Santorini is one of the most spectacular places in the world and is matched by equally amazing weather. The island is actually part of a volcano: an archipelago of five volcanic islands orientated in a circular shape surrounding a dramatic deep blue ocean lake. Santorini was originally a single island but an enormous underwater volcanic eruption some 3500 years ago, resulted in the creation of geographic calderas which has the affect of a jaw shaped layout that encompasses a rectangular shaped ocean inlet. The earths crust sank letting the sea in and it is said that this caused a tidal wave that ran across Crete, just to the south, and somewhere the Lost City of Atlantis comes in !
Santorini is situated in the southern Aegean Sea, located 130 miles south east from the mainland of Greece. The west side of the island has steep volcanic cliffs, which constituted the crater wall of the volcano, and the view from there is simply stunning. The eastern side of the island is more gently sloping and this is where the major beaches are located. The sand is black, volcanic and slightly sticky in consistency!
Santorini enjoys a mild Mediterranean climate that enjoys year round agreeable conditions. For July when I was there 90F degrees (30C) and clear just about sums it up although its not quite as simple as that. There is always a welcome breeze, which sometimes develops into a definite wind – the island is known for its winds. Night times cool down nicely. There is a definite heat haze that can impede the views for photographers like me but when the wind is stronger, and first thing in the morning, it is much clearer and quite unbelievably beautiful.
Apparently it hardly ever rains here and, after a few days, you may ask yourself where the water comes from? The answer; its pumped from underground and delivered to hotels in tankers! Its rather hard, ok to wash with, but best to drink bottled water. When I was there in mid July I asked when it last rained and the answer was “I think it rained in May”!
The main industry is tourism and the island is well geared up to deal with the most demanding of tourists – yes its very popular with Americans both as a tourist destination and as a port of call for the many cruise ships that call in here. The cruise ships disembark at Thira (Fira) port and the lucky cruisers have a choice whether to take a donkey ride up the winding pathway to the main town hundreds of feet above, or to walk it in the sweltering heat avoiding the herds of crotchety donkeys and of course their “evidence”. The alternative is to cheat by taking the cable car but there is a downside to this too as you have to wait in line when times are busy.
Thira, the main town, is busy and very touristy with lots of tiny pedestrianised streets to get lost in. It is very safe; the people (including the traders) are all extremely friendly. There are many jewellery stores and tavernas where you can eat the local food. There are other busy centres on the island but there are also places where you can find peace and tranquillity. English is almost universally used as the main language for tourists.
Oia (pronounced “eya-aa”) is the most prosperous settlement on the island; here the walkways are made of marble! It is said Santorini has the best sunsets in the world and they are best viewed from Oia. I would have to argue with that – the sunrise I saw was certainly beautiful but could certainly be bettered from the north coast of Cornwall, for instance? But its turned into a bit of a `must do` tourist thing and people go and congregate and applaud when the sun dips below the horizon!
I was told that Santorini is a small island and there is absolutely no need to rent a car while you are there. Wrong ! Yes it is a small island, and if you are the type to just relax and do very little, stroll a bit, maybe wait an hour for the local bus, then maybe you don`t need transport. But if you are of the type that likes to explore and discover stuff for yourself, then you definitely need transport.
There are a few choices. The island is brimming with car, scooter and ATV rental businesses but the cheapest option is to arrange it before you come here, through someone like www.holidayautos.co.uk . The `fun` option might seem like a scooter or an ATV but, and now I`m gonna be a killjoy; as a biker myself, the idea of riding an underpowered vehicle like that, unprotected, without helmet and wearing shorts, a tee shirt and flip flops, seems a bloody dangerous one to me (coming from a man who was seriously injured on a bike myself 10 years ago!) Also, you are 100% exposed to the sun. The answer is a car – I had a Suzuki Jimny (a tiny 4WD SUV) with an open top but shade if you wanted it. It was perfect. Fuel is expensive – 1.65 Euros a litre for unleaded which is as expensive as anywhere in Europe but it is a small island and you won`t use much! Just keep calm and stay clear of the motorcycles and tour buses – yes it is a bit frantic. Oh and you may well find yourself with a manual / standard transmission!
