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VENTFLASH #261: Greece in 2020 with Victor Emanuel, Barry Lyon & Rick Wright

Septermber 5, 2019

Dear friends:

Rivoli's Hummingbird © Barry Zimmer

In late August I attended the Davis Mountains Hummingbird Celebration in Fort Davis, Texas, where I was the keynote speaker. On field trips to the Davis Mountains Preserve and to private homes with hummingbird feeders, eleven species of hummingbirds were observed including White-eared, Rivoli’s, and Lucifer hummingbirds. I was especially pleased to see three male Calliope Hummingbirds at one feeder. Kelly Bryan, one of the top experts on the birds of west Texas, gave a wonderful talk on identifying the hummingbirds of Texas and another talk on the Calliope Hummingbird, the smallest bird in North America. Over two hundred people attended the festival. The event raised money for conservation and for youth programs.

Looking ahead to the spring, I will travel to Greece next May with my colleagues Barry Lyon and Rick Wright to lead a History & Nature cruise: Greece: A Circumnavigation of the Peloponnese. With this trip on the horizon, I’ve found myself thinking about our unique program of Greece cruises, in which birding and nature are combined in a single trip with exploration of the history and culture of ancient Greece. These cruises are designed for those who prefer a broad range of experiences in their travel and for those who travel with a non-birding spouse or companion. Our Greece cruises are unique for their multi-themed approach and for the fact that, to my knowledge, no other nature tour company offers this style of travel.

In this issue of VENTFLASH, I focus on our Greece cruises and why I consider them so special. I encourage you to read on and to learn about our upcoming Circumnavigation of the Peloponnese cruise and Athens Pre-trip. New in 2020, I will co-lead with Barry Lyon VENT’s first-ever tour to Northern Greece, a destination very unlike that of the more familiar southern part of the country.

In this issue:



Parthenon © Samot-shutterstock

In the decades after VENT’s founding, we honed our reputation for high quality birding and natural history tours while simultaneously breaking new ground in developing new types of tours. About fifteen years ago, we supplemented our traditional birding and nature tours with trips that combined birding and nature with history and culture.

The year 2005 was a watershed year for VENT because it was the first time that we operated a major departure under the general banner of Birds, History & Culture, a cruise aboard the Sea Cloud from Athens to Istanbul. The idea for that trip arose from my friendship with Dr. Paul Woodruff, a professor of philosophy and classics at the University of Texas. Paul is an expert on the history and culture of ancient Greece, and it occurred to me that if Paul would agree to serve as our featured presenter, we could design a program that explored the world of classical Greece while incorporating time for birding. Blending these two disparate interests in the same trip may at first glance seem improbable, yet I have known for a long time that many of our birding and natural history travelers are very interested in history and culture as well. In fact, my own passion for nature is matched by a keen interest in the study of government, politics, and the arts of ancient Greece, and I thought that in collaborating with Paul we could design a one-of-a-kind product that would appeal to those with a broader base of interests.

Black-headed Bunting ©​ Bob Warren

That first trip was a triumph, and using its success as a springboard, we developed similarly styled Birds, History & Culture cruises to other parts of Greece. Our next effort occurred in 2010 with a circumnavigation of the Peloponnese, the large multi-fingered peninsula situated to the west of Athens and the southern Greece mainland. This trip was followed in 2012 with a cruise to Crete and Santorini, a trip that focused on the ancient Minoan civilization. In 2015 we repeated the fabulous Athens to Istanbul route, while 2018 saw the return of our Peloponnese circumnavigation cruise.

Over the years, I have developed a love for Greece. It is a stark and beautiful country whose allure stems in large part from its classical and pre-classical past, perhaps best captured by the sight of the Acropolis and the timeless marble monuments that adorn its summit. While southern Greece is generally not known as a major birding destination, our experiences over many years have shown repeatedly that this region has plenty of “good” birding to offer, with chances to see a variety of birds not found more widely in Europe. Some of the special birds that we regularly see on our tours are Yelkouan Shearwater, Ferruginous Duck, Pallid Swift, Eleonora’s Falcon, Rüppell’s Warbler, Black-eared Wheatear, and Black-headed Bunting, to name a few.

Exploring Greece and developing an expertise on that country has been a real joy for me and my colleagues over the last fifteen years. Time and again we have demonstrated that it is possible to successfully operate ship-based multi-themed departures that include more than birding. Our Circumnavigation of the Peloponnese is a prime example, and it is also my personal favorite of all of the Greece trips we’ve offered.

