoon course that included a week in Athens, eight days sailing in the Cyclades, and a fortnight on the road in northern Greece. We dreamed about following the footsteps of Homer and Socrates, and read about the archaic, classical, Roman and Byzantine ruins that blanket the fertile countryside.

We gleaned the glowing brochures issued by NTOG, the National Tourist Organization of Greece (Olympic Tower, 645 Fifth Ave., New York, N.Y. 10022) so many times that we almost believed open arms, a cup of thick, rich coffee, and candied preserves would be waiting for us on our arrival. Such pleasant, overblown fantasies, almost unavoidable in leisurely trip planning, are probably the shortest route to vacation disappointments.

That fabled Greek hospitality still exists, of course, tucked away among the islands and hidden around hairpin curves along the rural roads. We met our share of helpful, considerate residents, but most Greeks seemed too preoccupied with other matters to answer tourist questions or render simple assistance.

In fact, we decided, perhaps all national tourist bureaus should be required to conform to a truth-in-advertising statute, or at least to tone down the emphasis on hospitality in their promotional prose a bit, and remind the "natives" of their supposed attributes.

Before the lights of New York City disappeared behind our Olympic Airways nonstop 747, the first blow to Greek hospitality was dealt by Olympic's cabin crew. Obviously deferential to native passengers, our stewardess seemed reluctant to even supply us with soft drinks.Trying to get a pillow was like a trip through the labyrinth. (But I'm willing to assume that this was merely a lapse in normally attentive service and that this particular crew was having a bad night).

These minor inconveniences were quickly forgotten in the rush to clear Greek customs and enter Athens.

Lynn, a second-generation American of undiluted Greek blood, had been warned by her uncle not to expect any special courtesies from the Athenians, so we wern't surprised by the lack of concern that greeted us there. Finding a taxi was harder than it should be, but the fare into town, about $5, was reasonable. Within minutes we were scanning the city-scape for our first view of the Acropolis as the cab brought us into a new world.

Athens.

Capital city of the country's 10 million souls, Athens houses more than a third of them. Noisy, smelly, exciting Athens. No need to set your alarm clock. The whole population jumps up and start moving at a very early hour. We reached our hotel, the Astor in Syntagma Square, and discovered to our delight that we had a clear view of the Parthenon, about half a mile away on the crown of the Acropolis. Center city with a view, and an adequate continental breakfast, all for less than $40 a night.

Peering from our balcony, discarded cliches took on new meanings as we viewed the ancient accomplishments of an advanced civilization. Magnificent doesn't come close. Nor does stunning, or incredible, or unbelievable. The entire Acropolis must be seen to be appreciated, and absorbing all it has to offer could take years.

So we decided to save the best for last, and set out first to explore the less lofty streets and squares of Athens. We purchased the Benn Blue Guide for Greece, the bible of tourism, at a corner kiosk for about $20. This 800-page tome is worth every penny.

Speaking of pennies, the dollar, long regarded as a lightweight in Europe, was winning every round during our stay. I had begun tracking the value of the drachma several months before our departure, watching it slowly creep past 50 to the dollar. At our arrival in mid-May, greenbacks were pulling in 54 or 55 drachmae, and by the time we left, they were approaching 60!

This year could well be the bargain year for Greece . . . and Athens.

First on our agenda was a visit to the National Archeological Museum, and much to our dismay, we soon realized the peculiar Greek reluctance to divulge information extends even to their public treasuries. Case after case of beautiful jewelry, pottery, marble and gold was identified simply as "Pottery, 7th Century B.C.," or "Finds from Tomb XVI, Knossos." The effect insures a brisk business at the museum shops, that, without exception, sell guides in Greek, Spanish, French and English.

And, of course, at every exhibit door, a tollgate awaits. Entrance fees, by all standards, are modest but unavoidable. To add insult to injury, not only is your camera treated as an extra companion, it is charged full price, and the bearer is required to wear two entry tickets.

But a vacation is a vacation, so we trudged from one hot spot to another. Hadrian's Arch, the Tower of the Winds, the National Palace, we hit them all in haphazard but invigorating marches around the city. Bring your best walking shoes, or a hefty budget for taxis.

