Santorini Spellbound

In this mythical lost city of Atlantis, many treasures lie waiting

By Edwin Soon

The birth of Santorini began with its total destruction. Around 1630 BC, angry Gods caused a catastrophic volcanic eruption, wiping out all traces of life in the Minoan capital leaving only a large caldera, volcanic ash, lava and pumice stone behind. And what a difference 3,600 years makes. Every year, more than one million intrepid travelers, including many a starry-eyed honeymooner, choose to spend their first days of married life here. At this, the most dramatic of the Greek islands, perched on the southernmost of the Cycladic islands.

Where else but in Santorini (also known as Thira) can one find snow-white cube villages straddling sheer cliffs, blue-domed churches and arid rocky landscapes aside multi-coloured sand beaches. All surrounded by the tranquil, azure waters of the Aegean Sea.

Aside from its obvious outstanding natural geography, well-heeled visitors will feel much at home in Santorini. If it’s creature comforts they crave – Santorini caters, above and beyond. Luxurious swank hotels with views like-no-where-else-on-earth abound whist traditional ‘cave’ hotels provide a sense of history. Gourmands can indulge in outstanding restaurants and lively tavernas, where the catch-of-the-day is literally netted from the sea seconds earlier. Shopping takes on a different vibe here – unique and unusual finds – from Minoan statues to jewelry can be had, for a price, in tiny boutiques set in glamorous and charming villages with flagstone streets.

Rock-stars, film stars, heads of states, old and new money arrive in Santorini in their own dramatic fashion. Some choose to fly in by private planes (the flight from Athens is a mere 45 minutes) whilst others arrive in luxury sailboats – there is docking for mega yachts in either of the two ports.

Deciding where to stay on this tiny (73 km square) island is key. Every village has it’s own ambiance and rhythm. The beaches, concentrated on the east and south of the island (of which the majority are volcanic black sand) span from isolated to those favoured by the reality TV producers of The Perfect Catch. Kamari beach has its share of tourists whist Baxedes beach, to the north-east flaunts a more genteel clientele.
The towns of Fira, Firostefani, Oia/Ia or Imerovigli are perched at the summit of the island’s crescent-moon shaped caldera. Most visitors will undoubtedly pass through Fira, Santorini’s capital, located 600 steps above the old port (and where many a cruise ship will dock).

As much as it’s picturesque with its narrow alleys and Venetian manors, Fira is as commercial as it gets. In the peak season, day-trippers spill out of the cruise liners and the streets become grid locked. Much the exception on this island, you’ll also find nightclubs, bars and loud music here. On a positive note, many museums, churches, cathedrals and great restaurants are situated here and should not be missed.

You’ll breathe easier in Firostefani village with its sweeping views of the capital and the sea, situated just above Fira. And at the northern tip of Santorini is the picture-postcard caldera-rim settlement of Oia – noted for it’s windmills, charming manicured walkways, 19th century merchant’s villas and restored troglodytic peasant houses spread around the ruins of a 13th century Venetian castle. Luxury accommodations abound here, thanks to the strict zoning laws as do gentrified shopping and dining options. Oia is also where you’ll witness Santorini’s sunset at it’s most dramatic. A point to note before choosing to reside at any of the caldera villages is to prepare for challenging walks and steep steps. The island, after all is the product of nature at its rawest. A pair of good walking shoes and a spirit of adventure will take you to some of the most awe-inspiring views on earth.

For our stay, we choose the Astra Apartments and Suites – one of the luxury hotels carved into the cliff side above the magnificent caldera in serene Imerovigli, built opposite the volcanic isles of Nea Kameni, Palea Kameni and Thirassia. We arrived in the ‘preserved’ town square at 330 meters above sea level to waiting Astra porters only to notice, to our surprise, all heads turned to the sea. For several minutes, everyone froze, captivated, as a great orange ball of fire languidly made its way into the big blue Sea. Mesmerized, we forgot to take photos of what was truly the most Godly sunset we had ever witnessed but all its vivid details remains with us to this day –in our memories.

