Note: This post – truncated but still lengthy – deals with visiting the Aegean generally and with Santorini in particular. I’m saving Naxos for another post. Corfu is still a few days away – that will get its own treatment as well.
A few things have been developing in my mind over the last five nights in the Kyklades (Cyclades) Islands in the Aegean Sea. Foremost has been the vast difference in atmospheres of Santorini and Naxos. I keep finding myself at a loss for words appropriate to describing the beauty of each experience I’ve had, but I’ll do my best to break it down a bit here as I offer some travel tips and advice.
Getting to the Aegean
First off, for a first-timer to the Aegean, you should know something about planning a visit. From mainland Europe, flights to Santorini (or to Athens, if you prefer, or to Corfu in the Adriatic – and I cannot speak to the other island airports) are relatively cheap. My friends and I obtained our tickets a few months in advance for under 100 Euros one-way. If you can go carry-on only, it’s often cheaper, as checked baggage is charged a la carte (my 20-euro fee brought my total to near 100 euros in sum).
Once you reach the islands of the Aegean, you’ll need to visit more than one island. Ferry tickets seem to cost between 30 and 100 euros, depending on scheduling, fare class, and type of boat booked. My first trip, from Santorini to Naxos, was booked on an average boat in the coach class. That ran me about 40 euros. The second trip, from Naxos to Athens – a longer trip on a faster boat in a higher class of service – cost around 80 euros. You should plan stops on more than one island to get a flavor of the wildly different travel cultures available to you. This is easy to do, provided you don’t visit just one sort of island (e.g. only the party islands or only the quiet/romantic islands). Do not plan to fly from island to island – take the ferry!
(A note about cruise ships. This seems to be a cheap way to see lots of places – and there are Kyklades-specific tours, I’m sure. However, I’ve never liked to be on someone else’s schedule, and though I wouldn’t rule out this mode of travel for the future, it’s unthinkable for the present. And while there are built-in conveniences to traveling by cruise ship, there are built-in inconveniences as well. For example, visitors to Santorini arrive in the annoyingly far-from-center, new port, from which they must take a transfer-ferry and then funicular or take a bus to Fira – and then back in time to meet the boat at the end of the day. On three successive mornings, I watched from my seaside patio as the big boat settled in for the day in the caldera portion of the sea after disgorging its passengers. I was glad not to have any part of it.)
Best known for its theatric sunsets, this is a famous and tourist-laden island in the Kyklades island chain in the Aegean Sea (part of the Mediterranean). You can picture Santorini like this: it’s a volcano. So, I can help paint a picture for you. Imagine a volcano. Now, expand the size of the volcano to be about five miles across in diameter. Got it so far? Good. Next, imagine the center – the caldera – is filled with water, tinged aqua blue but silvery clear. The north, east, and south rims of the volcano are the island of Santorini. The center of the volcano has a bit of land poking up, and the western edge is its own island. The northwest and southern ends of the rim of the volcano are underwater. And yes, the tourists all clap and cheer following each sunset.
Here are some suggestions for your visit to Santorini. The list here isn’t exhaustive, of course, but it covers what I know and have gathered from my short stay there.
Where to Stay in Santorini
There are two main towns on the island of Santorini that most visitors should consider for accommodations:: Thira/Fira and Oia. Imerovigli is a third town that I did not visit but that my friends did. On my next visit, I’ll stay there, as it is reportedly less popular but offers excellent viewpoints and is less shopping-centered. Do not stay anywhere else, I think. In three days, my pals and I drove north and south, east and west, and these are the only three places seemingly worth paying to visit. There are beach resorts and other groups of hotels and bed and breakfasts, but they are not located near the views of sunset, the quaint towns, or food options. (The beach hotels particularly along the southern coast of the island seemed to be blatant price-gouges for no location-specific benefit and no sunset views.) You can drive to these places, if you’d like to visit for an afternoon, but stay in Oia, Fira, or the much quieter Imerovigli. (If you’re interested in what is properly thought of as “tourism,” I’d steer you away from the third option, in fact.)
If you want to see the other parts of the island, you should follow my next piece of advice. Namely, you ought to rent a car. (Travelers from the USA will need an international license, obtainable from a AAA office in the states; you cannot obtain one while you’re on your visit abroad, and you cannot rent a car without one, so plan accordingly.) If you are traveling extremely lightly (and I mean lighter than a backpack, as I am), you could rent a four-wheeler or a motorbike/moped. It should be possible to get around by bus on Santorini, but it is not as convenient as it would be in a big city with a robust transit system. No surprise there, right? So, rent a vehicle.
Oia comprises a main east-west (along the peninsula that is the northern bit of the island) artery of artsy shops and jewelers as well as, running to the north from the main artery, smaller and winding footpaths worth exploration. To the south of that main artery is a steep hill facing the caldera. The cave house in which you should stay is located on this hill – do not bother if you don’t want or unable to climb a lot of steep steps. Caldera-facing cave-apartments seem to run between 150 and 500 euros per night, with 200 euros being the cutoff for getting a private pool (think enlarged hot tub in terms of size) and not getting the pool.
