Travel

Aegean Odyssey: LGBTQ+ Friendly Travel Through the Lands of the Gods

A year in the planning and five years in the making, we planned our summer vacation around a Celebrity Cruise to the Greek Islands. Embarking in Rome and ending in Barcelona gave us ample excuse to extend our trip to explore these ports in more depth and experience the magic that comes with these historical spots.

Our holiday began in Rome, arriving at the Palazzo Nainer. This upscale 4-star boutique hotel is welcoming and friendly, and perfectly situated for walking throughout the city – in 15 minutes you can walk to many of the sites – Spanish Steps, Trevi Fountain, Piazza Navona, Pantheon, and Villa Borghese.  With a rooftop terrace and bar, and a coffee shop/café, it is the perfect spot to grab a bite or a drink. Madeline and Pricilla provided service during breakfast in the most delightful way. Pamela and Mohammed at the front desk, are welcoming, helpful, and accommodating. Palazzo Nainer proved to be a perfect home-base for our Rome explorations.

Ah Rome – where to begin? There is no shortage of things to do in this capital city of Italy – from navigating ancient Roman ruins to a visit to the Vatican, there is something for everyone in this city alive with history, art, architecture, and yes, despite it being a top religious destination, LGBTQ friendly stops. While gay nightlife is a bit more subdued in Rome than other large European cities, it is a cosmopolitan metropolis, visited by millions of people every year, and as such is aware of the need for diversity and inclusion. Welcoming rainbows grace the walls of many streets, stores, and cafes.

Via San Giovanni, affectionately referred to as “Gay Street,” is one of the gayest parts of the city, with bars, restaurants, and hotels run by and for our community.  And the view isn’t’ bad – as it is directly across from the Colosseum, Rome’s most iconic and famous monument. Making a stop, as we did, at Coming Out bar, notably the most famous in Rome, is always a must for a drink or a bite and to catch the regular drag shows.

Two neighborhoods giving you some classic Roma feels are Testaccio, home to Rome’s Gay Center, ArciGay and the Rainbow Wall, murals and benches honoring members of the LGBTQ+ community; and Trastevere with its various bars, circles, art galleries, and theaters.

Coming Out, Rome ©Metrosource
Le Jardin, Rome ©Metrosource
Stravinskji Bar, Rome ©Metrosource
Palazzo Nainer, Rome
Palazzo Nainer, Rome
Pierluigi, Rome
Pierluigi, Rome
Colosseum, Rome ©Metrosource
Arch of Trajan, Rome ©Metrosource
Pizza ©Metrosource
St Peters, Vatican City ©Metrosource
Trevi Fountain, Rome ©Metrosource

Rome is a huge city, and you won’t be able to cover everything in one trip, so prioritize. Choose a few main attractions to visit and then spend the rest of your time finding hidden gems for the authentic vibe of Rome.

Of course, the Vatican is one of the most popular attractions in Rome and it’s obviously worth a visit. Vatican City is easy to get to, not far from the center of Rome. The best way to skip the lines and the crowds at the Vatican Museums and Sistine Chapel are with VIP early-access experiences to enter before the public. These small group tours are worth the price to maximize your time in the city.

One hidden gem we discovered is the Le Jardin de Russie, a garden oasis of beauty and calm in the center of the Eternal City, renowned as one of Rome’s most exclusive restaurants. The colorful and fragrant dishes have been inspired by the Mediterranean ingredients of the region and are overseen by Michelin-Starred Chef, Fulvio Pierangelini. If you are looking for a drink, the Stravinskij Bar in the courtyard of the Hotel de Russie and just at the foot of the secret garden, is the gathering place for the city’s chic set. Crowned by mature trees, fountains, and lush botanicals, this private piazza is a tranquil escape from the city hustle and bustle. Sit back, relax, and watch their master bartenders go to work. We spent several afternoons with Michele, as he crafted for us the Stravinskij Spritz, their signature cocktail (prosecco with a mix of wild berries, saffron flowers, spices, and passionfruit). You can even purchase the special secret liquor mix to take home. Open at 6:00pm, drinks come with complimentary bowls of Sicilian olives, roasted almonds, and potato chips.

Another must-do on the foodie tour of Rome is Pierluigi. Dating back to 1938, this once small osteria is now an elegant international restaurant, where locals and celebrities alike flock for the freshest local seafood and huge wine cellar. Get a table outside on the Piazza de’ Ricci and order the scallop carpaccio – thinly sliced, with lemon, basil oil and cantaloupe melon, it melts in your mouth. Or try the Fregola ai Frutti di Mare. Fregola is a tasty Sardinian pasta, similar to couscous, paired olive oil, garlic, and the freshest mixed seafood. Not sure what to have? Speak to your server for recommendations – there are always seasonal dishes and the freshest catch of the day. Book in advance, you’ll be glad you did!

