On Delos, we walked among the white marble ruins of ancient Greek temples and trading houses. Red poppies grew on a silent hill near 2,300-year-old mosaics. Gray lizards slithered into the cracked wall surrounding the sacred lake, now dry, where mythology says that Apollo was born.
On Paros, we spent a lazy afternoon on a secluded beach where we nibbled sausage pies and sipped local wine, swam in clear shallow water and admired the silhouette of a small shining village on the distant coast.
Then, on Santorini, we rode muleback to the top of the 900-foot cliffs to reach the whitewashed town of Thira and its intoxicating views. Below Thira was the harbor where white boats bobbed on a blue sea. Beyond were several small islands. On the horizon, blue water melted into blue sky.
Such were the sights of our seven-day cruise through the Cyclades (pronounced Sik-la-dees), the chain of islands that is strewn like giant pebbles through the Aegean Sea southeast of Athens.
We were among 22 travelers on this odyssey, which began one Friday in late May with a bus ride from Athens to a nearby ferryboat and ended the following Friday with a return ferryboat ride.
In between, we traveled aboard a 105-foot yacht, the Viking Star, where we were provided with a small but adequate stateroom, breakfast and lunch and an English-speaking tour director. Each day we sailed to a different island where the captain and his crew of eight anchored, leaving us free to explore the land and dine at the taverna of our choice. At night we returned to the boat, where we could continue the party inside the lounge or upstairs on the open deck.
For less than $800 per person, we got our money's worth, despite unexpected weather problems that kept us from visiting one island on the itinerary, the quality of the wine served with shipboard meals and the sometimes uncomfortably choppy ride on our boat, a cargo ship transformed into a luxury tourist boat.
Altogether, our cruise covered about 350 miles and took us to six islands: Tinos, where we boarded the Viking Star after the ferry ride from the mainland; Naxos, where we wound up the cruise; Delos; Ios; Paros; and Santorini. Along the way, we learned something about Greek history and mythology, developed a new appreciation for Greek food and dancing and were simply overwhelmed by the beauty of what must be the bluest water on earth.
Delos, the holy city of the ancient Greeks and the center of East-West trade in the Mediterranean in the second and third centuries B.C. (during the Roman period), has been the scene of major archaeological digging since 1873. Only about three miles long and less than a mile wide, Delos today is literally an outdoor museum, with its impressive collection of broken statues, religious and commercial buildings, residences, even a 5,500-seat amphitheater.
To get an overview of this ghost town, we climbed to the top of the 367-foot Mount Kynthos, the highest point on the island. Below we could see the lions of Delos, the stone sculptures that have been standing guard over the sacred lake for centuries.
Legend says that Leto, pregnant with twins from a tryst with Zeus, fled to this island seeking sanctuary from the wrath of Hera, Zeus' wife. Leto gave birth first to Artemis, goddess of the hunt and virginity, and then Apollo, god of truth and light.
Early celebrations on Delos in honor of Apollo's birth are described in poems dating back to the 8th century B.C. One credited to Homer provides this picture of a holiday on Delos:
"... Lord, archer Apollo ... many are thy temples and wooded groves; and all places of wide view are dear to thee, and sheer buttresses of high mountains and streams that flow to the sea; but in Delos, O Phoibos, dost thou most delight, where the long-robed Ionians come together for thee, with their children and their honoured wives. With boxing, dancing and song they remember thee for thy pleasure, when they celebrate the games."
Eventually, Delos developed from a religious center into a bustling port city. By about 150 B.C., the little island had become a major free port. Some of the homes and guild halls erected during that boom period have been excavated, and, with a map from the concession stand that has been set up in the small harbor, it is possible to identify the market, the temples and the trading halls, some of which had elaborate mosaic floors that are still visible today.
But the best mosaics we saw were the ones that had been installed in the courtyards of the homes in the residential section. Although parts of these mosaics have vanished with time, large colorful chunks survive.
Back on board the ship we lunched family-style in the lounge and focused on our fellow passengers. Our group included Americans, Britons, Australians, Germans and Swiss.
On Paros, nine of us spent an afternoon picnicking and swimming. We rented a car in the village where the boat anchored, then drove through the interior of the island -- past marble quarries, dozens of vineyards and villages splashed with the red of five-foot geranium bushes and the pink of saucer-sized roses -- to the secluded beach.
