Around 2 million tourists visit Santorini every year. That number seems even more staggering when you consider the size of the island which is merely 76 square kilometres. It takes just 40 minutes to drive from one end to the other. Let that sink in for a moment.
Like many people, I also had Santorini on my travel wishlist for a very long time. But even thinking about the crowds made me feel overwhelmed. On one hand, I wanted to see the island with its whitewashed buildings & dreamy sunsets but on the other hand, I didn’t want to be constantly surrounded by hordes of people taking selfies and posing in front of every white wall with a blue door attached to it.
Looking through online guides, various blogs and videos I came to the conclusion that majority of tourists visit & stay in just 3 towns: Oia, Fira and Imerovigli. That gave me hope. If we avoid those 3, we can probably spend time in peace & quiet (which is what we ultimately want going on holidays). But then another question came to mind – are other parts of the island charming and interesting enough to make it worthwhile?
“Ladies and gentlemen, we are going to sit here on the tarmac for another 20 to 30 minutes before we can take off for Santorini. The airport there has a limit of 2 aircraft that can be there at the same time – another aeroplane is not allowed to land until one of the two leaves.” – the message from the captain came as a bit of a surprise. Looks like the JTR airport is smaller than I anticipated. And, as I learn a week later when we leave Santorini, it is also full of outdated technology where a short power cut leads to a 40-minute delay because no one knows how to turn on computers in the single security lane.
The landing is bumpy and steep, not a spectacular arrival that I was hoping for. Then the wait for our luggage in a stuffy small room gives me the first taste of overcrowded “popular tourist destination”. I remember reading that this airport is one of the worst and most chaotic, but also that it will receive an upgrade “in the next few years” which is definitely good news.
We arrive at our hotel right in time for sunset. I am impatient during the paperwork and room tour but the welcome drink in form of a glass of a local white wine settles me quickly. With beverages in hand, we rush to the roof above our room via tiny stairs. The roof is covered with dust, the rounded concrete part where we intend to seat still warm from the sun. It’s uncomfortably windy which makes me shiver – I’m not sure if I’m cold or just excited. We stay there for a while though and take some cheesy sunset photos (but the romantic-location-cheesiness peaks a few days later when a perfectly heart-shaped cloud floats above our heads).
The morning is quiet. Our small terrace where the champagne breakfast is served overlooks the pool. I enjoy the silence, the food (but after the 3rd day I’m over the very same breakfast options) and think to myself that I nailed this holiday planning. The disappointment comes later when it turns out that the water in our pool is icy-cold, the hillside location prone to being windy and surprisingly, it’s quite chilly in the evenings. Not what I was expecting in Santorini at the end of August.
Most days we hang out in Pyrgos, where our hotel is located. It’s a quaint village that oozes calmness and hospitality. I don’t think too many tourists choose it as their base as it doesn’t have the typical Santorini postcard views (or it does, but you have to climb up the hill to find them), infinity pools nor any feature-length articles about it on famous travel websites. And that’s probably for the best.
The busiest time of the day seems to be around noon. All the cafes and restaurants around the main square are filled with people, many of them locals but also some tourists who stumbled upon the town on their way to the other end of the island. They leave in the early afternoon and the village is quiet and relaxed once again.
We climb to the ruins of Kasteli Castle every day, each time taking a slightly different route to the top. There’s labyrinth of tiny streets, passages and gates that make very little sense but look beautiful. I stop every few steps to pet all the cats – most of them are asleep and add to the lazy vibe of Pyrgos – and to take photos. Whitewashed buildings, churches with blue domes – it all looks quintessentially Greek. The panoramic view of the entire island from the top of the hill is superb. We stumble upon a hillside cafe – Franco’s Cafe – with a terrace overlooking the island. The chairs are set towards the sun and we easily secure the first-row spot without a booking (try that in the overcrowded Oia). The late afternoon is spent looking at the sea, the island and the sun going down slowly. I sip wine, Hubby gets a cold Mythos and we share a generously-sized meze plate full of tomatoes, olives, feta and cucumbers with a side of crackers. I’m not a fan olives at all but I change my mind after trying those in Santorini. This relaxing afternoon costs us €16 (about $24).
Penelope’s Ouzeri is another place that we decide to check out. We sit on tiny blue chairs under one of the bell towers. An older man notices us and brings a menu then sits down next to us and smiles. We’re not sure if he’s the waiter or just a friendly local. He starts talking about the food, the cracked concrete that he just fixed, the people that walk straight through it, the weather and his chair barrier that doesn’t really stop anyone and how angry it makes him. He’s a character. Then he says “You want meatballs?” so we take it as our cue to order. He listens but doesn’t note down anything and then disappears. A few minutes later he brings us a jug of cold house wine and proceeds to fix his chair barrier again. We’re still not sure if the food is ever going to come but we enjoy this situation too much to get mad or even question anything. After a while, he starts bringing the food while some tourists help themselves to the chairs from the barrier. He gets angry, makes them move, then gestures to us as to say “why didn’t you stop them?” and then brings the rest of the food with a smile on his face. We feel entertained and dig into the food. I fall in love with the moreish tomato fritters. They taste like sunshine and go very well with the house wine. The bill comes to €28.50 ($43) and the woman inside the restaurant, who also seems to be the cook (maybe even the namesake Penelope?) isn’t too happy when we want to pay with a card. Don’t you have any cash? Euro? But she takes the card anyway and proceeds with the transaction. They win our “the most peculiar service” award and now, six months on, we still reminisce about this with smiles on our faces.
