Updated: Feb 26
After only two short but full days on the island of Naxos, we hopped on a ferry and made our way over to the island of Thira, better known as Santorini. The ferry ride was short and soon we found ourselves once again disembarking in a mad fury off the giant ramp and onto land. What greeted us was nothing more than a chaotic mess of busses, vans, cars and people.
Dozens of vehicles were parked in no apparent order, blocking one another, and the drivers were either holding up name cards or looking to pick up a spontaneous fare. We quickly moved off to the side and I ventured off to find our driver. We had pre-arranged a pick-up through the hotel, and quickly after I found him, we were loading our bags into the van and enjoying the air conditioning as we waited for the vehicles blocking us to move. Soon, we were making our way up the steep, winding road up the side of the cliff. It was a picturesque and calm 45 minute drive from the port to the town of Oia. Once we arrived we were met by Mario, the hotel representative, and his strong helper, who swooped up our large bags, threw them over his shoulder and maneuvered his way through the narrow paths, and down the many, many steps to our room.
We spent a wonderful four nights in Oia, staying at Helianthus Suites, a traditional family-run cave hotel, perched off the side of the cliff. There are two rooms, both with spectacular views; the Honeymoon Suite and the Prestige Suite. Originally we wanted to stay in the Honeymoon Suite for the entire stay, but it wasn’t available, so we opted for two nights in one suite and two nights in the other. The Honeymoon Suite has a little more privacy, an unobstructed view of the Aegean, and a small second floor with a reading nook; but the Prestige Suite is a little more spacious indoors with direct access to the stairs up to the main village. Both suites are equally spectacular. The only regret we experienced with Helianthus Suites was bad timing. Though our research, we had read dozens and dozens of reviews who mentioned the owner Kiki, each raving about her unparalleled attention and sweet gestures during their stay. It just so happened that Kiki was away during our time at Helianthus, and though we did communicate via email and with a sweet welcome call, we didn’t get the chance to meet Kiki in person and experience all that her reputation entailed. (Perhaps this is our excuse to go back).
Mario briefed us on what we needed to know and as we began to settle ourselves in, we were greeted by three tiny kittens. Other than some salty snacks, we had nothing to give them, but they stepped hesitantly into our room and ate what we could offer. This began a four day relationship with not only the young kittens, but other cats in the area. We ensured we had plenty of tuna, sardines and other canned foods available for them, and left it out while we were gone exploring. Word spread through the kitty-vine and some nights we were visited by 5-6 different cats. Much to our surprise, no matter the size or the age, each one of them was gracious and patient with the others, often letting the wee kittens finish eating first before helping themselves. The older cats would come and go, but the kittens were almost always nearby, often sleeping on our doormat, eager for breakfast as soon as we were up.
Oia is a condensed village, with homes, shops, restaurants and hotels all intertwined in a chaotic web of staircases and hills. Having an unobstructed view means climbing up and down a large number of steps each and every time. We knew this was going to be the case, and though we tried to “get into shape” before the trip, we hadn’t taken into consideration the odd shapes and angles. The stairs were built according to the terrain, meaning some steps were short, some high; some were angled, some were slanted, some were long and curved. No matter how many how in shape you were physically, or how many flights of stairs you could handle normally; walking up inconsistent steps and often landing on an angled platform would present a challenge for anyone. Our visit to Santorini landed at the end of our journey in Greece, so we were even more at a disadvantage, having arrived sore from a week of walking, hiking and exploring other islands. Needless to say, it was worth every painful step.
Our first excursion was a group activity, booked through Viator: a Santorini volcanic islands cruise to a volcano, hot spring and the island of Thirassia, We met others and boarded an old wooden sailing boat to the lava islet of Nea Kameni, where we were broken up into small groups and guided up a rocky and slippery path to the top of the volcano. The few the were able to keep up with the guide, they were given some insight into the location, but as there were a lot of areas one could slip, most people took their time. The view from the top was beautiful. Once we were all back on the boat, we sailed to Palea Kameni, where we had the option to jump into the frigid waters and swim to the “hot springs”. The water was deep and dark when you first jumped off the boat, but became shallow and muddy as you approached the “hot springs”. Once you arrived, it was definitely warmer and had the distinct sulfer smell of a volcano. Unfortunately, because the water wasn’t clear, one could not tell when the water level rose and many collided with the sharp rocks below. All our towels and clothes were forever stained with the rusty red of the water, but it felt wonderful.
