My husband Chris and I were lured to Santorini by tales of its unparalleled sunsets, spectacular volcanic cliffs and quaint, blue-domed churches. It didn’t take long for us to see why this tiny island is one of the most admired.
As we near the end of a half-hour flight from Athens, our first view of Santorini is from the sky. The island’s shimmering golden cliffs rise steeply from the azure Aegean Sea and are capped by white-washed villages that resemble patches of snow. Our plane circles to the flat side of the island, where an airstrip cuts through the fields.
Since we have treated ourselves to a romantic Relais & Châteaux hotel, Chris and I are full of anticipation as we arrive at La Maltese, a neoclassical captain’s mansion located in the picturesque village of Imerovigli. The hotel’s opulent interior, attentive concierge and spacious terraces impress us. Yet it’s the views that make the trip worthwhile.
When the ancient island of Thira erupted in 1500 BC, it left a broken rim of a now-extinct volcano. La Maltese is located at the highest point of the caldera, 250 metres above sea level, and the views of the volcano and the outlying islands take our breath away.
After a refreshing welcome drink, Chris and I are escorted to our suite – a spacious duplex with a cave-like curved ceiling, spacious living area, two bathrooms stocked with Hermès products, and a terrace overlooking the caldera. We head to a nearby taverna for a celebratory glass of rosé and some traditional Greek souvlaki – a selection of succulent grilled meats and vegetables served on a skewer.
We stroll after lunch through the village’s narrow, labyrinthine streets and admire the quaint homes and churches as their white-washed walls dazzle us in the sun. Although many of the cliffside homes are let to holidaymakers or have been converted into small hotels, Imerovigli retains a peaceful and non-touristy ambience. Just south of the village, we can see the island’s capital, Fira, sprawling along the cliffs. After a siesta on the hotel terrace, a waiter appears unexpectedly bearing pink champagne cocktails just in time for sunset.
We return to the terrace the following morning to enjoy a leisurely breakfast amid the clouds. As we tuck into fresh pastries, eggs, Greek yoghurt and honey, the sea and sky seem to blend and we watch the outlying islands float slowly out of the evaporating mist.
The most popular way for visitors to get around Santorini is by quad bike, but Chris and I hire a convertible Peugeot for a faster and less bumpy ride. Our first stop is the picturesque town of Oia, located a scenic half-hour drive north of Imerovigli. We are keen to see why this village is regarded as one of the foremost tourist attractions of the Aegean Sea.
The reason soon becomes apparent. Not only does Oia offer some of the most stunning views on the island, but it has an attractive mix of architectural styles ranging from medieval, pastel-coloured Venetian captains’ houses to smaller, cave-style village dwellings hewn from the volcanic rock. Traditional windmills and blue-domed churches complete the fairytale scene, and laws protecting the beauty of the town shield it from modern additions such as visible electrical wires.
The intense afternoon heat keeps most tourists away, and Chris and I find this a pleasant time to browse Oia’s numerous boutiques, small art and sculpture galleries, and exquisite handmade jewellery stores. We enjoy a light lunch in a restaurant perched high above the glittering sea.
A sudden and dramatic drop in temperature in the evening has us donning our winter woollens and the sunset is obscured by thick sea mists. Although we choose an inland restaurant for dinner, by nightfall we can barely see the other diners and the eerie atmosphere is reminiscent of The Hound of the Baskervilles. We make it back to our hotel before a power cut affects the entire island. Fortunately, our room has an ample supply of candles.
We drive the southern half of the island the following day and visit Perissa, a touristy town with the longest and most popular beach on Santorini. Like the island’s other beaches, the sand here is black, but the water is crystal clear and the Mesa Vouno mountain makes a stunning and dramatic backdrop. Perissa is home to the Basilica of Agia Irini (Saint Irene), which dates back to the fifth and sixth centuries, and is believed to have given Santorini its name.
We drive up the mountain to the monastery of Profitis Ilias, which was built 300 years ago at the highest point of Santorini. The monastery is cherished by islanders because Greek language and culture were secretly taught here during the Turkish occupation. The views across Santorini and the surrounding islands are simply breathtaking, and on the clearest days you can see the mountains of Crete more than 100 kilometres away.
The following day we visit Fira, which is packed with tourists – many of them passengers from the cruise ships docked below. To reach Fira from the port, you can take the traditional route up the steep cliffs by donkey, or the modern option of a cable car. Chris and I find the prices in Fira higher than in the villages and the food somewhat blander. Nonetheless, it’s a fun place to visit and the narrow streets are packed with shops, especially jewellery stores. It’s a fun, lively place to visit at night, teeming with bars and restaurants.
Our favourite spot is the tranquil Oia, so we return to experience the best sunset on the island. In contrast to our afternoon visit, by evening the village is packed with hordes of locals and visitors, all jostling for the best spot to watch the sun go down. Many spectators share picnics or a drink, and the atmosphere is friendly and festive. We wander along the cliff and enjoy the spectacular sunset from as many angles as possible, finally stopping to watch an old sailing ship as it glides into the dusk.
We spend our last couple of days relaxing on the hotel terrace, where even the continual playing of a Barry White CD does not diminish our enjoyment of the views. We break up our leisurely timetable with short morning or evening trips during the cooler hours, and return to Fira and Oia to visit the ports and enjoy scenic cliff walks.
Being keen epicureans, we indulge in a wide range of Greek fare, such as stuffed peppers and tomatoes, moussaka, chicken and lemon soup, delicious spinach and feta pies, roasted eggplant and mouth-watering baklava – best bought fresh from the village bakery, dripping with honey.
We feel rejuvenated after six days on this stunning island, relaxed and inspired, if somewhat fatter. Santorini is not only beautiful, it is the perfect place to rekindle romance.
Singapore Airlines flies directly to Athens three times a week (Mon, Wed, Fri) departing Singapore at 1.00am and arriving in Athens at 7.20pm. Flying time is just over 11 hours and the time difference is five hours.
Aegean Airlines offers four flights daily from Athens to Santorini, with a 10.35am flight conveniently connecting with the Singapore Airlines 7.20am arrival. Flying time is about 25 minutes.
Ferry connections from Piraeus (the port town near Athens) are an option, taking five hours on a high-speed ferry or about eight hours on a regular ferry.
La Maltese Estate offers a variety of rooms and suites that range from $1,125 to $1,875 during high season (1 Jun to 30 Sept).
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