Sun, sea and sunsets
Stunning views, archaeological and natural wonders and world-class shopping makes Santorini ideal for a glamorous short break, says DEBBIE ATTEWELL, who recommends adding a stay on this volcanic island to your Greek holiday itinerary
Halfway between Athens and Crete lies the Cyclades island group in the middle of the Aegean Sea. Santorini – or Thira, as it’s known in Greece – has become famous for its photogenic whitewashed buildings, nestled in a dizzying cascade on the cliff sides of the island. And the sight is breathtaking, especially in the evening, when the sun sets, bathing everything in a wash of rose gold that has tourists thronging in their hundreds to capture the magic on camera.
The islands themselves were formed more than 3,600 years ago when the volcano there erupted, leaving a huge crater or sinkhole behind once all the lava had been released. The remaining caldera created the calm bays, steep cliffs and black, red or white volcanic sand and pebble beaches of the islands. Nature’s sculpturing of the landscape means visitors are treated to a whole host of interesting geological and natural curiosities with plenty of camera-worthy shots.
Five fabulous must-dos
1 WATCH THE SUNSET FROM OIA VILLAGE
The view from Oia of the sun setting is one of the most famous in the world. Oia (pronounced ee-a) is a labyrinth of beautifully kept whitewashed houses, hotels and guest houses carved into the cliff side with winding cobbled pedestrian streets running the length of the caldera. The alleyways are crammed with craft shops and restaurants and the closer you get to the furthermost point, the more expensive and exclusive they become. Designer stores such as Gucci, Missoni and Diane von Furstenberg rub shoulders with local boutiques selling olive wood items, delicate jewellery, antiques and even an ancient bookshop you access via a spiral staircase. Go early – before 5pm – and choose a spot with a great view, such as a restaurant or bar terrace, before the crowds descend with their jostling and intrusive selfie sticks!
2 EXPLORE AKROTIRI
This Bronze Age settlement was once one of the most important Minoan urban ports in the Aegean before it was covered by volcanic ash – just like Pompeii – in the 17th century. Preservation of buildings, artefacts, frescos and everyday items is excellent and the bioclimatic roof and suspended walkways mean you can walk among the two- and three-storey buildings with ease. Open year-round but closed on Mondays (check odysseus. culture.gr for opening times). Tickets cost €12 (£10.30)
3 VISIT THE CAPITAL
Fira, the island’s busy capital, is also the transport hub – all island buses start and end here. It is easy to get around and is the least expensive town on the island. Street food is plentiful, delicious and half the price of elsewhere. Fira also houses the Museum of Prehistoric Thera, with a number of Minoan murals rescued from pre-cataclysm Akrotiri. You can also walk down to sea level and take the cable car up to the top of the crater for around £7 a trip. The cable car journey is quite short and if you arrive early or late enough to avoid the cruise ships, the wait is minimal – and it’s worth it for the views.
4 TAKE A HIKE
There are more than a dozen well-marked walking routes in Santorini, recognisable by their sturdy wooden signposts, with red route-number metal tags. The two most spectacular routes are No. 9, linking Imerovigli with Oia on an improved path skimming the caldera edge, which takes around two hours, and No. 3, along an old cobbled hillside trail connecting Perissa and Kamari in the southern part of the island, via the ruins of classical Roman Thera and the cave of Zoodochos Pigi, containing the only potable (and very tasty – fill your bottle) spring on the island (which takes around 90 minutes). For this latter route, you won’t need to walk back as shuttle boats in Kamari await to whisk you back to Perissa.
5 EXPERIENCE THE VOLCANIC BEACHES
It is worth making time to visit the red and black volcanic sand and pebble beaches for the contrasting photos. Kamari is one of many black sand and pebble beaches with clear, calm waters perfect for swimming in. The town around it is quaint and pretty with plenty of restaurants and tourist amenities without being tacky. Kokkini, or the Red Beach, near Akrotiri on the south-east of the island, is out of bounds as there is a risk of rock falls. The best way to see the red beach is by boat so you can snap pictures of the Mars-like cliffs. A sunbed and beach shoes are a must if you plan to a beach trip though as pebbles can be very uncomfortable to walk or lie on!
FOOD AND DRINK
From fresh fish and seafood to strong Greek coffees and fresh pastries, your taste buds won’t struggle here. Worthy of mention are the GYROS – soft, chewy pitta bread filled with succulent pork or chicken along with lettuce, tomato, onions and chips – which are an art form here. If you’re after a cheap lunch on the go, this street food is exactly what you need. We also loved the local version of MOUSSAKA – a tower of layered aubergine slices, thin-cut lamb steaks and tomato and béchamel sauce. ASSRYTIKO and VINSANTO are famous local wines – the latter a delicious fortified dessert wine made from raisins – don’t leave without tasting them. Instead of the traditional wine tasting, why not enjoy pairing local wines with traditional Greek food. At VENETSANOS (venetsanoswinery.com) you will taste four wines (white, rosé, red and dessert wine) paired with local delicacies and other specialities from around Greece such as fresh oregano, barley rusks, soft cheese and Greek prosciutto, all while taking in the views overlooking the caldera of the nearby volcano.
Local buses are cheap, regular and surprisingly comfortable. There is likely to be one passing within 50 to 100 metres of wherever you stay, and they go to all the villages and beaches on the island. Each trip costs between €1.80 (£1.50) and €2.50 (£2.10), and the main bus station is in the capital, Fira.
WHERE TO STAY
You can find accommodation for all budgets in Santorini and a rule of thumb is the closer you are to the cliff sides with the most spectacular views, the more expensive your stay. Fira is very affordable but not very pretty, though you can reach anywhere from this town. Oia can be expensive – think upwards of £250 a night – but if you want to stay in a traditional Strogili house, which is cut into the cliff face with rounded ceilings and walls, a balcony facing the sea and lots of stairs, it is worth splashing out to stay in one.
GETTING THERE: Direct flights to Santorini (Thira) International Airport from all over the UK are plentiful and take just over four hours.WHEN TO GO: April and May, when the island is still green and the sea temperatures have warmed up so a dip isn’t out of the question, are perfect if you want to hike. June, July and August are the hottest months, with ideal winds
for water sports enthusiasts. The beginning and end of the summer season are the best
if you want to avoid crowds, but there can be swarms of flies from mid-September to the end of October!
FIND OUT MORE: santorini- island.com, visitgreece.gr/en/ greek_islands/santorini