From there, we sailed over to the island of Thirassia, where we were given time to explore and eat. We, of course made friends with a cuddly kitty at a small café and relaxed with some delicious dessert. From Thirassia, we sailed back to Oia. Some had opted for a sunset stop, which we had not, but since we were staying in Oia, we asked if we could debark there rather than going back to the port, which we did. Once on dry land, we had the option to climb the many steep steps up to the main village, or pay to be carried up by donkey. Neither of us felt comfortable forcing the donkeys to carry us when we could walk, so we opted for the steps. We knew they would be tough, but the cobbled steps were wide and long and slanted, so a lot more challenging than we expected, plus had to be weary of the broken sections and donkey poop. Not only did we often stop to catch our breath and take photos, but we needed to let the group of donkeys with riders pass us on the narrow steps. It took us a lot longer than we would have liked, but we made it. Eventually.
Back in Oia, we made our way back to our room to quickly change, grab our cameras and find a spot to watch the sunset. We knew exactly where to go. The night before, walking towards the east, we stumbled upon area where many were gathered. Stopping to say hello to a cuddly kitty perched on a wall, we were greeted by the jealous barks of a small white puppy on the opposite wall. We said hello and continued on our way, not knowing we would soon come face to face with the energetic puppy once again. As we continued down the path, we happened to witness a group of disrespectful tourists attempting an Instagram worthy photo, posing with the water as the backdrop. Not only did they ignore the signs asking people to not climb over the walls, they took it upon themselves to move the property of the nearby shop owner that were set on the wall; the large basket and draped carpets were on display and for sale. The owner interrupted their photo to explain they couldn’t touch or move her items, but they ignored her until they captured the photo they wanted. As she stepped out of her shop, the same little white dog appeared and perched on the steps, barking. Witnessing such a disrespectful display, a wave of tourist guilt came over us and we felt obligated to at least enter her shop and peruse her wares.
As it happened, she had some beautiful items and a lovely space, with chairs set up in the covered shop, a bench on the side and a rooftop area where you could have an unobstructed view. The owner, the charming Cristin Bo, explained that if we purchased something from her shop, we were welcome to stay and watch the sunset, a complimentary drink in hand. We opted for a few beautiful painted volcanic rocks and warm tea. The little puppy, we learned, was her boisterous little boy named Bon-Bon. We spent the next hour with him by our side, waiting for the sun to go down in Oia. We returned again the next evening to see Bon-Bon and to purchase a few more items, and the evening after that, just to say goodbye. If you ever find yourself in Oia, make your way over to The Glitzy Windmill to see what Christine has to offer and say hello to her friendly little Bon-Bon.
Our second excursion was a private tour with a local, booked through Get Your Guide. We met early morning, a young woman originally from Crete who had just moved to Santorini a few months earlier and her driver. Our first stop was the beautiful Monastery of Profitis Ilias, perched up on the highest point of the island. The views were spectacular. In between sharing historical facts, she pointed out the vineyards down below; rather than the traditional hanging trellis, the grapes grow on vines on the ground. The vines curl into a strong basket that protect the grapes and provide shade.
Next she took us to a small winery, and as a Sommelier, she provided us insight into some of the best wines in Greece. There, we tasted three different wines, two different whites and a dessert wine called Vinsanto. The history of Vinsanto is fascinating and the drink is delicious and sweet. Santorini winemaking was heavily influenced by the ancient Venetians, and through the use of their trade network, Vinsanto because highly sought after. In order to be officially labelled Vinsanto (and not the Italian Vin Santo), the drink must be predominately made from the Assyrtiko grapes. It is made from late harvested grapes that have been dried in the sun for 12–14 days, then crushed, fermented and aged for a minimum of 24 months in oak barrels. She explained that historically it was monks who first produced Vinsanto, harvesting the grapes by moonlight and getting young boys (for their delicate feet) to press the grapes.