Our insatiable desire to open every door and view every artifact brought us by chance to the Kanellopoulos Museum at the foot of the Acropolis. Unmentioned in Arthur Frommer's 1981-82 guide to Athens, and barely noted by the Blue Guide, this private collection of masterpieces from every age of Grecian civilization, from the Stone Age to yesterday, was one of the most stimulating indoor events we encountered. The museum contains what must be one of the finest arrays of Byzantine icons in Greece. And the most perfect, most classical, painted Greek pottery in the country, as well as exquisite examples of gold, jewelry, weapons and other artifacts spanning the centuries. But, as usual, there were no labels, and the casual visitor had to be content with imagining the thoughts and hands that created such beauty.

The night we spent in the Plaka, on the slopes approaching the Acropolis. Filled with nightclubs and discos, the Plaka is the old center of Athens. The streets, though not closed to autos, are choked with all kinds of people. Young and old, clean and dirty, milling about aimlessly, caught up in the chorus of hundred bouzoukis, with over-anxious bouncers trying to herd the well-heeled into their own establishments.

The music on some corners is deafening, with adjacent tavernas locked in an undeclared battle of decibels. Many eateries employ traditional dancers, of varying talent, to lure diners off the streets. A perfectly delightful evening can be spent just watching the interaction between tourists, merchants, restaurateurs and locals. And it's cheaper than drinking wine.

It's easy to be taken in the Plaka. Never, but never, order a bottle of wine without inquiring about price. We learned the hard way. And don't expect to be seated for drinks and dessert in many establishments. You buy the whole dinner, or don't go in. That sort of ruins things when what you have in mind is bar-hopping. The owners want commerce . . . not conversation. But the open-air, grapevine-covered charm of the tavernas dragged us back to the Plaka like a magnet, and after two or three nights we found the few bars that extend courtesy to all patrons, regardless of their appetites.

Searching for those bars wasn't too costly. Food in Greece is probably one of the best vacation-dollar values available. For less than $2 anywhere, a liter of delightful home-made retsina, or resinated white wine, can be purchased. Sometimes it's less than a buck. And in one memorable, seaside taverna, my wife and I feasted on two entrees of baby, fried squid, two Greek salads, piled high with feta cheese, two orders of fresh french fries, and two cokes, all for less than $8, including tip.

But after about a week in Greece, we hungered for a meal without olive oil, and found it at Michiko, a Japanese restaurant on the fringe of the Plaka. Filled with Japanese diners, who appeared to be visiting businessmen, the restaurant delivered an excellent repast of traditional foods that, at less than $20 for two, was a sensational salute to our made-in-America palates.

During the day, the Plaka leads a different life. It is the specialty shopping area of Athens, and surprisingly, most items tourists seem to favor are found at their best prices in the Plaka. We toured the country with a mind toward better deals, but ended up having a wild spending spree in the city on our return.

We also learned about haggling. In most shops, merchants expect the customer to argue the price, especially of souvenir items. Places that didn't engage in price negotiation posted this information prominently. But in every case, it's worth trying, and it's not embarrassing. Reductions of 20 percent off the marked price of souvenirs were usually granted, and in some cases, a little discussion succeeded in knocking off half the cost.

The days allotted to Athens passed quickly, and soon it was time to assemble for our pre-arranged island cruise.

Viking Tours, the cruise operator, has offices just a block off Syntagma Square, at Fillelinon 3. We gathered with three dozen others for transport to the Port of Piraeus, and were quickly delivered by air-conditioned bus to the dock where the Blue Viking, a 110-foot luxury cabin cruiser, and our vessel, the 85-foot Viking of Kos were moored. As it turned out, we joined a group of 20 intrepid explorers, young adults to senior citizens, mostly from America, but including Australians, French, Canadians and a Russian-born Dutch woman.

Billed as a "Do As You Like Tour," the rules are simple -- breakfast is served early, get your lunch and dinner ashore. Cabins for two, with narrow bunk beds, are assigned, but spending the night onboard is optional. However, don't keep the captain, or the boat, waiting. The Viking cruised between ports in the early morning, allowing a full day on each island.