The quarries of Paros once provided marble for many shrines, including Napoleon's Tomb in Paris. But the translucent marble is brittle, and today it is most often mixed in whitewash. No wonder the white-painted village buildings gleam in the sun.
Turning a corner in a small village, we encountered the more practical side of Paros. A garbage collector making his rounds through the winding streets was using his sure-footed burros to carry the trash that residents had left out for pickup. The small burro was barely visible beneath the big colorful load on his back.
It was a week of vivid images:
A 20-foot-high marble gate marks the entrance to the harbor on Naxos, and frames the hillside village beyond. The gate was originally built as the entrance to an archaic temple during the 6th century B.C., but the temple was never completed.
On Ios, in a harbor off the Father-in-Law Beach, the captain dropped anchor to allow a noontime swim in the Aegean. The adventurous souls in our group dived from the top deck into the deep blue sea.
On a fishing pier in Naousa, on Paros, a man standing on a cement wall threw a gray object against the pavement, picked it up and threw it down again and again. Thwack! Thwack! Thwack! It turned out he was tenderizing an octopus. A hundred thwacks and the octopus is ready to be grilled over a small charcoal cooker and served at the tavernas.
Throughout the islands, there are white churches and chapels with round roofs that have been painted blue. According to local folklore, this practice spread during the years when Greece was occupied and the country's blue-and-white flag was banned. The indomitable Greeks compensated by painting blue tops on white buildings, particularly the churches.
The island of Santorini forms a horseshoe around a crater lake, from which rises the nose cone of a still-active volcano. Once round, the island's shape was altered by a series of volcanic explosions and earthquakes 3,500 years ago. In recent years, excavations on Santorini have led to the discovery of a civilization dating back to those explosions. We took a bus to the southern end of the island, where the remains of the old city of Akrotiri are being excavated. Here, narrow streets wind past restored buildings and shards of pottery lie waiting to be pieced back together like jigsaw puzzles.
But the most vivid image of all, whether from the digs on Santorini or the top of Mount Kynthos, was the sea. To my eye, it seemed as though someone -- perhaps Poseidon, the god of the sea -- had dumped a bottle of dye into the water, allowing it to spread unevenly, creating pools of turquoise in one area, jade in another, light blue against emerald green.
WAYS & MEANS
ISLAND CRUISES: You can cruise the Greek Islands in anything from a big passenger liner to a small charter vessel. And the prices are about as varied as the type of craft and accommodations you select.
We settled on a "seven-day discovery cruise" aboard the Viking Star, a 105-foot luxury yacht operated by Viking Tours, an Athens-based company. A local travel agent made our reservations.
The current price for the cruise for a cabin with three to four berths is $795 per person, including transportation between Athens and the yacht; for a cabin with two berths, the cost is $945 per person. My husband and I paid the lower price and were assigned a three-berth cabin with its own tiny bathroom equipped with a washbasin, toilet and shower.
Included in the price were the services of the captain and the crew, who operated the boat, cleaned the cabins each day and provided the meals. In addition to the crew, the tour offered an English-speaking cruise leader who provided information about the islands and helped us make telephone calls, rent cars and make travel and tour arrangements.
The price also included breakfast and lunch daily. The American-style breakfast featured an assortment of foods: eggs, yogurt, fruit, bread, coffee. Lunch was served family-style and typically began with Greek salad and ended with Greek desserts and a choice of American or Greek coffee. Served in between the salad and the dessert were other traditional foods, such as moussaka, and all the wine we could hold.
The cruise price did not include shore excursions, drinks from the yacht's bar or the evening meals we ate at island restaurants.
Several other companies also offer cruises of the Greek islands, including:
Zeus Tours, 566 Seventh Ave., Suite 701, New York, N.Y. 10018, (800) 223-6802 or (212) 391-0200.
Sun Line Cruises, 1 Rockefeller Plaza, Suite 315, New York, N.Y. 10020, (212) 397-6400.
Epirotiki Cruise Lines, 551 Fifth Ave., New York, N.Y. 10176, (212) 599-1750 or (800) 221-2470. INFORMATION: For more information on Viking cruises, contact Do-As-You-Like Tours Inc., Viking Tours of Greece, 6 Turkey Hill Road South, Westport, Conn. 06880, (203) 226-7911.
Additional information about island cruises is available from the Greek National Tourist Organization, Olympic Tower, 645 Fifth Ave., New York, N.Y. 10022, (212) 421-5777. -- Molly Sinclair