Santorini: Cliffs, beaches and the sapphire sea

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The afternoon crowd flowed down among the shops, cafes and picture-postcard lookouts on the Greek island of Santorini, speaking at least a half-dozen languages.

It spread along the cliff-top village of Oia’s cobblestone walkways, drifting into storefronts or up the stairs to open-air restaurants, eddying to photograph scenes of white buildings with blue doors and blue-domed churches.

The crowd thinned to little more than a trickle down the 214 broad steps to Ammoudi Bay. There, seaside tavernas grilled the day’s catch of fish and octopus. People lingered at outdoor tables, while a dozen small pleasure and fishing boats rocked gently on the Aegean. A cliff-side pathway wound beyond to a cove, where you could lie in the sunshine amid the black volcanic rocks and swim in the sapphire sea.

"What is Santorini? It is an island of black rock," said Nicos Plevrakis, manager of the Hotel Belvedere, where my wife and I stayed. "It attracts sunbeams."

This "island of black rock" owes its unique, dramatic landscape to volcanic eruptions. A volcano, still active, stands at the center of a ring of islands, Santorini the longest. In between them is a vast, deep caldera, filled with water, surrounded by the islands’ cliffs, volcanic rock, and black and red sand beaches. Geologists say an early blast created a tsunami that washed over Crete 96 kilometers (60 miles) away, wiped out Minoan civilization and reshaped this landscape.

The Belvedere, a cliff-top boutique hotel in the main city of Fira, overlooks the caldera, a huge basin of dark blue water 152 meters (500 feet) below. You can even visit what’s left of the still-smoldering volcano. Today it is an uninhabited island at the center of the caldera, reachable by boat.

Santorini is about a 45-minute flight from Athens. While tourism is down in Greece this year partly due to a financial crisis that has led to protests and strikes, the disruptions have had little impact on areas outside Athens.

Santorini’s capital, Fira, with narrow cobblestoned alleys lined with storefronts selling clothing and jewelry, perches high at the heart of crescent-shaped Santorini. The island is about 48 kilometers (30 miles) long, with Oia and Ammoudi Bay at its northern tip, Akrotiri and a red sand beach at the southern end, and miles of black sand beaches along its southeastern shore.

The sea was startlingly blue up close. We rode to Oia on a public bus packed with day-tripping cruise passengers. But down at the seaside it was much quieter, and the sea was so clear you could see the small fish. Diving underwater it was the same, entirely blue and translucent, with dark blue minnows darting by.

Temperatures on the island are in the 80s (mid-26 Celsius) in July and August and in the 70s (21 Celsius) in September. Tourist businesses close from November through March, including the Belvedere, where Plevrakis ran a tiny office, offered advice and made arrangements. He recommends July as the best time to visit.

My wife and I rented a two-seat SmartCar for €40 and spent a day driving the tight two-lane roads among motor scooters and four-wheelers with helmeted tourists, other subcompacts, speeding taxi sedans and large buses. We visited the monastery at the central promontory with a commanding vista and the large Santo winery nearby; photographed the dramatic red sand beach under a red cliff, and cruised the low coast road along the black sand beaches.

After an hour lying on two of the hundreds of lounge chairs under thatched umbrellas, and wading out into the surf, we had gelato and Greek coffee at a cafe and drove north back to Oia, and down to Ammoudi Bay for grilled fish and another swim. The water sparkled in the sunshine, and my wife said it was "like swimming in Perrier."

We also visited the Archaeological Museum of Fira, which has artifacts that include murals reconstructed from Akrotiri, an ancient settlement that was buried by the volcanic eruption some 3,600 years ago. Like Pompeii, it was preserved by the ash. It’s now a major archaeological site (though the excavation site is not open to the public). Some believe Plato’s storied Atlantis has roots here.

We took a sailboat from Fira’s port, which can be reached by a staircase of 600 wide steps, via cable car, or by donkey. The sailboat, loaded with tourists, motored to the volcano for a hike and to an island where we swam in sediment-brown water heated from underground and then to the island of Thirassia for lunch, with a half-dozen tavernas lining its bay.

Thirassia’s cafes were somewhat poorer cousins to the Santorini eateries that ranged from backstreet tavernas attracting mainly Greek customers to upscale restaurants with breathtaking vistas and long wine lists. Some restaurants took only cash.

Unexpected pleasures included the friendliness of the locals, and the fact that nearly everyone spoke English. At the hotel, we were upgraded to a room with a balcony and given a bottle of local wine, both free.

We watched the hour-long sunsets from our balcony or lingering at rooftop cafes. After the last direct rays disappeared behind the volcano, the spray of clouds high overhead turned dramatic shades of red, purple and blue.
Then the lights came up and shone from the windows of the neat white buildings, creating a glittering cascade along the cliffs in either direction under a midnight blue sky.

If You Go
Santorini (click on the Union Jack for English). Flights from Athens are about 45 minutes and can be had for about $100 each way in summer. (Santorini’s airport name is Thera.) They are offered throughout the day.

Hotel Belvedere Nightly summer rates begin at about $315 or €255.



This photo provided by Saundra Virtanen shows Oia, a clifftop village on the island of Santorini, Greece, Sept. 21, 2009. The Greek island of Santorini offers seaside tavernas, cliffside paths, black volcanic rocks and of course, sunshine and the Aegean.


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