Santorini (Thíra or Thera, in modern Greek) is perhaps the most famous of the volcanic Island group consisting of Thíra, Thirassiá, Asproníssi, Palea, and Nea Kaméni in the southernmost part of the Cyclades Archipelago. Devastatingly beautiful, the island is graced with cliffside whitewashed villages, blue roofs, and spectacular vistas at every turn.
In fact, Devastation is what created the archipelago’s present configuration. The island group of Santorini is, in reality, an active volcanic center of the Hellenic Volcanic Arc in the south Aegean Sea. The islands topography as we know it, is actually a caldera (crater), an ancient rim of a still active volcano.
The Minoan Eruption in the 17th century BCE was an event of cataclysmic proportion, causing the hollow center of the island to cave and fill with water, creating a natural harbor. The volcanic layers of these islands are visible in the multi-colored sequences of those cliffs, from which whitewashed villages are suspended. These are actually the steep inner walls of the caldera, especially striking to anyone who visits the island by boat. Speaking of which, I would like to offer counsel to travelers visiting the islands by cruise ship, which will hopefully assist in making the most of your day in port.
Get Up Early – For a number of reasons:
To start with, the sail-in is GORGEOUS! Most ships arrive early in the morning. The sunrise over the Eastern Cyclades defies superlative, and is well worth the price of your cruise!
Santorini is shaped somewhat like a crescent moon. Cruise ships make their anchorage in the Old Port of Thira, on the western side of the island…which leads to another reason for an early start: Santorini is a tender port! The island provides local tender boats, serviced by burly Greek boatmen, who ferry passengers from their respective ships to the Skala Pier, 800 feet below the capital city of Fira. There are a few shops, restaurants, and local tour information along the pier. In order to ascend the cliff to Fira and its neighboring villages, there are three transportation options: Cable Car, Donkey, or on foot.
1 – Ride the Cable Car!
The Cable Car is the fastest and safest method of transportation. At the time of this writing, the cost is 4 euro for adults, 2 euro for children, one-way, and serves up to 1200 passengers per hour. In the summer months there is an average of 5 cruise ships per day in the harbor, so that number is not as impressive as one might think. Wait times can exceed 1.5 hours. Perhaps that Donkey trail is starting to look good.
2 – Experience the Donkey Trail
The 588-step Donkey Trail costs 5 Euros per person and there is rarely a line. However, these animals are not well cared for and are highly capricious. I ascended the cliff via Donkey and got sandwiched between the animals and a stone wall, resulting in scratches, bruises, and that not-so-fresh feeling. If you must, I recommend riding your Donkey up the stairs rather than down. You can also walk those 588-steps to Fira, but you will be sharing the footpath with…the Donkeys! This would be far the most dangerous and unhygienic option of the three.
It is not as arduous as it sounds. The added logistics do make a good case for an early start in order to maximize your time in this exquisite port of call. The footpath and the cable car both deliver you to the Capital city of Fira, which is brimming with bars, restaurants and shopping for any budget. Fira has supermarkets, drug stores, and ATMs, as well as taxis and a bus station, with routes clearly marked. Car, scooter, and ATV rentals are also plentiful. I recommend exploring other parts of the island first, make your way back to Fira with a couple of hours to spare. This will allow time to explore Fira at a relaxed pace and return to the tender pier via Cable Car.
3 – Catch Your Breath at a Cliffside Cafe in Fira
Fira is one of the older villages in Santorini. It is very beautiful, and looking back at the harbor and islands on the horizon, you might think you have stumbled upon that renowned Picture Postcard Panorama – the Village of Oia (pronounced [ˈi.a])…you know the one – you’ve seen it on postcards, websites and in the windows of Old-Timey travel agencies. However, once you actually arrive in Oia, you will realize that Fira isn’t nearly as charming. Keep in mind that the vistas get more beautiful as the day progresses, and pace yourself accordingly.
4 – Take Panoramic Photos of Oia
Oia is actually located 10 kilometers (6.2 miles) north of Fira and is the premiere destination for many of the island’s visitors. It is a photographer’s paradise, and the place I spent most of my time when our ship was at anchor.
Here is a synopsis of other noteworthy points of interest:
Located southeast of both Fira and Oia, Profitus Ilias is the highest the highest point of the island, at 567 meters (1860 ft.). The view from the summit offers glorious vistas and a bird’s eye view of many of the surrounding villages.
6 – The Traditional Village of Megalochori
Fira and Oia are dense with tourists during the summer months. If you want to get away from the crowds, there are a few villages similar in style and substance to Oia, minus the crowds and stores. The traditional village of Megalochori would be the easiest to find. It is located near Profitas Ilias, south of Fira. Megalochori offers a far more authentic experience of village life on Santorini.
7 – Explore the Vineyards Along the Wine Roads
Santorini is famous for its sweet wines. They are indigenous the area and are readily available at the local shops or at the vineyards. The “Wine Roads” run across the island, southeast by southwest on a slight diagonal. Here, you can explore several different vineyards throughout Santorini. Santorini has a distinct type of vine because they were one of the few islands to survive a blight that killed off a majority of the grapevines that produce this very distinctive sweet wine.
8 – Visit the Ruins of Akrotiri
The ancient ruins of Akrotiri are located at the southernmost point of the island. Settled as early as 3000 BC, Akrotiri was one of the most predominant cities in the Mediterranean, peaking after 2000 BC. A series of earthquakes in the mid-17th Century BC instigated the abandonment of the settlement. The island erupted shortly thereafter, burying the city in ash and fracturing the island. The site was discovered in the 1860’s; excavations began in 1967 and still take place incrementally.
9 – Swim, Sunbathe or Walk the Beaches
Santorini is one of the world’s few places where one can literally visit a white sand beach, a black sand beach and a red sand beach in one day and come home with 3 different types of sand. There are dozens upon dozens of beaches, but two of the most accessible are Kamari and Perissa, located on the eastern side of the island. Both are black pebbly beaches due to their volcanic proximity. Kamari has a delightful pedestrian walkway filled with restaurants and shops. Perissa actually boasts its own water park!
10 – Enjoy a Traditional Greek Meal!
Santorini’s offerings extend well beyond what I have presented here. These suggestions are intended to help day travelers make the most of their time on the island. For more ideas and information visit: http://www.visitgreece.gr/en/greek_islands/cyclades/santorini Compare cruises to the Greek Islands: http://www.cruisecritic.com/ports/area.cfm?area=15