Santorini: a beautiful island to visit once

Our journey from Crete to Santorini was to be via ferry, and I was looking forward to it. As I would discover, each ferry ride would be quite different from the others. In this case, we were on a large (800 person) high-speed catamaran, the creatively-named “Highspeed 5” from Hellenic Seaways. This high speed ferry would get us from Heraklion, Crete to Santorini in just under two hours. I was expecting to waltz around the boat and look outside, etc., but I was wrong. This was not terribly different from a plane ride in that we were basically stuck in our seats, away from windows, with no access to the outdoors (I was thinking/hoping there would be outdoor seating). So it was a pretty dull two hours, and there’s not much to be said for it. The people watching was OK.

Brown Santorini (and the town of Oia). Brown Santorini (and the town of Oia).

Upon arrival in Santorini, I wasn’t sure what to think. I knew it was too early to form an opinion, but honestly, I was not impressed. The ferry port was kind of grotty (but it’s just that: a port and nothing more, and certainly not like, nor meant to be like, the pretty old Venetian harbours we had previously visited in Crete and Nafplion), and the taxi ride up the caldera and into the  main town of Fira, where we were staying, didn’t really showcase anything fantastic, either. Honestly, all I saw was a somewhat run-down, brown island (I assume it would be much greener in other months, but in high summer much dries out and dies under the sun in the Aegean). I was a touch worried.

006fira One of bajillion pretty little churches scattered all over Santorini.

Once we got dropped off in Fira, and had to briefly explore the area to find the hotel, I was feeling more optimistic about the place. It certainly did look pretty with its views and white buildings clinging to the caldera’s edge, lined with pedestrianized streets that were mostly just a series of (often smooth and slippery) steps up and down. This warning on a map was not to be taken lightly:

Seriously. Seriously, no high heels.

Having arrived late morning, the town was packed. The sort-of main square in Fira next to the large Orthodox Cathedral was overflowing with tour groups from the cruise ship (ships? I don’t recall) docked below. As the days passed, I found it interesting the difference made when there were no cruise ships docked below. The town, while still busy, had a calmer feel to it and traveling herds of people were nowhere to be seen; evenings had a similar feeling, as it seemed like most people went back to their ship by then, which often departed between dusk and late night. I remember one day – the day we went to Oia, unfortunately – there were three cruise ships! Oia was inundated for the sunset (they all seemed to leave immediately after, though). A quick search reveals that up to five cruise ships are allowed to dock at Santorini each day. Guess I should just be thankful we maxed out at three.

007fira Fira on the caldera’s edge. Note the super yacht on the lower right.

Fira ended up being better than I had expected it to be. I had read some mixed reviews about Santorini’s main town that made me feel a little apprehensive (Oia sounded to be the superior area to stay in), but I stuck with it knowing that it would be our best connection to spots around the rest of the island, given the fact we weren’t planning on renting a car in Santorini. The town is a fairly large network of narrow, pedestrianized walkways lined with innumerable shops, restaurants and tavernas, bars, and hotels. It’s a really nice area to explore; in additional to the town itself, you are consistently met with incredible caldera views along the cliffside. After the first day though, we avoided the town until evening, in part to get away from the crowds, but mostly to explore other parts of the island. Anyway, how much can you walk around one town until it gets boring?

016fira A Fira sunset

Sunset and evenings in Fira were fantastic though. Each evening included lazy sundowners with caldera views (and maybe a little shopping – I picked up some great items in a clothing shop of a Greek designer/design collective called Heel, and a funky chunky malachite ring at local jeweler’s boutique, Puesta Del Sol) before heading off to a late dinner of always tasty Greek grub. And then usually some more drinks to round off the night. A club called Enigma is a chic little spot for some dancing, if you’re in the mood for a very late night out. The people working in Santorini were very friendly, and each evening was an absolute joy. It is here we also discovered Retsina, a unique but delicious (although I have the feeling it’s something most people will either love or hate) type Greek white wine that dates back 2,000 years. We weren’t exactly sure what made it taste the way it does, although ventured a guess that it was infused (or something) with thyme. Not the case, I just found out. It actually gets its flavor from pine resin that is added in during fermentation. Interesting. As for the food: it was all pretty (very, really) good, but nothing as outstanding as what we had tried in Crete. We did have one dinner that was a bit more memorable in Oia, however it was also a more modern/creative take on Greek cuisine.

