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Santorini

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Destination — Santorini, Greece

Santorini is a volcanic island in the Cyclades group of Greek islands about 200 km (120 mi) southeast of the mainland of Greece and is celebrated for its spectacular natural beauty and legendary sunsets.  The island is shaped like a large “C” as a result of its most striking geological feature, the large submerged caldera created by a volcanic explosion 3600 years ago.  The caldera rings a 12 by 7 km central lagoon surrounded by steep cliffs on three sides.

The varied natural landscape of Santorini is some of the most photographed in the world.  Dramatic blue sky, white houses perched on cliff sides plunging to the sea, lemon groves and pink and white churches with blue-domed roofs create an evocative pallet and atmosphere.

Beaches are spectacularly beautiful, the result of volcanic activity on the island with black, grey, white and red sand and pebbles contrasting with clear blue, green and azure waters.

There are many ancient and historical sites that are also worth seeing like Akrotiri in the south, the well preserved 3,500 year old Minoan town shrouded in volcanic ash like Pompeii.

Must Try Restaurants

Santorini is considered a Mediterranean culinary destination and there are dozens of restaurants to try that will not disappoint.  A few of the best include:

Dimitris Tavern — Located on Amoudi Bay just below the picturesque town of Oia, it’s a must-not-miss destination.  Walk down the 250 steps from the town of Oia to a scenic, small harbour and enjoy fresh fish (often caught that day by Dimitris) perfectly grilled over coals as you gaze out at the ocean.   Fresh is a religion here and the shellfish and octopus are delightful as is the Greek Salad.  Tomato fritters made from local cherry tomatoes are a Santorini speciality but this is the place to enjoy them.

Krinaki Tavern — Located near Oia this traditional Greek tavern is a converted wine cellar built in 1832.  The beautiful yard overlooks the sea and the tiny, picturesque town of Finikia.  As with the best Santorini restaurants, food is prepared from local fresh ingredients.  Try a fresh salad made from local baby tomatoes and karamides (fresh green herbs), fresh chloro cheese or fava.  Skewered meat is a specialty and many different pies are available.

Koukoumavlos Restaurant —  in Fira  features imaginative dishes created by Chef Nikos Pouliasis like foie-gras matched with koufeto, a local almond candy or sea bass paired with nerantzi, a local bitter orange, or the potato soup complemented with kumquat.  Kukomovolos has received the Toques d’Or (Golden Hat or Chrysos Skoufos) for 10 consecutive years.

Matxi Mas — is an intimate space located in an old stone cottage hidden away behind a roadside church in Exo Gonia.   The food is simply prepared, but superb.  Try the shrimps cooked in fennel and ouzo, or a salad of fresh spinach, orange, walnuts, parmesan and pomegranate.  Roasted asparagus in a velvety cream cheese sauce flavoured with herbs and white wine and grilled octopus glazed with thick balsamic vinegar are favourites.

Delectable Local Cuisine

For an island of 90 square kilometers, Santorini has an astonishing variety of local foods.

Tomatokeftedes, a fried tomato fritter, also called tomato rissoles is a forte in Santorini.  The main ingredient is the Santorini tomatina, a type of cherry tomato that is especially sweet because of the anhydrous soil.  It’s mixed with fresh mint, parsley, paprika and onion.  The cherry tomatoes are also sometimes made into sweet tomato marmalade — delicious.

Fava beans, a yellow, shelled lentil, are another traditional food that is grown only on Santorini and nearby island of Anafi.  Archeological digs on the island have turned up grains of the bean in Akrotiri an ancient 3500 year old site.  Fava beans are served locally as a delectable puree.

Although fresh fish is available throughout the Mediterranean, many of the smaller, family-run, beach-front tavernas serve just-caught and then grilled fish, octopus and steamed shellfish that couldn’t be fresher or tastier.

White Eggplant is another local food that is featured in a salad puree call Melitzanosalata.

Wild Santorini Capers grow uncultivated on the island and are picked from September to June.   In general wild capers taste better than cultivated ones.

Locally raised lamb, quail, rabbit, and beef are all also of excellent quality.  Try lamb cooked in a clay pot.

Must See Local Attractions

Santorini has a human history that dates back thousands of years.

One of the best preserved sites is Akrotiri a 1.2 hectare site where a 3500 year old Minoan town is preserved in volcanic ash like Pompeii.  Because of the protection of the volcanic ash, Minoan frescoes are still visible on walls including the most famous of a young boy showing off fish he has caught.  Unlike Pompeii, no human remains were found in Akrotiri… clearly the inhabitants had sufficient warning to leave.

