You’ve seen the classic images of Santorini: a cluster of whitewashed terraced houses clinging to high crimson cliffs – – highlighted by marine blue church domes. Spectacular sunsets, black sand beaches, and legends of the lost continent of Atlantis add dramatic color and mystery to an already full palate. The volcanic island’s wow factor just has to be seen and experienced in person.
Celestyal’s 7-Day Idyllic Aegean cruise offers two full days to explore Santorini – more than any other cruise line. It’s a fantastic opportunity for indulging the spectacle at a pace that lets you absorb all the isle offers. Many of the other cruise excursions move at a brisk pace through the country’s glorious history – – Santorini is best sipped like the fine wines this tower in the sea provides.
The Crystal dropped anchor shortly before 8:00 am on a Thursday morning. All cruise ships moor offshore and tender boats, operated by island crews, whisk passengers back and forth to the landing docks.
First glimpse of the island makes you feel dwarfed. Santorini’s almost vertical cliff and its high, overhanging terraces look precarious. From the hilltop summit, even massive cruise ships look like toy boats in the harbor.
Passengers going ashore (and who wouldn’t) disembark from tender boats at the main harbor then choose the gondola, a donkey ride or a long hike some 885 feet up the zigzag path. The tourist-centric village of Fira (sometimes spelled Thira) nests at the top of the gondola run dangling like a fish on a hook.
On a past visit, I selected the donkey ride, getting a fella that had his own mind. He decided halfway up to reverse course and careen back down the path. A memorable episode but …this time, the 6 Euro gondola ride ranked as a bargain.
An earthquake devastated Fira in 1956, but the persistent inhabitants rebuilt. Narrow alleyways and tight staircases squeeze between packed terraces of white stucco cave houses, small hotels, bars, and restaurants – – some basic, some high-end. Everything is white accented with blue and occasional sand tan and elephant gray. Visitors browse the shops and cafes of Fira or push on even higher as the panoramic views expand. The wide cliffside path provides swoon-inducing views, especially savored when you need to catch your breath. You’ll likely encounter a few sellers with trinket stands – – some of them well-made and artistic.
The upper elevations dramatically showcase how today’s magnificent views resulted from a violent volcanic eruption around 1450 BC. The harbor, with a single outlet to the Aegean, is large, underscoring the vast amount of land sunken into the sea by the tumultuous event. The panoramic view is simply unforgettable.
Shopping and dining reign as the main past times, but Santorini offers a lot more, with adventure options like sailing, snorkeling, swimming, and hiking. A favorite cruise excursion takes guests to the island of Nea Kameni, a place still vibrating with volcanic rumbles. Participants hike lava-strewn trails amidst steaming volcanic vents and sulfur smells. I participated in this outing a few years back – – finding it fascinating and invigorating.
On my recent cruise, I hired a taxi to drive me from Fira to Imerovigli, Santorini’s highest village, to see and photograph the Iconic Santorini Boutique Hotel (where I had been invited). The Iconic Santorini Boutique Hotel has annually won the best boutique hotel award since 2014. Their 19 cave-like rooms offer heart-stopping views from private terraces, many with their own plunge pool and all featuring the most luxurious attention and amenities one could desire. I wanted to melt into the lounge chair and never leave.
After the hotel visit, I continued on toward the orangey volcanic cliff that juts out, challenging you with a steep hiking trail. I did not attempt it but instead was drawn to the symbol of Santorini: the 18th-century church with its iconic blue dome and white bell tower. Unfortunately, the church doors were locked, so I meandered back down the cliff path, all the way to Fira and returned to my cruise ship.
Oia is a picture-perfect little village on Santorini’s northernmost tip, but much closer to the water. Celestyal Cruises include a six-hour excursion to Oia. They start with a tender boat ride to a more distant dock — the only place where tour buses can wait. From this area, coaches make the treacherous drive over narrow, curvy roads up, down and around the island to Oia. The iconic town offers some of the most famous photography spots on an island chock full of them.
Another excursion (one I didn’t have time for) offered a tour of the archaeological site of Akrotiri. Once a Minoan outpost, the settlement was buried in the ancient eruption and not unearthed until 1967. I spoke with some passengers who explored the site, and they reassured me the excursion was well worth the visit. Sorry I missed it. Even with two days, you can’t do everything the island offers.
The Crystal’s schedule calls for the ship to sail at midnight on Fridays; therefore, I did take advantage of a late night option. It permits passengers to linger on Santorini for a sunset/candlelight dinner.
My travel partner and I chose to dine at Niki Restaurant, a casual taverna with an excellent wine list and a terrific view. We picked a bottle of Santorini’s quintessential white wine, Assyrtiko, prized since the days of ancient Greece and exported from the island since the Middle Ages. Fermenting it in cement vats doesn’t sound all that great, but the wine was exquisite. We also enjoyed Greek fried cheese called saganaki, grilled squid, and veggies. Although we didn’t order dessert, the restaurant brought us a luscious chocolate lava cake on the house.
Sunset came in the midst of dinner – – a pinch-me moment made even lovelier by the sounds of live, traditional Greek music floating in the air. I turned around and saw what seemed like endless numbers of couples dining at other restaurants all along the edge of the cliff. With sunset dining a nightly Santorini ritual, reservations are necessary. If you don’t have them, search the hillside in the late afternoon and ask if there are any openings.
Without question, Santorini is one of the most romantic spots in the world. Many brides, honeymooners and anniversary couple celebrate on the beautiful isle. But, those not looking for love will not be disappointed. This island satiates all the senses. Go see, touch, hear and taste the wonders of Santorini.