With 16 apartments and 12 suites, restaurant, eternity pool and brand-new spa, the charm of the Astra remains in its intimate size and personalized service. From a distance, it looks like a tiny, whitewashed village of its own. The spacious accommodations are decorated in the traditional Cycladic style, of curved white walls, high vaulted ceilings and stone floors, offering guests a taste of genuine island life. Minimalist sculptures by renowned Greek artist, Yorgos Kypris can be found throughout the hotel. For the ultimate in indulgence, book the very private Deluxe Pool Suite with its spacious balcony and panoramic caldera views. Not-to-be-missed are the famous Astra cooked breakfasts (complete with homemade Greek yogurt, delis and freshly-squeezed juices) delivered to the room or poolside each morning by the young and hip Astra staff.

There are guests who check into their sublime lodgings and never leave throughout their stay. We were falling into that category until the third day when curiosity got the better of us. Our hotel subsequently armed us with pages of handwritten recommendations of the best places to dine and visit on the island. A brand-new Smart car was delivered and off we went, exploring!

First stop was for us to pay homage to Santorini’s past – the ruined city of Ancient Thira.
Located on a high rocky headland, one must endure many hair-raising hairpin turns to finally reach the top of windswept Mesa Vouna. Originally occupied by the Dorains in 9th century BC, most of the well-preserved structures date back to the Hellenistic era (4th century BC). As we strolled down the ancient main street, past the Temple of Dionysos and the Sanctuary of Apollo Karneios, we couldn’t help but notice the silence that prevailed – no chatter, no narration from tour guides. Just a respectful quiet, as we shared in the lives of a people long gone.

Next we headed west to the “Minoan Pompeii” of Ancient Akrotiri. Destroyed and preserved by a catastrophic volcanic eruption around 1450 BC, many believe this is in fact the lost Bronze Age city of Atlantis, as described by Plato (427-347 BC) in ‘The Republic’. While excavating this massive 20-hectare site (much of which is intact still), scientists discovered a highly developed civilization with intricate infrastructure and architecture. Uncannily, even the layout of the city matched Plato’s description of Atlantis. Due to a collapsed roof, this archeological site was unfortunately closed when we visited.

Driving inland near Oia, we stopped at Domaine Sigalas, Santorini’s most noted winery. A ten-minute tour confirmed that climatically, Santorini is hot and dry – perfect for grapes. An interesting feature is that vines here are not grown into bushes like in the hot regions of Australia or California, nor are they trellised like in the cooler wine regions. Instead the Santorini vines are ‘woven’ into a basket – called ‘kouloures’ for additional protection from the intense heat and winds. Soils are volcanic with a high content of sand. Wine buffs that appreciate history would be excited to know that when phylloxera (root louse) struck and decimated the vineyards in Europe, these vineyards remained unaffected, due to the high sand content. It’s incredible to think that many vines on that you see on the island are 100 years old, bearing original rootstocks.

Back in the courtyard of the tasting room, under the shade of some vines and in the company of the estates two charming Greek lady oenologists, we quenched our thirsts with an Asyritiko-Athiri white wine blend, with mineral nuances and acidity. Another wine simply called Santorini (Asyritiko) was round, warm and full-bodied, with peachy notes. Next, an oaked 2007 Santorini version brought on exotic pear, lime –vanilla scents. Amongst the reds was a Niamiteao – a blend of the tannic Mandaloria grape and the soft fruity Pelleponese grape called Agiorgitiko. The wine proved to be subtle with aromas of small red fruits, with fine tannins– reminiscent of a Red Burgundy. The last wine was Mezzo Apeleotis (100% Mandaloria) – an unusual sweet red wine with a hint of raspberries, rich in texture yet dry tannins.

