One of the world’s greatest sights and a favorite destination for romantic couples, the iconic Greek island of Santorini is an easy 45-minute flight from Athens. Direct flights from other European cities are also available, but I opted for a three-hour boat ride from Mykonos instead, to continue my Greek-island hopping. It was a good choice; arriving in Santorini on the top deck of a gigantic ferry boat – with a birds-eye view of the island’s magnificent cliffs – proved to be an unforgettable experience.
All the boats to Santorini arrive at the small port of Ormos Athinios, which – apart from the cliffs in the background – is a totally unremarkable place. Thousands of people were getting off the same boat, and the cruise ships that come daily were sending their passengers ashore all at the same time, creating chaos on the arrival platform. But once I got a taxi to the capital and the main town – Fira – and we started to drive up the volcano-carved cliffs, the view was mesmerizing: in front, a crescent of cliffs rise 1,100 feet above the water; to the right and left, respectively, the white clusters of Fira and Oia, the latter being the second main town in Santorini. Below us was the Caldera, which – as the driver explained – is actually a flooded crater surrounded by the ancient rim of the volcano Hephaestus, still active far below the water’s surface. Santorini isn’t considered the most extraordinary island in the Aegean Sea for nothing.
The town of Fira, located midway along the western coast of the island’s eastern rim, was just a small and picturesque village until not long ago. Today it’s Santorini’s main hub for commerce and transportation, a center overflowing with bars, shops and restaurants. Tourism has replaced all the other industries that once predominated on the island; with a local population of only 18,000 people, in 2018 alone Santorini received 3 million visitors! Critics say that unrestrained tourism has taken its toll – that by the end of the summer, locals are burnt out with ‘over-tourism.’ Others maintain that the money coming in justifies keeping things the way they are, and in times of economic hardship – like the one Greece faces currently – that’s not a small argument.
Those who want to keep the tourists coming must be winning, judging by how crowded Fira was. After checking in at the Pelican Hotel, I walked to the Caldera side, following a steep and narrow road full of shops and tourists. When I reached the top and stopped to catch my breath, I was face-to-face with the bay of Santorini, one of the world’s greatest sights, standing right on the rim of the Caldera – what an amazing view that was!
Santorini owes its unusual geography to an event that occurred 3,500 years ago, when the volcano Hephaestus blew its top and created an enormous crater six by four miles wide and 1,292 feet deep. In the middle of the crater is Thirasia Island, and – somewhere between Thirasia and the shore – lies the still active volcano, which adds an air of suspense to the already awe-inspiring scene.
Being hundreds of feet above the water, I had a better view of the whitewashed cubicle houses that cling to the cliff and extend all the way down to the Caldera. These homes, carved in antiquity by the first people on the island, are now equipped with modern conveniences and comforts, and some figure amongst the most expensive pieces of real estate in the world.
Expensive is actually the key word in Santorini, which is – along with Mykonos –one of the most costly destinations in Greece. But that doesn’t seem to bother people much: in mid-May, the streets of Fira were packed with tourists from all over the world, especially young couples on their honeymoon. Santorini is now a favorite destination for couples, and more and more the location they choose for their wedding.
The next morning I took a bus tour of Santorini – from Fira to the beaches, from a wine tasting to the famous Oia sunset. Our guide explained that the volcanic eruption that created the Caldera also left the island with hardships that it still endures – like a chronic shortage of water. Since ancient times, she said, Santorini has depended on rain collected in cisterns for drinking and irrigation, a problem only alleviated by importing water. On the brighter side, the ashes left by the eruption resulted in a type of soil that yields very distinctive-tasting vegetables. Like a type of tomatoes – small and intense in flavor, with tough skins – that is used at the best local restaurants to make a famous paste. Same with the fava beans – light and fresh- and the island’s white-skinned eggplants, all major ingredients of the healthy Mediterranean diet. I actually had them in a salad; once you do, you’ll taste the difference.
