Approaching Santorini by water is one of my absolute favorite experiences on this planet. No matter the method of arrival, coach class ferryboat or private luxury yacht, one cannot help but feel they are having the experience of a lifetime. In this sense there is a funnily democratic sensibility about scenery so grandiose.
Our boat docks at the base of the 1,100 feet high cliffs (!) and we travel by bus connection to the top of the island.
Mid-route we approach the driver and ask to be let off at an unsanctioned stop, the intersection where the road to Pyrgos meets the main road traversing the cauldron’s rim and the tourist town of Fira. He agrees, and we walk the rest of the way up a gentle sloping road to the hotel, carrying small backpacks as our only luggage.
I have chosen the Zannos Melathron Hotel in Pyrgos because it appears to offer a combination of some important traits – it is far from the most crowded parts of the island and still has a view of the caldera. I have been to Santorini before, and had a wonderful time, but I discovered then that the crowds are dense enough to warrant trying to avoid.
In fact, the hotel and its location far surpass my expectations. The property is well-run, unique and in an excellent location. The compound is located at the high point of the entire island, and is so large that it takes up what seems like half of the old town with its maze of mountainside cave dwellings. That is correct. Our room turns out to be a former troglodyte house carved into the side of the hill. The entire compound had now been converted into luxury suites. There is even a small cave pool located directed adjacent to our room, in addition to the larger main pool of the hotel.
Being a sucker for unorthodox hotels, the Flintstones-meets-luxury-hotel-arrangement makes me giddy. And, being at the high point on the island means that from the balcony we can see the entire arc of the island rim, which as we discover later, makes for an exceptionally beautiful location to watch the sunset.
The Town – Oia
We check in, jump into the icy cold cave pool to cool down, and then quickly leave to explore the island. We had directly to Oia village, a hovering beehive of whitewashed houses at the far end of the rim.
The formerly troglodyte town is crowded with tourists, which is to be expected, and there is an abundance of stores hawking endless mountains of valueless crap. But it is surprisingly easy to ignore the hordes awkwardly shopping for trinkets and polyester scarves, because the beauty of the location is just so tremendous.
We explore along the hillside lanes for a while, including a stop at the famous Atlantis Books, a cave-like bookstore with an excellent selection and atmosphere reminiscent of Shakespeare and Co in Paris, before continuing onward on a trail that connects Oia with the main town of Fira.
The Hike and Fira Town
It is late in the day and the worst of the heat has passed, making the universally loved walk along the rim of the cliffs a thoroughly relaxing and surprisingly uncrowded 6 mile/9.5 km (roughly) trip.
We reach Fira, the tourist epicenter of the island, as sunset is approaching.
The crowds are even denser than I remember from years earlier. People fill the balconies of restaurants and the entirety of sidewalks, as they hover around waiting for the solar photo op. Fira, and Santorini as a whole, has a bit of the feel of the international terminal of a large airport. There are dense crowds of people from around the world all walking down corridors. The summer staff of the island operate with a code of conduct similar to that employed by stewards and stewardesses, with large and persistent smiles that are noticeably out of sync with the mannerisms of other inhabitants of the Cycladic isles (and out of sync with the inhabitants of the European continent in general).
And still, even with the crowds, it is impossible not to appreciate the location. We linger for a while, wandering the lanes of town and ogling the views right along with everyone else.
As the sun nears the horizon, we rush back up the hillside to the calm, impressive tranquility of our hotel, and watch the sunset and moonrise from the terraces with a bottle of wine before heading out for a late dinner. It has been a long time since I have had a day of such perfect travel bliss.
We spend the morning exploring the lanes of Pyrgos itself, stumbling totally by accident on the ruins of Kasteli Castle.
Then we hustle off to visit the Akrotiri excavations, a surprisingly large Minoan Bronze age settlement that was buried in of the largest volcanic events in recorded history, the Thera eruption on Santorini in 1627 BC. The eruption buried the site in volcanic ash which preserved the remains of the settlement, including many frescos and objects. I would not call the site as impressive as Pompeii or Herculaneum, but nevertheless still very good and thoroughly worth the visit.
And then, the time has come to catch a boat back to Tinos, and as dramatically as we arrived, we now take our exit.
I tried to think of how to describe Santorini, and the first thing that came to mind is that the island is a bit like dating a beautiful celebrity for a day – it is even more attractive than in photos, makes you feel a bit like you are living in a parallel dreamland, and every time you step out of the house there are people trying to take photos.
Santorini may be one of the most famous islands in the world, and it certainly attracts a large number of tourists. But it nevertheless remains one of my favorite destinations on the planet – the unique physical environment can stun even the person who has already seen it all.
Previously: Greece Travel Diary Part 2 – The Wind