The many faces of Santorini

When we thought of Greece, images of whitewashed buildings trimmed with blue doors and shutters, spilling down hillsides into a turquoise sea came to mind.

In other words, we thought of Santorini.

And yes, Santorini is one of those places that turns out to be exactly as you had imagined it. Blinding white beauty offset by the deepest blue skies and seas, scrubby olive trees and the odd pop of pink bougainvillea.

Anyone in Santorini who has invested in white paint stocks must be thanking their lucky stars. White is the exterior colour of choice, although there is the odd outlier:

We took the fast ferry from Crete to Santorini – a smooth ride that took less than two hours and cost us an eye-watering $220. I would say that I will never complain about B.C. ferry prices again, but of course that is not true.

Greek island hopping ain’t cheap – it will cost us $400 to get on and off Santorini.

We boarded the ferry with masks on and Covid-19 sheets filled out.

There were just a handful of vehicles and the passenger deck was about one-third full. The ferry was spotlessly clean and very comfortable.

Santorini has a reputation as being the “honeymoon” island, as well as being wildly over-touristed and expensive. While there are so many islands to choose from, we thought this would be an ideal time to visit Santorini, when the cruise ships are grounded and international travel in general has all but stopped.

It turned out to be a good decision. There are still a number of tourists here, but the numbers are way, way down, which makes accommodation, restaurants and beaches more accessible and relaxing.

The two main towns are Oia in the north and Fira mid-island. Fira is the main transportation hub for ferries, buses and the airport, so we picked a place that was a 15-minute walk to Fira, but away from the crowds.

We booked a cute little studio, with a small garden – olive trees, yellow eggplant and herbs. This is our front deck:

The sunrise behind our place:

And yet… the peace and quiet we were hoping for has eluded us. Our delightful host welcomed us with a plate of mezes and two glasses of wine, but forgot to mention that there is a daily meeting of the stonemasons all around us. When she was showing us around, we asked about the construction site and she looked surprised and assured us it was very quiet.

At 7:30 each morning, five or six cars rolled up and workers walked past us (as we sip coffee on the deck), to begin work. The concrete mixer started up, the hammering began, and our peace and privacy was gone. Most nights a pack of stray dogs howled and barked intermittently. However, it is all part of travel, so we just (tried to) shrug our shoulders in European fashion and carry on.

We had way more to enjoy than to complain about. One of the attractions of Santorini, other than taking hundreds of photos, is to do the caldera walk.
The island is curled like a shrimp, and inside the curl is the crater of a drowned volcano. The sheer cliffs that rise up from the sea form the caldera, and both Oia and Fira sit astride the caldera ridge.

The distance between Oia and Fira is 10 km. and those who are interested in walking along the caldera can do so by following a footpath that runs through both towns as well s two other small villages and whose terrain varies from cobblestone to paved to concrete to dirt. The scenery is outstanding, but in 30 degree heat and under a Santorini sun, be sure to bring lots of water, sunscreen and a hat. There are at least three or four significant climbs – the last kilometre or so I kept myself going by dreaming of the iced cappucino at the end.

Sights along the way:

Looking out over the caldera from Fira

View from Fira

Black rock wall

View of Oia in the distance.

Another view of the ridge to the left, on the way to Oia.

Walking along an ancient path

You can rent this old stone mill – a unique Santorini experience.

Images of Oia. A traditional windmill at the north end of the island.

One of the many blue-domed churches on the island.

And again…

Apparently – the boat-builder’s house.

A heart-warming sight.

A plea from the residents. Over-tourism has taken such a toll on this island. While we feel grateful to have had the opportunity to see Santorini without hundreds of people in front of us looking for the same photo, what is the answer?

A common sight this year on Santorini. Since Greece did not open until mid-July, (they normally open for tourists mid-April), a number of businesses decided to sit this one out.

We saw so many hotels that were closed for the season. Someone explained to us that if it was a small family operation, it was possible to open and survive. The larger hotels had significant challenges because of their staffing requirements. This huge complex below looks like a brand new build. We wondered if Covid will finish it off before it starts.

People gotta shop. There are the usual throng of same-same souvenir shops, but Santorini has a discerning clientele and many stores exhibit distinct personalities. You can’t argue with the message here, but I was also drawn to the rope sandals.

Shoes loom large in my imagination. I used to have a sizeable collection, but between culling out for our “house-free” period, developing our current lifestyle that almost never includes heels, and beginning to appreciate the value of comfort over style, I now admire from a distance.

LOVE these shoes, but I just have to laugh. They have someone else’s name on them.

Simple. Understated. Timeless. Expensive.

Back to the understanding that Santorini is expensive. Pretend for a moment that you are young and beautiful and rich. This is your place. You will arrive with luggage that someone else will carry down four flights of cobblestone to your luxe suite that opens to the sea. You have outfits. You dine at 9:30.

Marketing is targeted to people like you, and presumably Cirque du Soleil performers who have been temporarily sidelined.

But that’s okay – there is room on Santorini for everyone and sunsets are what we are all here for.

Santorini is a small island and it is possible to get around easily by bus. “Easy” is a relative term. The buses go everywhere and operate on time but we have found bus drivers in Greece to be, almost to a man, aggressively rude and unhelpful. We asked our host, “Do they hate the tourists?” No, apparently, they hate their lives. This is a government job that provides just enough pay and security to tie someone to it for 30 years, but the drivers tend to have shifts that have enough time off to complain and smoke, so after a number of years, they have become uniformly bitter. When a driver shows kindness, the passengers experience a grateful reaction that is akin to Stockholm Syndrome.

On our third day here, we discovered Kamari Beach – a 20-minute bus ride to the east side of the island. Black pebble beach with a stunning backdrop and sublime swimming. All intentions of visiting other parts of the island vanished. Isn’t Greece all about the beaches? We decided – so far, in our travels, nothing compares to the beaches of Greece.

Pick an umbrella and sunbeds. Unpack water, towels, book and glasses. Wade into the clearest, cleanest water imaginable. Swim for a while, then float on your back, then simply bob in the water, then swim again. It doesn’t matter how far out you swim, you will always see bottom – 30 ft., 40 ft., 60 ft.

We spent three fabulous days on this beach (blue towel on the front right is Stephen) .

And that is our Santorini experience. We’re very glad we came here and we’re very grateful we had the chance to experience it the way we did. We suspect it is less interesting than other Greek islands and possibly less Greek.

Next up – eight days on the Peloponnese Peninsula.