Irene Lopez Martinez, Travioor's founder and CEO, shares her recommendations for having a truly handsome time on the beautiful Greek island of Santorini.
Famed for its dazzling good looks, Santorini (also known as Thira) sits pretty in the southern Aegean Sea. It's part of a circular archipelago of smaller islands which bear the same name. Although stunningly beautiful, this Greek archipelago has suffered severe disfigurement since its formation. Once a sizeable, single island, Santorini has been rocked by a lifetime of volcanic activity and eventually broke up into four pieces some 3,600 years ago during one of the largest volcanic eruptions in recorded history.
After another eruption in 1950 and a major earthquake in 1956, many of Santorini's wealthier inhabitants chose to leave rather than to rebuild, sending the small Mediterranean island into an economic depression. The island's iconic blue and white buildings are a testament to the hard work of those, the poorest, who stayed on. Thanks to their dedication to reconstruction, the island was raised from decline to major tourist hub with resorts that today command some of the highest prices in Europe (prices which the scarcity of fresh water on the island further pushes up.)
Although they wring destruction, volcanic activity also produces great beauty and rebirth, and the case of Santorini is no different. The island's violent volcanic history bequeathed it a dazzling crescent shape that curls around sparking caldera waters (that reach to a startling depth of 400 metres or so) which reflect the sunset like nowhere else on earth. Combine the island's exquisite natural features with the charm of blue and white villages and a population who have a firm dedication to tourism and you're onto an expensive but undisputed holiday winner. While no hotel on Santorini can really be considered cheap, Hotel Villa Renos is an appealing 'budget' option with a great location in the capital Fira and caldera-edge views.
Irene Lopez Martinez, travel fanatic and founder of Travioor, discovers this incredibly interesting island and shares with us her nine recommendations for having a really beautiful time here, as well as some tips for staying solvent while doing so.
1. You'll Need a Car
You'll hear it over and over again, "Santorini is an island of sunsets", and you really must appreciate them from several different vantage points. You'll also want to do a tour of the island's many small beaches (more on both below). In short, to get the full island experience, moving about is essential. If money is an issue, then the public KTEL bus service is very reliable with routes running from the main bus station in Fira, to most parts of the island every hour during the summer months.
If you don't feel like grappling with schedules in Greek, or want to stay out past 11 p.m when most services finish, then at the other end of the spectrum are the island's taxis which you'll find at a taxi rank near the main square in Fira. Like gold dust in high season, Santorini taxis are infamously expensive, especially if you call for one to collect you rather than hailing one at the rank in Fira (you'll be charged a pick-up fee as well as the cost of the driver’s fare from Fira) and you can be left waiting for longer than you bargained for due to the high demand. Some of the main routes are fixed price but be prepared to bargain for less popular routes and always make sure you agree a price with the driver before you set off. It's also a good idea to write down the address of your final destination for the driver to avoid any confusion.
For a happy medium and flexibility in low season, your best bet is to rent a car. The island is really quite small with just a handful of roads that cross it so getting lost shouldn't be a problem, and if you book it online in advance of your arrival (Easycar offer competitive rates) then it can be very affordable.
A word of caution: you're likely to encounter lots of places advertising motorbikes and quad bikes as fun ways to get around the island, especially if you visit in summer. These may look like fun but don't be tempted. Aside from running the unpleasant risk of sunstroke from riding about all day with your head in the sun, you'll be exposed to the much more serious risk of injury on the island's rather rocky roads.
2. Ditch the Donkey Ride
The donkey might be the most valuable animal on the island, but sadly this doesn't mean that the quality of their lives is always valued. Traditionally used by construction workers, donkeys are now mostly used to bring tourists to hard to reach spots in the busy summer months. Many blogs will tell you that you absolutely must take a donkey ride from the Old Port (also known as Skala) up to the 800-metre high cliff town of Fira (Santorini's capital) but don't be seduced by this romantic image.
Donkey tourism in Santorini is a very controversial issue with many animal welfare groups reporting that animals are denied access to shade, water and rest for hours at a time and made to wear poor quality saddles and bridles that cause them pain. Forgo the mules, choose the cable car instead, and in a three-minute ride you'll be at the top of the world admiring a stunning view of the caldera below, offset by an immaculate conscience.
3. See the Island Through its Food
As for most Mediterranean destinations, it’s hard to find bad food in Santorini and your main trouble will be choosing from the menu. Start with a Santorini Salad, a sublime adaptation of the traditional Greek Salad that combines all the usual ingredients of tomatoes, cucumbers, onion, feta cheese and olives doused in olive oil with capers and a hefty sprinkling of oregano. Unsurprisingly for a destination so surrounded by sea, Santorini's seafood is utterly unmissable so next, opt for octopus served traditionally and very simply bathed in the freshest of olive oil. Potatoes with Parmesan cheese are to Greece what Patatas bravas are to Spain and they make a great accompaniment to fresh octopus. Alternatively, you'll find them served as a cheap snack at pretty much every tavern going so there's no excuse for leaving without having a taste. Finish up with tsoureki, a braided brioche treat that's also served for breakfast, or 'loukomades' - golden balls of dough covered in honey.