And – this sounds a bit decadent – but do bring Lulu (thats what mine is called!) – your trusty GPS if it has European mapping – its great to be able to disappear up all sorts of lanes and know you are not going to get lost! That being said, Lulu has advised me to drive up flights of steps and across open fields and her excuse is she has not been to Santorini before !!
Because of the arid climate and poor soil quality, meat has to be imported from mainland Greece and, in my opinion, the quality of butchery is not as high as it could be – there are often tiny fragments of bone on the cooked meat which can play havoc with your teeth! But then the Kleftico, Beef Stefado and all the regular Greek dishes are excellent.
Where Santorini does score is with its fresh fish which is absolutely wonderful! To sit in a little restaurant just four feet above the water, knowing that what you are eating was landed that morning on the harbour side just 50 yards away is amazing. But then so it the enormous price – we had the most incredible meal with Red Snapper, Grouper and grilled Octopus with copious amounts of `Village` wine! The price, 100 Euros!! The cheapest option is grilled / fried squid or octopus which I love – a very healthy meal!
However it is perfectly possible to find lunch or dinner for 30 Euros or so – portions are large and they are very much into sharing – you can share a local salad and a fish dish which is a nice way to eat?
Also, if you take the trouble to explore a bit and disappear down unmarked tracks you can happen across tiny tavernas on quaysides that really just serve the locals, with smoky outside grills – this really is the way to get good value and atmosphere too !
Again because of the poor soil and dry climate, wine yields are very low yet Santorini does have a successful wine industry and thanks to all the independent supermarkets, the local produce is freely available. They say their wine is organic and without preservatives so there are `no hangovers` – I can vouch for that !
It is sold in the restaurants by the carafe as `village wine` and, generally, it is not strong – 11%-12.5% but has a distinctive flavour. There is a special very sweet desert wine, which is a bit of a speciality and costs rather more because the grape content is much higher.
On the eastern side of the island, which is more gently sloping, and where all the black sand is, the hotels are more conventional and tend to be small. There are none of the regular hotel chains on the island. Kamari and Perissa are the main towns here and tend to be frequented by younger people looking for a bit of nightlife! You can eat more cheaply – burgers, pizza and kebabs as well as the local food.
On the west side and in my view the part of Santorini that really does have the `wow factor`, many of the hotels are `traditional houses` – almost like caves that are built into the steep cliffside with spectacular views over the volcano and the sea. The view really does take your breath away as do the steps; inevitably there are a lot of steps and a veritable labyrinth of passageways that take you to your room or `house`!
We stayed at the interestingly named Ouranos Traditional Houses (Hotel) at Imerovigli right on the cliff-side and fortunately not too many steps to encounter. There are a few `plunge pools` dotted around but no true swimming pools as such – you need to go to the sea for that. Don`t expect `5 star` luxury – you are paying for the location here and the staggering view from your private terrace. The rooms are comfortable but simple – the bed has a stone base, an `efficient` bathroom and a little kitchen with fridge and tiny stove; so you could cook something if you wanted to. And although the rooms are naturally cool and painted white to reflect the sun, they all have air-conditioning units and ours kept our room at a comfortable 65F. Breakfast is provided and is truly international – you could choose from eggs and bacon, cheese and cold meats, fruit and the traditional Greek cakes and pastries.
Eastern Europeans seem to dominate the catering industry here, as they do now in the UK, so you can be assured that standards of cleanliness and attention to detail are high.
Again, the town of Oia has the most exclusive hotels and tavernas but the downside is that its a magnet for tourists – the streets are crowded with people from cruise ships and tour buses being shepherded around by tour guides with hands in the air waving flags etc. Thira is also very busy although its only a 20 minute stroll from Imerovigli. We thought that Imerovigli was just right in terms of the hotel, the price, the view and offering the degree of quiet that we were looking for!
A wonderful location if you are looking for a relaxing holiday with breathtaking views, perfect weather (sun but a cooling breeze), fantastic food and local wine!