WITH whitewashed houses, golden sunsets and black sands, Santorini makes for striking holiday snaps
Arriving in Santorini is how I hope dying will be: a blinding, fierce white light so dazzling that my eyes can hardly focus, and then a tunnel of cerulean to an infinite sky and a man in billowing white linen who reaches out to free me of all my worldly stress. Or, on this sun-drenched day in September, my suitcase, as Joseph Gaoutsis, the manager of Grace Santorini Hotel, welcomes me at the airport.
I first visited Santorini 22 years ago while backpacking my way around the Greek Cyclades, essentially a cluster of craggy rocks that poke their thyme-scented heads up from the Aegean Sea just 100 miles from Athens. Santorini deserves her accolade as the most beautiful and I was blown away by the theatre of its volcanic setting (think Raquel Welch in a fur bikini in the film One Million Years BC), which is in flamboyant contrast to the quiet simplicity of the blue-domed churches and whitewashed houses. The shape of the island, like a crescent moon, was the result of a volcanic explosion some 3,600 years ago, which wiped out three quarters of its landmass and left at its core the spectacular caldera (Greek for cauldron), a giant blue lagoon measuring 12km by 7km, surrounded by multi-coloured cliffs on three sides. Plato believed it to be the lost Atlantis.
My head was full of sensuous images: eating crimson watermelon on soot-black beaches, my legs brushing wild thyme on mountain walks, licking honey off my fingers from dripping baklava, and I was ready for some more.
Grace Santorini is the island’s most seductive boutique hotel, situated in the tiny village of Imerovigli that clings to the cliff-face 300m above the caldera. It’s not difficult to see why its 20 rooms are desired by loved-up couples, but I’d taken two girlfriends to enjoy the newly opened Grace Santorini Villa with its bespoke service and private spa and pool (not to mention the well-stocked champagne cooler, Sonos sound system and personal iPhone on which to utter your every whim). Nice touches included the opportunity to pre-select a fragrance for your room and customise your pillows. My friends suggested, “Eau de Ouzo and a Greek Adonis on which to rest their heads”.
The master bedroom is inspired by the island’s volcanic landscape, from the prismatic patterns on the black and white resin floor to the thick white geometric honeycomb wall that separates bedroom from bathroom and the decadent shower: cavernous with mood lighting and music, which was big enough to dance as well as sing in. Now I knew I wasn’t in heaven. It was far too naughty.
The island’s capital, Fira, is a leisurely half-hour vertiginous stroll along the cliffs through an anthill of cubed houses, tree-shaded tavernas and bijou hotels. Today there are more stylish shoe shops and jewellers (stop off at Inez for fine crochet silver bracelets) and trendy bars than an old Greek goat-herder could shake a stick at, but it’s still an atmospheric labyrinth of narrow, lava-cobbled alleyways, where stray cats pose and washing ripples in the breeze. The cable car was still in working order, swinging you sedately to the port, where boats can be chartered for a couple of hours or a whole day of cruising the Santorini waters. We jumped in one with Niko, who took us out across the submerged volcano for incredible views back to the island. He began by calling us ladies and ended by calling us girls, a testament to just how much fun we were having.
Greece’s rival to Pompeii is Akrotiri in the south – the 3,500-year-old Minoan town preserved in volcanic ash. Two and three-storey houses, pots and urns, frescoes and mosaics have been excavated and it is an archaeologist’s dream, but it was the ruins of the 9th-century BC amphitheatre found at Ancient Thira that brought goosebumps to my skin. Immensely atmospheric, it sits on the cliffs with dizzying views downhill over the town of Kamari, the epicentre of Santorini beach life, to the sea. Another day we headed to Red Beach in the north, where slabs of scarlet rock tower behind black sands that by midday are too hot to walk on, reminding those daring enough to risk it without flip-flops of their volcanic origins. Oia on the northern tip is famous for its spectacular sunsets, so you have to jostle for space on the terraces for a view. Visitors from the cruise ships pour like thick Greek yoghurt into every crevice of this tiny town between 11am and 2pm, so we avoided the hoards and wound down 300 donkey-littered corkscrew steps to the tiny port Amoundi, where a string of tavernas serve up the catch of the day on the water’s edge. We ate red snapper and dipped bread into plates of creamy tzatziki washed down with local wine grown in a soil of ash, lava and pumice. The wine produced on Santorini is considered by many to be Greece’s best and many tourists spend the day staggering from one vineyard to the next, but we preferred the lazy approach – sampling different wines over languid lunches each day. After much research, we voted the Atlantis white from the Argyros Estate our favourite.
By 2:30pm we had Oia to ourselves and wandered through the sun-bleached streets, stopping off in the Oria Gallery to admire the photography of Nikos Rigopoulos, who adds a splash of vibrant colour to his black-and-white images. We paused to watch a wedding in the square where guests wore only white, which gave the event an edgy Mafioso atmosphere. The only thing missing was a violin case. Even the donkeys garlanded in white freesias and roses looked like they were part of the mob.
By nightfall, like well-fed island cats, we didn’t stray far. Spyros Agious, Grace Santorini’s head chef, takes traditional Greek favourites and creates something unique, such as sea bass moussaka. But it is the humble Greek pie that he has raised to god-like status and it’s worth getting out of bed each morning because there’s a new one to try, such as cauliflower with Kefalotiri cheese or spicy Mykonos sausage and tomato.
Skaros rock is a windswept headland that soars, like the kestrels that nest there, in front of Grace. Once the capital of Santorini and littered with more than 200 dwellings, only the remote church of Agios Ioannis Apokefalistheisa remains. We scrambled over loose rock, through wild fig trees and lavender, squealing at times as we lost the path, for sweeping views back to the cliffs, down to turquoise waters and across the caldera to the nearby island of Thirasia.
Our stay at Grace was dreamy to say the least and we literally had our heads in the clouds as each evening mists swirled mysteriously down the cliffs to the sea.
“Live your life,” was the advice from head barman Manos, as he pushed towards me a Grace cocktail – an addictive concoction of pear vodka, pear liquor, and apple and lemon juice. It’s a nice piece of advice to get from a good-looking ex-wrestler, so I took it. We watched the sunset and the sky turn from tangerine to plum and ordered another round, laughing raucously with my friends until even the local cats ran for cover.
THE FACTS easyJet fly directly to Athens from Edinburgh from £56.54 return. From Athens, Olympic Air and Aegean Air fly daily to Santorini, see www.olympicair.com or www.aegeanair.com for offers and the up-to-date schedule. Rates for The Villa start at £1,780 in 2013. A deluxe room starts from £300. Both rates include taxes and a champagne breakfast. See www.santorinigrace.com for more information or book through www.mr&mrssmith.com/GraceSantorini