So far 40 buildings have been uncovered, about 1/30 of the site.  Because Akrotiri was a commercial and trading centre the main street is lined with stores and warehouses offering insight into the commerce of the day.

The best view of the town as a whole can be had near the exit from a triangular plaza, where the buildings rise to two stories

Ancient Thera dates from the 9th century B.C.  and was inhabited until the early Byzantine period. The preserved ruins belong to the Hellenistic and Roman phases of the city.

The towns of Fira, Oia and Thirasis are stunning locations that cling to the steep cliffs facing the caldera bay.  They are calendar-picture-perfect, famous for their tiered, whitewashed buildings with blue roofs.   Oia on the tip of the island is the most picturesque and hundreds gather there at the end of the day to watch the spectacular sunsets over the sea.    The “Great Walk” from Fira to Oia along the cliffs, facing the caldera of Santorini offers spectacular views of the caldera and the sea as well as views of the “smoking” islands (volcanic islands) in the central lagoon.

Cooking classes are available at a number of restaurants on the island, including Raki on the village square of the traditional village of Megalochori.  Raki offers lessons in creating traditional Santorini dishes like tomato fritters, fava as well as fish and chicken dishes.  Selene in Pyrgos, another well-preserved traditional village built around a medieval castle, offers a full day course including an overview of wines and local foods of Santorini as well as cooking demonstrations.

Many wine tours of Santorini are also available that explore local wines based on the indigenous Assyrtiko grape variety.  Wine tasting and cooking are all part of the experience.

The Best Watersports, Tennis, Golf and Spas

Beaches

The natural Santorini beaches are among the most stunning in Greece.  Because of ancient volcanic activity the variety of sand colours is not only unusual (black, grey, white and red sand or pebbles) the colour and texture depends on the beach.

The Red Beach — is a volcanic beach located near the village of Akrotiri and one of the most famous and spectacular beaches of Santorini.  The beach and surroundings are red with a pebbled beach, red rocks, red lava cliffs behind and clean waters.   The beach is fairly isolated, but busy, attracting many visitors.

Monolithos —  can be found close to the airport on the east side of Santorini, next to Kamari Beach.  It’s fairly peaceful and a favourite with locals.   With fine black sand it’s perfect for families and has plenty of facilities including children’s play areas, sun beds, umbrellas for rent, water sports and many restaurants.

Vlyhada — set against white volcanic rocks, the beach itself is grey and sandy and ideal for those interested in simply swimming and lying in the sun.  No water sports are available here, but it’s a long and quiet beach.  This is predominately a nude beach.

Perissa —  is located in Perissa village and its combination of black lava sand and crystal blue waters is irresistible, making it one of the most popular on Santorini.  With Beach bars, taverns and sport facilities along the beach, Perissa beach is the perfect fun and party beach.   Diving off the rocks at the end of the beach (the area is called Kolada) offers thrills for the brave and adventurous.

Kamari — offers stunning clear blue waters that turn deep quickly and long grey sand along with views of the Mesa Vouno (a huge rock rising from the sea).   This is not a quiet beach as it attracts many tourists and is very well organized with the accompanying, restaurants, beach bars and shops.   This is one of the best locations for cliff diving, but caution is recommended.

Rock Climbing

Although the sheer cliffs along the caldera are impressive they`re unsafe to scale because of their pumice structure.  On the other side of the island, however good quality limestone cliffs with many small pads and holes can be found in three areas, Perivolos, Perissa and Kamari providing a number of excellent rock climbing routes.

Scuba Diving

Volcanic eruptions have created many outstanding options for wall dives and never ending drop-offs around the Caldera and the Volcanic islands.  The most popular sites are the volcanic islands of Palea and Nea Kameni and the cliffs around the Caldera.   Below the cliffs of the caldera colorful sponges, nudibranchs, groupers, snappers, barracuda and schools of fish abound.

At the Palea and Nea Kameni volcanic islands underwater lava formations are there for exploring with marine life such as lobsters, moray eels, clams and spirographs among the rocks.

The Lava Caves located on the south coast of Santorini are a pathway of canyons, swim-throughs and caverns and offers a great variety of dives with volcanic scenery.

There are 5 dive centres around the island to provide equipment, instruction and guided tours for divers.

