Spellbound in Santorini
The Greek archipelago offers everything from luxurious accommodation to ‘thePompeii of the Aegean’, not to mention stunning sunsets
Blue-roofed churches in Oia, Santorini, look down on the caldera below
The famous Santorini sunset as seen from the Grace hotel in Imerovigli
The ruins of the ancient city of Akrotiri, which was buried by a catastrophic volcano in 1650BC
One of the luxury suites at Grace Santorini, a popular spot for honeymooners
The infinity pool at Grace Santorini blends in with the Aegean Sea, behond
A functioning toilet isn’t a highlight of many holidays. At least it really shouldn’t be, especially if you find yourself on the glorious Greek island of Santorini. And yet, we find ourselves oohing and aahing over the finer details of a lavatory; marvelling at the plumbing, the view through the nearby window, impressed with its second-storey location. It’s okay, we haven’t gone completely potty. This particular loo, and its advanced plumbing, is in the ancient Minoan city of Akrotiri, a Greek settlement dating back more than 7,000 years, and perfectly preserved under a layer of volcanic ash after a catastrophic eruption around 1650BC.
“The Pompeii of the Aegean” lay undiscovered and untouched until Prof Spyridon Marinatos began excavations (with the help of some hapless donkeys falling into subsiding hillsides) in 1967. To date, only 10 per cent of the enormous city has been excavated, but the toilet in question is just one remnant that points to just how advanced the inhabitants of this island were.
Today, Santorini’s advancements tend to come in the form of luxuries to lure tourists to enjoy the towering cliffs, whitewashed buildings and bluest of skies and seas. This is particularly clear in the village of Imerovigli, perched on the eastern cliffs of the largest island (Santorini is in fact an archipelago of five islands surrounding a volcanic “caldera”, or cauldron-shaped hole, created by the 1650BC volcano. Only the largest island, Thira, is inhabited, and so has become known as Santorini). Where once fishermen’s cave homes sat in cliffs overlooking the caldera, today Imerovigli’s boutique hotels offer altogether more salubrious lodgings. Most can be reached only by foot. Transfers from the tiny local airport (a quick 20-minute drive across the island) will drop you in the village square, after which you make your way down winding stone paths, with cobbled steps and smooth white walls. The hotels are all terraced; split over multiple levels.
Santorini is a popular honeymoon spot and it’s easy to see why, when hotels such as the plush, newly-renovated Grace Santorini offer such hideaway luxury. Tucked into the cliff face in Imerovigli, Grace’s whitewashed, terraced levels begin with a champagne lounge (perfect for relaxed sundowners as you look over the caldera), leading down to a restaurant with indoor and outdoor dining areas serving excellent contemporary Greek cuisine, with a focus on locally-sourced produce. Then there’s an infinity pool that appears to melt into the Aegean, and finally down to rooms and suites. These are large, airy (with bathrooms to die for) and are staggered at different levels, giving a real sense of privacy, which is especially welcome if you can nab one of the suites that comes with its own sea-facing private plunge pool. There are little luxe touches everywhere, from the high-end propolis toiletries (you can pre-order these according to your own taste before you arrive on the island, along with your selection from an extensive pillow menu), to the option of massages on your own terrace or private sunrise or sunset yoga lessons. An on-site shop stocks some beautiful Greek clothing and jewellery. Staff are just the right blend of attentive, but with that wicked Greek sense of humour. Nothing is too much trouble (we’re told of one guest who once requested delivery of a donkey for a loved one’s birthday!). If you’re looking for some serious luxury - and have very deep pockets - there’s a private villa on site with its own pool and 24-hour service. We can but dream…
Of course, there’s a lot more to do on the island than sit around staring dreamily into each other’s eyes. Santorini is frequently referred to as the island with the blue and white churches.
There are a reputed 400 of them, each one owned by an individual family. Some 98 per cent of the population is Greek Orthodox, so the priests - paid by the state - are kept busy. You’ll pass a church around every bend in the road, but some are worth seeking out, such as the Prophet Elias monastery, which sits on the highest peak on the island.
The monastery is closed to the public, but there’s a small Orthodox chapel that you can visit, plus a fantastic view over the whole island - which measures only 18km by 12km - from the ancient city of Akrotiri in the south, past the capital of Fira on the east coast, to the pretty town of Oia in the north.
