Visiting Greece is like being welcomed into the family. The people are warm and friendly, and the country is absolutely gorgeous. Nowhere did my family experience this more than on the breathtakingly beautiful island of Santorini.
Santorini was easily my favorite of the Greek islands that we visited. It is incredibly picturesque, with buildings of crisp white and saturated blue perched atop steep cliffs, a thousand feet above the bright aqua Aegean. It’s no wonder that the island has served as a backdrop for many movies, including Lara Croft: Tomb Raider, Summer Lovers, and my personal favorites, The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants 1 & 2.
When you arrive on Santorini by ferry, countless taxis and buses await, eager to deliver you to your destination. The taxi ride up the side of the cliff was one of the more nerve-wracking experiences I’ve had. Taxis, cars, trucks, and buses casually pass each other on narrow roads and seem to nearly collide at every switchback. Our taxi driver, clearly a seasoned professional, made the trip without batting an eyelash.
For a tourist with only a few days to see the sights, Santorini is definitely manageable. It is quite small, only about 12 miles long and at most 3 miles wide. Our 3-day trip began near the town of Akrotiri at a lovely, family-run hotel called Villa Mathios, where Mamma still does all of the cooking. Our host, the gregarious Costas Popalexis, welcomed us with open arms. Whenever we saw him during our stay, he would call out, “Family!”
Since we visited Greece in May, during the off-season, there were only a few other customers. At the hotel restaurant that evening, we enjoyed delicious food and chatted with our host over a complimentary glass of ouzo (which tastes like licorice and is definitely not my cup of tea). Costas told us that during the high season, the hotel restaurant is packed and you would need a reservation. He also taught us a very important word in Greek: “Yiamas,” which means “Cheers.” So, the next time someone offers you ouzo, you can say “Yiamas! But really, no thanks.”
There is an archeological site in Akrotiri which we would have visited but it was closed when we were there as there had just been an accident. The site is Minoan which is the oldest civilization in Europe.
While Costas is definitely the most memorable example, all of the locals we encountered were friendly, hospitable and relaxed. We were told that 90% of the Greek economy is based on tourism, so it’s no wonder they are so happy to see us tourists! Of course, the sunny weather and beautiful scenery couldn’t hurt.
On our first full day in Santorini, we rented a car and drove to the town of Fira. Fira is a great place to wander, shop and take in one of Santorini’s many spectacular views. We saw hoards of cruise ship passengers in Fira, who then got onto the cable car near the cathedral to return to port, having seen nothing of Santorini but the shops of Fira.
After a gyro and some ice cream, we drove to the beach at Perivolos. On the outer rim of the island, you can drive straight to the beach without hiking down the cliffs. As we had heard, the beaches on Santorini are fairly gravelly. Perivolos is a grey sand beach, but Santorini also has red and grey sand beaches. We enjoyed our time at Perivolos, swimming, building sandcastles and sunbathing in chaises that happened to be free that day in celebration of a restaurant’s grand opening.
At our hotel, we learned that water is in short supply on Santorini, as all of the water is gathered in the winter months, then stored for use during the rest of the year. Electricity is also a concern, so to save electricity, our room key had to be inserted into a panel by the door to turn on the electricity.
The next day, we drove to Oia on the Northern tip of the Caldera to have dinner and watch the sunset. On the way, we stopped in Pyrgos, a beautiful little village not yet overrun by tourists. We intended to visit the ruins of the ancient city of Thira, but it was closed by the time we got there. From Thira to Oia, the road is steep and winding. In Oia, we found a table with a great view at the Sunset Restaurant and watched a lovely sunset over the water. We only had to throw a few elbows to get the other tourists out of our sightline (Jokes. No tourists were harmed in the viewing of this sunset).
The crescent-shaped island surrounds a caldera formed 3600 years ago by an enormous volcanic eruption. During our trip, we visited the two volcano islands in the caldera. On the first, we hiked to the top with a guided tour, which was interesting and provided a good overview of Santorini’s volcanic history. The volcano is active and last erupted in 1950. Our boat then continued on to the second island, where we swam into the hot springs but opted not to take a mud bath in the iron-rich mud.
If it was not clear above, one of the things we enjoyed about Greece, in general, was the food. Santorini was no exception. There are many great restaurants on Santorini, but I do particularly recommend getting away from the main drag in Fira which is inundated with cruise ship travelers to some of the quieter niches like Akrotiri for a more Greek experience.
In our three days on Santorini, we saw the sights, relaxed and soaked in the beauty of this island paradise. I have visited over 15 countries and Santorini is definitely the first place that I would return to. The beautiful views and the limitless hospitality of the Greek people make Santorini a place where any tourist could feel at home. I hope this article encourages you to book Santorini holidays.
Hear more about our trip by listening to Travel to England and Greece Revisited – Amateur Traveler Episode 138