Small-Ship Eastern Mediterranean Cruises on a Budget?

January 27, 2009

Variety Cruises' Harmony V If you think "small-ship Greek Isles cruise on a shoestring" is a bit oxymoronic, there's a relatively new player in cost-conscious Greco-sailing that might make it seem less so. Since 2005, Variety Cruises and Zeus Casual Cruises -- Variety's more informal arm -- have been offering intimate, seven-night Eastern Mediterranean cruises on an eclectic mix of vessels with no more than 54 passengers each.

Now the line is aiming to convince North American passengers that they can, indeed, afford a small-ship cruise, as reported in a recent profile by the San Francisco Chronicle.

Slightly reminiscent of easyCruise -- the one-ship budget line known for its Greek Isles cruises, heavy on in-port time and light on onboard superfluity -- Variety Cruises is all about the destination, featuring highly unusual port calls (like Spetses, a traditional Greek fishing village that's free of cars), regular stops for swims off the ship and extended port stays, with ships often docking overnight.

The small ships range from old-school wooden schooners to more stylish, modern mega-yachts. Onboard, passengers can expect just the basics -- a lounge, dining room, small bar, sun deck and spartan cabins (many with bunks) -- albeit often in elegant surroundings.

So what about those prices?

For the cheapest option, the 32-passenger Zeus II -- a 1982-built cruiser that's part of the Zeus Casual Cruises partner brand -- offers the "Ionian Odyssey" itinerary from $1,090 per person. This cruise sails out of Corfu and visits uncommon cruise spots, including Sivota Bay, Paxi, Kefalonia, Lefkada, Ithaka, Zakynothos and Parga.

Mid-range "Jewels of the Cyclades" itineraries -- aboard the 52-passenger, multi-masted Galileo -- are priced from $1,450 to $2,350 per person. Sailing roundtrip from Athens, they call on ports that include Poliegos, Folegandros, Santorini, Ios, Paros, Mykonos, Kea and Sounion.

At the top end, "Classical Greece" cruises are offered aboard Harmony V, the line's newest and most modern yacht. Prices start at about $2,290 and reach $3,390 per person. The ship sails from Athens and stops at Kea, Mykonos, Santorini, Crete (two stops), Nafplion and Spetses.

Note: Low season discounts of 20 percent are offered on select April and October cruises.

Again like easyCruise, fares include breakfast and either lunch or dinner, so it's up to each passenger to account for the third square onshore. As an added bonus, wine and ouzo with meals are also included in the base price. Optional for-fee excursions are available in some ports. Although more expensive and upscale than easyCruise, Variety offers terrific value for such an intimate and unique cruise experience.

Check out more options on the Variety Cruises Web site.

--by Dan Askin, Assistant Editor

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