I was having a chat with a young man the other day and the conversation invariably strayed towards what to see on the island. I ran him through some general tips, urging him to go beyond the village (Perissa) he was inhabiting because, really, a beach is a beach and you don’t come to a place like Santorini and expect a beach to be the be all and end all. He told me he had taken out a quad and scooted around a little, venturing as far as two villages farther and, then after a sip of his beer, said to me, ‘so Santorini just has some beautiful areas and the rest is squalor’ and sort of honked smugly, as if he’d pithily summed up one of the most artistically provocative places in the world, as no one before ever him ever has.
I looked at him blankly.
For one thing, squalor? Bins, stray dogs and shells of houses the locals never got around to finishing do not constitute squalor. Ugliness, perhaps, unsightliness, sure, but squalor? And for another, ‘some beautiful areas?’ Santorini is one of the most extraordinary places you will ever set foot on, ‘some beautiful areas‘ is something of a terrific understatement.
I will concede, however, that there are times the island makes you work a little bit harder than other locations. There are places that aren’t effortlessly stunning, and even the places that are effortlessly stunning, do ask you to go beyond your mental island schema of white beaches and ample greenery. Santorini has next to no greenery and one white beach that is reasonably difficult to reach and rather small. The island is largely in shades of brown and red with wine shrubs and squat tomatini plants lending the only green to an otherwise earthy landscape.
But what Santorini lacks in fine sand beaches and swaying palms, it makes up for with some of the most awe inspiring natural views you will ever lay eyes on. The island as it exists today, was born of a volcanic explosion thousands of years ago, which essentially blew the centre out of what was a circular island. Now, Santorini curls in a C, hugging the magnificent caldera, in the middle of which quietly simmers the volcano. Enormous, sheer cliff faces plunge into the water and built onto and into these cliff faces, in clusters of smooth pastel houses, are two of Santorini’s most famous villages, Oia and Fira.
As my time on the island draws to a close, and a more normal life in Germany calls, and in the depressing light of a fellow visitor to the island not fully appreciating all it has to offer, I thought I’d share with you some of my favourite parts of one of my favourite places in the world. Some are rather obvious, some less so, but all reveal a little something about this reluctantly beautiful dot of Mediterranean paradise.
At the very bottom of the island, at the tip of the crescent, lies the lighthouse. To get there, you must follow the curve of the caldera and peel off, just before entering the ancient village of Akrotiri. From there, the roads hug the cliffs and climb, eventually coming out and cresting atop the bottom portion of the island which is slightly greener and much less populated than the other parts. Keep driving, past stalls selling local produce until you cannot drive any further without plunging into the Aegean. Scramble around the peak boasting the white and green lighthouse and take in what feels like the end of the world.
Tip: eat at the unassuming, wholly delicious and wonderfully cheap George’s Tavern on your way home. Just 20 metres from the lighthouse, George fishes daily and his family serves it up to you.
Drive through the quaint village and, when you come to a sign directing you to the red beach, take the other option. You’ll go straight down to Akrotiri’s peaceful waterfront and find a beautiful place to enjoy fresh seafood at one of the many tavernas lining the water. Here you can while away an evening as the sun sets on the other side of the island, colouring the boat-dotted stretch of water in front of you, the same colour ballet pink as the sky.
Tip: eat at The Cave of Nikolas – some of the best food on the island. Each vegetable comes from the garden, the cheese is home made and the fish caught daily.
Pyrgos & Emporio
Both Pyrgos and Emporio are two of oldest and less touristy villages on the island and where you’ll find a lot of real, local Santorinians. Neither of them benefit from facing the water, but both of them have their own charm. Emporio is home to some classic cave houses that are worth checking out, if you find yourself off the beaten path and higher up in the hills than planned. Leave your quad bike or scooter behind and walk. The higher you walk the better the view and the cuter the houses. Similarly with Pyrgos, keep climbing. Once you reach the top, the view out over the entire bottom half of the island is unparalleled. Pyrgos also has the ruins of a Venetian castle (the Venetians occupied and gave Santorini its name in the 13th century).
Tip: eat at Kallisti Tavern. Nectarius, the owner, brings in a haul of fresh produce daily, and the eggplant salad is diced before your very eyes.
Get Lost in Oia
Oia is touristy. Don’t go there expecting it to be quiet and unpopulated, or for the only people you’ll see to be locals walking their donkeys. But, Oia is stunning. Truly stunning. It has its lofty perch at the very top of the island, high above the volcano, tiny neighbouring island of Thirasia, and the blue, blue Aegean, and has the views to prove it. You simply will not stop staring. The small, wealthy village itself comprises a higgledy piggledy neighbourhood of smooth domed houses in sorbet shades, tiny cobbled lanes, cafes and excellent boutiques. One can get lost in Oia and I highly recommend you do.
Tip: whilst most go to Oia for the famous sunset, I’d recommend you pay it a visit in the morning, before the tourists get there. You’ll have the village entirely to yourself. And don’t forget to visit the little book shop, Atlantis … just follow the narrow, winding staircase.
Whilst in Oia, you may as well wind your way down to Amoudi Bay for lunch, or for a swim. The little fishing village is accessible via a donkey ride, or you can drive down from Oia. There are about four or five tavernas and then a rocky path around to an enclave of clear water, where you can swim, snorkel, or jump off a 6 metre high pile of rocks.
The drive down to this big, black sand beach, is a good place to start with some of the colours of the island. Blonde, ochre, olive. Once you reach the beach, you’ll find it less populated than the busier Perissa or Perivolos and, as it stretches further, something of a nudist’s haven. The water is clear and the cliffs hemming in the beach seem to mirror the ocean’s waves.
Somewhere between Fira and Oia, lies the funny little village of Imerovigli, almost entirely taken over by luxury hotels, carved well into the cool cliff faces. You can weave your way through these hotels, down and around teeny tiny paths, admiring the astonishing view, right out over the volcano Nestling in amongst the suites that seem to roll down the cliff face, are a couple of cafes that are so quiet, you wonder if this is what it feels like to truly be on top of the world.