Finally, the islands are in sight. After three hours of cruising the gorgeous waters of the Aegean Sea, our ferry pulls into a protected lagoon. A horseshoe-shaped island towers high above the deep sapphire waters. At the lagoon’s centre, effervescent green waters hug three small, ash-coloured, low-lying isles. It is hot and the sun glistens on the sea, every white cap blinding us with its sparkle.
We have almost arrived at Santorini, the southernmost of the Greek Cyclades islands, about 200 kilometres from the mainland. Throughout all its history and many different occupancies, Santorini, named after Saint Irene, has had multiple names: Kalliste, meaning “the most beautiful one”; Strongyl, “the circular one”; and Thera, which refers to the volcano, and is still used. And volcanic activity has literally shaped the island. An estimated 14 known eruptions have occurred on Santorini dating as far back as 198 BC. The island was formed by a series of underwater volcanic eruptions affecting the whole Aegean. But an eruption around 1600 BC destroyed several sophisticated ancient civilizations and caused the island to remain uninhabited for several centuries. Known as the Minoan eruption, it was one of the largest eruptions ever, and it caused a massive tsunami to sweep over coastlines all the way to Africa. This eventually caused the crater to collapse inward and break off the central and western parts of the island. Water surged in, creating the present-day caldera—Santorini’s famous ridge. This ridge—layered with a blend of grey, terracotta, burnt red, brown, and caramel-coloured earth—rises 350 metres out of the sea. The top of the ridge is covered in buildings that cling to the edge of massive cliffs.
Our ferry docks far below this ancient-looking city, and we walk off the boat. The port is scorching hot. Heat is steaming off the looming mountain. We walk toward the cars in search of our driver. Minutes later, we find him. A sweaty, but stylish, lanky guy with a smile on his face and a smoke in hand greets us, “Oh, good—I was beginning to worry.” “You’re not the only one,” I think—the only other ways up the peak are either a 587-stair climb, on one of the resident donkeys, or by cable car. We hop into the small van and make our way up the steep, snaking road.
The caldera on Santorini is the only inhabited one in the world, and it comes to life as the sun melts into the sea.
At the top, we drive through the bustling centre of Fira, the island’s capital. Motor scooters zip in and out of narrow cobblestone streets. Street cafés are lined with people sipping frappés, the signature Greek foamy iced coffee. Even though it is the island’s centre, we sense an ancient culture embracing the developed tourism trade. A weathered old man wearing a fishing cap, dark jeans, and a snappy, white, tailored button-down shirt sits on a crate selling sea sponges. We eventually arrive at Fira’s promenade: a labyrinth of cafés, restaurants, trendy bars, nightclubs, clothing stores, jewellery boutiques, and souvenir shops that ring the caldera. A man dressed all in white appears, greeting us with a simple nod, and grabs our bags. We follow him down a meandering whitewash maze, underneath canopies of bougainvillea and past endless residences. Houses dug into the cliffs are crowded against each other, almost supporting each other as they reach out over the abyss. There are white terraces, vaults, and archways with elaborate blue or purple-painted gates.
It is hot and humid, with no breeze, so we are relieved to see the gates to our hotel, the aptly named Athina Repose. Eugenia, the manager, pours us glasses of sweet peach juice as she checks us in. The boutique hotel grips the edge of the cliff’s rock, and the pool gives the illusion of seamlessly flowing into the Aegean even though we’re high above it. The magnificent stillness of the sea and the volcanic islands in the near distance are a mesmerizing sight. The view not only inspires, it evokes a personal sense of limitless possibilities. The sunset here is a spectacular layered palette of pink and red, orange and purple. The caldera on Santorini is the only inhabited one in the world, and it comes to life as the sun melts into the sea. Every bar and restaurant perched on its rim becomes a balcony where people gather to gaze out as the sun descends into the Aegean.
The following day we rent a scooter, the best way to see the 73-square-kilometre island. I hop on back of our bike and we head off into the Santorini countryside. Vineyards bearing scratchy low-lying grape shrubs cover much of Santorini’s hills, stretching from the eastern shores all the way up to the caldera. We pass families picking grapes at sunset and setting them out for the sun to dry tomorrow. Small family-run farms weave throughout all 13 villages. White eggplant, fava beans, capers, and cherry tomatoes are indigenous to these windswept, sunburnt slopes.
The magnificent stillness of the sea and the volcanic islands in the near distance are a mesmerizing sight. The view not only inspires, it evokes a personal sense of limitless possibilities.
We stop at a taverna along the low road. Our table sits on a slab of concrete that jets out over the sea. Waves splash our feet. Andreas, the owner, greets us. He takes us through his kitchen, picking up a plate of tzatziki and a jug of assyrtiko wine from his cousin’s vineyard on the way to the table. The wine has a sweet metallic element and complements the grilled clams and octopus. Andreas’s daughter brings us meze plates of fried white eggplant and giant fava beans simmered in tomatoes. And if that isn’t enough, out comes our host’s proud catch of the day: a flakey white fish in its entirety, eyes and all, simply grilled and drizzled with olive oil, lemon, and salt and pepper. Andreas pulls up a chair and we share homemade halvah over tales of his grandfather’s life as a fisherman.
After lunch, we pass Akrotiri, one of the most important archaeological discoveries in the Mediterranean; the prehistoric city was buried by lava during the Minoan eruption. We continue to Red Beach, Santorini’s most famous beach. A red lava mountain emerges from the red and black sands, where clear blue waves crash upon its shores. It is a spectacular natural dichotomy of colour. The island’s volcanic eruptions have created vivid beaches on both the southern and eastern coasts: long stretches of black sand, small hidden coves of golden pebbles, white pumice beaches, tiny bays with massive cliffs, sculpted boulders that provide natural shade, and shorelines alive with sunken volcanic activity.
Santorini is not just another hot spot. It is a wondrously historical place with dramatic presence. Very rarely do simple pleasures like a sip of wine, a walk through vineyards, a swim in a volcanic sea, a rest on red and black shores, and a sensational sunset permeate the soul so deeply. It is the scenic intensity that allows Santorinians to move through their everyday existence with such calm, ease, and unperturbed grace. Life seems to unfold here without intentionally added drama. The drama is in the surrounding natural beauty and it brings a calming simplicity. It is a place so far from the overwhelming and self-imposed stress of daily life. Santorini’s long history of eruptions and earthquakes has made life here occasionally unpredictable. But like the grapevines firmly rooted in its soil, producing such rich crops, so is the will of the people—firm, persistent, and unshakeable in their determination to thrive.