Tiers of volcanic strata, jutting 600 feet from the sea, dwarfed our steamer as we entered the watery caldera of the Greek island of Santorini.
Strange white trimming on the crater’s north lip at first resembled autumn snow. But the ship’s persistent plodding soon brought into focus a tangle of Santorini’s white homes and domed churches, glued to the cliffs like swallows’ nests.
Steaming into Santorini’s caldera, the largest of its kind visible above the sea, can be as awe-inspiring a Greek experience as ambling among the marble skeletons of Athens’ Acropolis.
Called Kallisti, “The Loveliest,” when first settled, Santorini is often regarded as the most extraordinary island in the Aegean Sea--one not to miss on a vacation to Greece.
Its villages on cliffs may be the country’s most photographed structures after the Acropolis. Travelers glimpse Greek island life, experience a history rooted in the Atlantis myth and enjoy the comforts of a Greek Island vacation, one already well-known to Europeans.
Pistachio groves line roadways in the countryside. Grape vines carpet the hillsides. Wine production is the life blood of most farmers in this parched landscape, where only half an inch of rain falls each year.
Also known as Thira, Santorini is about 30 square miles in size. It is home to only 8,000 inhabitants in 16 villages, yet sprinkling the landscape are 360 small white churches, a few with domes painted blue to symbolize the sky and heavens.
As locals joke, Santorini has more churches than houses, more donkeys than people and more wine than water.
Yet the sun is more plentiful than even the sweet wines served at eating establishments and taverns. Visitors come to soak up the sun on the island’s black sand and pebble beaches, then spend the evening in the largest village, Thira.
Thira looks like the remaining fringe of a larger metropolis that long ago slid into the sea. It offers a lively array of shops and cliff-side restaurants among a labyrinth of streets made purposefully confusing to outwit pirates, hundreds of years ago.
The atmosphere at night is festive, busy, commercial: yellow lights from display windows flood the narrow streets. Visitors stroll the narrow avenues, stepping into shops, traveling to favorite taverns, munching gyros or gelati.
Quiet open-air restaurants by the precipice are each a stage upon which to view the whitewashed city aglow on the cliffs.
The village’s magical moment, though, comes at dusk when the sun, inching below the horizon, washes the white building facades with brilliant pinks and vibrant purples.
The village returns to the Greeks at dawn, however. The tourist revelry having faded, the home culture surfaces. Grizzled Greek garbage collectors lead teams of donkeys through the narrow streets.
Orthodox Christian priests swoop by in long gray robes, black fezes and rambling beards. Vendors polish and neatly stack fruit on stands protected from the sun by cotton awnings.
Much smaller than Thira, Oia offers Thira’s charm without the commercialization, making it the island’s best retreat. Oia is a short ride north of Thira by bus or car on a road that is hair-raisingly narrow against a steep hillside.
Oia offers a spectacular view of the sunsets over the ocean. But in this town, it’s the Greek life itself that can engulf the visitor. Workers and farmers, faces heavily stubbled, gather at curb side or congregate in taverns at dusk.
At the west edge of Oia, sunbathers can descend hundreds of steps to a secluded beach, then return later upon Greece’s oldest taxi, the donkey.
While the island’s villages offer both shopping and dining, the arid climate is one of the island’s main attractions. At Kamari Beach, travelers on vacation throw out their towels and rent umbrellas for long days on the hot sands. If the rushing surf is not preferred, the Kamari Hotel has a seaside, saltwater swimming pool open to the public.
With few overnight accommodations, Perissa Beach attracts day travelers from Thira. Beach lovers dine under the thatched roofs of outdoor restaurants that line the beach. Small fishing boats often barge ashore to unload crates of freshly caught fish, oysters and lobster for waiting residents, restaurateurs and storekeepers.
Santorini’s role in the myth of Atlantis adds mystique to its reputation. Looking on the map like a snake’s head with its jaws distended, Santorini’s watery mouth was formed by a volcanic cataclysm that swapped land for sea about 1,450 BC, leaving behind the sharply cut rock walls of the caldera and destroying the island’s Minoan civilization.
On the island’s southwest jaw, Akrotiri is an excavated Bronze Age town of three-story dwellings. Many of the buildings are surprisingly intact, having been sealed under 160 feet of pumice as if packed in plastic.
City streets are cleared and buildings identified for their purposes. Akrotiri’s frescos of plants, antelopes and apes have been painstakingly reassembled in the Akrotiri Museum on Santorini and the Archeological Museum in Athens.
Because of Akrotiri’s advanced Minoan culture, Santorini is believed to be one of the two islands Plato described in his story of Atlantis; Crete is the second and largest island. Further, both cultures were destroyed when Santorini’s volcano erupted.
The cataclysm’s earthquake and 200-foot tidal wave devastated the Minoan civilization on Crete 70 miles away. Wiped out by the rage of fire and water, Santorini and Crete fit Plato’s description of Atlantis.
The cataclysm, however, sowed the seeds of another island culture. The destruction left behind volcanic soils rich for vineyards and pistachio groves, black pebbly beaches for sunbathing and hillsides compact enough for digging the many underground homes found inland and along the cliffs.
Civilization eventually returned to the island. The remains of the later Hellenistic civilization is still evident on Santorini, with its toppled columns and foundations of temples, athletic facilities and public markets. Visitors can rent donkeys to ride up the switch-back trail to the site.
Santorini, volcanically explosive during its reshaping, now sends travelers an invitation to come soak up the sun and culture.
Numerous airlines offer service from Los Angeles to Athens. During April and May, KLM has midweek flights available for $799 round trip (30 days’ advance purchase, 7-day minimum/21-day maximum). June through August, the price jumps to $970. TWA and Pan Am offer midweek flights during May for $798 round trip, $970 June through August.
As with all Greek islands, Santorini is popular in the summer months, especially with college-age travelers. Reservations during peak season (July-August) are advised. To avoid the crowds, the island is best visited in spring and fall.
Although accommodations are plentiful (hotel workers solicit travelers as they disembark the ferry), two hotels are worth recommending. In the village of Thira, the Atlantis overlooks the caldera and is next to the picturesque Thira cathedral. Price: $136 U.S. double, April through June; slightly higher durin g the high season.
At Kamari Beach, the Kamari Hotel ($76 double) has seaside accommodations and a saltwater swimming pool, the only pool on the island. Accommodations for both are clean and comfortable, but do not expect the luxury of upscale Western European hotels.
Taxis and buses are inexpensive and mopeds are available for rent.
Santorini is easily accessible from both Athens and other Greek islands by sea or by air. Greece’s domestic Olympic Airways offers two flights daily between Athens and Santorini. It’s $47.20 each way.
Flights are reasonably priced and well worth the cost when balanced against losing a day of vacation time aboard a ferry. Ferries connect Piraeus (the port of Athens) daily with Santorini, though numerous other stops are made along the way. The trip can take upward of 12 hours. Cost is $18 each way. Connections are easily made from other islands as well.
While the villages of Thira and Ia are easily explored on foot and are readily accessible by taxi or bus, tours of the rest of the island’s attractions are well worth considering.
Most tours include wine tasting and trips to Akrotiri and Mt. Profitis Ilias, which rises 1,200 feet above the small island and offers an encompassing view. The guides liven up the tours with stories, though the accuracy of some tales is often questionable. Tours are easily arranged at Thira’s numerous tourist booking agents.
For more information on travel to Greece, contact the Greek National Tourist Organization, 611 West 6th St., Suite 2198, Los Angeles 90017, (213) 626-6696.