Awash in sparkling seas studded with sunsplashed Greek islands – Corfu, Crete, Mykonos, and hundreds of others – none elicits quite the “wow factor” when first approaching Thira (better known to non-Greeks as Santorini). The southernmost member of the Cyclades Islands in the Ionian Sea is part of a circular archipelago that’s the remnant of a volcano whose eruption some 3,600 years ago essentially wiped out the pre-Hellenic Minoan civilisation. What it left little Santorini with, for sure, is perhaps the most spectacular landscape of any island of Greece.
Though flights into Santorini airport (JTR) – which Iberia Express serves three times weekly in summer – leave you midway along the east coast, many visitors arrive via cruise ships mooring below the island’s whitewashed capital Fira, just ten minutes west and dramatically perched atop the 400-metre (1,312-feet) cliff that is the wall of the volcanic caldera. To get up to the town, those up for a bit of a challenge can tackle the 600 zigzagging steps; otherwise, there’s a steep, three-minute cable car (actually, there’s also a third option, on donkey back, but animal-welfare activists and even some cruise lines urge visitors to boycott these because of the abuse and terrible working conditions to which the donkeys are subjected). Apart from its churches, various restaurants/bars, and maze of little streets and lanes to wander, Fira’s main points of interest are the Archaeological Museum of Thera and the Museum of Prehistoric Thera, both containing artifacts from Santorini’s most important site, Akotiri.
A 20-minute drive south of Fira and named after the nearby village, Akotiri is well worth a visit as one of the oldest ancient ruins you’ll ever lay eyes upon – archaeologists have traced it back as far as the fifth millennium BCE, and its destruction in the massive volcano eruption is widely thought to have given rise to the legend of Atlantis. A viewing platform around some of its 20 excavated hectares (49 acres) of this Bronze-Age Minoan site gives visitors a good eyeful of streets, squares, and houses up to three storeys in which wall frescoes have been found. (Those interested can find even more and more elaborate Minoan sites on Crete, a mere 141 km/88 miles south.)
Also near this village is perhaps the best known of another big allure of Santorini (as with most Greek islands, when you get right down to it): its beaches. Backed by a steep red hill and marked by reddish sands and rocks, petite Red Beach (above), is perhaps unique in the world, and also a marvelous spot for snorkeling the crystalline waters (it’s said that some parts of this island look like the closest thing to Mars here on Earth – as you can see for example at nearby Bala Cove, with rust-coloured rocks reminiscent of the Red Planet). Over on the east coast, in the meantime, most of the beaches have the black sand more typical of volcanic islands; the best strands include Ammoudi, Kamari, Perissa, and Perivolos.
Meanwhile, the island’s traditional villages – all within short drives of each other – are all charming for strolling and dining. Standouts on the coast include Oia and Imerovigli (both also known for their lovely sunsets), while inland it’s especially worth recommending Kontochori (with a nice folklore museum) and Pyrgos, the latter not only the island’s highest but also home to Santo Wines, representing more than a dozen wineries carrying on an ancient and very special winemaking tradition, specialising in crisp, full-bodied whites and sweet dessert vin santo, more than 70 percent from the indigenous assyrtiko grape. Their vines look very different from most vineyards elsewhere, hunkered down among the rocks. One of them, the 20-year-old Art Space Winery, in the central inland village of Exo Gonia, also includes – yes – a modern art gallery housed in a pumice wine cave nearly 160 years old. Another, Koutsoyannopoulos near the also central inland village of Messaria, is home to a museum on the history of Santorini wine.
You can also take a boat excursion out for a more up-close view of that volcano, departing from Fira with stops on Nea Kameni island within the caldera as well as smaller neighbouring Palea Kameni with its hot spring and a handful of structures including a church.
Rest assured, Santorini will blow you away (and in a good way)!
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