The real wonder of Santorini is that it exceeds all glossy picture-postcard expectations. Like an enormous crescent moon, the island encloses the pure blue waters of its caldera, the core of an ancient volcano. Its two principal towns, Fira and Oia (also transliterated as Ia), perch at the summit of the caldera; as you approach by ship, bending back as far as possible to look up the cliffs, whitewashed houses look like a dusting of new snow on the mountaintop. Up close, you’ll find that both towns’ main streets have more shops (lots of jewelry shops), restaurants, and discos than private homes. If you come here off season — say in early May — you’ll still find Fira’s streets, shops, and restaurants crowded. In August, you’ll experience gridlock.
Akrotiri is Santorini’s principal archaeological wonder: a town destroyed by the volcano eruption, but preserved under layers of lava. As soon as you reach Santorini, check to see if Akrotiri is open; the site’s protective roof collapsed in 2005, and it has been closed partially or totally since. If Akrotiri is closed, don’t despair: If it weren’t for Akrotiri, the site of ancient Thira would be the island’s must-see destination. Spectacularly situated atop a high promontory, overlooking a black lava beach, the remains of this Greek, Roman, and Byzantine city sprawl over acres of rugged terrain. Ancient Thira is reached after a vertiginous hike or drive up to the acropolis itself.
Arid Santorini isn’t known for the profusion of its agricultural products, but the rocky soil has long produced a plentiful grape harvest, and the local wines are among the finest in Greece. Visit one of the island wineries for a tasting; if you want to plan ahead, check out www.santorini.com/wineries. And keep an eye out for the tasty, tiny Santorini tomatoes and white eggplants — and the unusually large and zesty capers.
The best advice we can offer is to avoid visiting during the months of July and August. Santorini experiences an even greater transformation during the peak season than other Cycladic isles. With visitors far in excess of the island’s capacity, trash collects in the squares, and crowds make strolling the streets of Fira and Oia next to impossible. Tip: Some accommodations rates can be marked down by as much as 50% if you come off season. Virtually all accommodations are marked up by at least as much for desperate arrivals without reservations in July and August.
Things to Do
Santorini’s beaches may not be the best in the Cyclades, but the volcanic black and red sand here is unique in these isles — and gets very hot, very fast. Kamari, a little over halfway down the east coast, has the largest beach on the island. It’s also the most developed, lined by hotels, restaurants, shops, and clubs. In fact, Kamari is now so overrun with tour groups that I no longer recommend the string of hotels there. The natural setting is excellent, at the foot of cliffs rising precipitously toward ancient Thira, but the black-pebbled beach becomes unpleasantly crowded in July and August. Volcano Diving Center (tel. 22860/33-177; www.scubagreece.com) at Kamari, offers guided snorkel swims for around 25€ and scuba lessons from around 60€. Perissa, to the south, is another increasingly crowded beach resort, albeit one with beautiful black sand. The Santorini Dive Center, at Perissa, also has scuba and snorkel facilities and instruction (tel. 22860/83-190; www.divecenter.gr).
Red Beach (Paralia Kokkini), at the end of the road to ancient Akrotiri, gets its name from its small red volcanic pebbles; it is — but for how long? — usually less crowded than Kamari and Perissa. All three beaches have umbrellas and chairs to rent, cafes, and tavernas. If escaping the crowds is not on your beach agenda, head south to Perivolos, where the JoJo Beach Club was the place to be seen in 2011 — although some people said that Sea Side gave JoJo a serious run for the money. Both beach bars teem with beautiful people (many topless) and a sprinkling of movie stars (sightings of Hugh Jackman reported in August).
Santorini’s roads are in fairly good condition; it’s the drivers you need to worry about. Local drivers know the roads with their eyes shut (and sometimes seem to drive that way), and visitors study maps as they drive. That said, you can rent high-quality suspension mountain bikes from 15€ per day from Moto Chris (tel. 22860/23-431), in Fira, and Moto Piazza (tel. 22860/71-055), in Oia. It’s always a good idea to check the brakes and steering before you set off.
If it’s not too hot, there are many walks you can enjoy. Here are a few:
Fira to Oia — The path from Fira to Oia (10km/6 miles) follows the edge of the caldera, passes several churches, and climbs two substantial hills along the way. Beginning at Fira, take the pedestrian path on the caldera rim, climbing past the Catholic Cathedral to the villages of Firostephani and Imerovigli. In Imerovigli, signs on the path point the way to Oia; you’ll be okay so long as you continue north, eventually reaching a dirt path along the caldera rim that parallels the vehicular road. The trail leaves the vicinity of the road with each of the next two ascents, returning to the road in the valleys. The descent into Oia eventually leads to the main pedestrian street in town. Allow yourself at least 2 hours. If you end up at Oia around sunset, you’ll feel that every minute of the walk was worth it.
Imerovigli & Skaros — In Imerovigli, a rocky promontory jutting into the sea is known as Skaros. From medieval times until the early 1800s, this small spot was home to the island’s administrative offices. There is little to be seen of the Skaros castle now; it probably collapsed during a 19th-century earthquake. Skaros’s view of the caldera is especially nice at sunset. Getting out on the promontory takes just enough effort that it is usually a tranquil haven from the crowds and bustle of the adjacent towns. The trail (signposted) descends steeply to the isthmus connecting Skaros with the mainland. The path wraps around the promontory, after a mile, reaching a small chapel with a panoramic view of the caldera. On the way, note the cliffs of glassy black volcanic rock, beautifully reflecting the brilliant sunlight. People used this rock to decorate many of the older buildings in Santorini.
Kamari to Ancient Thira — The trail from Kamari to the site of ancient Thira is steep but doable. It passes the beautiful site of Santorini’s only freshwater spring, which you will wish to drink dry. To reach the trail head from Kamari, take the road (in the direction of ancient Thira) past the Kamari beach parking, and turn right into the driveway of the hotel opposite Hotel Annetta, to the right of a minimarket. The trail begins behind the hotel. Climbing quickly by means of sharp switchbacks, the trail soon reaches a small chapel with a terrace and olive trees at the mouth of a cave. You can walk into the cave, which echoes with purling water, a surprising and miraculous sound in this arid place. Continuing upward, the trail rejoins the car road after a few more switchbacks, about 300m (984 ft.) from ancient Thira. The full ascent from Kamari takes a good hour.