|The island of Santorini, Greece. Oia architecture|
My niece Cathy and her husband Mike just returned from a wonderful vacation on Santorini and sent me this terrific report.
In the lead up to my trip to the Island of Santorini, Greece, a friend of mine gave me some tips but refused to give too many details for fear of spoiling the surprises. So I’ll try not to reveal too much and use only one adjective, “magical”, to describe the experience. My husband and I spent six days in late May 2018 staying in two different locations and exploring the landscape, architecture, ancient ruins, quaint cliff top towns, vineyards, and just doing nothing but staring out at the azure Aegean Sea.
|Sunset in Oia|
Santorini, also known as Thira, was formed in the 16th century BC when a large volcanic eruption created its current landscape. At 28 square miles, it offers the perfect size for exploring by land and sea. We opted to rent a car for the entire period -- at 17 euros / day it was more cost effective than taxis and provided us the freedom to wander as we pleased. We found our tiny Fiat convertible easy for navigating the small alley ways and a blast to drive, and didn’t have issues finding free parking. In the height of the summer season I imagine driving and parking would not be as fun; the public bus system is very affordable and comfortable in coach style buses. ATVs, scooters, or a daily car rental are also options.
|View from our Oia "cave house"|
We split up our stay between the towns of Oia (pronounced “eeya”) and Imerovigli. In Oia, our twp bedroom AirBnB cave house with a sweeping patio provided a unique experience. In Imerovigli, our stay at the Hotel Afroessa provided a spectacular view of the sunset and the friendly welcome and hospitality of a superb staff.
|Hike from Oia to Fira|
It was easy to spend our first few days exploring the ancient town of Oia with a hike down to the fishing port Amoudi Bay and browsing the artsy shops, the best on the island. We also hiked the 11K trail from Oia over the ridge, with sea views in all directions, through Imerovigli, and into the capital city of Fira, which is the port of call for the cruise ships with sidewalks full of day-trippers.
On day 4, we opted for a self-guided driving tour of the Island since we had to check out of the AirBnB and into our hotel. We quickly learned GPS systems have a hard time in Santorini as we kept trying different roads to find our hotel. Since you rarely just pull up to a hotel and drop off your bags, porters are adept at flinging multiple suitcases over their shoulders while you’re struggling to keep up as they seem to glide up and down all of the steep, no railing, natural stone stairs.
Our first driving destination was Ancient Thera, the highest point on the island, that was home to settlements from the 9th century BC until 726 AD, where you can see the expansive remains including the evidence of the Greek theater, Roman Baths, city center, and many private dwellings. Since it was hard for us to get there, it’s amazing that populations long ago made it their home. To access ancient Thera today, you can either hike up from Perissa, or hike or drive up the very windy, narrow road from Kamari. Since we didn’t have a lot of time and the site closes at 3pm, we opted for the drive up, which is not for the faint-hearted!
|Gaia winery in Kamari|
We were ready for some nourishment and relaxation so our next stop was a vineyard. Santorini is home to 1,100 hectares of vines and is well known for its white grape varieties Assyrtiko, Athiri, and Aidani. Winemakers have invented an ungrafted vine growing process, which keeps the grapes growing in a circular tube and low to the ground to avoid the wind and heat exposure that has killed crops. The GPS once again failed us so we gave up on our selected vineyard and stumbled upon another one – even better – Gaia Winery in Kamari by the sea on the shore of a black beach. A waiter later marveled that we went there since tourists often opt for the bigger, fancier wineries like Boutari Winery, Santo Winery, and Estate Argyros. It was easy to pass a couple of hours sipping wine, nibbling on the cheese platter, and learning about each bottle of wine which our hostess explained in detail, that feature unique flavors from the volcanic soil and salt from the sea.
By now, we turned the GPS off and my navigating went something like “this looks right” and “how wrong can we be since we can see the sea”. Last stop was Megalochori for a brief walk through the ancient town, a café break, and a visit to its local bakery.
On day 5, we wanted to see the island from the water and went on an 18 person catamaran tour by Spiridakos around the southern shores of the Island. They did an excellent job with a BBQ and Greek style sit down lunch and swim stops at the volcanic “hot springs” (warm but not hot), white beach and red beach. The water at the beaches is crystal clear and, while brisk in shoulder season, we enjoyed a swim. You won’t find a lot of fish for snorkeling or eating in the Aegean waters. We were told much of the fishing industry was destroyed by the dynamite fishing technique that brought fish to the surface; the fish are only starting to re-populate.
|Skaros rock in Imerovigli|
We had been staring at Skaros rock from our Imerovigli hotel balcony and so it was beckoning a brief hike on day 6. You can do it as part of your hike between Fira and Oia, but we were glad we saved it for another day so we could comfortably explore it and the chapel that sits on a perch on the back side of the rock. There are more than 600 chapels and churches on Santorini, the products of fishermen who used to vow to build a church if they returned home safely from a long sea voyage.
Santorini has everything you could want in an Island vacation. As gorgeous as photographs are, you must experience the sights, sounds, air, water, tastes and people yourself to reveal its surprises and magic.