June 1, 2008

Stelios’s next step in the battle for the Elgin Marbles

Posted at 10:48 pm in Elgin Marbles

Earlier this year, Easyjet founder Stelios Haji-Ioanou spoke out in support for the return of the Parthenon Sculptures to Greece. He’s now continuing on this theme with the motto “Reunite the Parthenon Marbles” painted onto his new cruise ship.

Daily Telegraph

easyCruise’s cut-price Odyssey
Max Davidson
Last Updated: 1:13PM BST 30/05/2008

Max Davidson joins the lastest ship from easyCruise for its maiden voyage around the Aegean – and is pleasantly surprised. Just don’t mention the breakfast .

It is after midnight. On the dance floor, a sixtysomething Sikh is strutting his stuff, arms aloft, to the strains of the Plastic People. “Nice mover,” says the man on the double bass. From the bar, a young German couple watch, mesmerised. There is a shriek of drunken laughter from the deck above. Welcome aboard the people’s cruise ship.

EasyCruise Life does not call itself that, but there is a definite frisson of democratic adventure on its maiden voyage. People of all ages and many nations jostle happily together as the ship zig-zags across the Aegean, stopping at one sun-drenched port after another.

When easyCruise One was launched in 2006, its brash orange hull looked comically out of place in the style-conscious ports of the French Riviera.

But there is nothing obviously brash about its new and larger sister ship, easyCruise Life. On the side of the vessel is a simple, tasteful motto: “Reunite the Parthenon Marbles.” Half the passengers probably know what the Parthenon Marbles are and why they need to be reunited.

This is still a bargain-basement cruise — £350-odd a week for the cheapest cabin — but the cabins are more generously sized this time round and there is a sophistication in the air.

If you thought this was just a drunken jolly for the under-30s, think again. Snatches of Puccini and Bizet drift across the swimming-pool. On the sun deck they are reading Ian McEwan, P G Wodehouse, Balzac and Naomi Klein (as well, it must be said, as Heat).

“Yes, there is a great mix of people on board,” says Sir Stelios Haji-Ioannou, proudly surveying his latest toy. “Some of them have been on dozens of cruises. Others are first-timers. The challenge is keeping them all happy.”

For the founder of easyJet — “the spoiled son of a Greek ship-owner”, in his own words — easyCruise Life is both a departure and a homecoming.

Instead of cruising the length of the Mediterranean, then sailing to the Caribbean for the winter, the ship will confine itself to the Aegean, Homer’s “wine-dark sea”, wreathed in legend.

In high season it will carry as many Greek as non-Greek passengers, as Athenians escape the city and head for the islands. But right now, on its maiden voyage, it is the United Nations afloat. The waiter at breakfast is Ukrainian. The couple booking a spa treatment are Australian. The man pounding the treadmill in the gym is Mexican. The four girls in the Jacuzzi are from Essex and proud of it.

“Look!” squeals one of them. “It’s Gerry from Big Brother!” “Which Gerry?” “The gay Greek.” “Oh, him.”

The cast is so exotic, so gloriously diverse, with no one age group predominant, that it is a shame when easyCruise Life starts fluffing its lines.

Service in the à la carte café-restaurant is erratic and painfully slow. “I have been waiting for butter for 40 minutes,” wails a man from the Black Country, holding up a piece of cold toast.

The rumblings of impatience grow louder and louder as the week advances. Breakfast is particularly shambolic.

I hope the service problems will be sorted out, because the basic product is good and should prove popular with regular cruisers and people who want to try something different.

EasyCruise Life is a medium-sized ship, carrying up to 600 passengers, and offers a reasonable mixture of on-board entertainment and activities — from pilates classes to lessons in modern Greek — and onshore excursions.

The business model is similar to easyJet. You pay enticingly little for your cabin, then extra for everything else: €2.50 (nearly £2) for an espresso, €14 for a bottle of wine, €40 for a half-day excursion. It all adds up, but it is still a cheap holiday in congenial surroundings.

And all around you there is Greece. Not the smoggy hell of Athens, but the islands, big and small, touristy and unspoilt, that are the true heartbeat of this extraordinary country.

A lot of cruise ships in the Aegean make the mistake of doing too much too quickly. Whizz! Was that Naxos? No, it was Skiathos. You are weighing anchor almost as soon as you have docked. Here, the itinerary is designed to maximise your time on shore. The ship typically docks at an island at 10 in the morning, then sails at three or four the next morning — plenty of time to find a deserted beach, do a bit of shopping and sightseeing, then sample the nightlife.

On Kalymnos, our first stop, I take a bus to the other side of the island, then a motorboat to the small volcanic island of Telendos, a sleepy little place fabled for its sunsets. I share this one with two Frenchmen, a goat and a couple of seagulls. Then it is back to the harbour for grilled squid and octopus, accompanied by ouzo.

Next stop is Bodrum, on the Turkish coast. It is just a few hours away, but a different world, with its mosques and bazaars and its Crusaders’ castle on a rocky promontory. There is a Museum of Underwater Archaeology in the castle grounds, an enchanted maze of ruined statues and pediments fringed by oleander bushes. A leisurely post-lunch gulet cruise along the coast is followed by some serious partying in the town centre, before we lurch back to the ship at 3am.

Through bleary eyes, I try to take in Kos, our next port of call. At first blush it is not as pretty as the other islands: the package holiday market has taken its toll. But a trip to the ruins of the Asklepion, the leading medical sanctuary of the ancient world, changes all that. It is one of those magical, tranquil, pine-scented spots, like Delphi on the Greek mainland, where the ghosts of the past seem tantalisingly close.

Hippocrates, the father of modern medicine, was a Kos man. As I head for the taverna, I wonder what he recommended for a hangover.

The juxtaposition of ancient and modern makes the Greek islands so beguiling. Paros, our next destination, cannot match Kos for archaeological sites, but, in Naoussa, it boasts one of those picturesque Greek fishing villages that make the heart dance.

The noonday sun blazes down on whitewashed walls, bright blue shutters, a cat sleeping in a window box and a wizened fisherman mending his net, a pipe drooping from his mouth.

How can one not be seduced by a country like this? With Mykonos and its windmills still to come — the hippest island in the Aegean these days, with sandy beaches, fabulous restaurants and louche nightclubs — the itinerary is so enticing, such a perfect encapsulation of the Greek way of life, that one wants to go back to the beginning and start again.

It is just a pity that breakfast on the ship takes an eternity to arrive. But as Homer nearly wrote, who needs a cappuccino and a croissant when you can enjoy a symphony in sun, sea and sand?

* EasyCruise Life’s seven-night Aegean Islands & Turkey cruise sails every Saturday from Piraeus, Athens, until October 11. Prices start at £175 per person, based on two people sharing a twin inside cabin off-peak; from £238 in peak season. Panoramic suites cost from £413/£488 per person, on the same basis.
* Optional extras such as the five guided tours package and half-board meal plans can be bought when you book. For details, see www.easycruise.com or call 0871 210 0001.
* EasyJet (www.easyjet.com) flies to Athens from London Gatwick and London Luton from £29.99 one way and £61.80 return, including taxes.

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