So impressed, we decided to visit another winery – this time, up in the hills, near the village of Pyrgos. Hatzidakis it is a boutique winery, not as grand as the previous, but the wines have a cult following on the islands. Here, I chatted with oenologist Haridimos Hatzidakis who was only too happy to share the fruits of his labour with me. I tasted a floral-citrus tasting Aidani (white varietal) wine, perfect for seafood. Four versions of Santorini’s most famous white varietal – Asyritiko showed the grape’s versatility. The first is simply labeled as Santorini Dry White was crisp and fresh; the next, called Cuvee No; 15, was impressive, complex with a delicious mineral saline quality and finishes long, like a Loire white destined for cellar ageing. Next was Santorini ‘Barrel Fermented’ that resembled a Chardonnay, with lovely wood integration and the fourth, the Nykteri which in tradition, mean late picked, pressed within a day and then fermented was rich, minerally and juicy with 15 % alcohol. What a chameleon grape Asyritiko is! Finally I tasted a red wine called Mavrotragano – and with aromas of cherries, earth and leather, reminiscent of a fine Nebbiolo.

Hunger beckoned, and off we were to the restaurant Selene, in Fira. Critics have described it as “one of the best restaurants in Greece”. So it was with the highest expectation that I bit into the appetizer of sea urchin salad on grilled artichoke with creme of fava and scallops with lemon foam. How delicious it was! The mains of roasted rabbit with fava risotto and rosemary sauce was marvelous in its simplicity. Added to the whole dining experience was the incredible ambience – happy, relaxed diners from all corners of the globe, and that incredible caldera view. So many folks want to take Selene’s cooking home with them and now they can – by signing up for the one-day cooking course with the owners.

On our last evening in this mystical island, we decided to return to our favourite Fisherman’s Taverna in Ammoundi. We arrived earlier to watch our last sunset (as we did faithfully everyday on the island) and dine by the ocean. ‘Dimitri’s’ might not be the slickest restaurant but what made us return was the owner’s genuine hospitality and the home-style cooked seafood. Its location on the Bay of Ammoundi, 250 steps below Oia wasn’t bad either. As we were walking to the tavern, local fisherman hauled their day’s catch into the habour and proceeded to do business with the restaurateur – now that’s what we call fresh! For the next two hours, we chowed down on mussels steamed in wine, garlic, olive oil and shallots, sprinkled with fresh parsley. The huge grilled snapper served with olive oil and vinaigrette was, like the spectacular lightshow earlier on – heaven!

Several miles offshore, brave men and fortune-seekers trawl the oceans for long-lost treasures. If only they knew what we knew, that if only they cast their eyes to the once-lost, but found-again island of Santorini, all their hearts desires will be found.

FACT FILE

Time to go – ‘Start’ and ‘end’ of the peak season – April or September translates into good weather without the crowds. Off-season, few businesses are open.

How to get there and around – Fly into Athens to connect; even if  you are island hopping. Book your accommodation early, up to a year ahead as there are many return visitors from Europe and the US. Let your hotel arrange airport transfers, tours and transport for you, that way, you can be assured of a high quality of service. Tipping is always appreciated and ten percent will do.

Places to stay:

Astra Apartments and Suites, Imerovigli, www.astra.gr

Chromata, Imerovigli, www.slh.com

Mystique Hotel, Oia, www.starwoodhotels.com

Not to be missed:

  • The Santorini cherry tomato and its paste; found in salads, served up as fried tomato balls and used as a paste to augment pasta sauces.

Recommended books:

  • Captain Corelli’s Mandolin or Birds Without Wings by Louis de Bernières
  • The Republic by Plato

The Palace on Wheels

There are many ways for the intrepid traveler to traverse India. You can do it by plane, car or train. After hearing tales of missing luggage and giant potholes/camels/cows on roads, we choose to travel the latter. We were set to begin our journey into the “Land of Kings” – Rajasthan, onboard The Palace on Wheels (POW).

Centuries ago, Maharajas traveled in grand style across India’s vast terrains in the luxurious splendour of their own carriages. Today, the inquisitive traveller, can enjoy the same experience onboard POW. For 7 nights this famous train will take you to visit no less than 7 princely states in Rajasthan – bastions of royal opulence and pageantry. Then to Agra in Uttar Pradash, where in one day, you will witness 3 World Hertiage Sites.

Travelling on the POW is all very civilized. The train comprises of 14 deluxe saloons to which each saloon has 4 cabins and a lounge with 2 excellent ‘khidmatgars’ or personal butlers to attend to your every need. Each saloon is refurbished in the style of the various princely Rajput states and named accordingly– from Rajputana to Jhawalawar. A bar, two dining cars, kitchens and a whole entourage of serving staff completes the train.

