Santorini. When mentioning this island city of Greece, imagery is instantly evoked of white-washed building topped with bright blue domed ceilings. Love, romance, “the ultimate bucket list destination” also is triggered. For me, Santorini was the last remaining place to visit on my bucket list, a place I saved for a special occasion, and having now traveled there, I can absolutely say it was well worth the wait.
A Short History
Before two million tourists annually descend upon the 15,000 residents of Santorini, Greece, Phoenicians settled to create this bucolic haven. The topography of the land itself is a result of an enormous volcano erupting in 1500 B.C. This initial eruption formed Santorini’s into the tiny island it is today, while subsequent volcanic eruptions have continued to add to the steep drops, unique sandy beaches and the general visage of this dreamy bucket list destination.
When to Go
As any seasoned traveler would surmise, the top European destinations are a cacophony of sweaty bodies, loud noises and barely-contained annoyance during high season – hence the nom-de-plume of “high season.” Paris, Rome, Barcelona, London and even to a lesser-extent Lisbon, Mallorca, Mykonos are barely tolerable during the summer months; however, each of these destinations have the physical bandwidth to absorb the millions of tourists who fly in. London is 607 square miles, New York City is 469 square miles, Madrid is 233.3 square miles. Unlike the aforementioned cities, the whole island of Santorini is 25.2 square miles.
When punished by the onslaught of tourists in June, July and August, Santorini seems like it might capsize itself from the weight of a dozen cruise ships a day and flights incoming from Aegean Airlines. To further put this into perspective, “During high season, Aegean lands a flight from Athens every five minutes,” the incredibly humble yet successful General Manager of the gorgeous Grace SantoriniGeorge Vlachopoulos helpfully explained. Incredulously, I shouted aghast, “FIVE MINUTES!?! NO WAY!” “Yes. Every five minutes, for almost 12 hours a day,” George calmly replied.
How to Get There
I went during late April, just two weeks after the resorts opened, and this is the time I highly recommend visitors go. Santorini really remains open to the outside world for a mere five months so the best time to get there is in late April or September, when the weather is blissfully warm and the traffic is demonstrably less. Fly into Athens and then take the cheap, 40-minute flight with Aegean Airlines. If you can afford it, other options include private plane or, if you have the time, a 10-hour ferry.
Where to Stay
Impeccable service and views should be the baseline requirements for any place to stay in the dreamy destination of Santorini. Two of my absolute favorites, not only in Greece but in the world, are the Grace Santorini and Canaves Oia.
Grace Santorini: The Grace Santorini stands head-and-shoulders above the rest with its prime location nearly dead center in the island in the tiny village of Imerovigli. From the hotel, flawless views of what the volcanic eruptions have done to create Santorini can be had, as well as the classic sight of Skaros, the hammerhead a meter long and 15 meters deep. Guests of the hotel will find they have never sleep better than on the luxurious bedding and uber-fluffy pillows of Grace Santorini. Additionally, the hotel has a hyper awareness of the singular issue of sleep deprivation and provide a flight of sleep-inducing amenities: the Durance Brume d’Oreiller Pillow Perfume in Fleur de Lavande has been helping me sleep every night since I stayed at the hotel and the amazingly hot, pulsating shower of the enormously modern bathrooms at Grace Santorini will kill the last remnants of jet-lag. Be sure to indulge in the restaurant (phenomenal food and the best continental breakfast on the island), the spa and if your budget can afford it – which it should – stay in a suite with your own plunge bath. Santorini is known for its spectacular sunsets and its never more luxuriously indulgent than to be soaking in an outdoor Jacuzzi while watching the blazing colors of Santorini’s sunsets fall.
Canaves Oia: This boutique Small Luxury Hotels of the World property is the only place one needs to stay if you want both comfort as well as to see quintessential Santorini without having to deal with any of the hideous island traffic. Located literally one building from the immaculate cobblestone steps of Oia, the part of Santorini which you see in every postcard/movie/photo of Santorini, Canaves Oia is comprised of five different properties, providing numerous options for any budget. The hotel and suites sell out first but guests should really book the Sunday Suites, providing a level of opulence on the island which is hard to top. Of course, each of Canaves venues have amazing food and beverage – the Nutella Strawberry French Toast had me gaining five pounds and made me think it was worth every calorie – but it is the pool views and friendly service which made Canaves resonate. Whatever you do, do not pass up the chance to have dessert at this hotel. The pastry chef has a chocolate cake which you would swear is a version of heaven.
Where to Eat
In addition to the restaurant programs at both Grace Santorini as well as Canaves Oia, the best food, the most authentic Greek food I found on the island was the incredibly budget-friendly Melitini. Located a 10-minute walk from Canaves Oia, this authentic Greek tapas place had me regretting any food I had eaten the previous four days as nothing was as spectacular as Melitini’s food. You will 100% need (and want) a reservation so you can sit on the terrace, but other than this one effort, the only other thing you need is a healthy appetite. Do not leave the restaurant without ordering every single one of their “Spreads”: Tzatziki (4 euro), Tirokafteri (4 euro), Eggplant (4 euro), Beetroot (4 euro) and the “variety of spreads,” i.e. what I ordered (7 euro). The colors, flavors and ingredients were resonatingly vibrant and fabulous to eat. I also got several glasses of the honey infused Raki (the Turkish signature drink), along with items of seafood, items “cooked in the pan” and “oven baked” items as well. Even though I am used to be stared at due to the volume of my ordering, at Melitini I got so much food the table next to me didn’t even have to order because I just passed them so much food!
What to do
Santorini is not for the faint-of-heart when it comes to exercise and one should plan for any activities to involve lots of cardio. In fact, I don’t remember seeing elevators at either hotels. (Truly, the concierges are super impressive men because they carry your luggage, even the biggest, heaviest pieces of luggage, on their shoulders.) And to get to the ocean water, there are at least 30-minutes worth of stairs to climb – and there certainly are not any elevators to get you back up! Of course, getting on/near the water is ideal. Numerous boat charters exist for the classic Santorini sunset tour. These can also include a stop at Vlichada – clear on the other side of Oia – for some nighttime swimming as well as Perissa known as the “black beach” for their black volcanic sands.
Other fun things to do would be to visit the best winery in Santorini, Sigalas Winery which offers tastings and tours. If you’ve never had a chance to absorb a winemakers tales on how arduous it is to produce volcanic wine, let alone the delicious volcanic wine of Sigalas, this is an absolute must.
Finally, the easiest option for those who are neither inclined for much cardio or to be on the water would be to just walk around Oia and shop. I spent an entire day just trying to go in-and-out of every store in Oia and I barely made it through a third of the shops! Not a lot of historic sites in Oia so if you are a history buff the history is over in Fira, where the home church of John the Baptist is located. (Note, the public transportation from Oia to Fira takes two hours in low season.)