It's not that Crete isn't great, it is. It's just that Santorini is mind-blowing. I've been to a lot of islands before, and even some volcanoes, but nothing prepared me for the blinding beauty of this incredible Greek island. Or is it a caldera? Whichever, it's amazing.
Santorini is a lot whiter than most places, even Boston.
This circular cluster of small islands peeking out of the middle of the Mediterranean Sea—an archipelago, if you want to be technical—is actually the caldera of a now-dormant volcano. Essentially, it's what's left of an underwater volcano after four millennia of turbulent eruptions. So calling Santorini an “island” is more like wishful thinking. It is, regardless, spectacularly beautiful.
Our pilot managed to land our tiny plane safely on Thira, the largest section of land in Santorini, although that's not really saying because the caldera's total land area is only 35 square miles.
From the Thira Airport, we rented a Renault Scenic and drove to our accommodations, Villas Tholos. On the way, we drove up and down hills that made San Francisco look like Kansas. Somehow, we arrived safely without ever sliding down the steep cliff sides to our untimely deaths.
Our white-washed room at Villa Tholos was so bright, sunglasses were mandatory until 11pm. Its walls jutted straight out towards the water from the cliff side, offering staggering views of Santorini, the entire caldera itself, and the so-called, “most famous sunset in the world.” Even though we didn't try very hard, we couldn't disprove it.
But Santorini isn't just about spectacular views and sunsets, though I would've been happy with that. No, Santorini is also the long-rumored location of Atlantis, the Lost City — a highly advanced island civilization that, according to Plato, disappeared into the sea, and it's easy to see why. One wrong step, and you're slipping headlong into the sea.
There's a Greek archaeological dig site known as Akrotiri.
A few kilometers south of Fira, the main town on Santorini, there's an archaeological dig site called Akrotiri. Centuries earlier, Akrotiri was a thriving Minoan metropolis and port.
But one day, the volcano gods got ticked and went all Pompeii on the city, burying it abruptly in volcanic ash. There, frozen in time, the citizens remained undisturbed until 1967, when Akrotiri was rediscovered; perfectly preserved.
Considering that Akrotirians had only recently mastered walking erect, the city was remarkably modern.
Archaeologists carefully dug out much of the city and unearthed evidence of a written language, artistic wall murals, a system of metrics and counting, running water, international trade and, to no one's great surprise, a Starbucks.
The excavations continue to this day, so it's only a matter of time before they find a TV set or a microwave oven.
Who says sand has to be beige? Not Santorini.
While basking on the black and red sand beaches of Santorini, we noticed that you can see other islands on the horizon in virtually any direction you look. So it's not surprising to learn that early Greeks were big sailors. The temptation must have been strong to explore the other 1400 isles, if only to see if there were hot, single women on them.
We visit Santorini's volcano by boat.
We headed to Thira's port to explore other islands as well, but for entirely different reasons. A large yacht sailed us around the caldera, stopping at places of interest like the lava-ash-covered volcano in the center of Santorini. There, we trekked to the top, sucking in sulfurous gases that smelled like no one had changed the cat-box since the reign of Alexander the Great.
The boat also stopped to give guests the chance to swim up an inlet supposedly heated by the volcano. Billed as a “rejuvenating experience,” it turned out to be just a trick to get human sacrifices for the angry volcano gods I mentioned earlier. We dodged a bullet there.
Though, in fairness to the cruise operators' practice of sacrificing human tourist to the volcano gods, there weren't any eruptions during our entire vacation in Greece. So I guess, it kinda worked. At least, for us.
Hydrofoils are like airplanes that fly on water.
We had to leave sooner or later, but we really could have stayed in Santorini longer. Leaving a paradise like this wasn't easy, but at least we did it in style. We went by hydrofoil to our next destination, the island of Crete.
From the outside, the hydrofoil is part-boat, part-airplane. It's an incredibly fast one, at that, which was good because while it arrived “early” according to Greek standards, it was 20-minutes late according to anyone with a watch.
Inside, the hydrofoil experience was much like an airline — we had assigned seats, not enough overhead compartment space, unhealthy food options, and a toilet that flushed louder than a volcanic eruption.