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