On the morning of our departure, Aeolus howled, and Poseidon was angry. A score of neophyte sailors lined the deck, rolling with the waves. Noon came and went, and the aroma of Greek meatballs wafted up from the galley. Lunch, not included in the passage, was prepared and served. We wondered why . . . but not for long.

Because the waves got higher and the wind blew harder. By the time Kithnos, our destination, appeared on the horizon, more than half the passengers, including my wife, had succumbed to seasickness. It was the beginning of a long trend, made bearable only by the prospect of a new island adventure every day. However, when the sea is smooth, sailing is marvelous.

Kithnos, Serifos, Sifnos, Ios, Santorini, Naxos, Delos and Tinos. Our tour followed a rough circle through the Aegean, beginning with the relatively untouched, rural islands of Kithnos, Serifos and Sifnos. Prior to docking at each port of call, our hostess Maria would gather the group and give us a rundown on the island's specialties, history, importance and food. She took very good care of us.

On Serifos, one shopkeeper asked us to tell "only your good friends" about her island, while another returned my binoculars and camera, carelessly forgotten, to the Viking of Kos. How she divined which ship I was on escapes me.

Ios, the island of discos, was next. Maria told us Ios has 400 residents, 300 churches and 35 discos. The Rolling Stones and Jamaican reggae blared into the streets from dimly-lit, uncrowded bars. They stay open all night. Maria reminded us the boat would cast off at 5 a.m.

On volcanic Santorini we took the traditional $2 donkey ride up the 600 steep steps that bracket the cliff from the docks to the town. For $10, we boarded a bus that took us all over the island, stopping at the monastery of Ayios Ilias and the ancient site of Akrotiri. There we learned of another Greek custom.

Churches are taken very seriously in Greece. Women, and men, in shorts and bare shoulders are not welcome. At Ayios Ilias, a monk inspected visitors to determine their suitability for entry. Those deemed immodestly dressed are required to don a cassock provided by the gatekeeper. At other churches throughout the islands and the mainland, modesty is not provided. A planned day of visiting churches and holy shrines is a day that should include dresses with sleeves or skirts. Men should not wear shorts. At the Meteora, a world-famous grouping of Byzantine monasteries built on soaring granite spires in central Greece, long-haired men are barred entry, and so-called hippies need not apply.

Our next stop, Naxos, was perhaps the best of the entire trip. For about $7 apiece we rented mopeds for the day and, with our friends from the Viking, set off to explore the countryside. Within minutes of leaving the dockside town we were lost on a dirt road that eventually brought us to a rural church celebrating its patron saint's day. An authentic Greek festival!

We ate and drank, spreading our drachmae around with abandon. An electrified mandolin and bouzouki provided entertainment, and we watched with amusement the athletic dancing of the Greek men. One woman in our party, disturbed by being stared at, graduated from a tank top to a T-shirt, effectively disguising herself. It's not hard to get off the beaten path on some Greek isles, and our concept of appropriate wear is not universal.

Setting off after a few hours, we also discovered a church with 10th-century icons, and another that was built in the mid-4th century. Naturally, the scenery on all sides was breathtaking. But gasoline, at about $3.40 a gallon, was unavailable away from the sea, so we returned to port, pleased with our day's adventures.

The cruise crescendoed with a morning visit to Delos, the sacred isle and legendary birthplace of Apollo. For nearly a thousand years, the spot served as a holy shrine and the monuments of many cultures still reside there. Huge carved lions and columns, more than 2,500 years old, share space with more recent Hellenic and Roman temples. Vivid mosaics, in situ, remind all of the glory that was once Athens' and Rome's. As with the Acropolis, words do no justice. Delos is simply a must for anyone venturing into the Aegean.

Our cruise ended with a long ferry ride from Tinos back to Piraeus. At departure, we had wondered if the cruise tab, just under $600 apiece, wasn't a bit extravagant. But a week later, well-tanned, and with a score of new friends, we agreed that it was money well spent. The entire voyage was thrilling, and the islands were, and are, beautiful.

But we were ready for the final installment of our Grecian odyssey -- two free-wheeling weeks in a rented car, with no itinerary.