The ancient Greeks never got to see Santorini as we do. When I say ancient I mean those who lived prior to the volcanic eruption over 3600 years ago. One of the largest ever seen by mankind, the eruption blew out the interior of the island and forever changed its topography. Sailing into Santorini today you are greeted with an awe-inspiring spectacle. As the ship enters the caldera on midnight blue waters the tall volcanic cliffs tower overhead topped with small white houses like a sprinkle of snow.
Most cruise ships weigh anchor in the caldera and tender passengers ashore to the old port, Fira Skala. If you are on an excursion you may well head from the ship to the southern port of Athinios or the northern port near Oia called Ammoudiou.
Either way, you are going to have to make your way up to the rim of the Caldera. This can be exhilarating at best, downright terrifying at worst. It depends on your disposition towards heights. Transportation climbs a switchback of narrow roads up the side of the caldera offering spectacular glimpses across the waters, just don’t look down. The local goats maybe well at ease amongst these precipitous heights, me less so.
At Fira, there are a couple of ways to achieve this climb. The first, fastest and most convenient is the cable car. As of August 2018, the cost is €5 one way for adults (€2.50 for children). They run from about 06.30 up to 22.00 during the summer but stop much earlier at other times so always check before you travel. There can be quite a line to get on them but I think the longest we have waited is about 30 minutes but it could be longer if there are a few mega ships in port. The cable cars can move about 1200 people an hour. Most modern cruise ships are 3 x that many people. True not all will be heading to the cable cars and not all at the same time. But you have an idea of how busy it can get. If you don’t need to rush off the ship then hang back a while and enjoy a longer breakfast.
You can, of course, walk up but its arduous 588 steps and not without its dangers. One year, dismayed by the length of the line for the cable car back down we decided to walk down the steps to the old port. It was an adventure. The mules didn’t really seem to notice or care for us and so we had to dive out of their way on many occasion all the while avoiding their natural deposits that added not only another treacherous obstacle but also a pungent odour. Am happy to say we made it down in about 20 mins without any missteps. I would, however, suggest wearing a stout pair of shoes. The fact that I did it in flips flops without ending up on my rear end caked in mule muck is a minor miracle.
Instead of two legs, you can opt to ascend via four legs. Teams of resolute and hardy mules will take you up for around €5 per person. Personally, I wouldn’t use them. It can get ferociously hot in the summertime and it’s a steep climb even for a mule. Times that by how many trips they will make each day!
Need a drink or lunch when you are there? There is no better location than sitting in one of the many bars and restaurants that perch alongside the caldera edge. However, there is a price to pay for such views and these places can sting you.
- Top Tip – in the caldera bars prices are often inflated to what you see in the drinks menu, especially so when a couple of cruise ships are in. Not all are this mercenary but it’s a shame that some ruin it for others. I would just confirm the price when you place your order and if you are happy with it then enjoy.
For lunch, I would suggest heading back into the main part of Fira. You will find prices a lot more reasonable and service less rushed. A personal recommendation is Theoni’s Kitchen on Dekigala. They do amazing food. The house wine is very drinkable and when we visited they even threw in a complimentary dessert. So friendly. If we didn’t have a ship to catch we could have stayed until the evening.
Fira itself is a lively little town full of little bustling streets where you can pick up souvenirs and gifts. You can easily spend a couple of hours walking its cobbles, stopping to take photos and admiring the views.
Oia is a small town at the northern end of the island and is the place for taking those postcard-perfect pictures. It’s beautiful. Images of this small little village adorn a myriad of calendars and it’s not hard to see why. Small narrow pathways intersect between houses of pure white topped with cobalt blue domes. Dotted here and there are small churches the grandest being the Church of Panagia in Caldera Square. This was the starting point for our exploration of Oia. We simply wandered through the streets, admiring the small little craft and souvenir shops, down to the Byzantine castle ruins to take some more amazing pictures before climbing back up to the main square
Kamari & Perissa
Santorini has a few beaches if that’s your preference. The two most popular are Kamari & Perissa. Both are located on the eastern side of the island where the ground descends from the Caldera edge to meet the Aegean Sea. We have only visited Kamari so I can’t comment on Perissa (although I hear they are very similar). The first thing you will notice is that the beach is black. It’s a volcanic island after all so no surprise. Were are not talking pitch black, more of a dirty grey. However, all the main beaches on Santorini have blue flag status. There is a long promenade full of cafes and tavernas, the fresh breeze off the sea makes it an ideal place for a stroll.
The village of Pyrgos can be found at the highest point of Santorini with panoramic views across the island. This is a fortress settlement, hence it’s lofty elevation and the remains of Kastelli castle are now a favoured spot for sunset watching. It’s the islands former capital and has a charm all of its own. Cats and dogs lounge in shadowed alcoves. There are some quaint little coffee shops and bars to enjoy this less frantic piece of Santorini
If you are in the southern part of the island I recommend a visit to the Santos Winery. Its often included in shore excursions but apart from the fun of wine tasting the outdoor terrace offers again some spectacular views of this pretty little island.