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The Greek Isle of Santorini

Santorini, Greece

Santorini is the Greek isle of your dreams. When its volcano blew, it left just the flooded caldera (crater). Today whitewashed towns cling to the ring of cliffs, entertaining hordes of tourists with black sand beaches, romantic restaurants, and jaw-dropping views.

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The Aegean Sea offers the quintessence of Mediterranean island charm. Punctuated by romantic nights at sea, our itinerary promises plenty of unforgettable sightseeing. In the morning, we’ll be in Santorini.

I enjoy the scenic arrivals and departures by cruise ship. Being on the top deck as you approach the day’s destination gives you a quiet, bird’s eye view. Approaching an exotic and fabled island like Santorini — as the moon sets and the sun rises, just kissing the lip of the breathtaking cliffs — is worth getting up for.

Santorini is a dramatic island — the rim of a volcanic crater with spectacular vistas. Once a complete island like its neighbors, it was a volcano that about 3,500 years ago blew its top, creating a caldera — this flooded crater. Today, inviting whitewashed villages seem to crowd its dramatic ridges as if jostling to enjoy the views.

Because Santorini’s pier is small, giant cruise ships drop anchor and tender their passengers in on small shuttle boats.

Individuals go to the tiny “old harbor,” where they can ride a donkey up the zig-zag trail, or hop a cable car up to the scenic lip of the island crater.

Those paying for the cruise line’s excursion get off the ship first, and head for an alternative port — where buses and guides await. With the crush of the crowds, the limited time, and the scattered array of interesting sights, investing in a bus tour like this to see Santorini can make sense.

Within minutes you’ll be powering up the switch-backs into the island as your guide narrates the drive.

Guide: Those two are the Kameni Islands. The Kameni Islands are actually made of lava rock.

Excursions also include scenic views from the bus, and the stress-free efficiency of getting smoothly from point to point.

And tour groups are sure to have free time at the best photo ops.

Oia is the postcard image of the Greek isles. This idyllic ensemble of whitewashed houses and characteristic domes is delicately draped over a steep slope at the top of a cliff.

Viewpoints here are some of the most striking in the Greek seas, as tourists clamber for just the right angle. Artists fall in love with Oia and move in. Honeymooners find the B&B of their dreams…and savor breakfast in unforgettable settings. And at the quiet end of town, the old windmill reminds all of a more rustic age gone by.

The whitewash, while scenic today, was originally practical: White reflects the powerful heat of the sun. The lime that makes the whitewash is a good antiseptic — villagers knew it would naturally disinfect the rainwater that was collected on rooftops. And I love the way the blue and white of the townscape seems inspired by the colors of the Greek flag.

Many of these dwellings originated as humble caves. With little building material on the island, it just made sense to dig into the cliffs. These “cave houses,” surrounded by air-filled pumice, are naturally insulated — staying cool in summer and warm in winter. Gradually these cheapest bits of real estate were developed, and, with tourism, they became today’s expensive villas, hotels, and restaurants.

With each port you’ve got sightseeing options: You can take the organized tour and be on their time table, or, you can hire a private guide. You can use a guidebook and be your own guide, or you can just hang out and be thoroughly on vacation. There’s no right or wrong — it depends entirely on your mood and your style.

I’ve left our bus tour early for a rendezvous with a private local guide.

Dimitris: We had a big earthquake back in 1956, 7.8 Richter scale, destroyed very many houses like this captain’s house over here, and on the other side, you can see the Venetian fortress. It’s destroyed. It’s been there since the 14th century.

To get the absolute most out of our Santorini day, I’ve booked half a day with Dimitris. While pricey, if two couples split the cost, enjoying the services of a private guide can cost about the same as the cruise line’s bus tour.

Of Santorini’s many beaches, Kamari is one of the best. The black sand is a reminder of the island’s volcanic origin. Typical of Greek island resort beaches, it’s lined with rentable lounge chairs and a strip of seafood restaurants. And with Dimitris, I know exactly what I’m eating.

Rick: These salads look delicious. Can you tell me about them?
Dimitris: Well, we have here a Greek salad and a Santorini salad. The difference with the local salad is that we use the local tomatoes, the cherry tomatoes, the local cucumbers, and instead of the feta cheese, we use the goat cheese, and we add the capers and the caper leaves. See, you can eat them! They taste good. Right, we got some sardines here, grilled, and on the other side, we’ve got a very nice grilled calamari, also served with salad, the lemon, and the olive oil.
Rick: This is a healthy diet.
Dimitris: This is the Mediterranean diet.