I can honestly say I’ve never been on a volcano, though it’s never been high on my bucket list. Enter Santorini…a beautiful Greek Island known for unique beaches, a vibrant sun, and Sandra Bullock-esque romance. Oh, yeah, and it’s built on an active volcano!
The volcano tour was the highlight, so I’ll start with the best and work my way down. I know a volcanologist from my time at university who probably would’ve appreciated this more than me…but even without the background knowledge this was pretty unforgettable. I had a 30 minute walk downhill to the port area, though I could’ve taken the ‘donkey option’. I’m not a rabid animal rights person, and I believe that using animals for transport is definitely okay if that’s the only option…however, charging inordinate prices for tourists to ride donkeys up and down a steep hill all day seemed a bit inhumane to me. The port was a madhouse…obviously Santorini is a major tourist destination, so it took me awhile to find the group I booked with.
The wind was really strong that day and there were many ups and downs on the water. I was starting to think I’d get seasick during the ride, which being in the Navy would’ve been embarrassing. There were some amazing views as I hiked up the volcano, and regrettably I ignored the tour guide for most of the time while I was admiring the scenery. I did hear him try to explain the physics of a volcano using a pile of rocks on the ground…maybe it’s because physics was always my worst subject, but I didn’t get what he was saying. I loved the mix of colors here…with black and red rock, together with patches of yellow and green flora…and the backdrop of the very blue water and white clouds in the sky. As I mentioned before this volcano is still active, and there was a spot where you could hold your hand inside a rock formation and feel the heat. Santorini hasn’t seen an eruption since 1956, but the volcano has certainly shaped their culture…many locals still pray for ‘peace’ with the volcano.
The boat ride back from the volcano offered some amazing views…more stunning mixed color schemes on the cliffs towering over the water, and some great shots of the picturesque town Oia. We stopped at another island, Therasia, for lunch. I tried something called ‘tomato balls’, which I had seen on quite a few menus in Santorini….they were nothing that special. I met a nice older couple from San Francisco and we chatted about travel adventures most of the way back.
The beaches of Santorini also deserve mention, as for the most part I’ve been disappointed with European beaches. Living in San Diego certainly gets you spoiled, but my main complaint is the lack of sandy beaches…most are rocky, which is hard for walking, and many are also soiled with paper trash, empty containers and even cigarette butts. Santorini offered something different….beaches of volcanic pebbles! I spent some time on the black sand beaches, Perissa and Kamari, but the real highlight was the red beach. Something about the red rocks with the blue water just looked perfectly beautiful. The little rocks making up the beach were a mixture of black and red, and were surprisingly comfortable to walk on even without shoes. Near the top of the cliff, prior to walking down into the beach area, I met a fellow American, Lissa, and we had a great conversation and traded picture-taking duties for each other. I didn’t spent a lot of time here, as I’m not one to lay around beaches all day, but I came away thinking I haven’t seen a nicer beach in Europe.
Right nearby the red beach were the archaeological ruins of Akrotiri. I remember as a kid wanting to be an archaeologist like Indiana Jones…traveling with a whip on adventures to find arks and holy grails. When I got older I realized archaeologists spend most of their time teaching, writing, and digging things up. Akrotiri was an interesting discovery by a Greek archaeologist back in 1967. The bad thing about having an island on an active volcano is when the volcano decides to erupt, it may just wipe out civilization…which is what happened around 3500 years ago to Akrotiri. Although it was akin to an extinction event, the volcanic aftermath actually helped preserve most of the buildings and artifacts. I typically find ruins a bit boring, as they can appear to be ‘just’ a pile of rocks…and it didn’t help that most of the cool frescoes had been taken by the main museum in Athens. However, I do appreciate really old stuff, and anything from the BC times I find particularly fascinating. There are even some who think the story of Akrotiri was the basis for the Legend of Atlantis.
I should probably talk about where I stayed…the very central town of Fira. I had a nice hotel with VERY cold air-conditioning, which was great. Fira is known as the place to stay that actually has some form of nightlife…though nightlife in general is a bit quiet on Santorini. It’s also only a short walk to the port, so this is a main tourist hub for cruise ships. The buses all start and end here, so you always have to come back to Fira before going to a different town. I loved the views from the cliffs right before the walk down to the port. There’s nothing like enjoying a Bloody Mary while gazing at the majesty of Santorini. I met a nice bartender who was raised on Santorini, and another cool Irish guy who was doing some solo travel of his own. I picked the right base for sure, as it seemed to be the most convenient location on the island.
The word I would use to describe Santorini is ‘unique’. Many islands get visitors just because of their nice beaches and raucous beach bars…but because of the volcanic history there is a distinct feel here. I’m also honored to have visited the ‘best island in the world’, according to many magazines and online travel sites. I’m sure the experience is different if you’re with someone. I must admit that as a solo traveler, the romantic vibe of the island probably didn’t affect me as much, though I can definitely see why it’s a popular place for weddings and honeymoons. I wonder if all volcanoes are as beautiful as this?