Whitney is on Skype late in the evening (matching time zones with her friend Prue in Sydney, Australia) when I hear her say, “We should meet you two in Greece, we have a couple weeks of vacation so it would be perfect.” My ears perk up and then the wheels start turning. It’s time to plan our next trip…our first trip to Europe together. Our good friends Prue and Paul have invited us on this trip of a lifetime (by the way, Australians seem to travel more than anyone I know). The two of them are taking an extended vacation primarily through eastern Europe and we will be able to meet them in Santorini and Mykonos.
First, Santorini is actually a group of islands about 200km south of mainland Greece made up of Thira, Thirasia, and the uninhabited islands of Nea and Palea Kameni. This group began as a single massive island in the Mediterranean before the Minoan eruption about 3600years ago forming the caldera (the land and underlying bedrock falling/sinking into the molten rock beneath the sea). Continual smaller eruptions, including the most recent eruption occurring in 1950, have formed the much smaller center islands of Nea and Palea Kameni. It is now a dormant volcano, however these center islands still feel a little active as I’ll explain later. So now it’s time to plan and make this trip!!
Relentless online searching eventually finds us an incredible deal, 2 round trip tickets to Milan on Emirates for just over $750 each followed by a couple one-way tickets from Milan to Santorini on Easy Jet for about $80. This has got to be one of the best deals in Europe! We were able to round out the trip with travel by high speed ferry to Mykonos for about $75 a person, a flight to Venice, and finally a high-speed train back to Milan for the flight home.
It’s just before Labor Day weekend when we meet Prue and Paul in Milan. We’re there for just one day and night before our early morning flight to Santorini. Arriving on the rocky and dusty runway catches me by surprise. The airport lies on the eastern edge of the island and with almost no plants or trees in the area and a definite desert appearance. It almost looked like what I imagine Mars to look like. Even though I had seen pictures online, I still imagined a tropical island. The weather here is cooler and rainy in the winter and hot and dry in the summer (which would account for the dusty appearance when we arrived at the end of August). Similar to many Greek islands, this is one of the most popular destinations for vacationers from around the world. It also serves as a stop for many Mediterranean cruises (this is always a concern when I travel to an island, because the cruise ship crowds can be massive).
We are initially met at the airport by a couple young Greek gentlemen (somehow they talk me into paying 40euro for car rental insurance…which looking back was simply giving away cash). With a slightly lighter wallet, the four of us cram into our tiny rental car and head to Imerovigli.
Imerovigli is one of the most popular parts of the island with homes built into the cliff walls and stacked on top of one another looking out in a southwestern direction over the water filled caldera. Rolling our luggage down the narrow winding paths, up and down between the many units, we eventually arrive at our Airbnb rental. I think we took a hundred pictures in the 50yrds it took to reach the unit…the beauty was breathtaking. We check into our cave house, then wander down through the narrow pathways toward the first restaurant we could find to relax for lunch. The server kindly provides “infinity” glasses of wine for the ladies as soon as we sit down and winks at Paul and I as he walks away.
After lunch we decided to go to Red Beach; this secluded beach boasts a huge red cliff of iron –rich sedimentary rocks towering over the dark sandy beach. Before heading down the trail Paul and I decided to grab a couple gyros at the shack across from the parking area. Then we hiked down the rocky path around the cliff edges passing by other beach-goers to finally arrive at our destination. The beach is quite narrow and we soon see a few others packing up to go and squeeze our towels into the vacant space. We down our gyros sitting on the sand trying our best not to accidentally peer toward the men in speedos posing on the water’s edge for pictures (Europeans and their swim suits). The sea water is soft and warm as we swim out into the sea and climb on a few of the partially submerged rocks. Every so often we hear “this is the boat to white beach” announced to the crowds. White beach is only accessible by boat and they continuously go back and forth with passengers for something like 5euro.
After having our fill of Red Beach (and before we ourselves turn red from the sun) we head back home. We take our time getting ready watching the sun set in the distance before going to dinner. I won’t lie, dinner is good but so are the gyros Paul and I pick up after dinner. To keep from repeating myself, I’ll just say I had a gyro between every meal on this trip.