Maria’s Mini Market in the main square has the answer to all our cravings. We make Maria’s day by paying with our phone (she’s so excited I’m sure she calls everyone she knows to tell them about this event) and she makes ours by stocking the fridge with the beer we discovered on the second day – the Alfa Weiss beer (a nice wheat beer for the price of a watery lager).
Join the crowds
After a couple of low key days, we decide to go on an adventure. A hike from Fira to Oia sounds like something we will enjoy – about 9 kilometres with views of the caldera throughout the walk. But first, we need to make it to Fira. We could take a taxi but that would be too easy, so we settle on trying a local bus. A girl at the hotel reception says the buses are fairly regular, cheap and will take us to the start of the walk. Then she checks the schedule for us but is as confused with it as we were when we tried to figure it out on the KTEL Santorini Buses website. “You want to go now? The bus is at around 10am.” – she says with almost zero confidence in her voice. We buy a big bottle of water from Maria for less than 1 euro, which later turns out to be a great decision as all the places along the way charge poor dehydrated hikers €3 for a small one.
The bus arrives a few minutes after 10am. Buses work a bit different in every country or region so we’re not sure when and where we get the ticket. It turns out to be as simple as take a seat and someone will come to you to collect the fare and give you a ticket. It’s €1.80 per person from Pyrgos to Fira. The route takes us to some other villages instead of going straight to the destination but it doesn’t feel too uncomfortable or too long. The moment we step out of the bus and walk up a stretch of souvenir shop-lined streets, we are being hassled by touters which already makes us miss the pleasantly peaceful village of Pyrgos.
We don’t have time to react to that as we make it to the edge of caldera for the first time. It is really beautiful. I now understand why people choose hotels with those views, waking up to this must be great. But would I want to exchange my privacy (literally, the path leads right in front of some suites, where people were sunbathing and eating breakfast when we were walking past) for views? I don’t think it’s worth it. Tip: If you’re planning to book a room in Fira, Imerovigli or Oia, make sure there is no pathway right outside your windows.
The trail is marked – we spot arrows painted on rocks and walls along the way, as well as some proper signs. It could be better though, as some parts are confusing and we make some unnecessary diversions a few times. The first half takes us through Fira and Imerovigli where the trail is mostly a smooth, lined pathway. Then it gets more challenging with loose gravel, rocks and steeper inclines. A small part of the route takes us on the road with tour buses zooming past us. It doesn’t seem right but when we later consult some maps and website it seems like there’s no other option but to walk that way. For the last hour or so (the entire hike took us close to 4 hours) there’s very little shade and the early afternoon sun is biting us quite badly. But the views are phenomenal the whole way and that makes up for any discomforts. Tip: Be prepared. Bring water, sunscreen, energy-boosting snacks and comfortable shoes. I walked all the way in sandals but the loose gravel and rocky parts were tricky – not only painful but also hot – and I wished I had sneakers instead. The hike is, in my opinion, one of the highlights of the trip and would recommend walking at least a part of it.
In the towns we’re passing, the hikers mix up with tourists and at times, it’s a tight squeeze. On the actual trail, there aren’t many people.
Walking into Oia I can’t think of anything else than a cold beer. Petro’s has a good looking terrace with a great view of Oia and our favourite beer on the menu so we decide not to look for anything else and settle there. The service is nice, as is the food (great tomato fritters). 2 litres of beer and €63 ($95) later we feel rejuvenated and ready to explore Oia. I don’t think we will be visiting the town again so we need to take a good look around.
We walk down the main pedestrian street that runs along Oia’s length. There are many shops, small galleries and boutiques on both sides and it’s extremely crowded. Cruise ship passengers are being guided around in big groups and loaded into buses. It’s loud and not very pleasant so we try to sneak into smaller paths for some privacy. It’s late afternoon and spots with the best views of the sunset are already taken. People plan to stand there for the next 3ish hours to get the perfect sunset photo. I’m impressed. We spend close to 2 hours just walking around and taking photos. There’s no denying Oia is absolutely gorgeous. To my surprise the buildings are not just white and blue – some are painted yellow and various shades of pink. The view is more delightful and striking in real life than on the photos. As I take in the scene I feel happy to be here.