The shops on the main artery cater strictly to tourists, and largely to high-end tourists. That’s not to say that you won’t find bits of art or necklaces for a decent price, or meals for under 20 euros, but the point here is that the point of the street is for shopping. I cannot understand why someone would come to Santorini to go shopping, but if that’s your bag, have at it – you’re not alone. There are a series of restaurants that double as morning cafes and often feature terraces overlooking the sea. Eat there, if only once (so it was in my case, given my budget). There are at least two or three cheap places on the northward downslope for gyros (usually 3-4 euros apiece).
There’s one standout on the main road for travelers like me. Atlantis Books is on the southern side of the main drag of shops, and it’s the only business I felt compelled to enter, apart from a market for some water (don’t drink the water on the islands) and Greek yogurt. I’ve written a separate post about the bookshop. If you go to Santorini and like bookstores, do not skip this world-renowned destination for book lovers.
Here’s the thing about visiting Oia. You really ought to shell out the 200-or-whatever euros a night to stay in a cave. It’s not something you’re likely to do anywhere else. If you have friends with you, as I was lucky enough to have on this occasion, the price is easier to stomach. If you’re a higher-end traveler, this is a no-brainer. If you’re like me, and it’s a struggle to throw 60 or 80 euros per night into accommodations, it’s a tough call. But if you can spare it, you won’t regret the cost of the experience. (Though the houses and apartments are caves, but they’re finely apportioned – we’re not talking about cave camping here.) If you follow the main drag to its westward end and continue downhill, there’s a lovely pool and café that my fellows report worth a visit. There are two beaches that it’s possible but not fun to walk to on the extreme west and southwestern edges of the northern peninsula of Santorini. The southern of the two is popular and offers cliff jumping for the adventurer. The northern of the pair is quieter and offers a café with a terrace (one of my most relaxing afternoons of my life spent there) but is less happening than the other.
To view the sunset in Oia, head to its western edge or to the terraced restaurants on the northern side of the Main Street, both of which offer tremendous perspectives on that daily solar event. I couldn’t bring myself to sit with the hundreds of other visitors and tourists packed into the most popular locations of Oia, however, and I missed the sunset both nights of my visit (the first intentionally and the second because of a time-zone snafu).
Thira / Fira
I didn’t miss the sunset on the third night of my visit to Santorini. It helped that our lodging, again caldera-facing but also west-facing, had a private terrace on its rooftop. Fira is, like Oia, focused on a main drag – two, in fact, though this one runs north-south rather than east-west. To the west of this main artery is a steep hillside followed by precipitous drop into the sea. The steep hillside is packed with hotels, bed and breakfasts, and – like ours – private apartments and room rentals. There don’t appear to be cave lodgings in Fira, and it is the more modern of the two main towns in terms of accommodations. When I say “packed in,” we’re talking sardines. The streets between blocks of apartments and hotels are wide enough only for a donkey or person to walk – and not both simultaneously. An estimate of the number of people watching the sunset on my evening in Fira… a conservative estimate… might be around 10,000. I didn’t walk the shops in Fira, either, because most of our visit was occupied by sunset on our rooftop and by our daytime visit to the Black and Red beaches.
This place seemed pretty happening at night. I can’t report on it directly, however, because I stayed in after sunset to write and to pack for departure the following day. The music and bars were hopping, though – i could hear them from my place halfway down the hillside.
For sunsets, get to the top of the hill and its main walkway, or stay at your hotel/room and watch from a terrace or footpath.
The Red Beach / Black Beach
Drive southward on the island and find your way to the Red Beach. There’s parking nearby an old Greek Orthodox Church and a winding hillside path (despite the sign warning that no one should enter the path due to rockslides, under normal conditions there is no genuine exposure to danger, but this a moderate hike of perhaps .25 mile here requiring minimal scrambling). The Red Beach is crowded, popular, and beautiful. A 5-euro (round trip) boat ride will get you from the beach here to the Black Beach. And this should be your real goal. The black beach is less crowded (though not unpopular) and offers a chance for you to swim 100 yards off shore and along the cliff sides to a cave that runs all the way through the edge of a mountain that reaches down to the sea. I have never before seen the aquamarine hues of blue as those I found in the cave, and it is not to be missed if you’re a swimmer. (Kids who can swim can reach this place fairly easily with their parents, provided the waters are calm, which they likely will be on most days absent a storm.) A sandbar in the elbow of the cave makes it possible to stand and wade through the center portion of the cave, but you’ll want to follow it through to its opposite end and perhaps have a seat on a large rock outside the exit to the cave.
Keep in mind that the caldera beaches of Santorini are rocky. Swim shoes are a good move, for this reason, and towels – if only to provide a heat barrier – are required if you want to avoid toasting your britches. (Renting a space under a thatched umbrella with recliners usually runs 20-30 euros – a luxury well out of my price range for such a trifle.)
That’s it. That’s all I’ve got for Santorini. I hope it was helpful, and do let me know if I’ve missed anything.