After the wonder of my brief time in Italy, I caught a hopper flight, or two, to Santorini. Aegean Air are a bit of a joy for me. I've flown with them so many times, landing at dawn on one island or another, has only filled me with good will towards them. Even when they recently cancelled a flight to Milos because no one had booked seats on it, I forgave them.... easily. Even if it meant 7 hours and one change on the Greek ferry system.
It was my first trip to Santorini however. I had seen the pictures of Oia and hadn't really know what to expect other than this. My Greek holiday experiences had been at beach level. The low lying sandy idylls that became so popular in the 70's, not this towering volcanic caldera with endless views out into the violet horizon.
I duly landed at dawn. Not to an airport but what appeared to be a semi derelict petrol station. The plane pulled up to the sliding entrance doors and we all got out, picked up our bags from the only carousel in the hall and wondered what to do next. There was a pamphlet for a helicopter but that wasn't really an option. There were too many of us for a start. Then we walked out on to the concourse, as it's known at other airports, or on to the Lino as it's known on Santorini. And there he was - Holding up a little sign, containing the usual spelling mistakes, but he was there; my 'drive'. I had chosen my hotel very carefully and had pulled out every stop to talk to my chosen hotel to ensure that I was looked after accordingly. It was my honeymoon after all.
The hotel was called the San Antonio and I had no idea at that time how important a decision this would become in my life, over the years that follow. It was still very early when I arrived there and was greeted by the night porter. Not he the dark, moody character represented so admirably by Dirk Bogarde in the film of the same name, but a Greek Island night porter. All dressed in white, slight, cheery, courteous and professional. He grabbed my hefty baggage and off we went, through the tunnelled reception, carved out of the very caldera itself, across the black painted rooftops of the other suites - A stark contrast to the brilliant white that is so identifiable with Santorini, onward to Suite 10.
Suite 10 was to be my home and quite frankly it could have remained my home for eternity, if I had a say in it. Wonderfully massive, the sun was issuing forth over the horizon and bathed the whole place in a magnificent yellow and pink light. Big white couches at one end, an enormous, sumptuous bed took centre stage, a marbled table, some chairs and a fine terracotta tiled bathroom complete with spa bath, stood obediently to one side.
On the balcony was a jacuzzi, two sun beds, another table and chairs with a more formal dining area set off to the left. I had been given the Honeymoon Suite. A first in all my travels, and on this very occasion too. An upgrade of biblical proportions..... If not biblical, then certainly something equally as fantastic and made up. But this wasn't made up, it was real. This was going to be a great honeymoon.
He didn't hang around for a tip, he didn't even ask where my beaming bride was. The suitcase wasn't that heavy for her to be a stowaway so he must have forgotten that there were supposed to be two of us. So had I. On the down side, this was far too good a place not to be able to share with someone, even someone as inconsequential as a made up wife.
The other magical thing about it all was, the early check in. I urge you to go for it. Don't believe all that check-in time is strictly this and strictly that. An overnight flight is totally worth it. It may not seem like it at the time but it truly is.... and they always throw in breakfast. It's basically 8 hours for free, and at these prices, that mounts up, but I'm worth it. Actually, it wasn't expensive at all. Maybe €280 for this place. That's a bargain. I wandered around in a daze, staring out into the early morning Aegean. The peach tones of the sunrising sky were dissipating and what took its place was the ethereal blue shades that make the Aegean such a marvel. The deep, deep blue sea - No white horses down there, just dark inky biro blue.
Breakfast was grand. The whole room was full of every delight you could imagine but it was the colour again. Sitting out on the very edge of the caldera terrace, the orange was just brilliant, in its truest sense, the apricot jam, likewise, the coffee was frappe and Greek and refreshing and the pastries were rich, fresh and plentiful. It was the longest breakfast I'd ever had, and as someone who specialises in the three breakfast morning routine, that takes some doing.
Couples, probably honeymooners like me, began to take up the adjacent tables and also stare out over Imerovigli to the left and the other smaller islands deposited by the last big blast from this very impressive yet dormant volcano. It's still hard to comprehend that this breakfast is taking place on the inside of a volcano's inner rim. It's breathtaking at every level and should never be forgotten. What happened to the Minoans must have been as close to the end of the world as can be imagined. Now, 1600 years later, we are here, with our loved ones eating spinach and cheese pies.
