Five Tips for a Santorini Vacation
Most people have heard of the island of Santorini (or its old name, Thera)
- Some will know of it as one of the beautiful sun-kissed Greek islands;
- others will have heard of its legendary sunsets;
- and many people will have heard about it on the History channel, as the possible origin of the Atlantis legend!
That's because Santorini is no ordinary island. In ancient times it was devastated by a huge volcanic eruption, and half the island fell into the sea. Visit Fira, the main town, today and you'll find yourself standing on the edge of a precipice overlooking the volcano's caldera, with breathtaking views across the Mediterranean sea. The town's houses are built clinging to the edge of the caldera, which is now a deep blue lagoon.
The most popular hotels and apartments on Santorini are those on the edge of the caldera, because they take advantage of the wonderful views. However, being built on a steep slope means they have lots of staircases.
Tip #1 - Most hotels and apartments on Santorini have many steps and no elevators or escalators. If you have mobility issues, be sure to check before booking.
Many hotels will have a long flight of steps just to reach reception. Then there will be more steps to get to your room. The restaurant and pool will probably be on completely different levels, sometimes several flights of stairs away. You may even find your room is multi-level! Because the buildings are on a slope, an elevator can't be installed. Large hotels may have a stairlift or funicular but it may not serve all levels.
Traditionally, the inhabitants lived in the cliff rather than on top of it, in cave houses dug out of the slope. This gave them protection from the elements and kept their houses cool.
Tip #2 - If you want to experience living in a cave house, you'll find the most authentic ones in the town of Oia.
The Donkeys of Santorini
One of the picturesque features of Santorini is its donkeys. The port is, of course, at sea level while the towns are high on the clifftop, and the donkeys used to be the only mode of transport from one to the other. Nowadays there are buses and a cable car, but the donkeys are still there and a major tourist attraction.
It's your choice whether you'd like to take a donkey ride. I am in two minds myself: I can see that by taking the ride, I'm supporting a tradition and providing a livelihood for the local people - but at the same time, I can't help feeling sorry for the donkeys!
Tip #3 - If you're considering walking the steps to the port, consider that several donkeys make the trip several times every day. Wear closed-in shoes and be prepared to scrape off the donkey poo at the end of your walk!
Tip #4 - Looking for a beach vacation? Santorini may not be your best choice.
Like most Greek islands, Santorini is a wonderful place if you're looking for a relaxing vacation - but not beachside! You'll notice beach hotels on Santorini are usually cheaper than neighboring islands, and there's a good reason for that - the sand is black. It absorbs the sun and gets far too hot to sit on in high summer, and you'll need shoes to walk on it. The beaches are also a long way from any nightlife, which is concentrated around the capital, Fira. If you still want to stay there, Kamari Beach has the most tourist facilities and is the most family-friendly: the other beaches have more of a backpacker vibe.
However the beaches are located on the south and east coasts of the island, a long way from the main tourists spots on the west coast. The west coast is the place most people want to be, because that's where the spectacular views are. There is nothing quite like sitting with a glass of wine in one of the hotels there, watching the sun set over the caldera.
If you love ancient history and legend, you'll be fascinated by the history of Santorini. When the volcano erupted around 4,000 years ago, it's thought the resulting tsunami devastated the shores of the Mediterranean for miles around.
The eruption would have had such a huge impact on everyone living in the region, many historians believe it's the origin of the myth of Atlantis. Certainly, there was a thriving and sophisticated civilisation on the island which was wiped out by the disaster. You can see the remains of their town at Akrotiri.
Tip #5 - The ancient ruins at Akrotiri are well worth a day trip, but do check to be sure they are open first, as opening times can be unpredictable.
Will I Enjoy Santorini?
If you're looking for a relaxing time in the sun, shopping for souvenirs in quaint little shops, chilling by the pool, and enjoying good food and spectacular scenery - then Santorini is for you.
If you like to be active, then you may be better making Santorini a two-day stop on a tour of other islands, rather than a destination in its own right. Away from the main towns of Fira and Oia, the island is fairly undeveloped. Once you've visited Akrotiri and seen the cliffs, there's little else to see - the landscape inland is mainly scrub and sand. There are wineries to visit - but if you've ever tasted Greek wine, you'll know it has a distinctive taste that may not suit your palate! Also, public transport is basic so it's not easy to travel around unless you hire a car - which can be nerve-racking on the narrow twisting roads.
- Visit Greece | Santorini
The official guide to Santorini by the Greek National Tourism Organisation
- Santorini Dave
Dave's guide is the best and most comprehensive guide to Santorini that I've ever found! An essential companion while planning your visit.
- The Minoan eruption
This website gives more information about the eruption of the volcano, including a lovely story of a 4000 year-old olive tree