Lying directly underneath the mountain is the village of Pyrgos, which is particularly worth a visit. Topped by a pre-1600 castle, the village was built with protection from the wind and sun (and the odd pirate) in mind. Along its tiny, maze-like lanes there’s always some shade to be found, and it’s impossible for the island’s harsh winds to whip through for more than a few metres. In the square, old men sit drinking coffee in the shade as fish, meat and vegetable venders arrive: there is no market here, so they call out today’s offerings as they pass through.
Wind your way up through the pretty lanes (the whitewashed walls host an international parkour competition every October) until you reach the heavily fortified castle.
Inside the metre-thick black and red lava-stone walls you’ll find a number of chapels, art galleries and cafes surrounding a square with a beautiful oleander tree.
Franco’s cafe (Kasteli, in Pyrgos) serves excellent coffee and has a great view from its shaded roof terrace - and you’ll be glad of the cooling breeze as you take a break from the harsh sun.
Back towards the coast, Fira is a bustling town and one of the few places with a proper “nightlife”. You’ll find cheaper accommodation options here, if you’re not planning to splash out on exclusive hotels (for hotel offers under €50 see santorinihotels.org).
In the north, perched on a clifftop overlooking the caldera lies the town of Oia. At its heart runs a shiny marble pathway, a nod to the town’s important role in Greek shipping history. The stone was donated by wealthy shipping magnates, and the villas they inhabited in the 1800s today house high-end boutiques and jewellery shops.
It’s a busy, touristy place. The closer to the cliff-edge you get, the narrower the streets become, until you’re jostling shoulder to shoulder with bewildered-looking Chinese tour groups, wealthy American honeymooners and put-upon donkeys, who carry tourists up and down the hills to the old fishing port below. It’s the most touristy spot we visit, but there are lots of hidden gems, including Atlantis Books (atlantisbooks.org), an excellent shop run by a group of friends from the UK, US and Cyprus. It comprises two subterranean rooms - a welcome respite from the sun - with haphazard shelves crammed with a great selection of books, handmade leather notebooks, letterpress prints, and some special first editions such as a 1925 edition of The Great Gatsby.
Oia is also the most popular place to enjoy the island’s famous sunsets, but this bottle neck is far from enjoyable, swarmed with jostling tour groups anxious to get the perfect photograph. Better to find a spot in a local taverna and enjoy a cool glass of Santorini’s excellent dry white wine.
Vines cover the island in a haphazard fashion, although at first glance you might not recognise them as they bear little resemblance to the familiar grape-growing trees we are used to. Instead, they are woven into a basket shape, splayed flat against the ground to protect them from the winds that whip across the island.
While many locals make their own wine, most of the grapes are sold to the few local wineries, including the family-run Venetsanos winery (Caldera Megalochori, venetsanoswinery.com) which gives very interesting tours that culminate on its beautiful terraces with tastings of its award-winning Vinsanto dessert wines .
Of course you can’t come to an island like this and not take advantage of the beautiful seas surrounding it. An excellent way to get a sense of the area, and the vastness of the caldera, is to take a catamaran trip. Cruises (from €130pp, or from €800 for up to six people on a private boat) take in the island’s “red” and “black” beaches - so named for the colour of their volcanic rock; and sail around the two volcanic islands at the centre of the caldera. There’s a sharp eggy, sulphur smell as you pass by. Jump into the crystal water and swim towards land, which looks almost Martian, with its black rocky surface. As you swim into the inlets the water becomes warmer and redder (and smellier), as escaping sulphur from the volcano below heats it to bath temperatures. There’s an onboard barbecue too, to round off the day (calderayachting.gr).
As night falls, Santorini’s excellent restaurants come to life; from traditional tavernas such as Katina, in Amoudi, where a simple but mouthwatering lobster pasta is cooked to order as you sit by the water, to high-end restaurants such as Selene, in Pyrgos (selene.gr), where modernist Greek food is served in refined surroundings (and with exceptional desserts).
It’s easy to navigate such a small island, so to finish your night, head east to Kamari, where you’ll find a nightly open-air cinema from May to October. Starting at 9.30pm, it’s €8 per person, and you can sit in a director’s chair with a cocktail and snacks while the latest releases show in English, with Greek subtitles (See cinekamari.gr).
HOW TO... SANTORINI
BA flies from Dublin to Santorini via Heathrow; ba.com
Grace Santorini has 22 luxury rooms, many with private plunge pools. Packages include sunrise yoga and champagne reception. Excellent breakfasts, gracehotels.com/santoriniSee
The ancient city of Akrotiri lies under a bioclimatic shelter and offers a fascinating look at early life on the island. Entry €12;odysseus.culture.gr