It was always a lifelong dream to experience the historical forts and palaces of India. And so it was a sunny late afternoon when our close friends, the Teos, my wife and I arrived at Delhi Cantonment railway station.  Under a specially-erected tent, we were duly checked-in, garlanded and anointed with a bright red tikkas. We were now initiated and members of the ‘palace’.  Yonder, on the tracks stood a long gleaming beige train that seemed to go on forever. It’s presence next to the local trains – both human and cargo seemed a little surreal and the presence of many foreigners, dressed to the nines, and their train drew any curious stares from the locals.

Our living quarters turned out to be compact (as one would expect from a train). The cabin had dark wood panelling and large picture windows that were framed with intricately beaded fabrics. The motif was even repeated on the ceiling. A functional bathroom completed our quarters. Everything were spotless but already showing some wear and tear. Though we were a little a taken aback with its size, we would come to appreciate coming home to this little abode every night in the next week.

The best things about the POW are its staff, it’s food and its itinerary. Throughout our journey, we had it first-class all the way. Guests are not expected to ever wait for anything, including admission to the cities great monuments. Even savouring the best food at various cities would only be at the top-notched 5-star palace hotels. Your butlers have been trained to anticipate your ever need. They would be on hand  24/7 and would do everything from waking you up in the morning to turning your beds down at night.

The train comes equipped with 2 lavish dining cars ‘The Maharajah’ and the ‘The Maharani’ where guests would dine at least once a day. There are two kitchens, one western and the other asian. Lunch or dinner would be an assortment of chinese and Indian fare (with a emphasis on Rajasthani cuisine), typically around 15 courses and always different and delicious!
What we saw in a week, friends have told us, they didn’t even get to see in 3 weeks by car. Historical forts and palaces, royal centotaphs, grand temples on a scale one couldn’t imagine. The amazing thing about the train is that one makes the long journey between cities effortlessly – hundreds of kms are covered while you dine or sleep.

Guide books tell you that one visit to India will forever change you. They were not wrong.

The cities on our itinerary
Jaipur
With a population of 2.3 million and amongst the most tumultuous and polluted of cities, this capital city of Rajasthan is a real eye opener for visitors. ‘The Pink City’ was built by the great astronomer-warrior, Maharaja Jai Singh II in 1727. Here you will find the very much photographed Hawa Mahal, the intricately–trellised, five-storied building where in the past, the ladies of the Court would gaze down to the street life below, unseen.

Nothing will take your breath away like the stunning Rajput-architectured Amber Fort, perched on a hilltop. To get there, you will ascend on elephants. Once in the fort, you will witness how the royals once lived. Delicate mosaics, inlaid mirrors, latticed galleries grace vast rooms with sweeping views. See where the maharaja held audience in the Diwan-I-Am (hall of public audience) and explore the women’s Zenana (women’s apartments). So clever was the design that the maharaja could embark on his noctural visits to the various rooms, without the other wives ever knowing about his comings and goings. Although not in the best of shape, as with most monuments in Rajasthan, the fort is currently undergoing restoration.

Other places of interest in Jaipur – the Jantar Mantar or royal observatory and the City Palace, once home to the last Maharani of Jaipur, the beautiful Gayatri Devi.

Jaisalmer (285 km NW of Jodhhur, 570km W of Jaipur)
From the sands of the Thar desert, the ancient fortified city of Jaisalmer rises up like a giant sandcastle, thus it is also known as “The Golden City. Isolated and remote, it’s a city like no other.  Built in 1156, Jaisalmer is home to one of the oldest of the Rajasthani forts.

As you enter the citadel that is the City Palace, you will step into the main chowk where the king reviewed his troops and also where ceremonial sacrifice and jauhar (mass immolation) were performed. Looking up at the crumbling 14th century Raj Mahal (maharaja’s palace), one can still appreciate the glimpses of lacy marble screens, rose tiles and miniature paintings. Today 5,000 people still live within the fort.