The next stop was the Megalochori Village, famous for its white-washed buildings, famous bell tower and abandoned cave homes. It was fascinating to walk through a cave dwelling, now abandoned and on display, where families once resided. Though we didn’t have time to dip our feet into the water, we did visit both the red and black beaches of Santorini, both of which were gorgeous. We would have spent more time immersed in the natural environment, if it wasn’t for the opportunity to visit the prehistoric city of Akrotiri.
Considered one of the most important prehistoric settlements of the Aegean, Akrotiri was developed into an urban center with sophisticated multi-story buildings, a drainage system and impressive wall paintings and furniture. The inhabitants abandoned the city in the late seventeenth century as a result of severe earthquakes. The eruption that followed covered the town, protecting it to date. We were able to visit the active excavation site and tour the buildings that have been uncovered. Words cannot describe the dumbfounding feeling of stepping through literal history.
Our last stop, was another ancient winery, which boasted a grand collection of wines, history and a terrace with a phenomenal view. We sampled five wines, all of which were delicious. Having walked most of the day with the Santorini sun beating down on us, and having sipped on many a glass of wine without so much as a bite to eat, we were happy the day was drawing to a close. First, we had to make it up the steps from the terrace without tumbling down the cliff and into the sea. Gladly, we did not. Tired (and a little drunk) we headed back to Oia, where we had some delicious food at our now favourite restaurant and took a well deserved nap before sunset. The first time we ate at Thalassia Restaurant was out of convenience, but it was the service and food that kept us coming back. We had the absolute best Baklava ever at Thalassia, a definite must if in Oia.
It was that first meal that we were really introduced to the phenomenon that is cruise tourists. As travellers, we try very hard to blend in with each location, learn a little about the area, the language and be respectful to the locals and their traditions. We tend to roll our eyes at the typical tourist who attempts none of this and who is perfectly contented to make it painfully obvious that they are on vacation and feel they are entitled to special treatment. Cruise tourists are completely different beasts all together. Though confident there are those who do not act in this manner, in all our interactions with cruise tourists, they have been the worst kind of entitled traveller. Perhaps it is the limited time they are allotted to wander, perhaps it is the blind follow-the-leader mentality that occurs in large tour groups, or perhaps it has just been our bad luck. Oia consists of small narrow streets with many steps built into the terrain. Even before the cruise ships dock in the morning, the streets can easily be filled with people bustling about their day, but after, it is impossible to maneuver through the large aimless crowds.
Santorini is beautiful and peaceful with wonderful people who clearly love where they live, but t is easy to see how some locals have developed a disdain for tourists. All around Oia, there are signs posted asking tourists to respect their home and not climb the walls, but we saw many examples of this type of behaviour every day. Whether it was capturing the perfect Instagram shot, that unique wedding photo or just trying to find a spot to watch the sunset, tourist climbed over buildings, onto roofs and into private areas. Drones are prohibited in Oia, yet we heard them in the early mornings. Sipping coffee on our terrace overlooking the water, we watched the sunrise. It would have been perfect, save for the constant buzz overhead. Though we can appreciate the type of footage that a drone can capture in a location as beautiful as Santorini, if everyone brought one along it would destroy the very beauty it was trying to capture; the peace and serenity that contribute to the magic that is Santorini.
We thoroughly enjoyed our time on Santorini and can easily see us returning one day. The over tourism of the once serene village of Oia will likely deter us from staying there a second time, but there are plenty of off the beaten path villages and locations on the island that are worth exploring and visiting. No matter where you wander, remember that you are a visitor who has been given the privilege of exploring someone else’s backyard. Respect it like it was your own.