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Spectacular Santorini -- scene of one of the world's most violent volcanic eruptions around 1450 B.C. -- is inarguably the most scenically dramatic of all the Greek Islands. Officially the island is Thira, yet the Latin name of Santorini persists. With its pitch-black beaches, rugged landscape and stunning caldera (volcanic crater), it's more akin to one of the Canary Islands than the Cyclades, though its whitewashed churches and clifftop houses score highly in the charm stakes.
This is the island for lovers of natural beauty, though sun seekers may not fancy its beaches. Best views are from the cliffs bordering the caldera, which was formed when the center of the island basically collapsed into itself. Geologists marvel at the cliffs' multi-hued strata of rock, lava and pumice, so take your camera and be prepared to feel the earth move (perhaps even literally -- Santorini's most recent major earthquake was in 1956, although there was one nearby as recently as June 26, 2009).
It's worth remembering that the bay surrounding Santorini is actually the world's largest volcanic crater, created 3,500 years ago by a massive eruption of the Thera volcano (which is still active). The bay is also believed by some to conceal the legendary lost city of Atlantis. There's plenty here to set your imagination working, even though the modern-day city of Thira, officially Fira, was completely rebuilt after an earthquake in 1956.
If you're happy to enjoy a browse around the shops and a lazy lunch with a view, Fira will fit the bill perfectly -- and it even has some 9th-century clifftop ruins to explore. But to see the best of Santorini, you should take a shore excursion, via bus or taxi, further afield.
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Other Eastern Mediterranean Cruise Ports:
Athens (Piraeus) • Bari • Bodrum • Corfu • Crete (Heraklion) • Dubrovnik • Gythion • Haifa • Istanbul • Izmir • Jerusalem (Ashdod) • Katakolon (Olympia) • Koper • Kotor • Kusadasi • Limassol • Mykonos • Odessa • Positano (Amalfi) • Rhodes • Santorini • Split • Varna • Venice • Volos • Yalta • Zadar
The best art shops are in Oia, although Mati Art Gallery in Fira (00 30 22860 23814) and Santorini Art Center on the Caldera Steps, Fira (00 30 22860 23577) are well worth visiting. Mati is one of many small art-cum-jewellery shops running north from the Orthodox Cathedral. The Art Centre sells a lot of sculptures and oil paintings out of an old wine cellar. Oia has a fine independent bookshop, Atlantis Books (00 30 22860 72346).
The wine industry has taken off massively, with a Wine Road running the length of the island. If your ship will allow you to, buy this gorgeous wine (70 percent of the output goes direct to the U.S.).
Santo Wines in Pirgos (0030 2286 028058) is the island cooperative and seems to be a must for cruise ships. It's right above Athinos port. As the wine is so good -- and the view superb -- this is one excursion not to miss.
Greek, but virtually everybody speaks English.
Currency & Best Way to Get Money
Euro. There are banks and exchange bureaus in Fira.
Where You're Docked
There are actually two ports within caldera, Fira and Athinos. Ships have to anchor off Santorini and tender passengers into Skala Fira, the small port below the capital, Fira (also known as Thira). Thira dates from the 9th century and lies atop 1,000-foot cliffs at the edge of the caldera. You can reach it by funicular, bus or go up the steep, winding steps the fun way -- by donkey! Some ships transfer their passengers direct to Athinos from where there are bus transfers to the top.
Tenders shuttle passengers right to the base of Fira; you must ride the funicular (or a donkey) up to the town itself.
Fira can easily be explored on foot, and buses run hourly to Akrotiri and Oia from the bus station at the end of Gold Street. Taxis also abound (negotiate a rate in advance) and are a more reliable option if time is at a premium.
A lot of people hire quad bikes now, just for the day. It's a massive new industry, and you can't miss the hire shops in Fira.
Watch Out For
Ubiquitous -- and noisy -- Greek motorcycles. Also, be prepared to be hustled onto a donkey at the port.
In Fira you'll find cobbled streets, whitewashed houses and churches, lots of jewelry and craft shops, a small archaeological museum open 8:30 a.m. – 3 p.m. every day except Monday (Fira Santorini 847 00, near the cable car station; +30 22860 22217), clifftop restaurants and cafes with terrific views of the sparkling seas below.
Also worth visiting is Oia (pronounced Eeh-Ah), a pretty village of pastel-tinted and whitewashed houses set into the cliffside. Here you'll find leafy squares, picturesque restaurants, art galleries and decent craft shops -- good for a browse and a pleasant lunch. There are also paths down to two black-sand volcanic beaches.
Go up any of the streets facing the cable car station and you'll find yourself on the shop- and restaurant-lined main thoroughfare, Erythrou Stavrou. Here you can book a local excursion from one of the numerous travel agencies, or shop for jewelry and designer goods. But your best bet if you're in search of the offbeat is simply to follow your nose down cobbled alleyways, some of which contain quite upmarket shops. If you're buying several things at one store, it's worth asking for a bulk discount -- but this isn't the place for really serious haggling.