I was still feeling a bit cheesy myself after the overnight excursion, so Santorini must wait. I was reading an Iain Banks novel at the time - That was going to do just fine. I took my place on the sun lounger and sweat snoozed the morning away. The jacuzzi would wake me up later. It was still May after all, and although this is about as perfect a time to travel to the Greek Islands as you can imagine, the water is still pretty damn pre summer cold. I think I hit the mini bar quite hard, A Santorinian white wine from the Atlantis Winery seemed to be the go and so I went.
That afternoon I went into Oia and cant remember much about it. Well, that's not strictly true. I remember it being deserted. I had the place to my self. The cruise liners weren't here, with their rushing, bustling, noisy cargo of box tickers and selfie stickers. I also remember very clearly that the pavements shone. They are white and glasslike. Ever magnifying Oia's already brilliant white, set against the dark blue May sky. Surely this mimicking of the Greek flag can be no fluke. Rebellion against the invading Ottomans perhaps.
It was quiet, beautiful, and I got to take many abstract, crisp landscapes because of this. No need for photoshopping out the pesky badly dressed and best view malingerers. White walls set against cobalt blues with shocks of red geranium and sunflower golds.
This really is the time to come - Before the hoards, before noise, whilst the whitewash is fresh and the flowers in bloom.... Who cares if the water's a bit nippy. It's no competition for this peace. Now that the Chinese cruisers are disembarking in their thousands too, something needs to be done before yet another destructive Tsunami devastates this Aegean gem. That of the screaming, jostling, rushing, juggernaut of the time constrained marine tourist. HDT's of the highest order.
The next day had a plan attached to it. After another delicious, colourful and life affirming breakfast, I was to walk from the Hotel back again to Oia. This would take me up over a rather large little hill, through meadows of wild oregano and thyme, past the little Church of Panagia and down into the shining tiled pathways of Oia itself.
It was Easter Sunday. For what happened next, please read my Loakasti blog on a previous page.
My favourite spot to watch the sunset madness in Oia is the little 39 Steps bar, right next to one of the famous little blue domed churches that are the subject of nearly every Santorinian postcard. I like it here a lot. The restaurant upstairs is also excellent. Offering exceptional cuisine, Modern Greek is probably the best way to describe it, and the Red Bicycle offers an excellent opportunity to enjoy a special meal in a wonderful atmosphere.
That evening then becomes a bit of a blur again. I will go through my photographs more thoroughly, to see if I can piece it all together. I must have taken a phone shot of my drinks or something. I think I just mooched around some bars..... Seems likely.
The next day was to be a special day. The breakfast again was no less colourful and joyous. I relaxed by my ice cold jacuzzi and read. I had a half bottle of two of the wonderfully atmospheric Ouzo with me, so the previous night must have included a trip to a supermarket somewhere along the line. A whole bottle would have cost less than €10 and is well worth picking up in case of emergencies. I should also mention something else here; Lay's Oregano Crisps - Utterly sublime with a cold Mythos or Fix and equally as good with Ouzo. Why they aren't generally available across the globe, I'll never know. The Ouzo's milky aniseed chill was a warm welcome against the Aegean heat, but it didn't have time to take hold, for I was due to be picked up by the bus.... The 'Sunset Sailing Oia' bus.
I hadn't paid a deposit or anything yet, but George had assured me that they would come, and they did. The bus stopped en route to the port enabling me to pay George in person. There was a standing joke between us about my solitary trip and a bottle of Ouzo had been promised. Little did I know how portentous this would prove to be.
We drove onwards, through Oia, heading towards the departure point of Ammoudi harbour. Much to everyone's surprise, the bus stopped again, did a three point turn and proceeded, (or is that receded?) to reverse down the steep, heavily winding mountain road to the bay. This was alarming to me. I can only imaging how it must have been to those who were sober. We disembarked, thankfully by the front door, rather than via the roof and in a ball of flames, changed our shorts and waited for our catamaran.
It quickly arrived, we took off our shoes and we were away. A sunset cruise around the island, swimming in sulphur pools, never ending booze and a hearty lunch to come. These sailing adventures have become oversubscribed in my opinion. There is now a fleet of these boats and the romance of it seems to have gone from the tourist cargo's hearts. It now seems like yet another must do, another box to tick rather than an experience. The boats now leave in a procession and vie for mooring rights and the best spot to see the sunset is a race to be at the front - Vista unobscured. You used to feel lucky, privileged to be here, but now you are aware that you're just a number. All the same, it still is a 'must do' but your trip will only be as good as your fellow travellers allow.
