Clusters of lime washed hilltop villages are not just a figure of your imagination or a faded image on a dusty corner store postcard here in the Greek Islands. No! This breathtaking and eye blinding white scene is the heart of every little island here in the Cyclades, sporadically dotted with splashes of apricot for a colourful contrast or highlighted by cerulean blue church domes surrounded by weathered cubiform buildings.
After a whirlwind trip to Athens, MB (Monsieur Bleu) and I relished the thought of lying comatose on a beach for a few weeks whilst the rest of the world were swathed in a depressing COVID-19 blanket of fear. Greece seemed to be standing tall and resilient in their approach to this pandemic and opened their doors wide, welcoming everyone and anyone into their warm and comforting Mediterranean arms. And into them we ran, not really having an itinerary, but safe in the knowledge that we will 100% have a big fat, fantastic Greek time! Opa!
UNDER THE SANTORINI SUN
Our first island to tackle was the ever famous Santorini. The Lost City of Atlantis (as she is sometimes referred) is just as magnificent in reality as she is in all the photos and picturesque Instagram moments are available every second of the day! It’s really too pretty at times to be real and gasps of “wow!” and “look at that!” begin each sentence, rendering even the most eloquent amongst us mute whilst the camera pans the majestical landscape. I actually wept the first time I saw Fira (Thira) Santorini’s largest and most popular town. It was just so…. WHITE & BLUE… with the occasional donkey clip clopping along the etched pathway, its little bell tinkling out a tune in time with his bobbing head. It was like living in a Greek Island snow dome!
There are two main towns here in Santorini that everyone must see. Fira and Oia. Both have views to Thirassia Island (which was originally part of Santorini until a volcanic eruption in 1628 BCE sunk the middle) creating the now much photographed Caldera (underwater crater). Fira, is in the centre and her lego land white neighbourhood stretches out along the high volcanic cliffs. She is best known for her caldera views, sunsets, nightlife and shopping and is more of a family friendly area and playground for the young and restless. It even has a 24 hour bakery for those that are in desperate need for a slice of spanakopita at 3am! Her rival town of Oia is in the north of the island and is smaller and more intimate, mostly favouring couples and newly weds. It is the ‘go to’ place for wedding photography in Greece hands down, offering breathtaking views, magnificent buildings and charming, twisting donkey filled lanes. Her sunsets are just as magnificent and we stayed three days in each of these towns, but Oia won our hearts in the end.
We opted for a total emersion experience whilst in Santorini and chose to stay at the two main hubs as this was where most of the action was, both day and night, and we wanted to be able to walk everywhere after dinner and not worry about riding the bike. For the first three days we booked a stay in a renovated Raki Cave in Fira. Raki (Turkish) is like Ouzo and is the aniseed, rocket fuel alcoholic beverage of choice here in Greece. Our cool (both temperature and vibe) little, white stoned domed cave used to be a distillery for this heady potion back in the day, but now it was completely modernised, with a rooftop plunge pool and lounge area to enjoy. Cheeky wake up calls from the sassy little black and white cat from next door, who we named Lucy (she leaped onto the bed each morning and attacked our feet), added flavour to this fabulously comfortable place, making it a relaxing spot to reside whilst exploring the island!
Because we like to move a lot to see and feel different locations and what they have to offer, we also decided to stay three days in Oia. Spread the love and all that! Here we found a renovated Old Bakery to rent which was literally perched on the side of the cliff. It was fantastic! The original and enormous red bricked domed oven had been ingeniously converted into our lounge room and the other tastefully decorated rooms displaying antique bakers equipment were connected by polished concrete floors covered by locally made, hand woven rugs. We spent our mornings and evenings relaxing on little canvas loungers looking out over the caldera and taking frequent dips in the over chlorinated mini spa which was built like a cave. Of course we had an inundation of feline friends from the moment we arrived and soon our little menagerie were fighting each other for our undivided attention, but only the brave few made it inside and onto the bed once again at the break of dawn!
As usual, our very first priority after unpacking was to hire a scooter! This is always our vehicle of choice and the best option here in Santorini (or any island for that matter) and it survived well, navigating this rugged, sun bleached part of the world. Our trusty moto whizzed us around and into every little nook and cranny, beach or village and it truly is the simplest way to travel by far AND the most fun! But I am slightly biased and lucky as I’ve got the best, most experienced and safest driver on earth at the controls… Efcharistó MB!