Some final tips before we leave Rome – avoid eating at restaurants directly next to tourist attractions. Nine times out of ten, they are very poor quality and extremely over-priced. And ask the locals or your tour guide for recommendations – people are friendly in Rome and ready to offer suggestions.

From Rome to the cruise ship port in Civitavecchia, we took a private transfer which was about an hour drive with no traffic. Upon arrival, the porters took our large cases (we’re gay and we don’t travel light) to be delivered to our cabin later that afternoon. We boarded the Celebrity Reflection at approximately 12pm after a very smooth and easy check-in procedure. Our cabin was ready and after a quick unpack we were ready to explore the ship and have lunch.

Celebrity Reflection is the fifth, final, and largest Solstice-class cruise ship at 125,366 GT and occupancy of 3046. First stop –  the Sunset Bar at the aft of the ship. The elliptical shaped bar provides a great vista to watch the sun set over the horizon whilst sipping on a cocktail. We opted for a Patron Cadillac Margarita to get things started. Walking past the The Lawn Club with half an acre of real grass, we reached the Lawn Club Grill, with some of the best gourmet burgers I have ever had at sea. The Grill is a casual outdoor dining venue also open for dinner featuring steaks, kabobs, and flatbreads.

Lawn Club Grill, Celebrity Reflection
Lawn Club Grill, Celebrity Reflection ©Metrosource
Martini Bar, Celebrity Reflection ©Metrosource
Celebrity Reflection ©Metrosource
Suite, Celebrity Reflection ©Metrosource

I could write a separate article on all the specialty dining experiences – suffice it to say that all presented different and fresh additions to the standard dining, were well-plated, and well worth it. From the Tuscan Grille featuring handmade pasta, fish, butcher cut meats, Italian wines, and authentic Italian cocktails and beers; to Murano with impeccable service and world-class French cuisine (we had tableside lobster presentation). One standout however, was one of the most unique dining events I have ever experienced, Le Petit Chef®, a 3D table animation dining experience beautifully choreographed with an elegant menu created by a Michelin Star Chef. The white tables, plates, and bowls are the canvas upon which the show takes place. It looks great from all seats at the table. The animation and sounds keep you entertained and drawn in, as the meal is timed to the storyline. This unique dining experience is available on several Celebrity ships, and I highly recommend booking (and paying the extra cost) if available on your sailing.

After settling into our cabin with a day at sea, our first port was Olympia, Greece, home of the original Olympic Games. Olympia has preserved monuments, many dating back to the first games in 776 BC. This important archaeological site was also a place of worship dedicated to the Greek god Zeus from about the 10th century BC. Most intriguing is the stadium, which is still standing, and the gymnasium. The stadium still echoes the cheering of the first superstars of sport. I did the obligatory pose on the marble starting blocks where the first marathoners once stood and enjoyed walking through the ruins and a visit to the museum.  Returning to the port of Katakolon, we sat on small waterfront and savored traditional Greek gyros before returning to the ship.

Hermes of Praiteles ©Metrosource
Lunch in Katakolon, Greece ©Metrosource
Olympia, Greece ©Metrosource
Olympia, Greece ©Metrosource

Common to Celebrity ships, an LGBTQ meet-up was scheduled nightly at 6pm. This gave us a great opportunity to meet and talk to several other LGBTQ passengers and allies as well. On Reflection we met at the World Class Bar, where special hand-crafted cocktails are on the menu – but don’t order from the menu – these bartenders are so skilled and so ready for challenge, that many nights we just suggested a base spirit and watched as they concocted a cocktail masterpiece before our eyes.  We enjoyed this nightly meet-up to talk about daily adventures and plans for the evening or next day and made some friends along the way.

