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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 • Bari • Bodrum • Corfu • Crete • Dubrovnik • Gythion • Haifa • Istanbul • Izmir • Jerusalem (Ashdod) • Katakolon • Kotor • Kusadasi • Limassol • Mykonos • Rhodes • Santorini • Split • Varna • Venice • Volos • Zadar
Intricate Byzantine-inspired jewelry from Ilias Lalaounis, a fourth generation jewelry shop on Gold Street (Odos Ypapantis) in Fira. (22860-25844)
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
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 or go up the steep, winding steps the fun way -- by donkey!
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.
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 Karmari, 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.
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. Bourtari Winery, completed in 1990, has organized tours in several languages and wine tasting. Open in summer 10 a.m. – 7 p.m., and in winter 10 a.m. to 4 p.m. (on the road to Megalochori at the crossing to Perissa/Akrotiri; 22860 81011) Roussos Winery is one of the oldest, begun in 1836 and is still family owned. Check out the tour with tasting and mezedes. At harvest time, you can get your inner Lucy on and stomp the grapes. Open daily May through September 10 a.m. – 8 p.m. (in the village Mesa Gonia, there is a sign on the road towards Kamari to the right; 22860 31349)
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.
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 Jodi Thompson, Cruise Critic contributor