The beautiful island of Santorini is one of the most popular (and photographed) of the Greek islands. Santorini attracts millions of visitors every year. Since it is very popular, it is more expensive than most islands but, with some planning even budget travellers can experience the best of the island.
Located in the Cyclades island group, Santorini was destroyed by a volcanic eruption in the 16th Century BC, when the center of the island was blown out leaving only the volcanic caldera and a few scattered islets. The two main towns, Fira and Oia, are located on the cliff tops above the caldera with amazing western views of the small islands and colourful pebbled beaches. Fira is the capital city and has more nightlife and shopping, whereas Oia is more luxurious with gourmet restaurants and high-end retail stores.
Getting There Most travellers will arrive on Santorini by ferry at Athinios Port (the new port). Conventional ferries are less expensive than fast ferries. Ferry prices are different for every route. One of the best websites for checking schedules and the latest prices is Ferry Hopper. There are also flights available with very affordable rates in the off-season when booked in advance. From the port, public buses run to Fira and Oia.
To get around the island, the public bus system accesses all the most popular attractions. Some travellers may choose to rent a car or scooter for their explorations but we found the public bus got us everywhere we needed to be. The worst part about public bus is at the main hub in Fira where chaos reigns. We were constantly confused about tickets, routes, and which bay our bus would park. The most expensive and luxurious hotels are found along the edge of the caldera in Oia and Fira. For those of us with more modest travel budgets, less expensive lodgings can be found a bus stop or two away from the main areas. We chose Anna's Pension in Karterados village, about 2km outside of the capital city of Fira. The little village has a grocery store where we were able to pick up lunch fixings, snacks, and water. There are several cafés and bakeries where we could pick up our breakfast on the way to the bus stop that would take us into Fira, where all other bus connections are made. We enjoyed outstanding and inexpensive dinners at the nearby taverna.
Fira (Thira/Thera), the capital city, has many cafes, bars, and restaurants in the upper portion of the town with beautiful views and most have patios and balconies perfect for sitting and enjoying an iced coffee frappé or adult beverage. Most of these are accessed by an ornately decorated door that seems to lead right off the cliff.
We spent several hours at drinking coffee and watching the cruise ships and boats in the port below at Iriana café, which also offers upscale apartment and suite rentals well outside of our budget.
The walkways are narrow and when the cruise ships are in, they get very crowded and congested. Once the cruise ships have left the port, the streets become noticeably easier to get around.
An afternoon, when there are several cruise ships in port, is the perfect time to visit one of the outstanding museums. The Museum of Prehistoric Thera holds many of the relics discovered at the Akrotiri Archeological Site, including ancient household items and stunning icons and frescoes
The colours of the frescoes are amazing, having been well-preserved beneath the volcanic ash.
The archeologists speculate that this golden ibis was an offering to the volcano gods. It was found in a wooden case underneath a pile of burnt goat bones.
Ormos, the old port of Santorini is at the bottom of the cliffs. The little harbour has restaurants, taverns and small shops.
To reach the old port, there are about 600 stone steps to walk, a mule ride or the cable car. (Please be aware that the mules should not be carrying anyone over 150lbs). The cable car station is located in the Old Market of Fira at the top of the stairs.
A silly tradition that ATB#1 and I often enjoy is getting some fun dress-up photos on our trips. We aren't glam types looking for a stunning photo for social media but instead are on the lookout for something fun. We had a fun studio session, choosing our costumes and posing. We got a CD of over 100 photos for a very reasonable price. There are many location photographers advertising their services for those travellers who want a trendy Instagram-worthy photoshoot with the rented "Flying Dresses".
Oia Oia, pronounced ee-aa, is about 15km from Fira and is known for it's incredible sunset views. There is a popular hike between Oia and Fira that skirts along the cliffs and offers incredible views of the Aegean Sea. The pedestrian alleys are paved and can only be explored by walking. Most businesses and services are found along Nomikos Street.
As we wandered along Nomikos Street, the main street of the village, we found the amazing Atlantis Bookstore, that welcomes book lovers and photographers. We enjoyed checking out the shelves and were delighted by the photo ops created by the owners.
Continuing to follow the street, we came upon the iconic Santorini scene with the whitewashed church with the blue dome against the Aegean.
Akrotiri is an incredible archeological site dating back to the Bronze Age. Once part of the Europe-Middle East trade route, it became tremendously prosperous. During the massive eruption that destroyed the island, the city became covered in ash and was forgotten until the 19th Century. It is often referred to as the Greek Pompeii.