It was the beginning of October 2020 and everywhere was quiet due to the pandemic but still lively enough to have fun sans the hustle and bustle of a million tourists. It really was quite perfect! Yet again, all encounters with waitstaff or shopkeepers, boutique owners or baristas, scooter renters and even the service station attendant, were BEYOND kind, happy and helpful. I’ve never seen this in any other country and that’s the honest truth. Since then, we have become huge fans of the Greeks and their ways. I’m certain it’s due to all that sunshine, seafood, wine and olive oil!
We wanted to try and see every little beach here on Santorini and in the end we succeeded, even if it was just stopping for a quick look and carrying on. The various paralia’s are predominately located on the east of the island (the sunrise side) the big three being Kamari, Perissa and Perivolos. These are the best for swimming and socialising and are safe and easy to find. We discovered some other wilder stretches of sea and sand but they were always too windy and wild to enjoy as a beach day out. Perivolos won the people’s choice award, with every local we encountered vehemently urging us to ‘go nowhere else’. It was a long stretch of glittering gunmetal grey and black sand with calm Aegean water and subdued restaurants and bars lining the main seafront road. We visited twice and had fantastic lunches at the best local restaurant in town… the Perivolos Fish Tavern. FYI: 80% of restaurants here are called something or other ‘fish tavern’ so just make sure you find the right one!
Our excellent and friendly Armenian waiter Yiannis, served us plates of warm char grilled octopus and hot pink beetroot dip alongside the staple greek salad (of course) all washed down with complimentary raki rocket fuel which I avoided! A huge plate of fresh fruit rounded off our meal and complimentary glasses of rosé wine were kindly brought to us whilst we lay on the free sun lounges! Why go anywhere else indeed! FYI: Yiannis should be the new Tourism Ambassador for Armenia, as he entertained us by singing the praises of his home and its seemingly unknown beauty. Appetites were heightened more by his descriptions of the country than the food and he sold it so well that MB and I are itching to travel there asap and experience this wonderful forgotten land ourselves!
Perissa beach is actually at the opposite end of Perivolos and is situated near a huge clump of jutting rocks called the Mesa Vouno and was the first place I ever stayed in Santorini when I was there in 1998. It too is a lovely area (as it is actually the same stretch of sand) but obvious restaurant rivalry has separated each space. Once again we were treated to an excellent lunch by upbeat energetic staff and even sporadic rain showers couldn’t dampen our spirits as we lolled around on our chaises watching the tanned locals play with their children in the sea or snorkel at the base of the Mesa.
This simple and charming area is very low key, with a few little hotels and guest houses surrounding a strip of tourist shops, churches and taverns. It hadn’t changed much at all since my first visit (and it was still trading in drachma at that time) which I found both refreshing and surprising! It had a very family feel and buses were readily available to transport anyone back to Fira, Oia or any other main village or town anytime of the day, making it easily accessible to all.
Kamari is the party beach town (normally) with a lively promenade lining the pebble plage hosting small, waterfront boutique hotels and tavernas stretching as far as the eye could see. Unfortunately, due to a combination of the pandemic and low season, business was slow, causing restaurant staff to accost us at every step and beach hawkers to pounce upon any moving human to tout overpriced massages. The sea here was slightly rougher as well and the various pushy invasions made it uncomfortable and not relaxing… however…we eventually found a great spot right at the far end of the beach (as no one could be bothered to walk all that way) where we were left in peace to read and soak up the sun. It would be pumping in high season and is worth a visit as it is a lovely area to stay if beaching, eating and drinking is your thing without walking up hills, moving too far or relying on public transport to get around.
Near Kamari is the archeological site of Ancient Thera, which would have been interesting to visit if it wasn’t closed when we arrived, but the long and winding hairpin drive up the mountain gave way to some fabulous views over Perissa, Perivolos and Kamari once you eventually reached the top!
Red Beach or Kokkini Paralia is a whole other story. I remembered coming here back in the day, and urged MB to point our little scooter in the direction of these rouge dunes, as just frolicking about in rust coloured sand sounded like fun! A spot of power hiking was involved and nerves of steel were put to the test as you hobbled along a slippery, gravelly makeshift path lined with flimsy ropes on which to cling as you stumbled down the mountainside to the beach. Mumbles of “this better be worth it” escaped MB’s lips as we congo lined behind the other tanned and tousled tourists, each with their own footing issues. Being Aussies, we were in full summer swing and wore thongs, which were not really the footwear de rigueur and not recommended! I think everyone in Santorini was here the day we went and whilst the giant red looming cliffs were lovely to behold, the beach itself was crowded, hot and full of seaweed. The unusual terrain stopped any hint of a breeze from approaching and combine that with black volcanic sand, it a felt like we were in a sauna! We had a quick swim to cool off and then left it to the masses, dragging our sweaty selves back up the bloody cliff again about five seconds after arriving! Another beach box was ticked off though, and we motored off along the dusty road, invigorated by the rush of fresh sea air, to discover more of this enchanting island paradise.