037fira Our bottle of Retsina came with a confusing label.

Unable to ignore an archaeologic site of ruins, our first morning’s journey had to be to Ancient Thera. This was the Hellenistic center of Santorini, and is perched atop Messavuono mountain, between the beaches of Kamari and Perissa. You can drive or ride a donkey to the top, but we chose to walk. It’s not an awful walk up, but there was almost no reprieve from the sun beating down on you, and more than anything, it took its toll. The wind is also pretty bad, and from this point forward, my hair spent the next week and a half trapped inside of a bun. The relentless island wind was such a jerk with its infusion of sand and sea salt and wreaked endless havoc on my locks.

025ancthera You get an OK view with your seat in Ancient Thera’s theater.
027ancthera Perissa from Ancient Thera, atop Mt Messavuono.

Once you reach Ancient Thera, you’ll have a pleasant stroll through ruins that include an agora, a basilica, and theater that has been built into the side of the mountain. Also: amazing views (Santorini gave good view, definitely the best views of all the islands that I visited) of distant Cycladic islands and the surrounding beaches of Kamari (a bit more resort-based and built-up) and Perissa (a little quieter, although far from quiet or empty). It was a very nice site of ruins, but I had to question why they built it atop a mountain (so much effort), when they could have frolicked on the beach? I’m sure there was a very good reason, but my modern, lazy mind just can’t compute.

029ancthera Marking a church around the corner on the way down Mt Messavuono. On the islands, churches were very often very inconveniently located.

Our walk back down the mountain – with a quick stop off at a mountain side church – brought us to Perissa beach. From the ruins, I could see that Perissa was a black sand beach, so I was a little worried about how hot the sand might be, but upon arriving I could see there was little to be concerned about. Narrow boardwalks were worked into the beach to keep you off the sand, until you got close to water or your generously shaded lounge chair. The lounge chairs packed the beach, and each are rented out by the restaurant/bar set up behind them.

Perissa black sand beach on Santorini (the site of Ancient Thira lies atop that mountain) Perissa beach with Mount Messavuono somewhat chopped on the right.

Overheated, thirsty, and hungry, we didn’t browse locations for long, and ended up getting beach seating with the Magic Bus Gastro Pub. I loved it so much; it was our go-to for each trip into Perissa. The owner, Niko, was fantastic, as were all of the employees. Everyone was so welcoming and friendly (but not overly so) and it was very enjoyable and easy to let the hours pass there. The restaurant/bar itself was pretty neat, decorated colorfully and comfortably – very much a chilled-out island spot. If in Santorini, I can’t recommend this place enough, it was a highlight! Much like every other Aegean beach, the water was gorgeous, calm, crystal clear, and full of little fishes. At one point I was happily relaxing in the water musing over all of these things, when some asshole fish came up and bit me in the stomach! No real damage was done, but I waved the annoyance away; my pleasant reverie had been shattered. The jerk came back for more! I practically had to run away from it. Sushi revenge, I suppose.

051redbeach Red Beach from the path leading to it.

I suppose we could have done more beach hopping (from Perissa we could have caught a water taxi to Kamari, for example), but we were so happy at Magic Bus in Perissa, we weren’t that bothered about it. We did, however spend a morning at Red Beach in Akrotiri, which won the award for most beautiful beach during the trip. The aptly-named beach sports a narrow beach of red sand, and dramatic red cliffs of volcanic rock surrounding shallow, clear azure waters. It’s a bit more difficult to get to as you need to clamber along a short path along the cliffs to get to the beach, but it is worth it. This beach, however offers much less as far as bars or restaurants go. I think on the far end there was a small snack bar, but that’s it. It does get very packed, though, and by late morning, was not longer a relaxing location to be. You can also catch a water taxi from here to the nearby white and black beaches.