The next morning we scheduled a tour of the caldera which departs from Amoudi on the edge of Oia. We managed to find a tour for 20euro. There were many more expensive tours that must have included some additional things like drinks and meals, however when the rickety old pirate ship pulled up to the dock we knew we made the right choice. (BTW Coffee is not available until after 10am at the docks…so bring your own). We boarded the old pirate ship and traveled out to Nea Kameni where we hiked up the volcanic mound in the center of the caldera. The guide gave us a thorough explanation of the formation of the islands we were standing on as we took in the 360 degree views.
We hiked the small island encountering a few steam vents scattered throughout where we could really feel the heat overflowing from the ground beneath us. It’s a little nerve racking even though it’s a “dormant volcano” when the heat of the earth’s core is seeping out through various places.
The ship then brought us to the edge of Palea Kameni where the thermal waters provided an authentic mineral bath. The captain instructed us to jump from the ship and swim to the hot springs since there was clearly nowhere to dock. I have to say the cold water caught us off guard, but as we swam closer we were able to bathe in the warm sea water leading up to the shore line (keep in mind the water here will stain your clothes and has that lovely sulfur scent so wear dark colors or stuff you don’t mind getting ruined!).
For lunch the tour takes us to Thirasia, another Greek island with less than 300 inhabitants. We do not venture beyond the shoreline because it’s nearly straight up hill from there. I turned down the gyro for lunch and instead opted for seafood, with octopus being very popular and quite good there.
Arriving back to Amoudi (Port of Oia), we squeezed back into our car and headed home. Prue had one thing on her mind and it was “engagement photos.” She had chosen the beautiful sunset over Santorini as the backdrop of her photos and tonight was the night. We cleaned up and dressed in our best before heading out to the Agios Ioannis overlooking Skaros Rock. Prue and Paul desperately tried to smile through the blinding sunlight for over an hour of photo attempts…However, we eventually got a perfect photo before simply relaxing on the cliff edge and enjoying the breathtaking sunset.
For dinner we made our way to Skaros restaurant in Imerovgli. I had not yet had my fill of seafood and went all in on a seafood platter and then split the largest octopus tentacle on the menu with Paul…probably was meant for an entire family, but we finished it just the same.
Early the next morning Whitney and I decided to hike the Fira-Imerovgli-Oia trail. This is a popular 9km trail that takes at least 4-5 hrs to hike. However, we started at our home in Imerovigli (foregoing the Fira portion of the trail) so it took us about 3 hours. We hiked north toward Oia passing by the Agios Georgios Church. We then veered off the main trail near the chapel of Agios Ioannis (I know this church all too well after the photo-shoot the day before.) We then hiked out to Skaros Rock, which was once the capital of Santorini during medieval times. This is a must-do if you ever visit Santorini!
The huge rock formation appears so small in the distance but is incredibly large, standing much taller than it appeared in the distance. We followed the trail around as it divides in two with one trail leading to the remote Chapel of Theoskepasti sitting alone overlooking the channel. The second trail leads to a series of ledges that we are able to climb up to the top of Skaros Rock and take in the impressive 360 degree views.
Running short on time we scurry back down the ledge and back around to the main trail to continue on. The trail takes us up and over the rolling mountain edges of Mavro Vouno (Black Mountain) passing the small Church of Stavros and following along the trail to Oia.
Oia is the northern part of the island which is a popular cruise ship excursion making it seem a bit overcrowded. However the Greek island character shines through as we pass all the shops and many more of the fascinating churches as seen in the rest of the island.
After our hike Prue and Paul picked us up in Oia and we headed down to the seaside village of Perissa to relax on the black sand beach and swim in the calm warm waters of the Mediterranean. We had lunch at Aquarius (Εστιατόριο), one of the beach side restaurants, before settling into a few of the lounge chairs with umbrellas shielding us from the sun’s rays. If we had more time we would have hiked to the summit of Messa Vuna to see the ancient Greek town in nearby Kamari, but it closes in the early afternoon (check the times if you decide to do this hike, I think it closes pretty early).
On our final night we met some other friends that happened to be in Santorini that evening back in Amoudi for a sunset dinner (they were Australian of course).
Early the next morning we checked out of our cave house rental and made our way to the Port of Fira to board a high speed ferry to our next destination, Mykonos!