We got lost one day on our way to check out the Santo Wines Winery (don’t bother by the way), but happily found ourselves in the picturesque little town of Megalochori. Tiny and bursting with bougainvillaea bushes, we ended up dining in the main square sitting in distressed greek bistro chairs beneath trellises of olive vines. There were other lost souls there as well, happily sipping their chilled retsina in the afternoon shade and enjoying the peace and quiet that this Plaka had to offer. It seemed to be quite popular for photographers due to its heady mixture of stark white walls and ancient bell towers and was not too far from the water, lending unobstructed views over the caldera. It’s very quiet, but I read that it is still a popular destination to find accommodation if you need to escape the rat race!
Another embarrassingly striking town is Imerovigli, which is about a 20 minute drive from Fira. Quite large, it is the next hub for those who balked at finding expensive stays in Oia and Fira but still wanted to encounter burning orange sunsets and cliffhanger excitement. Shoestring sized climbing pathways snake their way through this sleepy village and vertical drops of stairs down to the rocks near the waters edge are an energetic hikers paradise!
Oia has her own death defying walk which takes you to Amoudi Bay. It is a secluded spot with twinkling, crystal clear water and a few lively tavernas nestled along the edge of the little harbour. There is also a rough fisherman’s track to follow if diving into the lapping emerald sea from hardened, bubbled volcanic rocks is on your bucket list. It’s an aerobic workout with a view and early mornings are best before the heat of the day melts your muscles and steams your brain and the swim from the rocks (if you can make it there) is worth the vigorous jaunt! FYI: You can also reach here via bike or car (as there is a road) but what fun would that be?
Santorini is filled with opportunities for incidental exercise and trekking the donkey trail down to the Old Port from Fira is yet another test for your lungs and lower limbs! About 600 wide stairs make this trip down to the docks a fun day out and if you’re lucky, you might even get to pat the colourfully adorned greek donkeys that line the path, standing pawing at the dirt with their hooves waiting for their next job. Donkey rides for larger tourists are stopping now (thank God) and only children really use these magnificent beasts to escort them part of the way when their little legs have surrendered. It’s a one time only type of task and the little port has some tavernas and a handful of tourist shops to keep it interesting, but the best bit is that is has a CABLE CAR! Yes indeed, this luxurious option is available all day for those who can make it down but don’t fancy the hike back up (or visa versa). At €6 p/p, think of it as your very own Volcanic Magic Mountain ride making the twenty-five minute trample down a lazy three minute, vertical, rattling return journey!
Twilight and evenings in Santorini are when the place really comes alive and when the majority of people cram along the sides of the cliff to take selfies, capturing the blazing, egg yolk coloured sunset in the background. Not normally ones to conform, we decided that breaking this rule for the sake of a beautiful one off photo of ourselves with this famed backdrop would be ok and we merrily clicked away along with the crowd until the sun disappeared over the horizon.
The evening restaurant scene in Fira and Oia was subdued, with many places open for dining, none being overly busy but still catering for the handful of tourists which were still milling about after sunset. The main attraction for most people, was not really the food but the location when choosing a venue for a night out and tables for two, seemingly perched on the edge of the world with sweeping views over the water, were in high demand. We had cocktails at the legendary Franco’s Bar a few times (the original bar in Santorini) exclaiming at the colours of Fira by night whilst we sipped tangy mojitos and shivered between sporadic gusts of icy Cycladic wind.
Simply grateful just to be here, we were not fussy and enjoyed all the little restaurants we discovered for either lunch and dinner and constantly sampled tasty morsels of regional greek delicacies everywhere. Having the best spot in the land, we dined at ‘home’ twice, buying dips, salads and various savoury pastries to enjoy on our two rooftop terraces, where the sunsets put on a spectacular show every evening just for us and the need to dress to impress was not imposed! These relaxed dinners, accompanied by various bottles of unidentifiable greek wine (of which we knew nothing about hence the trip to Santos Winery) and a midnight dunk in the pool or mini spa, were the ultimate completion to our long fun filled, hot and hectic days!
Our time in Santorini had come to a close, as the next part of our Big Fat Greek Island Escape was only a ferry ride away! I will never tire from visiting this magnificent spot and yes, it’s touristy and busy; yes, it’s expensive and (seemingly) over promoted, but when you physically encounter her splendid surrounds and absolute beauty, all can be forgiven as this unique Aegean paradise lives up to its reputation as being one of, if not THE MOST, beautiful island in the world.
…”Santorini is calling and I must go”…Anonymous