Curious to see more of the island we rent a car for one day. Car rental companies deliver their cars to any place on the island and also pick them up from wherever you want. That’s convenient. The prices are quite high but that’s something they can allow themselves for with such high demand. The most popular cars are Fiat 500 and Peugeot 108, both in a standard or cabrio version. We decide on a cheaper option, a small car that will be easy to manoeuvre in tight spaces – Hyundai i10. It’s €45 ($67) and that’s a “lower season” price (lower season starts for most car rental companies on 1 September and means around €10 savings). Petrol for all day of driving around costs us €17 ($25).
The plan for the day is to visit a brewery, drive to a couple of beaches, stop in some villages and finish with a sunset viewing by the Akrotiri lighthouse.
We start on the east coast. The landscape is different here and the sea is easily accessible without the caldera-edge heights and cliffs. Volcanic sand beaches dot the coast and are filled with sun lounges for rent. In Kamari, one of our first stops, the beach is full of people. It’s a good location – the sand is quite fine and warm from the sun, the landing aeroplanes fly right over our heads because of the close proximity of the JTR airport and there’s a promenade along the beach lined with tavernas and bars. It takes us almost 30 minutes to walk the entire 1.5km stretch as we stop to read the menus. Seafood is king here and looks really fresh & appetizing. We get a lunch with a view at Sunshine Beach Hotel’s beach terrace (€35/$52 for 2 mains, a beer and a juice) and think it would be nice to spend an entire day lazing around this beach.
After lunch, we drive to Perissa beach but stop on the way at the Santorini Brewing Company. The beer tasting is free and I discover their Crazy Donkey IPA is very good so I get a big (750ml) bottle of that for later (€8/$12). Another unscheduled stop happens in Emporio, right before we reach Perissa. We find a tight parking spot close to the main road – yay for tiny cars – and go to explore what looks like a charming old village. There are castle ruins but we never make it there as we get lost in another of those hill-side labyrinths of streets and passages. Getting lost takes us to Cafe The Old Barber Shop. The terrace looks very inviting so we stay for a glass of house wine (which turns out to be quite strong and more like a liqueur than a wine) and a coffee. The spot feels very relaxing, I’d love to just sit there and read a book sipping on that wine.
Perissa is much smaller than Kamari and there aren’t nearly as many people here. I’m not sure if it’s a result of a lower season already (it’s 1st September) or because the beach is smaller and there is not much choice when it comes to facilities, taverns and shops. It does look picturesque with a big mountain in the backdrop but other than that we quickly get bored and drive to the Red Beach.
To get to the Red Beach you need to drive through Akrotiri and find a parking spot as close to the Red Beach trail entrance as possible. Then there’s a fair bit of a walk that includes a steep slope and a narrow path down the hill with a rocky and sandy surface – very uncomfortable to do in sandals or thongs. The beach itself is tiny and, unless you’re going for a swim or planning on sunbathing, not worth coming down to. The view from the top is nice enough.
We’re quite early for the sunset but drive to the Akrotiri Lighthouse anyway as this is the very last thing on our list for the day. The small parking is already full and there are many cars lining the narrow road on both sides. Looks like we’re not nearly early enough to the party. Happy once again to be in a tiny car we slip between cars at the farther parking. Thankfully, the rocky seating for tonight’s sunset performance is still aplenty. We pick a spot in the mid-section and regret not bringing snacks. It’s almost an hour-long wait for the sun to go down. We entertain ourselves taking photos of yachts and smaller boats and people watching. It’s cold and windy but the crowd, including us, is patient. When the sky turns peachy-pink, purple and burnt orange everyone watches in silence. We don’t realize that until we stand up to leave, but there must be way over 100 people. There’s a big applause once the sun has disappeared below the horizon.
One more look at the island
On our last day in Santorini, we decide to treat ourselves to a sunset cruise with Sunset Oia. The routes of all their cruises are similar (if not exactly the same) but the prices differ depending on how many people are there with you. We settled on a semi-private cruise (in our case this meant 7 other couples with us on board) that costs €330/$496.
The tour starts and ends at Ammoudi Port. We stop a few times – at Hot Springs, Red Beach, White Beach and sail past the Akrotiri lighthouse and Indian rock. I try swimming but not being the best of swimmers, I prefer to just stay on board and stare at the water. I find it incredibly relaxing. Especially when paired with the free-flowing Santorinian white wine. The tour ends below Oia where we get a prime spot to watch the sunset. It’s hypnotizing and what a perfect way to end our holidays.
Santorini – is it worth it?
My answer is yes but perhaps just once. There’s a lot of hype surrounding the island, it’s constantly listed as one of the most romantic places in the world and so on. If someone goes there without much research it may be easy to quickly become disappointed. If I were to plan this holidays again, I would choose to spend a week on one of the smaller, lesser-known islands in the Cyclades and just stop by Santorini for 3 days at the end of the trip.
I was happy we did manage to escape the crowds (mostly, couldn’t avoid them during parts of the Fira to Oia hike), relax and see it from a different perspective than most tourists do. Walked it, explored it beyond the famous towns, tasted it and feel like we got to know it from the tranquil side. We made the most of it and returned with great memories and pretty photos to look at.
$ prices are in Australian Dollars and are what we paid in August/September 2017.