Next up on the itinerary – Athens, Greece. Once home to the world’s most powerful and civilized empires, Athens is the world’s foremost archaeological playground. The towering columns of the Parthenon still stand in homage to the virgin goddess Athena. The Parthenon sits atop the Athenian Acropolis and watches over the city where it can be seen from just about anywhere in Athens. Make it a point to visit the incredible Acropolis Museum on your cruise to Athens. The joint effort between two architects, one American and the other Greek, this outstanding building was completed and opened to the public in 2009. It focuses primarily on the Greek period dating to 5 B.C., considered to be the apex of art, culture, and philosophy in ancient Greece, but it also has artifacts from the Bronze, Roman, and Byzantine Ages. There’s even a plexiglass walkway from which an excavated section of an old Athenian neighborhood can be viewed. At the foot of the Acropolis is the area known as “The Plaka,” one of the oldest neighborhoods of Athens. This area is great for wandering the tiny cobblestone streets, lined with shops for all things Greece – souvenirs, clothing, jewelry, and authentic Greek goods. This is also a great spot for getting some photos of authentic Athens.

Erechtheion, Acropolis of Athens, Greece ©Metrosource
Erechtheion, Acropolis of Athens, Greece ©Metrosource
Parthenon, Acropolis of Athens, Greece ©Metrosource
Plaka, Athens, Greece ©Metrosource
Plaka, Athens, Greece ©Metrosource

Santorini, Greece is the classic Greek seascape – whitewashed houses accented by sea-blue roofs. Santorini, with its terraced homes, shops, and hotels, lies on a caldera – a huge basin formed by an erupting volcano. The island’s volcanic past has also produced delicious grapes for wines that are well worth investigating while on Santorini. The village of Oia not only has the ancient Minoan site of Akrotiri but is also known to be the best vantage point from which to witness the spectacular sunsets. You can get up/down the cliff to/from the old port to Fira (the capital of Santorini), via steps, donkey, or cable car.  While the donkey ride sounds compelling, it’s a hot smelly long journey. And if you are feeling athletic and want to climb the steps, keep in mind that the foot path is the same one used by the donkeys. So, unless you are prepared to throw out those shoes after the trek, the best option is the cable car. There may be a short wait for the cable car, but the route from the old port to the beautiful capital and vice versa takes only 3 minutes and costs only 6 euro. Save your time (and your shoes) and capture some incredible photos. While in Fira be sure to stop and visit our friends Marcello and Fay at The White Door. This store is fun and creative with unique Greek items – collectibles, clothes, loom handbags, jewelry, and fun decorative items with color and style… all by Greek designers. Look for the rainbow flag out front.

Santorini, Greece ©Metrosource
Santorini, Greece ©Metrosource
White Door, Santorini, Greece ©Metrosource
White Door, Santorini, Greece ©Metrosource

After a wonderful day in Santorini, dinner awaited in Luminae, an exclusive restaurant for those in the suite accommodations of The Retreat. Being part of The Retreat certainly has its perks, and access to Luminae is one of them, with signature dishes created by Michelin starred chef Daniel Boulud. Luminae made us feel like we had a “home” restaurant, which gave us the small ship vibe that we crave when cruising. After checking in the first time, they know who you are when you walk in, call you by name, and seat you without any wait. Celebrity staff is great like that! Luminae is open for breakfast and dinner every day and is also open for lunch while at sea.

Rhodes, Greece was one of many places that faced scorching temperatures and wildfires this past July. The fire ravaged about 15% of its land, destroying more than 50,000 olive trees and 50 homes, and led to the mass evacuation of tourists from the area. As tourists, we saw none of the impact. Rhodes, (pronounced ro-dose) is the largest of the Dodecanese Islands and is incredibly welcoming to LGBTQ visitors. The varied landscape with beaches, wooded areas, and ancient ruins also makes this one of the most alluring of the Greek archipelago. Exploring the picturesque Old Town, you step back to a time when the Knights of St. John of Jerusalem built a Christendom stronghold.

Faliraki Nudist Beach ©Metrosource
Grand Master Palace ©Metrosource
Rhodes, Greece ©Metrosource

This island has a friendly and laid-back atmosphere and there are various gay beaches in Rhodes, including Faliraki, Kallithea, and Kato Petres. Faliraki is located on the northern part of the island’s eastern coast, a short distance south of Rhodes town. The “Nudist Beach” or “Mandomata” is in a cove just south of the center of Faliraki, and stretches a few hundred yards, and nudity is acceptable on the entire beach, including where the chairs and umbrellas are set up. Grab a lounge and an umbrella (the Greek sun is a scorcher) and relax. The attendant will be by in time to collect a small fee for their use. Or walk to the southern end of the beach just beyond the umbrellas and lay out your towel…. It is predominately gay, with many German and Easten European visitors. Partake in a drink and a Greek salad at the little taverna on the beach and enjoy the view!

