One of the world’s greatest sights, and a favorite destination for 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 on 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 as well, total chaos on the arrival platform. But once I got a taxi to the capital and main town – Fira – and we started to drive upwards the volcano-cut cliffs, the view was mesmerizing. In front, a crescent of cliffs rising 1,100 feet above the water; looking right and left, the white clusters of Fira and Oia, the second main town. 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 deep in the water. It’s not for nothing that Santorini is considered the most extraordinary island in the Aegean Sea.
The town of Fira, midway along the west coast of the east rim of the island, was just a picturesque small village, until not long ago. Today it’s the main commercial and transportation hub of Santorini, a tourist center overflowing with bars, shops and restaurants. Tourism has replaced the other industries all over the island: with a year-round 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. Others maintain that the money tourism brings in justifies keeping things as they are. And in times of economic hardship – like the one Greece faces now – that’s not a small argument.
The ones who want to keep tourists coming must be winning, judging by how crowded the town was, on my way to Pelican Hotel. After checking in, I walked to the Caldera side, going up a steep and narrow road full of shops and people. 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 great sights – and standing right on the rim of the Caldera. What an amazing view that was!
The unusual geography of Santorini was created some 3,500 years ago, when volcano Hephaestus blew up its top. The crater the explosion made is enormous – six by four miles wide and 1,292 feet deep. In the middle of it is Thirasia Island, and – somewhere between Thirasia and the shore – lies the volcano, still active, adding an air of suspense to the already awe-inspiring scene.
Being hundreds of feet above the water, I could see the whitewashed cubicle houses clinging to the cliff and going down all the way 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 residences and hotels in the world.
Expensive is actually the key word in Santorini: with Mykonos, the island is at the top of the costly destinations in Greece. But that doesn’t seem to bother people much – at the end of the day, the streets of Fira were packed with tourists from all over, specially with young couples. Santorini is now a favorite destination for honeymooners, and more and more the location people choose to get married.
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 volcano explosion that created the Caldera also left the island with hardships it still endures – like a chronic shortage of water. Since remote 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. A special type of tomatoes – small and intense in flavor, with tough skins – is used at the best local restaurants to make a famed paste. Same with the fava beans – tasting light and fresh – and the island’s white-skin eggplants, all major ingredients of the healthy Mediterranean diet. I actually tried them in a salad; once you do, you’ll know the difference.
The dry and 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 indigenous Assyrtiko grapes, was recently rated among the world’s top 100 whites by Wine Spectator. Wine lovers shouldn’t miss the picturesque Koutsoyannopoulos, a family wine museum built in a natural cave, five miles from Fira. It’s the only museum of its kind in Greece, and wine tastings are available next door, after the informative tour.
No one goes to Santorini for the beaches, there are better islands for that (including nearby Naxos). In Santorini they have volcanic sand, with dramatic rock formations and deep blue waters. Some have black sand, others red, and despite not being the most scenic they all get very crowded during the high season.
Our lunch stop was at Kamari Beach, on the southern end of the island, a place that managed to retain its charm, despite massive summer crowds. The black sands, and a steep path leading to ruins, add to its charm. But most people stick to the umbrella-shaded loungers, where food from the bars and tavernas lining the beach is served. In mid-May, the loungers were all occupied.
Perissa is a favorite with the locals. With a long black-sand beach, where a lively resort town has grown, it’s the best beach for snorkeling and swimming. Perivolos, an extension of Perissa Beach, is famous for its volcanic black sand, but has fewer restaurants and bars, which makes it a quieter resort during most times of the year. Famous Red Beach, with the unique color of the sand and clear green waters, was closed to the public due to a landslide, the day I visited. It’s perhaps the best – known of Santorini beaches, due to its dramatic soaring red-lava cliffs.
One of the most photographed places in the world, Oia is also the most picturesque village in Santorini, and the air in 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 neighbor 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 in the rest of the island, because the locals insist on keeping the town’s traditional architectural style. Good for them! 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 small, private boats. Like in Fira, local tourist stands promote mules as a way of transportation, to bring people up from the port and back 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 souls of the dead…
Oia is small, nothing is very far from anything else. Our bus tour arrived there – with many other buses full of tourists – just in time for the famous sunset, an event that attracts thousands to the town’s cliff for few hours only, just to celebrate the beauty of the sun going down behind the Caldera.
Oia’s narrow main street was already full of people going downhill when I arrived, all jostling to find the best spot to watch the view. I found mine near some very serious-looking Chinese with a sophisticated photography equipment. “Probably professional photographers”, I thought, trying to aim at the same angles they were aiming for – 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 a golden to a bright orange color. It was like watching a big explosion, and everything around was painted with the same colors. When the gigantic fire ball finally hid behind the Caldera, everybody applauded – even the Chinese. I was dumbstruck; all I could say – later – was “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 in the water.
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, and around me happy-looking couples held hands across candle-lit tables. The lights on the Caldera were on, and cruise ships were leaving, taking away their noisy day crowds. Everything was quiet, but for the the sound of the wind and the hushed voices of the love birds around. “Santorini is definitely for lovers”, I decided. Nowhere else will they find such a romantic – or a more beautiful – place.