Local Fairfax sub-editor Sally McCoid recently spent five weeks holidaying with her husband, Robert, and two teenagers, Kallia, 15, and Alex, 13. She writes about her experiences of travelling as a family through Europe and finishing in Los Angeles. In this instalment they arrive in Greece.
When planning our European holiday, the country that concerned us most was Greece. With recent major troubles in Athens due to the financial crisis, I didn't want to get caught up in anything, especially with the children.
However, I researched on the internet and read hundreds of reviews to work out where the safest accommodation areas were. Plaka, the central area where the protests occurred was normally one of the best places for good hotels, but for peace of mind I chose elsewhere.
Both Kallia and Alex are interested in Greek mythology, so, spoilt for choice, I also had to decide which museums to visit on our day in Athens. I quickly realised there are two types of tour guides in Athens.
The first is a licenced guide, with a diploma and Tour Guide Association membership. They can go into all archaeological sites with you and all roughly cost the same.
The second is the taxi guide, significantly cheaper, but are not allowed to go with you into the sites. I was tempted by the price, but didn't see the point if there was noone to explain what we were looking at.
Going with a licensed guide was the best decision I could have made. Over many emails we planned our tour including how we were going to get around.
We arrived in Athens early Sunday evening. Our guide, Andromache, had organised a taxi driver to get us from the airport. She also organised him to taxi us during our stay, so we knew what it would cost up front and couldn't be ripped off.
As Hector, our driver with the deepest gravelly voice I had ever heard, dropped us at Hotel Tony, we were not sure what to expect of this family-run hotel despite brilliant reviews on Tripadvisor. It was in a safe neighbourhood close to the Acropolis, but after many emails, the hotelier, Tony, had moved us to a room with mixed reviews.
He promised it would be renovated and better than the room I'd booked but my main concern was the shower. Many Greek hotels have handheld showers which I was determinedly avoiding, and previously, that was the main complaint about this room.
I need not have worried. "Uncle Tony" as we called him amongst ourselves (so friendly, with a large personality and smile to match) proudly showed us our room, finished three weeks earlier.
It was fantastic, beautifully decorated - all Tony and a friend's work. It was spacious, with separate bed areas. The bathroom was to die for; the shower took up a wall, nearly two metres - with a rain shower head.
Gorgeous! This was the best accommodation of our holiday. And with 36 degrees outside when we arrived, the air conditioning units were brilliant. We felt spoilt.
Tony gave us great advice, including where not to go, and booked us into, in his opinion, the best restaurant with the best view of the Acropolis in town. That evening we went to Strofi, two blocks away. On Tony's insistence, they had arranged a table for us on the roof top with a spectacular view.
Not only were we spellbound but the traditional Greek fare was mouth-watering, so much so, we ordered three courses and shared dishes. As the sun faded and the Acropolis was lit up, the view became magical. After awhile Tony popped in to make sure we had found the restaurant.
How many hoteliers would do that in this day and age?
As we soaked up the atmosphere, we were already in love with Greece. The people were great ambassadors for their country. Tony belonged in hospitality, a natural, we wished every hotel had a Tony, while our night at Strofi became one of the highlights of our five weeks overseas.
Early next morning we took the metro to meet our walking tour at Syntagma metro station in the heart of Plaka and spent the morning seeing the many archaeological and tourist sites in central Athens with 12 others.
Firstly, we saw archaeological finds in the station itself, found when the site was excavated to build the metro. After that we walked to Parliament House - the old royal palace - to watch the changing of the guard at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.
This is an odd dance but very entertaining (far more so than Buckingham Palace) and they do it very well, once an hour, considering their wooden shoes with pompoms reportedly weigh two kilogrammes each.
Next stop was the Zapion exhibition and congress hall, the site of the first modern Olympic Games village. We then saw a small portion of the national gardens before getting to our first ruins, the temple of Zeus, the largest temple of its time. Only 15 columns are still standing, but you could see how magnificent it must have been in its day.
It was already boiling hot and our guide was good at finding shade, but Kallia and I sat down, while Rob and Alex walked around the site. Four of our group from a cruise ship left, as their two toddlers weren't coping with the heat.
We carried on to Hadrian's Arch before crossing the busy street to ancient Athens and the Acropolis, where, by the time we got to Dionyses Theatre, we'd lost another two tour members due to the heat.
Climbing to the top of the Acropolis in 47 degree heat (as we found out later) was hard, but we got there and Kallia was pleased, as she was expecting a hard climb due to her injured ankle.
We saw the Odeum of Herodes, another theatre still often used for concerts today, before getting to the top where we entered the Acropolis. It contains the ruins of many ancient buildings of which the Parthenon is the most famous.
The views over Athens, right out to the coast, were breath- taking. We circled the Parthenon which is constantly surrounded these days by scaffolding as part of preservation work, and also saw the smaller Athena building, The Erechtheum Temple.
One corner is held up by six beautiful pillars shaped like maidens - the Caryatids, more commonly called the Porch of Maidens. I think this was my favourite part of the Acropolis.
It was worth the effort to get there and as they closed the Acropolis at 1.30pm due to the heat, we were lucky to have made it at all.
Back down the hill in Plaka, we visited souvenir shops and ate lunch before getting a taxi to the National Archaeological Museum.
We met our lovely and knowledgeable personal guide, Andromache. Just like Tony, she thanked us for having the courage to come to Athens. Tourism had dropped off dramatically and as many people here made their money that way, it had made a bad situation worse.
We toured the museum; going through the stone age, the bronze age, the Santorini, the classical and pre-classical age rooms ... but she gave us so much information, we struggled to take it all in.
Athens was top of the list for Alex and he seemed to enjoy it, but there was very little about the mythology side itself which was a bit disappointing.
We had planned to visit the Ancient Agora, but it was still 40 degrees at 5pm and Andromache convinced us we would not handle the heat. Also, with all the walking, our feet were now really sore.
So instead, we briefly stopped at the Panathenaic Stadium - used for the first modern Olympics in 1896 - before leaving Athens for the coast, passing the cemetery of World War II NZ soldiers on the way.
When we got to Faliro we discovered it was a marina only, very pretty, but you could not actually get in the sea. We were all hot and bothered so we returned to Athens and retreated to our lovely air- conditioned room, ordered in and just relaxed.
Early next morning, with Hector as our taxi driver, we met Andromache at the New Acropolis Museum at the foot of the Acropolis Hill. She took us through, showing us the best pieces from the Acropolis.
I found the top floor most interesting, being the same dimensions as the Parthenon, with original pieces from the temple itself, and plaster casts of pieces now in the British Museum. (You don't want to get the Greeks started on the artefacts stored in Britain!)
This museum is a must-see in Athens and best done with a licenced guide, but if you've only got one day in Athens, aim for any day but Monday, as this is the one day it is closed.
We had been amazed by the ancient ruins, we had soaked up the warm atmosphere of the city, but most of all we had fallen in love with the friendly people, but now it was time to leave for the island of Santorini.
We'd left home expecting to find beggars and protesters on dangerous streets, but instead found the most welcoming of people who showed us the most beautiful parts of Athens, all without incident.
In the words of our hosts, we were also pleased we'd had the courage to visit Athens. Now we can't wait to return.