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Greece Peloponnese Cruise Route

I have enjoyed every one of the Greece programs we’ve operated, but my favorite is A Circumnavigation of the Peloponnese. Aside from the great historical sites of the Athens area, this “History & Nature” cruise offers a travel experience that could well be titled, “The Best of Ancient Greece.” Featuring a number of the most famous and important locations from the ancient Greek world, beautiful coastal scenery, picturesque towns, and enjoyable birding, this trip offers a complete travel experience. We debuted this cruise in 2010 but for a variety of reasons were not able to offer it again until 2018. Based on the successes of these trips, we will repeat the voyage next year, May 13–22, 2020.

Situated in southwesternmost Greece, the Peloponnese is a large multi-peninsula mass of land separated from the mainland by the Gulf of Corinth and the Canal of Corinth. In undertaking a complete circuit of the Peloponnese, our itinerary includes excursions to sites dating to the classical and pre-classical periods, 700–350 BCE. Among the places we’ll visit are: Epidaurus, containing a near-perfectly preserved 2,400-year-old theater; Mycenae, a mighty city-state in the second millennium B.C.E. and reputed domain of King Agamemnon; Nestor’s Palace, a small site belonging to Nestor, king of Pylos, during the time of the Trojan War; Olympia, best known as the birthplace of the Olympic Games; and Delphi, home of the legendary Delphic Oracle. Our itinerary also includes a stop at the Byzantine island village of Monemvasia—a true trip highlight—and a visit to Kythira, one of the least known but most wonderful of the Greek Islands.

M/Y Harmony G ©​ Variety Cruises

Eleven years ago, prior to our inaugural Peloponnese cruise, Barry Lyon and I met with Yiannis Vontas, an owner of Variety Cruises (the company from which we charter the ship for this departure) to plan a cruise that would circumnavigate the Peloponnese. He suggested we include a stop at Kythira, a small island off the south tip of the Peloponnese. He told us it was a back-in-time kind of place and seldom visited by tourists because it is accessible only by private boat. We’re glad we took his advice. A day at Kythira is now a fixture of this program. A photogenic harbor, quaint villages, and panoramic vistas are highlights of our time here. Additionally, our previous trips here have produced sightings of Eleonora’s Falcon, a species named after Queen Eleanor of Arborea (Sardinia), who issued a decree in 1392 protecting this lovely bird of prey from trapping by falconers. Evidently her decree represented the first law protecting a bird! Not too long ago I read an article in the New York Times about a Greek man who established some of the finest restaurants in the world. He was asked to name his favorite place in Greece. His answer was Kythira.

Those with an interest in birding will be pleased. Most of the historical sites we’ll visit are good for birding, which means that we could see something special at time, regardless of whether we are cruising in the Aegean Sea or on foot in a ruins complex. Among the many species possible are Yelkouan Shearwater, Little Ringed Plover, Audouin’s Gull, Pallid Swift, Eleonora’s Falcon, Blue Rock-Thrush, Western Rock Nuthatch, Red-rumped Swallow, Eurasian Crag-Martin, Black-eared Wheatear, and Cirl Bunting, among other possibilities.

Ancient Theater of Epidaurus © Variety Cruise

Co-leading this voyage with me are fellow VENT tour leaders Barry Lyon and Rick Wright. Barry and I pioneered this cruise route a decade ago and are pleased to be joined by Rick, who leads VENT’s Birds & Art tours in Europe. Joining our staff as a featured presenter is Larry Wolff, the Silver Professor of European History at New York University, who will deliver several lectures on the history of Greece. Larry has worked with us previously on trips to Sicily & Malta and Spain & Portugal. His knowledge is awesome and his presentations dynamic.

On this voyage we’ll travel aboard the 21-cabin Harmony G, a motor yacht offering high standards of accommodation, high quality cuisine, and spacious viewing decks. Each cabin is equipped with large windows and en suite bathrooms.

I am very much looking forward to returning to Greece next year. I hope you will consider joining us on this special voyage.

Greece: A Circumnavigation of the Peloponnese: A History & Nature Cruise Aboard the Harmony G, May 13–22, 2020 with Victor Emanuel, Barry Lyon, and Rick Wright; cabins begin at $7,895 in double occupancy from Athens. Limit 36.

Eleonora's Falcon © Bob Warren

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As fond as I am of our Circumnavigation of the Peloponnese cruise, it is a fact that our itinerary does not include the great historical sites of Athens. This is partly because many people have already been to Athens on their own, and it’s partly because the cruise program is already sufficiently long. On the other hand, we have found that a number of our travelers who are willing to come all the way to Greece would happily stay longer to see more and do more if given the opportunity. For these reasons and others, we developed an Athens Pre-trip to complement the cruise program.

Our Athens Pre-trip will operate May 9–14, 2020. This optional short tour is designed as a “Birds & History” trip that explores the historical and natural history highlights of Athens and the southern Attica region. In Athens, we’ll visit the famed Acropolis and the Ancient Agora, while outside the city we’ll travel to Marathon, site of the famous battle of 390 BCE where a desperate Athenian army defeated a numerically superior Persian force. We’ll also make the short trip to Vavrona, site of the Temple of Artemis, and Cape Sounio, where the Temple of Poseidon towers dramatically above the wine-dark Aegean Sea.