The best spots for snorkelling Mesa Pigadia beach, the beach South of Oia, Perissa Rock, some spots between Perivolos and Vlichada Beach, the beach on Thirasia and Caldera Beach, near Akrotiri.

Horseback Riding

For horseback riding try the beach at Monolithos or the beach nearby at Exo Gonia

Water Sports

Sea kayaking tours are available at Santorini Sea Kayak in Perivolos on the south end of the island

Water sports facilities can be found at the more organized, busier beaches.  Banana boats, wind surfing, knee boarding, kite boarding, wake boarding, water skiing, para-sailing and jet skis or wave runner boats are available in various locations.  The best beaches for water sports activities are Monolithos, Perissa and Kamari.

Spas

There are a number of day and resort spas on Santorini.  Most are reasonably high-end.  Some of the more popular spas are:

Fish Spa Kangal Santorini – Wellness Center — offers a range of traditional spa and beauty treatments including massage packages, reflexology, beauty masks and the fish spa where groups of the tiny Garda Rufa fish nibble away, exfoliating skin and providing a gentle massage.

Caldera Massage Studio and Spa — offers a choice of body, face and beauty treatments.  The Studio is situated in caldera cave houses with an open terrace overlooking Oia sunset.  Indoor or outdoor treatments are available.

Santorini Acupressure  —  Therapeutic massage based on traditional Chinese acupuncture points.

The Museum Spa Wellness Hotel — Located in Oia, spa services include massage, facials, and therapeutic treatments in the Volcanic Spa.

The Best Time to Visit Santorini

The Season starts around Easter each year and is a busy time of year in Santorini.   The temperatures are mild, hovering between the 60s and 70s for most of the spring months — a bit too cool for the beach, but perfect for sightseeing.

Summer is Santorini’s peak season and is the best weather for swimming, water sports and relaxing on the beach.   Book accommodation well in advance at this time of year.

The water in the Aegean is still fairly warm in September and October with sunny days and daytime temperatures in the 70s and 80s.  Most of the tourist infrastructure is still open for business at this time of year and the crowds are less of an issue.  This is a great time for and exploring Santorini’s historical sites and natural wonders.

November through until spring isn`t recommended.  Temperatures cool off and many of hotels and facilities are closed down until Easter.

Special events on Santorini 

Easter on Santorini is full of images, scents and flavors with processions and beautiful candles.  The most impressive Easter celebration is the one at the mountain-top village of Pyrgos, where no less than 25.000 candles are lit by the villagers.  On the Eve of Easter Sunday, the Holy Resurrection is celebrated with spectacular fireworks over the villages with bells ringing everywhere.

Each summer in August the Ifestia Festival offers a dramatic  representation of the volcanic eruption in Santorini with fireworks and sounds as well as many cultural events, music concerts and traditional dance performances.

The Santorini Jazz Festival in Kamari is well known throughout Greece and lasts for three days in July.  It includes performances by both Greek and international musicians — a must not miss.

Seasonal Feast Days occur throughout the island.  The most notable in September are in Oia (8th), Perissa (14th) and then in Fira (17th).  Greek dancing and music, and plenty of food and wine to go around.  Other festivals include the Profitis Ilias, which takes place on July 20 in Fira, and in Akrotiri, both the Metamorfosi Sotiros celebrations and the Feast of the Virgin Mary happen in August.

Local Shopping and Crafts

Fira is the main shopping center on the island capital but Oia has Art Deco galleries, gold shops, and handmade wooden goods.  Ethnic craft shops can be found Kamari Beach in the south east.

Amber is a specialty in Santorini, either made into jewellery, or sold in polished stones containing insects.

Summer season shopping goes on late into the night.

Wineries throughout the island are open to the public with products that are unique to the island.

Bring the Family

Santorini is a wonderful place for a family vacation.  The ancient historical at Akrotiri is well worth a visit.

Many of the beaches are family friendly.  In particular, Monolithos is a good family spot with many facilities including children’s play areas, water sports and many restaurants.

Food on Santorini is nutritious and delicious and children can find something to enjoy in the many excellent restaurants.

Touring through the countryside by rented car or bicycle is a great activity for adults and children, with dozens of traditional villages, hundreds of beautiful churches and many spectacular views.

Boat tours of the caldera and islands in the lagoon, including the active volcanoes are a pleasant way for a family to spend a day or afternoon.

Snorkelling, kite board and jet skiing are absorbing activities for older children.

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