Cliche time, but there’s one Greek holiday island that really deserves its place on any ‘must see’ list before you take the final trip no traveller ever returns from.
No surprise to be told that it’s Santorini, which stakes a firm claim to being the inspiration for the mythical paradise of Atlantis and still manages to cast a spell on everyone lucky enough to go there.
The approach is simply stunning, especially by sea, as you sail in under the towering, multi-coloured cliffs, with the picture-postcard clusters of gleaming white houses and blue-domed churches icing the top at the capital, Fira, and picturesque Oia.
Once ashore and doing the tourist bit, the first thing that strikes you about the beaches is that the sand is black. Or sometimes white. Or even red – but mainly black for mile after unspoiled mile.
When the waves come crashing in, as they often do when the wind works itself up to more than a refreshing breeze, the chunks of rock they dislodge are likely to float around on the sea, which looks distinctly strange the first time you see it.
Surreal is you’re more used to the usually brown-ish sandy beaches around our shores,like the wide-open spaces of Southport or Lytham St Annes, or playing at being Beau Geste in the dunes.
It becomes even more bizarre the more you look at what you’re walking on – and realise you’re visiting one of the most amazing places on the planet.
There’s always a bit of falling out in archeological circles, and there’s a new bit of disagreement, I believe, but but there’s still a firm belief that this gem in the Cyclades was indeed the home of the mysterious vanished civilisation of Atlantis.
The crescent-shaped mecca for cruise ships surging dramatically out of the Aegean is all that is left after a volcanic eruption of almost unimaginable scale around 1,500BC, causing tsunamis which crippled and, many believe, wiped out the Minoan civilisation on Crete no less than 70 miles away to the south.
The cataclysmic eruption buried everything under 30 metres of ash, before the crater collapsed and the sea poured in, leaving the jagged rim that is the Santorini of today.
Continuing finds at ancient Akrotiri under the compacted ash and pumice – the rock that floats! – can claim to put Pompeii in the shade, with constantly-emerging evidence of a large and advances, multi-storey city with a social structure to match, while us Brits were still polishing our axes in the Bronze Age.
The legacy is all around, with even the most casual and unaware of visitors struck by wind-carved rocks which look straight off a Star Trek set, cave houses dug into hillsides all over the island, and cliffs sculpted into shapes which would be impressive in the Tate Modern. There’s little agriculture to speak of, thanks to a devastating earthquake in the 1950s, and virtually no vegetation apart from grapevines and ultra-tasty tomatoes, grown in a special way to duck the scouring winds, with some capers and olives thrown in.
Here, the visitor scores again, with Santorini producing some very drinkable wines, ranging from crisp, dry whites to robust reds and the sweet dessert Vinsanto, perfect for toasting sunsets people travel from all corners of the world to see.
To cater for the even more romantic, the impressive Santo Winery, perched in a prime wedding spot high on the caldera, near Pyrgos, has introduced a new methode champenoise fizz that would stand up to many a big-name champers and most posh proseccos. I know, I tried it.
Santo and its wines and nibbles is amazingly-good value for money, but staying on the what has been billed as the world’s most romantic island does have its downside when it comes to finding value for money.
You don’t, for example, take the amazing drive through an astonishing landscape down to the Theros Wave Bar at Vlychada (and, sadly, past what must be the most insensitive piece of trash development yet!) and ask for a cocktail without checking the price first. Admittedly, this uber-trendy watering hole is a bit special and IS worth the trip, but it pays to be wary about prices in prime spots.
No such worries if you feel peckish on the way to the Red Beach along the same stretch of south coast near Akrotiri and call in a fish taverna I remember well from years ago. Relax and take your time at the Glaros restaurant, accept the invitation to take a look in the kitchen to see what’s on offer, and enjoy a long, long, leisurely lunch that will linger on in your memory, too.
Here at the Glaros, you can be greeted by the youngsters of the family, choose a fish caught by dad and landed only yards away, and watch as your veg and salad is picked from the garden by mum. Take your time to admire the view as your meal is made, then raise a glass of their home-made wine to toast a timeless Greek experience that all too often is a thing of the past. And the bill is bit old-fashioned compared to what you would expect to pay in Fira.
Perissa and Perivolos are also on the southern coast and cater very much for the tourist market, which might not be for everyone’s taste, but certainly worth a look.
We stayed in Kamari, just around the huge, high headland which is the site of the island’s ancient capital – a five-minute trip by handy water taxi from Perissa, or a scenic drive by car, via Emporio and back to Pyrgos, gateway to the rest of the island.
Kamari is a bustling resort in season, but it is also an established little town with family life at its heart, where local live all year round – and families like Mantha and Stefanos Chalaris (and their great kids!) welcome friends back time and again to their Black Sand apartments and hotel near the seafront.
If you love the high life, you can also discover that luxury hideaways aren’t confined to Fira, its upmarket neighbour Imerovigli, or sunset spot Oia, because just outside Kamari is a stunning, private retreat I can’t wait to visit again at any time of year with genial host Michalis.
Didn’t get chance to chat very much the first time I went there, because it just took my breath away and I was speechless – just take a look.
I must keep doing the Lottery. Yammas!
We travelled by easyJet from Manchester, almost a ‘given’ because the airline’s founder, Stelios, hails from the island – but it pays to look carefully at travelling dates to get the best prices.
If you don’t fancy a package, surf around to find a place to stay, and then give property owners a call – they want your business and welcome the personal touch.