Magnificent works of art can be appreciated at the Jain temples which you will find within the citadel complex. Shoes and all leather goods must be removed before stepping into the complex but once inside, you won’t regret the inconvenience. Before you stand thousands of friezes of elephants, Hindu deities, chariots and even women, many carved out of a single large boulder. Best of all, these temples have withstood beautifully, the sands of time.

Other must-sees in Jaisalmer – the elaborate one-of-a-kind Havelis, built by wealthy Jasin merchants in the 1800s and the rainwater-fed Gadsisar Lake surrounded by many golden shrines.

Must-do side trip – Camel ride at Sam Sand Dunes, 42km from Jaisalmer. All POW passengers will get a fresh white sheet thrown over the saddle as you embark on your next 30 minutes journey into the dessert. Be forewarned, it’s much more uncomfortable sitting at the back saddle for two. What you’ll get for your discomfort however, is magical wind-shaped sand dunes and a peace that is carried only in the desert winds.

Jodphur (343 km W of Jaipur)
Beautifully maintained and rich in treasures, Jodphur is also known as ‘The Blue City’ – so named after the blue houses of the Brahmins. A fortified city, it was the capital of the Marwar kingdom for five centuries. Walking around the city is hassle-free as there are few beggers and hawkers.

Perched proudly on top of a hill, the famously impregnable Mehrangarh fort is a sight to behold. Built in 1459, to get inside, you must first climb steep walkways past eight massive gates. Each has it’s own history but is it the last gate which is the most poignant. Like most Rajput forts, it bears the sati handprints of women who immolated themselves by fire after the deaths of their husbands in battle. Inside the fort, you’ll be greeted by one of the best maintained historic properties in Rajasthan. Part museum, learn about it’s proud history and it’s priceless exhibits. Inside the palace, marvel at the extensively decorated walls, ceilings and floors of marble, mirror work and gilt. And if that’s not enough, there’s the view. The city with it’s blue houses look like something from a story book.

Must visit hotel/museum – Umaid Bhawan Palace. Part royal residence, part museum, part hotel, this art deco palace was built entirely out of interlocking sandstone between 1929 and 1942. Inside, you’ll find yourself speaking in hushed whispers as you marvel at the sheer enormousness of your situation as stuffed big cats and royal finery gaze down at you. Be sure to slip down stairs for a glimpse of the horoscope-themed blue pool. Outside, the gardens, with it’s marble chattries (canopies) and never-ending lawns and the view of the fort in the distance will make you never want to leave.

Definitely worth your time – visiting the Jaswant Thanda or royal crematorium built for Maharaja Jaswant Singh II in 1899. Some great views of the city can be had here and the all-white marble complex and collection of centotaphs are a peaceful reminder of a time long gone.

Ranthambore National Park at Sawai Madhopur. (161km S of Jaipur)
You’ll be woken up at the crack of dawn and hurdled into open top jeeps (so bring your wollens) as your wildlife expedition begins. Witness a dreamy sunrise over the Aravalli and Vindhya hills and for the next 3 hours, you’ll cruise around a tiny part of the 1,334 sq k reserve. Except to see many species of birds, mammals and reptiles. The wild tiger, however eluded all of us, but we did get photographs of a recent paw print.

Chittorgarh (112km NE of Udaipur)
The stuff of chivalric lore – that would be the story of Chittaurgarh fort. Once capital to the Mewars from the 8th to 16th centuries, the 700 acre fort on a hill was besieged and sacked three times by the Moghuls through time. Each time, as their warriors rode out in a hopeless battle, the women, in their thousands, commited jauhar and burned themselves in pyres rather than submit to the enermy. Hear the story of beautiful Rani Padmini and visit her palace.. Look though the same mirror where the enamored Sultan of Delhi caught sight of her beauty and thus set of a tragic chain of events. Walk around its strangely moody grounds where tourists mingle with friendly monkeys grooming stray dogs. There are many temples and several ornate victory towers to keep you fasinated.