Much of the history is unknown and still needs to be discovered. Archeologists estimate that they have only uncovered about 5% of the site. It was discovered in the mid-1800s after heavy rains washed away some topsoil to reveal the rooftops of some of the ancient buildings, previously buried beneath 6 metres of ground. Excavation work began in 1967 but there have been many fits and starts to the project.
The ancient residents apparently knew a lot about seismic safety. They built very thick walls with wooden corner pieces. The inside layer was loose rocks to allow for the sway: the outside layer was beautiful (expensive) and intricately decorated marble. Akrotiri culture had an emphasis on what the neighbours could see.
Many jars and amphoras were discovered on site containing grains, perfumes, and oils. Many of these were placed under beds and were wrapped in fabric for protection. The prevailing expert opinion is that the residents had an earthquake warning in the weeks prior to the eruption and they used the time to pack their valuables and stash their essentials before they evacuated. Despite the warning, it is estimated that 20,000 people died.
Experts suggest a recovery team returned to the city in the days following the early eruption. These teams entered the homes and put usable furniture into the streets. This is a pair of beds which were thrown into the street upside down.
Along the bus route between Akrotiri and our digs in Karterados is the Santo Winery in Pyrgos village. We had seen ads in Fira and Oia for a tour but hadn't gotten around to booking. When the bus driver called out "Santo Wines!", we took it as a sign and quickly hopped off the bus.
The winery is a large modern operation with stunning views of the caldera and cliffs from its expansive patio. The winery also includes a restaurant with a good selection of snacks, entrées and desserts. Santo makes and sells a range of wines including red, white, sparkling, and dessert wines. Their wine shop also sells some local artisan products and gourmet items.
We ordered and shared the 18 wine sampler (and some food) and spent 4-5 hours enjoying the wine, chatting with our server, and soaking up the view. Sunset Cruise Santorini is all about the sunsets. A favourite activity of mine is taking sunset cruises. We booked a fairly pricey dinner and sunset catamaran dinner cruise through Viator and were picked up at our hotel and taken to the port for boarding. Since we were there in high season, there was a large fleet heading out.
The cruise passed "Red Beach" which is composed of volcanic sand. It is located near the Akrotiri site. This is a small beach which attracts many visitors. It is not uncommon for areas of the beach to be closed off due to rock falls. The path from the top requires a fair amount of scrambling, so if you choose to bus or drive make sure you have sturdy shoes. Most visitors to the beach arrive by boat and swim from the decks.
There is a completely different perspective of the caldera from the water. The sheer size of the cliffs can't help but inspire tremendous awe from the realization that you are actually inside a volcanic crater and these cliffs are the inside walls.
The cruise carried on and anchored at the next beach, called White Beach. White Beach is the most secluded of the famous Santorini beaches. Passengers swam, jumped off the boat decks, snorkelled, and generally enjoyed the crystal clear and warm waters. Although there were many similar boats in the same area, each anchored far enough away that it never felt crowded.
Following a lovely dinner, the cruise continued to a cove on the volcanic island of Palea Kameni. Palea Kameni, meaning Old Burnt Island, is rough and composed of pumice and dacite. There is a hot spring feeding the sea which raises the temperature 5-10 degrees Celsius. The island is almost uninhabited. It's sole resident is a hermit fisherman named Sostis. Hot Springs run past his hermitage and empty into the cove below. It was this hot spring experience that attracts the tourist boats.
We were told that Sostis is a former local tour boat operator who had his heart broken by the unrequited love of a fellow tour guide. Seeking to mend his heart, Sostis settled here and has continued to live here for more than 40 years. He has created a humble home where he fishes, grows crops, and tends livestock with occasional trips into Santorini for additional supplies. As we (and 3 other tour boats) pulled into the little cove and passengers jumped off to head into the spring waters, I wondered what he thought of the interruption every night just before sunset. I found a fascinating blog post on From Rust to Road Trip, describing a meeting between a documentary film crew and Sostis.
We didn't stay long and were soon making our way back to port as the sun set behind us. Because of continual volcanic activity that sends ash into the air, the sunsets are brilliant. I swear I heard the sun sizzle as it touched the sea.
I enjoyed my time in Santorini. I found it to be a great balance of natural and architectural beauty. as well as human and geological history. I ate good food, drank some excellent coffee and wine, and got to play dress-up with ATB#1. It was a costlier leg of our island hopping adventure, but our choice to stay in a neighbouring village, use grocery stores, bakeries and tavernas for food and to use the bus system helped offset some of the costs. We splurged on the sunset cruise but felt it was a fair price for the experience we got.
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