Santorini: A Heavenly Haven

With a vivid blue sea, multicolored pebbled beaches, and a hilly landscape dotted with distinctive Cycladic architecture, Santorini, an island off the coast of Greece, offers a visual experience that is hard to beat.

Throughout the island, countless cliffs formed by layers of red volcanic rock (the island owes its existence to the volcano) are topped with gleaming white village homes and churches, presenting a snow-capped mountain effect. The last major eruption of the volcano was more than 3,600 years ago.
Santorini is really comprised of five islands; it, being the main island, is surrounded by the much smaller Thirasia and Aspronisi, and the two volcanic islands Palea Kameni and Nea Kameni (these islands represent the volcano’s most recent activity in the 1950s).

The main island, Santorini is crescent-shaped and holds worldwide fame, not just because of its stunning views, active nightlife and superb shopping, but because it was also featured in the books by Jules Verne, “Twenty Thousand Leagues Under the Sea” and “The Mysterious Island,” in which captain Nemo and his crew watch the volcano eruption. The locals are so proud of their island that they consider themselves distinct from other Greeks; they prefer to identify themselves as Santorinians.

With white and pastel-colored homes and churches that appear to be stacked on top of each other, the towns of Fira and Oia, appear as though they are suspended on the cliffs. (And, many of these traditional homes are built on cliff-side caves so the interiors of the structures are larger than their exteriors may suggest.)

The capital, Fira is the commercial center. Caf├Ęs, bars and nightclubs are lined along the caldera (the crater of the volcano) and offer incredible panoramic views. A trip from the town to the port below via the 800 broad, zigzagged steps is a popular option, but taking a traditional donkey ride on the way back up is usually preferred. And a cable car is another option available.

Not as much of a nightclub destination as Fira, Oia, is one of the most beautiful areas on the island. Here, you’ll find eateries as well as the two major beach resorts, Kamari and Perissa. The cozy Ammoudi beach lies below Oia with two family-run tavernas serving yummy seaside meals. Oia is also regarded as having the most spectacular sunsets on earth.

For those with a fascination in archeology, there are two must-see sites. Akrotiri is an ancient Minoan town that was once covered in volcanic ash. Several important wall frescos depicting routine life from more than 4,000 years ago were uncovered there and they are featured in the island’s Archaeological Museum. Thira is the second site of major significance, located on the hill of Mesa Vouno, which overlooks Kamari and Perissa. This area contains ruins from Minoans, Phoenicians, Venetians and Romans.

It takes about 50 minutes to drive from one end to the other of the island. And getting around the island is relatively easy. Santorini is serviced by independent buses, which cost between 1 and 2 euros depending on where you’re going. There are boats that run between the major coastal towns on the island. For about 15 Euros per day you can rent Scooters or 4-wheelers. Cars can be rented from about 30 Euros a day.

Booking a taxi in advance is advisable, as there are not enough of them to go around during the busy season. As is the norm in the Cyclades, taxi fares are typically shared between multiple passengers, so don’t be surprised if your cabbie picks up more passengers while you’re headed to your destination.

Of course, the wonderful Mediterranean diet is enjoyed in Santorini. There’s fresh fish, meat dishes and vegetables at several moderately priced restaurants in Oia, Imerovigli and Fira. The family-run fish taverns located near the smaller beaches offer the best value and most authentic flavors. Santorini is particularly known for its cherry tomatoes and you’ll find that the local gyros and keftades may be the best you’ve ever tasted. Other local specialties include the white aubergine, fava, sutsukaki (slices of tomatoes fried in batter). If you select a restaurant with a view, expect to pay more ,,, but it’s certainly worth the money!

Santorini’s mild Mediterranean climate is a big draw; it is both cool in the summer and in the winter with an average temperature of 50F. Rainfall is frequent in winter but rare in summer. Tourism is the main occupation in Santorini today. In the summer, visitors swamp the island and the locals work around the clock. When winter comes, everything shuts down and the locals go back indoors. Most of the island’s hotels are closed during the winter months and reopen after the Greek Orthodox Easter in April or May. In the spring, before the tourists start to arrive, the island is bustling with activity to prepare for the anticipated visitors. July, August and September are considered prime season. While the population of Santorini only consists of approximately 11,400 people, every year there are about 500,000 visitors to the island.

The main island could almost be divided into two parts; there’s a western side and an eastern. It’s the western side that gives Santorini its fame. Here’s you’ll find most of the luxurious resorts and it is where the caldera is, as well as the villages of Fira and Oia. Many hotels here have terrific views of the volcano, the ocean and the sunset, but the ones located in the center of town offer more options in terms of activity. Most of the hotels built on the caldera have steep and long stairways, which can be cumbersome to climb.

The eastern side of Santorini resembles the other Greek islands. There are many beach hotels, especially in Kamari and they offer larger rooms on this side. In general, hotel room rates vary according to the views, which makes the hotels on eastern side of Santorini much cheaper than those on the western side.

And, of course, there is the water, which is what provides the glorious views. Due to the different kinds of volcanic rock, there are several black sand and rock beaches and even a red sand beach that is a must-see for its striking color.

Red Beach earns its name from the iron-rich sedimentary rocks in the cliffs that tower above it. It can get pretty crowded here (and the women frequently go topless, as is the European tradition). If you opt for shade and comfort, umbrellas and chaise lounges are available for rent.

The water near the shore is gravelly so be prepared to step on small stones. This beach with its abundance of sea life offers great snorkeling. The tavernas that are built into the caves along Red Beach have no electricity or running water so don’t forget your hand sanitizer.

White Beach is only accessible by boat from Red Beach. Other notable beaches are located in the towns of Perissa, Kamari, Perivolos and Vlihada. Kamari and Perissa offer a wide range of water sports as well as rentals, lessons and equipment.

There is something beautiful in every corner of this magnificent island. Perhaps that is why Santorini is one of the most popular destinations in the Aegean. With dramatic beaches, whitewashed houses, narrow cobblestone alleyways and exquisite traditional and international cuisine, this island is a must-visit destination for any traveler.

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