The dry, volcanic soil of Santorini is also responsible for some of the best Greek grape varieties, and the island produces more wine than any other Cycladic island. Its distinctive white, from the native Assyrtiko grapes, was recently rated among the world’s top 100 white wines by Wine Spectator. Wine lovers shouldn’t miss the picturesque Koutsoyannopoulos, a family wine museum built into a cave, five miles from Fira – the only museum of its kind in Greece. Wine tastings are available next door, after the informative visit.
No one goes to Santorini for the beaches – there are better islands for that, including the nearby Naxos. In Santorini the beaches have volcanic sand – some black and some red – set against dramatic rock formations and deep blue waters that attract a lot of people in the summer. Our lunch stop was at Kamari Beach, on the southern end of the island, a place that has managed to retain its charm, despite the massive summer crowds. A steep path leading to some ruins add to its charm, but most people stick to the umbrella-shaded loungers, where food from the tavernas lining the beach is served. In mid-May the loungers were all occupied – I can only imagine what happens in the high season.
Perissa is a favorite with the locals. With a long black-sand beach where a lively resort town has been built, it’s the best beach for snorkeling and swimming. Perivolos, an extension of Perissa Beach, is famous for its volcanic black sand, but – with fewer restaurants and bars – it’s a quieter resort. The famous Red Beach, with its unique color of sand and clear green waters, was closed to the public due to a landslide, on the day I visited. It’s perhaps the best known of Santorini’s beaches, due to its dramatic, soaring red-lava cliffs.
One of the most highly photographed places in the world, Oia is also the most picturesque village in Santorini. The atmosphere of its quiet streets is definitely more sophisticated than in Fira. In fact, Oia’s 500 residents are said to look down on the madness of their neighboring town.
Oia was hit hard in 1956 – as was the whole island – by an earthquake that killed 45 people and destroyed 2,000 houses. Rebuilding has been a slower process in Oia than on the rest of the island, because the locals insist on keeping the town’s traditional architectural style. Set up like the other towns in Santorini – adorning the caldera’s rim – Oia has a cliff-side walkway going down to the water, where a small port receives private boats. Like in Fira, local tourist stands promote mules as a mode of transportation for people going up from the port to town. Animal-rights groups try to discourage that, and I chose not to do it. Besides, a local superstition says that the mules contain the souls of the dead…
Oia is small, nothing is very far from anything else. Along with many other buses full of tourists, our bus tour arrived there just in time for the famous sunset. It is an event that attracts thousands to the town’s cliff for a few hours only, just to celebrate the beauty of the sun going down behind the Caldera.
When I arrived, Oia’s narrow main street was already full of tourists heading downhill, all jostling to find the best spot to watch the sunset. I found mine near some very serious-looking Chinese, with sophisticated photography equipment. “Probably professional photographers,” I thought, trying to aim at the same angles they were aiming for – but with a modest iPhone. The crowd around us was getting bigger and bigger by the minute, and when the sun started to descend, all I could hear was the clicking of cameras. Suddenly, the sun started to get larger and larger, turning from golden to bright orange. It was like watching a big explosion: everything around got suddenly colored with the same intense yellow. When the gigantic fire ball finally hid behind the Caldera, everybody applauded. I was dumbstruck. Later, describing the scene to a friend over the phone, I said that “Oia’s sunset has to be seen at least once in a lifetime.” The energy was so strong that I was afraid it would wake up the volcano, deep under the surface of the water of the Caldera.
Back in Fira, I waked uphill from the hotel to the cliff-side restaurant the concierge had suggested. It turned out to be next to the famed spot where couples leave their vows, thousands of love-locks attached to a grid. I got a table on the edge of the cliff, surrounded by happy-looking couples holding hands across candle-lit tables. The lights on the Caldera were on, the cruise ships were leaving, taking away their noisy day crowds. Everything was quiet but for the sound of the wind and the hushed voices of the love birds nearby. ‘Santorini is definitely for lovers,’ I decided. Nowhere else will they find such a romantic – or a more beautiful – place.