057redbeach Not a far walk from the lounger to take a dip.

Near these beaches is another archaeological site, Akrotiri, which was still being excavated. It was a fairly good-sized site (with a building built around it) of a settlement that was destroyed in a volcanic eruption thousands of years ago (not unlike Pompeii). The volcanic ash has preserved it pretty well, to the point where we were able to see pottery and some furniture. And even though it has not yet been fully excavated, you can get a pretty good idea of the town as you walk around it. There also were apparently a lot of very well preserved frescoes, but we didn’t get to see them as they had been moved to a museum in Fira – which we tried visiting on our last day, but was closed due to a strike. Shame.

040akrotiri The rooms within the walls of this seemingly-spacious home were cramped.
046akrotiri Preserved pithoi and what not.

One of the last places we visited was Oia, which I heard was the “resort town” of Santorini. Oia is certainly the image that pops into your head when you think of Santorini, or when you see photos from the island. While Fira is this to a pretty good extent, Oia is the spot for picturesque whitewashed caldera-edge buildings, painted with bright blue rooftops. It was smaller than Fira, and seemed slightly more upmarket, but with its small size (and the three cruise ships currently docked!) people packed the space and walking around it wasn’t always pleasant or leisurely. It was particularly bad when we arrived, because it was nearing evening, and the cruise shippers had also just been let loose from their buses to watch the famed sunset. We had heard that a restaurant called Nectarine (now Ambrosia) was excellent, but we quickly discovered it was booked for the evening.

072oia The whitewashed walls and blue rooftops of Oia.

Eventually, we wound up at Red Bicycle, which also had a promising menu of modern and creative Greek cuisine, as well as a nice list of Santorinian wine – yes please! A gorgeous sunset with delicious wine was had, and then we were on to some food. We started with sushi dolmades wrapped in vine leaves with smoked salmon, and white grilled Santorini eggplant. The “sushi” was very different from the sushi you’d normally think of, but at least as delicious. I believe it also included orzo instead of sushi rice, finally topped with milk cream. For my main, I chose fresh fagri (white snapper) a la Spetsiota with garlic emulsion. Very good, very fresh. And not a massive portion, which was nice for a change. I topped it all off with mille-feuille with masticha cream and grilled apricots. Yum. I love to eat.

075oia Our postcard perfect view from dinner at Red Bicycle.

All in all, Santorini was fabulous. It was always one of the three places I’d ear-marked for a honeymoon (also: Bali, now visited; Moorea in French Polynesia, still on my need-to-go list), but I’m glad I never honeymooned there – or saved it for one, more accurately. I don’t know why, it just didn’t quite match what I was thinking for for that (in retrospect, I think Mykonos more closely matched what I was thinking of).

058oia Cruise liner triple threat.

Definitely visit Santorini; it’s a great place to go once. Without disparaging the place (I did love it), of all the islands, it had the least return value for me. It’s beautiful to see once and explore as best you can in the time that you’re there, but I don’t know how much stimulation a return visit would offer. Crete was huge, with lots of nature and outdoor activities, as well as a variety of towns and villages. We barely scratched Crete’s surface. Naxos also is large (for the Cyclades) and, again, offers lots of outdoors activities if you’re the type that likes to hike etc. It also had loads of gorgeous beaches and coves, many of which are nearly to completely empty, perfect for a relaxing beach holiday (although there are still a couple of popular beaches to party at, should the mood come up); it’s the sort of place where it would be nice to own a beach house. If you like to party, dance, and/or shop extravagantly, Mykonos is all too easy to return to again and again (I plan to) to immerse yourself in a certain over-the-top lifestyle – and even there you’ll find very different personalities from beach to beach. Santorini was very nice indeed, but other than its unique caldera setup and stunning views, I did not feel that it stood out to offer any entertainment or activities I couldn’t get from the other islands in better variety or quality.


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