The island of Mykonos is known for its whitewashed villages sprinkled with blue and green. It’s also famous for its windmills, sophisticated nightlife, and gay appeal. The most popular island in the Cyclades is bustling with activity, awash in beautiful alleyways, and home to enticing sandy beaches, including Elia Beach (gay clothing optional beach), Agrari Beach (secluded gay beach a five-minute walk from Elia Beach), and Super Paradise Beach. You can also experience JackieO’ Beach Club located above the dazzling turquoise waters of Super Paradise Bay. Be yourself and relax among the attentive team all day on the beach, jacuzzi or poolside. Jackie O’ Town Bar is probably the most popular gay bar and club on the island, and a perfect setting for sunset cocktails, pre-dinner drinks, or dancing the night away among the friendly bartenders and welcoming staff. Great people watching and nightly drag shows spice up the hottest party scene in town.

Kadena, Mykonos, Greece
Kadena, Mykonos, Greece
Mykonos, Greece ©Metrosource
Mykonos, Greece ©Metrosource
Mykonos, Greece

There are many fun spots to eat, drink, shop, and party on Mykonos. One such seaside restaurant with a great view, friendly staff, and delicious food, is Kadena restaurant. Enjoy the Mediterranean flavors in the freshest of dishes, such as the Sea Bass and Octopus Ceviche with yuzu ponzu, lemon zest and fresh herbs, or the Lamb Chops with salad, strawberries, pasteli and forest fruits. Traditional Greek items such as Greek Salad, Tzatziki, or Gyros are all on the menu as well. I particularly enjoyed the savory Steamed Mussels with spring onion, bisque and Prosecco, and the Grilled Calamari with crispy broccoli, cauliflower, raisins and lime. Because good food is always part of any travel itinerary, a stop at Kadena will not disappoint. Say hi to Timoleon, one of the wonderful servers at Kadena. So pull up a seat, relax, and enjoy breakfast, lunch, or dinner at Kadena.

Mykonos was defiantly one of our favorite ports, with friendly welcoming people everywhere we went – from our tour guide, to shop keepers, to restaurant servers. And the nightlife here is legendary. This is one place that we plan to experience for a longer period next season. We’ll be back, Mykonos.

The fortifications built by the Knights of Malta, who for years helped care for European pilgrims and crusaders en route to and from the Holy Land, is one of the first things you notice when arriving in Malta. The walled city of Valletta was founded in 1565 by the Knights of St. John and it remains a masterfully preserved medieval treasure. From the glittering baroque interior of the Co-Cathedral of St. John to the charm found wandering the old, cobbled avenues, it’s no wonder this tiny city has earned World Heritage status. While the cobblestone streets of Mdina are nearby the cruise port and easily accessible, having been to Malta before, we opted for a tour to Malta’s megalithic temple Hagar Qim, a UNESCO world Heritage Site.

Hagar Qim temple ©Metrosource
Malta Harbor
Malta Harbor ©Metrosource
Arriving in Malta aboard Celebrity Reflection ©Metrosource

Hagar Qim which simply means ‘standing or worshipping stones’ in Maltese, is actually three structures of which are the oldest free-standing buildings on the planet – 3850 B.C. By way of comparison that is older than the earliest Egyptian pyramids and up to 1,800 years older than Stonehenge. Archaeologists don’t really agree how and why the Megalithic temples of Malta were built. But there is a consensus that the primary temple at Haga Qim was added to in stages, possibly over as much as a thousand-year period. But when this place was built, there was no written language on Malta and there wouldn’t be for at least another thousand years. There were also no metal tools. No technology really of any sort. So why the temple was built and what the function of each of the rooms and the objects found inside them was, will remain the subject of conjecture. If archaeology teaches us one thing, it is that nothing is written in stone (pun intended).

A much-needed day at sea gave us time to relax awhile at the Solarium pool, get pampered with spa treatments, and explore some of the bars and restaurants that we had not yet visited. We even won a few bucks in the casino. And of course, one last cocktail at the World Class Bar that evening to bid farewell to our new LGBTQ friends. We could only delay the inevitable so long, and it was soon time to plan and pack our luggage for our early morning disembarkation in Barcelona.

Sail Away, Celebrity Reflection ©Metrosource

I will detail all our adventures in Barcelona and Sitges for you in the next issue. But let me just thank Celebrity Cruises for, not only the trip of lifetime, but for always supporting, embracing, and standing by the LGBTQ+ community. Celebrity Cruises stands for, and practices, inclusion, diversity, and equality.  That deserves recognition.

Bon Voyage.

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Published by
Michael Westman

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