Santorini has a reputation for being paradise on earth. White-washed houses dotting cliffsides exude a multitude of colours as the sun sets, while the volcanic rock of the caldera turns blood red. A little too good to be true? Perhaps. So here’s the real truth about Santorini!
1. The People. The local population numbers 11,400 but they are swamped by around 500,000 tourists every summer (1.5 million per annum), so naturally tourism is the main occupation of the area which does all it can to preserve its well-deserved reputation. Naturally, the dry, harsh – but breathtakingly beautiful – landscape has affected the locals who are aware of their own uniqueness stating, “We are not people, we are Santorinians”. A portion of the island’s population is Catholic, converted during the crusades when Thira became the island of Saint Irene (Santorini). The main Catholic church is the Cathedral of Saint John the Baptist, located in Fira. Do visit if you’d like to experience Catholic mass in Greek or hear one of the visiting choirs.
2. The Cuisine. Santorini’s local produce is of excellent quality but produced in small quantities. Among the island’s specialties is the cherry tomato that only grows here after adapting to the landscape due to the lack of water. When sampling the island’s cuisine, don’t forget to try the tomatokeftedes (tomato balls). Other produce includes the white aubergine, the fava bean, specially-shaped cucumbers, kapari – a vegetable the size of a pea. Local cheese to try is chloro, made of goat’s milk and wash all this down with some Vissando (the local dessert wine). Other wines to try are brusko (dry red) and nichteri (dry white). Santorini’s wines are among the finest in the world so be sure to visit a winery while you are there. Local wines include the assyrtiko and vinsanto (sweet).
3. The Antiquity. Akrotiri is a Minoan Bronze Aged Settlement that was destroyed during the Theran eruption around 1627 BC. It is a covered area protected from shade that gives visitors the idea of how the ancients lived. To see the frescoes from the site, visit the Museum of Prehistoric Thira at Fira (near the KTEL buses).
4. The Shopping. Catherine Zeta-Jones reportedly said: “I think I have raised the National Domestic Product a bit while visiting the shops on Santorini…..” Can you blame her? The arts, clothes and jewellery are a shopaholic’s paradise with finds everywhere you go. Do buy a lava bracelet while you’re there or make your own at the Bead Store!
5. Atlantis Books. Born out of youthful ideology – and folly – rather than financial acumen. It comes as little surprise that Atlantis Books in Oia, Santorini, is different to what you would expect from a typical business. Curiously, the quirky Hobbit-hole has worked its way to the best of the best as far as inspiring bookshops are concerned. More recently, it made its way to the number 1 spot of the Top 10 list of the World’s most interesting bookstores in National Geographic’s latest edition of Destinations of a Lifetime. Craig Walzer, one of the original founders of the iconic bookstore, chuckles. “We don’t take these lists too seriously. It’s nice to be up there, though,” he says.
6. The Fish Spa. Kissing fish therapy may have its origins in Japan but it has really caught on in Santorini. After a day of hiking up and down the Caldera, there’s nothing more relaxing than the tingling kisses of the Garra Rufa fish. The price is about 20 euros for a half-hour session and some spas have special deals for customers that come more than once.
7. The Bus Service. There’s a regular bus service that, unlike other parts of Greece, is efficient and easy to use. Ticket prices range from 1.20 euros to 2.20 euros depending on where you want to go. Furthermore, many of the activities, such as water sports and donkey tours, offer to drive guests to and from their hotels.
8. The Volcano. If you expect to see lava bubbling in a crater you’ll be disappointed and the thermal spas are more lukewarm than hot. Still, I guess it’s worth the tiring pilgrimage considering that without it Santorini would not be as we know it today. Geologists expect the next great eruption to come in 15 years so visit while you can but be prepared for heat, exhaustion, the smell of rotten egg at the top of the volcano and seasickness along the way. You’re not allowed to take any rocks from the volcano with you but many people break the rules. If you’re a stickler for rules, you can always buy one of the volcanic rocks from the shops at Fira (around 2.50 euros each and 4 euros as a bracelet though the exact origin of the lava rocks can’t be guaranteed). Don’t miss the annual Ifaisteia (volcano) festival that takes place in September with fireworks and music events.
9. The Red Beach. You may have heard that its one of the best beaches in the world and maybe it was before the dangerous rock slides caused the charming caves that were a quintessential part of its beauty to cordoned off due to safety concerns. These days, the beach has lost its luster. It’s hard to get to, though part of the fun could be this challenge. You can either climb down some rock boulders (“at your own peril” say the signs) or take a caique (shipping boat) that will transport you to all three beaches in the area (red, black and white) for 5 euros. A beach umbrella with two lounges costs from 5-7 euros depending on the color of the beach you go to and how crowded it is that day.