Udaipur (335km SE of Jodphur)
The City of the Lakes or Venice of the East had suffered a 3 year drought when we visited and its legendary waters had turned to mud. Not all was lost however, as the city had still much charm. Founded in 1567 by Maharajah Udai Singh by the banks of Lake Pichola, Udaipur has the vibe of a laid-back city.

Think 007’s ‘Octopussy’ and you’d have seen the famous Lake Palace (Jag Niwas). POW guests were treated to a lavish buffet lunch there and the service as well as the food was top notch. Even without the water surrounding it, the cool wind, fluttering white drapes and white marbled building seemed incredibly romantic.

Spend a few hours taking in the City Palace, residence of the Marajah Arvind Singh of Mewar. A complex of palaces built on a ridge, the sand colored, five storied buildings overlook the lake.

A must for garden lovers – Sahelion Ki Bari (Garden of the Maidens). In the 18th century it was for the Maharanis and their ladies-in-waiting only. Today, stroll amongst lovingly landscaped hedges, exotic flowers and gushing fountains (which run solely on gravity, without pumps).

Bharatpur (150km E of Jaipur, 55km W of Agra)
Home to the Keoladeo National Park, it served once as the duck hunting forest of the maharajas. Today, you’ll be taken by rickshaw guides for a glimpse around the 29 sq km of forests and wetlands. Expect to see cranes, herons, egrets and many migratory birds. We even spotted deers and a few big snakes.

Fatehpur Sikri (37km SW of Agra)
A UNESCO World Heritage site, Fatehpur Sikri is also known as ‘The Ghost City’ as it has long been abandoned and never resettled. What you’ll find here is the ruins of the city Emperor Akbar built in 1571. Great sandstone buildings, with Persian as well as Indian architectural styles are all that remain of a city that once used to exceed London in population as well as finery.

Nearby lies the marbled laced tomb of Salim Chisti – the Saint who predicted a male heir for Emperor Akbar. Women come from all over India today to wish for a son at his tomb by tieing a string to the latticework and covering the tomb with a cloth.
A note of caution – expect unrelenting hawkers at Fatehpur Sikri as you board your coach.

Agra (200km SE of Delhi)
Home to another 2 World Hertiage sites – the Taj Mahal and Agra Fort. Arga today can initially shock the visitor – it is crowded, dirty and tourist sites are filled with unrelenting hawkers. But once inside the sanctuary of the monuments, all will be forgotten as you loose yourself to the splendor of your surroundings.

So great was his love for his favourite wife, that when Mumtaz Mahal died at childbirth, the Emperor Shah Jahan built the Taj Mahal in memory of her. 20,000 laborers and 17 years later, one of the world’s most magnificent buildings was completed on the exact anniversary of her death in 1643. The Taj Mahal’s perfect proportions and exquisite workmanship came with a price – many skilled labourers had their thumbs or hands amputated so that the Taj’s perfection would never be repeated again. This garden-tomb stands on a raised marble platform flanked by 4 minarets at each corner. Under the central dome lie the false tombs of Mumtaz Mahal and Emperor Shah Jahan (the actual tombs lie in a crypt in the basement, and are closed to the public). A close-up examination of the white marbled Pietra Dura reveals intricately carved floral designs inlaid with as many as 43 different precious stones.

Agra Fort
The fort comprises of a fortified palace, royal apartments, mosques, assembly halls and even a dungeon all enclosed by a 2.5km wall. Today, a part of it is home to the Indian army and so is closed to the public. There’s so much to see however, as you take in the early eclectic style of Emperor Akbar and compare it to the more genteel elegance of Shah Jahan, who added to the complex. Not to be missed are the scalloped colonnaded arches of the Diwan-I-Aam – an arcaded hall within a courtyard. There within, lies the setting for fabled Peacock Throne, where the Emperor met with his audience. Make sure you also take a note of the Musamman Buji, with clear views of the Taj. Here in this doubled-storied octagonal tower, Shah Jahan lived out the rest of his life, imprisoned by his own son, Aurangzeb.

Points to note – The Palace on Wheels only runs from Sept – April. High season rates per couple is US$700 a night. All meals, tours, monument fees, transportation is included. For more information, check out www.palaceonwheels.net