Travel to Pygros in the interior of the island and you'll find one of those spots that shines for their authenticity. Metaxy Mas Tavern is located next to the church of Agios Charalampos and as a favourite amongst locals, it can get busy so make a reservation and ask for a terrace table overlooking the valley.
Caldera views at restaurants in Oia come with a price tag but you'll want to splash out for this experience at least once during your stay. Even if you're staying elsewhere, the restaurant at The Hotel Santorini Secret serves up both an incredible caldera sunset and an unrivalled Santorini salad. Alternatively, try the Ambrosia Restaurant which although slightly touristy and not too kind on the wallet, boasts views that made it a filming location for the movie Mamma Mia. The Ammoudi Fish Tavern in the port is also a good shout but make sure to ask for a table on the terrace if you want to enjoy an incredible sunset.
4. Sail Around the Caldera in a Catamaran
After seeing just how hard all the various tour companies push this excursion, you'd be forgiven for flagging a caldera catamaran tour as a tourist trap. But truth be told, it's actually a really spectacular way to explore a huge portion of the island in just half a day with access to special locations that are only accessible by boat.
Along the tour you'll be taken to hot springs that are fed by island's volcanic activity and quite fascinatingly, vary from day to day in temperature. Any tour worth its salt will also bring you to the 'Red Beach'. Although the name might suggest otherwise, the main attraction here is swimming in the crystal clear waters surrounding the beach which itself is more of a crowded rocky patch. You'll also be brought to snorkel around the caldera where you'll encounter lots of colourful fish in perfect visibility.
5. Avoid Akrotiri
While I'd usually always insist on making time for history and culture, unless you have a specialist interest, put simply, the Bronze Age Minoan ruins at Akrotiri are not worth the visit.
You'll be charged a hefty €12 entrance fee only to be greeted by very little information (inexplicably, there's more information in Russian then in English, or even Greek). It's no secret that the economic crisis had a huge impact on Greece and its islands and unfortunately you'll feel this starkly at this government-run historical site with run down facilities and disheartened staff.
6. Spend Some Time On The Sand
While Santorini is most definitely an island paradise, you won't find the idyllic stretches of white or golden sand that you might expect from many of Greece's seaside havens. Because of its volcanic nature, the island's beaches are usually of black volcanic sand and stone that retain the day's heat. They're also usually quite small and in the summer months the most popular can get rather busy leaving no chance for late comers to find a space for their towels.
Santorini's most famous beach is the Red Beach which you'll just a few steps away from the ancient site of Akrotiri. As its name suggests, this beach is strikingly colourful with a dramatic headland of red and black volcanic cliff face surrounding the sand. It's rather small and a must on most visitors' to-do lists which means it can get incredibly crowded.
Kamari is another very popular beach and it's located 10 kms southeast of Fira. Lined by traditional houses, this black sand beach is a bit bigger than its sisters and it's fully equipped with a sunbed and umbrella station and a plethora of beachside bars, cafes and water sports facilities. It's known for a huge rock called Mesa Vouno that rises from the sea and seems to shine at night, adding a really romantic ambience to the beach at nightfall.
There are a whole host of other beach spots and I'd recommend going to see each, but for a day on the sand, my pick would be Eros Beach. Located north of Vlihada Beach at the south part of Santorini, it's tiny but relatively unknown meaning that you shouldn't have much competition for a lounger and umbrellas (usually amounting to €10 for two people). There's also a great lounge bar and restaurant serving drinks called Theros Wave Bar which makes it very comfortable to pass the day here.
7. Catch A Couple Of Sunsets
The sunset is Santorini's crowning jewel and there are several spots where you simply must see it from.
Viewed from the Castle of Oia (in the north of the island), the sunset is said to be the most beautiful in the world. Word has spread so make sure to arrive at least one and a half hours in advance to secure a spot.
Personally, I think the sunset at the lighthouse trumps the sunset at the castle. You'll find the lighthouse in the south of the island and for a perfect evening spent here pack a picnic and something comfortable to sit on and wait for the horizon to burn with a gorgeous orange glow.
Get your sunset served with dinner at the foot of Oia in a restaurant at the port. Make sure to book ahead and you'll experience some of the best views of your life.
8. Kayak Around the Caves
For an adventurous and fun way to explore the island, book a guided sea kayak tour. This is an amazing way to see Santorini's coloured cliffs and its beaches and bays from a wholly new perspective.
I recommend a tour of the south of the island that takes in the cave-houses at Mesa Pigadia and brings you past most of the more famous beaches. There's usually also time for swimming and snorkelling in the caldera and a look at the islands of Thirasia and Aspronisi from the water. For added wow, choose a trip that ends at sunset.
9. End on a High
Your trip has come to end and you're sun tanned and relaxed so don't spoil it by having a heart attack at the airport.
Unfortunately, Santorini's airport is not one of Europe's most organised and all flights are handled from the same check-in window resulting in a line that seems to stretch forever and population of uber stressed flyers just itching to shout at potential queue jumpers. Seriously, it’s a jungle in there and you'll have to repeat this experience three times after check-in, with gargantuan, kilometre lines for bag drop and two security controls. Bring a book and give yourself a full three hours and you'll breeze through, retaining the calm of someone who's just been on holidays and is returning with nothing but dreamy memories of a beautiful time spent on Santorini.