11. The Diving. The average price of a dive at the Mediterranean Dive Club costs 85 euros and it takes place at the shallow beach waters (no yacht included). The photos feature divers swimming around what appears the lost city of Atlantis but all you get is a splash at the shallow end surrounded by all the other beach-goers. And we’re still waiting for the photos we paid for to be e-mailed to us (so I guess it was 15 euros for a promise…).
12. The Receipts. While most of Santorini – hotels, shops and restaurants – offer receipts without having to ask for one as is legally required by Greek law, areas with water sport activities and some spas don’t.
13. The Donkeys at the Old Port. Day in, day out they climb up and down the 300 steps from the old port to the peak of Fira, offering tourists a 5-euro ride in the sweltering heat. They are treated cruelly and your safety is not guaranteed.
14. The Counterfeit Raybans. Yes, practically everybody on Santorini wears fake Ray-Bans and they are sold everywhere on the island for around 5-8 euros. By all means buy a pair, but if you actually own an authentic pair of Ray-Bans you may feel a little cheated.
15. Sunset at Oia. Sunset anywhere around Santorini is beautiful, whether you’re at Imerovigli, Fira, Firostefani… it’s the same experience so how Oia got the reputation as the “best sunset on the island” is befuddling. Perhaps the person who started the rumor never imagined the busloads of tourists who arrive at Oia, camera’s poised, just for this. Of course, there are cheers at the end and a frantic rush back to KTEL buses as people cross “Sunset at Oia” off the Santorini bucketlist of things to see and do…
16. The Driving. Foreigners on four-wheel bikes known as gourounes and locals rushing around make it unsafe to drive. You’d be better off opting for the bus service.
17. The Caldera. It’s the area that has launched a thousand postcards. Breathtakingly beautiful and haunting if you imagine that it was created as a result of a number of violent volcanic eruptions. The steep cliffs are layer upon layer of red volcanic rock topped off with the glistening white homes on top resembling snowy peaks. Once round, the entire center of the island disappeared under the sea in a furious volcanic eruption that is also believed to have destroyed the Minoan Civilization on Crete. Clouded in mystery there is speculation that the lost city of Atlantis lies under the sea at that very caldera…
18. The Honeymooners. It was voted as a top honeymoon destination and you’d better believe it. It’s not the island to come to in order to recover from a bad romance as evidence of true, undying love is flaunted everywhere!
19. The Trek. Walk from Fira to Imerovigli (half hour) and if you want more, continue to Oia (two hours) and be amazed by the beauty.
20. The Sunset at the Caldera, but not at Oia. Find a quiet place to enjoy it that’s far from the madding crowd, like at Imerovigli or Firostefani. Sitting at a table, in silence, with a glass of wine, you can truly appreciate the moment and feel grateful and at one with beauty.
21. The Cable Car. It takes you from Fira down to the old port and back and is a dramatically beautiful ride that allows you to really fathom how steep the cliffs of Santorini really are. 5 euros one way, 2.50 euros for children and just 1 euro if you’re a local.
22. The Donkey Tour, but not at the old port. Rather than opt for the cruel donkey rip-off from the old port to Fira, try the early morning/evening one-hour tours that take you to areas that you couldn’t imagine. We went on a trek to the chapel of Agio Pnevma in Imerovigli overlooking Skaros and were amazed on the donkey ride above the clouds. Definitely a highlight that ended in cheese and wine tasting courtesy of the donkey drivers who are quick to point out that their treatment of donkeys is more humane. It costs 40 euros for adults and 20 euros for children with a pick-up and drop-off service. They give you a bottle of Santorinian wine to take home with you in the end.
23. The Islands. The fishing village of Thirassia is just opposite the main island but is quiet and off-the-beaten track with its tourism relatively undeveloped. Ferries go back and forth from the port of Ammoudi.
24. Vlychada Beach. Santorini’s “Red Beach” may be the most famous but Vlychada is by far the most beautiful. Located on the south side of the island, its windswept sand formations transport visitors to a celestial location. Occasionally, the sand caves in and bulldozers are called in to dig out beach-goers which may explain why it is one of the quieter locations on the island… The truth is, the abandoned factories nearby, the ashen volcanic sand and the risk factor just add to the eerie quality of this picturesque beach.
25. The Port of Ammoudi. This tiny charming port with a very small beach in the caldera lies at the foot of the village of Oia (200 steps) below and is famous for its fresh fish.