Temple of Poseidon © Cara-foto-shutterstock

Those with a keen interest in birding will appreciate the opportunities for additional time in the field. Although birding is certainly a component of the cruise program, a number of species occur around Athens that we simply won’t have a chance to see during the cruise. Excursions to Mount Hymettus in Athens, the marshes of Schinias National Park, and the agriculture region of Spata offer chances to see some very special birds. Among the species possible are Ferruginous Duck, Squacco Heron, Rüppell’s Warbler, Great Reed-Warbler, Eurasian Penduline-Tit, Woodchat Shrike, and the gorgeous Black-headed Bunting to name a few.

I cannot think of a better way to kick off one’s time in Greece.

Greece: Athens Pre-trip, May 9–14, 2020 with Victor Emanuel, Barry Lyon and Rick Wright; $3,695 in double occupancy from Athens. Limit 20.


My colleague Barry Lyon and I have long wanted to operate a tour to northern Greece. After years of developing tours to the southern mainland, Aegean Islands, and the Peloponnese, we’ve looked at the north of the country as something of an unknown, but a place we knew to be very different from southern Greece. Our trusted local guides in the Athens area have for years regaled us with tantalizing images of the north: superb historical sites, archaeological wonders, and quality of birding that is the best in Greece. For years we’ve wanted to make a tour to northern Greece a reality, but for any number of reasons, it just hasn’t happened. Until now.

Meteora, Greece © Voyagerix/shutterstock

I am thrilled to announce that VENT will operate its first-ever tour to Northern Greece next spring, May 22–June 1, 2020. This inaugural departure is a “Birds and History” tour that can be taken as an extension to our Circumnavigation of the Peloponnese cruise or as a stand-alone tour. Commencing in Athens, we will travel north through central Greece en route to the cities of Thessaloniki and Alexandroupolis in the north. The first part of the trip will include a mix of birding and cultural activities while the second part of the tour will be about birding almost entirely. Unlike the historical attractions of southern Greece that represent the classical and pre-classical past, those of central and northern Greece reflect later periods in Greek history. We’ll spend half a day at Meteora, a beautiful valley in central Greece characterized by medieval monasteries of the Orthodox faith constructed atop a series of rock towers. We’ll go to Pella, birthplace of Phillip II and Alexander the Great, reminders of the Hellenistic period that followed the classical era. We’ll spend a day in Thessaloniki, often referred to as the cultural capital of Greece, and home to distinct sights like the White Tower, Arch of Galerius, and Hagia Sophia of Thessaloniki.

From start to finish, we will spend time in marvelous birding areas, several of which are among the most renowned sites in eastern Europe. These include the Nestos River Delta, Lakes Vistonida and Ismarida, Dadia Forest, and, most important, magical Lake Kerkini and the Evros River Delta. Some of the higher profile birds we’ll seek are Dalmatian and Great White pelicans, Pygmy Cormorant, Black and White storks, Spur-winged Lapwing, Cinereous and Egyptian vultures, Lesser Spotted and Booted eagles, Black Woodpecker, Masked Shrike, Olive-tree and Eastern Orphean warblers, Semicollared Flycatcher, and Eurasian Golden Oriole to name a few.If you have not yet made your spring travel plans, perhaps you will consider a trip to Greece and the opportunity to join Barry and me on a brand-new tour.

Northern Greece: Birds & History, May 22–June 1, 2020 with Victor Emanuel, Barry Lyon, and local guides; $6,495 in double occupancy from Athens. Limit 14.

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Buff-breasted Sandpiper ©​ Kevin J. Zimmer

After the hummingbird festival, I spent time with VENT tour leader Barry Zimmer and his family in El Paso. Their backyard is one of the best I have ever seen for attracting birds and other wildlife. We spent a portion of one day monitoring the activity in his yard and observed thirty species of birds including four species of hummingbirds; a Hammond’s Flycatcher; MacGillivray’s, Wilson’s, and Virginia’s warblers; and two Mule Deer. An oasis in a desert environment, their yard is such a treat for wildlife, providing food and water for migrating and resident birds and mammals alike.

Meanwhile, back home in Austin, the shorebird migration has been wonderful. At Hornsby Bend, my favorite local birding area, twelve or more species of shorebirds were observed every day through the

month of August, including three Buff-breasted Sandpipers for most of that time. Excellent birding at this site has continued into the first days of September, with numbers of Wilson’s Phalaropes and Stilt Sandpipers being seen among many other species.The days are hot, shorebird migration is a wonderful late summer event here and a wonderful reason to get outside into nature!

Best wishes,

Victor Emanuel

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