To experience Santorini's unusual geography, it's best to approach this Cycladic island from the sea. The barren rocky cliffs rise straight out of the blue Aegeantheir tops are dusted by what at first looks like a sprinkling of snow. Then, as you get closer, the snow takes the shape of Cycladic buildings hanging precariously off the hillsides. Zigzagging lines across the rock face become recognizable as roads that lead up from the sea to whitewashed houses perching on the cliffs.
Santorini owes its geological peculiarities to a massive volcanic explosion some 3,500 years ago that blew out the center of the island. (The blast often is cited as the reason for the decline of the Minoan civilization on nearby Crete.) The cliffs that jut out of the sea are what's left of the crater rim. The surrounding islands are what remain of the other sides of the crater, and the sea has filled in the gaps, forming a beautiful bay. It's not surprising that the island's spectacular setting has made it one of the most visited islands in Greeceit can be crowded in the summer months. But Santorini is still worth a few days' visit.
Most visitors who arrive by ferry (a 10-hour trip from Athens) take the buses from the main port at Athinios up to Fira, the capital of the island. Fira (also called Thera, Fyra or Thira) is the largest of several towns perched on the rim and is known for its charming shops, unusual hotels (many have pools hanging off the cliffs), and bars and restaurants with smashing sunset views (everything faces west over the caldera). Just walking through the town is an exhilarating experienceyou feel as if you're on top of the world. Fira also has its own small port, which can be reached via a funicular cable car, on a donkey or by climbing down some 600 steps. (We recommend taking the cable car down for the views and a donkey back up for the novelty.) From Fira, you can take a public bus to other parts of the island.
We particularly recommend spending an afternoon and evening in Oia, a smaller version of Fira located on the northern tip of the island. It's hard to imagine, but the sunsets are even more spectacular from there. If you walk down (about 300 steps) to Oia's tiny port, you can snorkel off the black volcanic rocks or dine at one of several pleasant seafood tavernas whose tables front the water. (You can catch a donkey ride back up the hill for a small fee.)
If you're looking for a pleasant beach, you'll have to settle for black volcanic sand (small rocks really) on the eastern side of the island. Buses run regularly from Fira to Kamari and Perissa, whose black-sand beaches front a string of tourist hotels, restaurants and shops. You can also take a day trip to Akrotira to view the excavations of this Minoan-era town that's covered in volcanic ash. (A visit will be particularly interesting if you have seenor plan to seethe mosaics that were recovered from the town and are on display in the National Archaeological Museum in Athens.) You can also visit a ruined medieval castle with unusual frescoes. Boat excursions take visitors across the caldera to small, uninhabited volcanic islands, some of which still spout steam. Another island attraction is the Atlantis submarine, on which passengers can visit two shipwrecks and view the underwater wildlife around the sunken volcano.
Santorini's volcanic soil gets credit for the island's reputation for producing strong red and white wines. Be sure to try some or, better yet, tour one of the local wineries. Wine tastings are common throughout the year. The island is also renowned as a culinary trendsetter. Its typical local producepea-type fava, white eggplants and tiny tomatoesis used by innovative chefs to create excellent fare. Gourmet restaurants such as 1800 in Oia and Koukoumavlos in Fira are among the country's best.
Though public transportation on the island is good and inexpensive, buses can be very crowded in summer months. Rental cars are available if you want to explore on your own. Be aware, however, that hairpin turns and narrow roads are commonplace. For that reason, we don't recommend renting a motorcycle or scooter (though you will see plenty) unless you are an experienced driver.
Santorini is a popular stop for cruise ships during the warmer months. Most ships anchor beneath Fira and transport passengers to shore in small boats. 145 mi/235 km southeast of Athens.
Message Edited by LL_Editor on 11-13-2006 02:27 PM