The beaches at Kamari, about 10 kilometers southeast of Fira, and Perissa, about 15 kilometers southeast, have amenities for rent, such as sun chairs, umbrellas and water-sports equipment. There are plenty of restaurants, bars and cafes, too.
Been There, Done That
Looking for something a bit different? Take a ferry trip (bookable either on the ship or ashore) to the tiny volcanic island of Palaia Kameni, famed for its therapeutic thermal mud baths in which visitors are welcome to wallow. A range of "caldera cruises" are offered by Nomikos Travel in Fira (00 30 22860 23 660).
Akrotiri lies at the southwestern tip of Santorini and is Greece's answer to Pompeii. Though covered in a sea of lava by Thera's cataclysmic eruption (four times the strength of Krakatoa) in 1450 B.C., it has now been partially excavated, revealing some beautiful frescoes and buildings dating as far back as the 16th century B.C. Amazingly, many of these remain intact -- including some huge clay storage jars that survived the eruption. Open Tuesday – Sunday 8:30 a.m. – 3 p.m. (south of modern Akrotiri; +30 22860 81366)
Visit an old and a new winery.
Wine RoadThere are 10 wineries that make up the Wine Road. Wine In Santorini (00 30 22860 71861) offers wine tours around the island for two to eight people from €70 per person. Seeing the sunset from Amoudi (the only place on the island where from sea level you can see the sun disappear beneath the horizon) is such a “Santorini thing to do” that it borders on cliché but still worth it. Book a quayside table at Dmitri's Taverna (00 30 22860 71 606), in advance.
Avoid restaurants and cafes advertising pizza, toasted sandwiches and other fast-food staples, and seek out a clifftop restaurant with fresh fish on the menu; grilled red mullet is particularly good. Too hot to pig out? Order mezedes -- small portions of traditional Greek food like taramosalata, olives and tsatsiki -- with bread and salata choriatiki (salty feta cheese salad) on the side and a bottle of local wine to wash it down. Sit back, savour the view -- and enjoy.
For new Greek cuisine with a focus on organic, farm-direct produce and seafood from the Mediterranean, try Papagalos Restaurant in Oia. Also known for their lamb chops. Open daily at 12:30 p.m. (Oia, T.K. 84702; +30 694 2205923)
Fanari Restaurant in central Fira is near the main square and cable car, serves traditional Greek cuisine and also local recipes centered around fresh seafood, tomatoes, white eggplant and zucchini. Fanari has a special offer for cruisers that claims to discount unique delicacies, mezedes, traditional dishes and Santorini wines up to 50 percent or more. The catch is you must have a large party with you. (Fira; +30 22860 25107)
Archipelagos Restaurant in Fira is wildly popular, especially the terraces with amazing views, so consider reservations. (Fira, 84700 Cyclades Islands; +30 22860 24509)
For a quick bite, the light menu of Classico Cafe-Restaurant is in the heart of Fira with wonderful views of the caldera and the chapel of Agios Minas. The cafeteria style is offset by the coziness. The limited choices may include omelets, cheese and Greek olives, grilled pork or seafood plates of shrimp, salmon, octopus and shellfish, as well as fruit salad and homemade ice creams.
It's also worth hunting out some of the restaurants that face inland eg. Metaxis Mas in Exo Gonia (00 30 2286 031323) or Roka in Oia (00 30 2286 071896). The locals will tell you that every restaurant with a caldera view is charging you 50 per cent for the view: the food is much better value and the service less rushed at the non-Caldera-facing restaurants.
Santorini's soil and climate means that local ingredients are few. Even olives, that Greek staple, have to be imported. Ask for dishes that include Santorini fava or sweet tomatoes or the very sweet Santorini egg plant that can be eaten raw.
There are great one day cookery schools run by Selene Restaurant (00 30 6932 977620, www.selene.gr) that explain Santorini's cuisine.
Staying in Touch
In Fira, PC World recently opened their new shop between the bank and pharmacy . Use one of their 40 PCs or connect your laptop to Wi-Fi. They also have printing service and can burn CDs or DVDs. Open 10 a.m. – 1 p.m. (off of Eikostis Pemptis Martiou; +30 22860 25552)
Easyinternet Cafe is also in Fira, next to taxi station and Poseidon Restaurant. Open 8 a.m. – 1 p.m.
In Perissa Beach, Corner Internet Cafe is on the beach.
In Kamari Beach, Dom Bar Cafe is a club by night, Internet cafe by evening. (+30 22860 33420)
Try a 3- to 4-hour tour to see the archaeological excavations at Akrotiri, which date back to the Minoan Civilization of 2000 B.C. Typically, passengers sail aboard small caiques to the port of Athenios, then join coaches to visit the site, returning by road via the vineyards of Boutari for some free time in Fira.
Some ships also run 4-hour tours to the lovely whitewashed village of Oia via Santorini's highest peak, Profitis Ilias. They include free time in both Oia and Fira.
For More Information
On the Web: www.greektourism.com
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--updated by Adrian Mourby, Cruise Critic contributor