It almost seems unnecessary to write about Santorini, as most people just want to look at this Greek island. However, what I found most interesting about the second stop on our Greece & Turkey vacation is its geological history. In fact, Santorini’s beauty felt somewhat underwhelming to me, which I blame on two things: 1) I’ve been spoiled by having grown up in Hawaii and already being accustomed to seeing breathtaking sunsets surrounded by deep blue ocean every day; and 2) I made the mistake of visiting Positano on the Amalfi Coast first, which I think is much more charming than Santorini.
Regardless, even the Hawaiian in me could appreciate Santorini’s fascinating geological setting and connection to the legend of Atlantis. The island of Santorini, located in the southern Aegean Sea, is essentially all that remains after one of the largest volcanic eruptions in history. The devastating “Minoan eruption” occurred roughly 3,600 years ago at the height of Minoan civilization. Parts of the ring-shaped island disappeared as the caldera collapsed and water rushed in. An oval lagoon is now surrounded by steep cliffs on three sides, which gives Santorini its iconic shape. There’s evidence that Atlantis, the prosperous land that mysteriously disappeared into the sea, can be traced to Santorini. Many believe that the “Atlantis” referenced in Plato’s story about an advanced civilization that became sinful and had to be punished by the gods, alludes to the eruption that destroyed the Minoan civilization on Santorini. The island in Plato’s story is circular with concentric structures, just like Santorini was before the eruption. We do not know what happened to the Minoans, as no human remains have been found since; it’s possible that a series of earthquakes had warned the residents to evacuate the island before the eruption. This legend is precisely why Anthony was so excited to visit.
To reach Santorini, Anthony and I caught the only Blue Star ferry of the day from Athens. The ride is eight hours long, but it’s a comfortable ride if you book Business Class seats and claim a table up front with a view. (Though, honestly, the view coming into Santorini also can’t compare to the view coming into Positano.)
When we arrived at the port, everything became chaotic. Every passenger had rushed from their seats and crammed near the exit, while dozens of drivers on land eagerly waited to pick them up. I was relieved that I had booked a driver through our hotel so we could walk past the taxis, buses, and disoriented passengers who hadn’t prepared. Our driver expertly told us to meet him a few shops away from the mess, and we found him easily, waiting for us at a coffee shop and holding a sign with our hotel’s name on it.
The drive from the port in Fira to our hotel on the edge of Oia (pronounced EE-uh) took about half an hour. It was a scenic drive that hugged the sides of cliffs, and was the first — but definitely not the last — time Santorini reminded us of Hawaii. Although Santorini is an island, water is scarce. It has no rivers, and rain is rare for half the year, so plants depend on the early morning fog for dew. Most of the buildings in Santorini are whitewashed, low-lying cubical stone structures.
Our hotel was located in Oia, the most picturesque town in Santorini, lying on the northwestern part of the island. Oia was built on a steep slope of the caldera, and narrow cobblestone paths lead to the homes and restaurants built into niches carved into the slope. Staying in Oia is quite expensive so I was grateful to find Strogili Traditional Houses, an affordable hotel that offers a caldera view and cave rooms.
One of my favorite places in Oia was Atlantis Books, a quirky little bookshop that was opened in 2004 after two college students from England vacationed in Santorini and noticed there was no bookshop. After graduating, they gathered some friends and saved enough money to open up Atlantis Books. Anthony and I loved it so much that we visited it twice during our short time in Santorini and purchased a couple of Greek books.
Before sunset, herds of tourists, including those from Fira, flock over to various viewpoints in Oia and camp out for hours, waiting for the highly anticipated sunset. Oia is famous for its sunsets, as its cliffs facing west offer unobstructed views of the sun setting on the sea. In case you’re also from Hawaii, the sunset looks exactly the same, so you may not be as impressed as someone from, say, a landlocked city. However, what is different is the reflection of the sunset on the whitewashed homes of the cliffs. Face the opposite direction of everyone else for views worth traveling to Santorini for.
A highlight of our trip was the hike from Oia to Fira. It takes roughly three hours along a pedestrian path, up and down mountainous peaks with scenic views of the caldera and hotels below (unless you miss a turn and end up walking alongside speeding cars on the dangerous cliffside road for about 20 minutes, like we did). We walked through two other towns and ate some fantastic souvlaki on our way.
I was not a huge fan of Fira. It was swarming with tour groups and cruise ship passengers, and most of the charm we had found in Oia was nowhere to be found in Fira. The best things to do there are purchasing souvenirs, watching the cable cars carry passengers from the cliff down to the port, and dining at a restaurant with a view.
If anything, Fira made me appreciate Oia a little more. Once we returned to our side of the island, I read my book of Greek poetry on the rooftop of some castle ruins, stopped comparing everything to Positano, and finally started enjoying Santorini.
Tips for future travelers:
- Stay in Oia. Fira is not as pretty and reeks of tour groups. All the photos you’ve seen online of Santorini were taken from Oia. Besides, Fira is easy enough to reach by foot, bus, or cab.
- Look up what time the sun is supposed to set, as it changes throughout the year. If you want a good view, you’re going to have to claim a spot early.
- If you have a choice, visit Positano instead of Santorini. Santorini has become overwhelmingly crowded in recent years. I’m envious of those who visited Santorini a decade ago, before it became a popular place for films and photo shoots. We didn’t even visit during tourist season in the summer; I can’t imagine how awful it must be from June to August!
- Do the hike between Fira and Oia, and take a bus or cab back. It’s a really lovely journey, and, honestly, there’s not much else to do on the island. Along the way, you’ll be able to peek into some obscenely fancy hotels. Just try not to miss the pedestrian path or you’ll end up walking by the road.
- The best things we ate: souvlaki (skewered meat) or gyro (meat cooked on a vertical rotisserie), red onions, and fries wrapped in pita; paprika-covered peanuts; and a dinner at Floga. Floga has a private fisherman who catches the restaurant’s fish of the day, and I’m still thinking about the salad I had there, which consisted of arugula, lettuce, sesame-covered cheese, sun-dried cherry tomatoes, prosciutto, cashews, and balsamic vinegar. You can tell Floga has a sense of humor because Anthony’s lamb dish came with a little satchet of olive oil that you’re supposed to cut open and pour over the meal, while our digestif was served with dry ice, reminiscent of Santorini’s volcanic background. Because of Santorini’s unique ecology and climate, the island has exceptionally good cherry tomatoes that are the tastiest and sweetest you’ll ever have. Santorini is also known for fava, white eggplants, capers, and white wine.
- Have your hotel book a driver to pick you up when you arrive. It’s much less stressful and saves a lot of time.
- Make sure your hotel has a view of the caldera — otherwise, what’s the point? Our hotel had a gorgeous view of the caldera, but if I ever come back to Santorini, I’d try to find a hotel closer to the main part of Oia so we also have a view of the cliffs, since staring at just water doesn’t really impress me. Also, make sure your hotel has cave rooms. The coolest thing about Santorini is its volcanic history, so staying in a cave room is a unique and pertinent experience. Anthony’s a huge Star Wars nerd, so he especially loved that our room felt like the Lars’ homestead on Tatooine.