I met some lovely people on the boat but there was no getting away from the fact that I was the only singleton aboard. I took photos, lots of photos, and I got lost in the moment. It really was very special and the island is even more magnificent from the decks of a forty foot catamaran as the sun goes down.
I would recommend taking something warm for the latter half of the trip, especially if you've been for a swim. The wind can get pretty biting and I've seen many an ill-prepared seafarer bent double with cold and wishing that the volcano beneath them would rise and put them out of their shivery misery, or at worst offer up some warmth.
However, my morning refreshment combined with my afternoon's free flowing ouzo cruise had begun to take its toll. As we were coming into moor. The skipper asked me to sit down momentarily as he needed to guide the vessel into port. This I did obediently but with little thought. I immediately sat down on one of the front benches, but not realising there was no back to said bench, I went tumbling arse over tit all the way back to the tiller. Rolling back like a Giraffe in a tumble drier, all skinny legs and incredulous neck. The was a long terrible pause. My crewmen were, after all, lovers, honeymooners and completely sober. I, I however was that single bloke who had just made a huge tit of himself. Fortunately a little laughter followed but I don't seem to remember a moment whereby someone did that thing that broke the ice or made it any easier for me. I then realised that there was still the bus ride home to follow, and all eyes would be upon me, and they were.
I have since been on this trip with Sunset Sailing on three further occasions, still through George, and I still haven't got my bottle of Ouzo. I do feel, however, that the stuff decanted into the little plastic cups I've downed ever so frequently, have more than made up for this unfulfilled promise. The staff are excellent, the lunches are fresh, good and healthy and the sunset experience sublime. They have been very happy days in the extreme.
I think I got home, showered, dusted myself off and went into Fira for the night. I'm not sure, it's all a bit of a blur. Franco's Bar would have featured. The views down to the nautical activity below are incredible and the huge wall that offers a backdrop to the narrow streets above, provide an envious viewing gallery for those above. Not everyone can afford to drink at Franco's.
The drinks can be frighteningly expensive but I find that a bottle of the local Rosé is the best value and delicious, refreshing and ..... filling. Fira is like cheese to Oia's chalk. Busy, bustling, a funicular up from the port, shops selling terrible ice-cream, local jewellery and stacks of tourist merchandise. There are so many magnets on sale here that I'm surprised the ships below aren't parked on the high street, unable to tear their steel hulls away.
It's winding, beautiful, full of great and not so great restaurant's, Argo probably being my pick, and if your hotelier books your table for you, and if you've chosen a respected hotel, you will find yourself at a prime table upstairs with views out to the horizon and well away from the screaming children, and walkerinerers off the street. It's well worth getting off the beaten track here in Fira too. The tourist traps are one things but there are many wonderful little surprises to be found. There is also a fabulous bakery on the main street just a little way up the hill from the main square. Excellent everything if you're looking to stock up before a hike or just want to snack.
One other memorable thing happened though. Something my taxi driver said to me as he dropped me home. He said that where I was staying was very good but the place next door was the best. The very, very best. That place, I was later to find out, was called Aenaon Villas. My second home for many years to come.
The following day was spent relaxing. I was off again the next day and just wanted to put my feet up, so I read and lay by the main pool with the other guests, who for days had been eyeing me with suspicion. An introduction was long overdue and it was the least I could have done. I had been rude, and aloof, and it was time to be friendly. Here, now I was amongst them and I was drinking Campari and Grapefruit.
Happy days indeed... although they weren't being very friendly themselves. It was Imerovigli that night and a trip to Anogi. A traditional Greek Taverna but you will need to book. Incredibly popular and with very good reason. It is everything you could hope for when choosing a place to enjoy yourself on a Greek Island. The more contemporary Avocado is an excellent brightly dispositioned choice for lunch, but beware. They give you so many complimentary drinks that you may spend the afternoon sleeping rather than walking back down the coastal caldera to your hotel. A shared cab back to San Antonio and my time here was nearly at an end.
An Easter gift awaited me back at the hotel and I was to spend the last few hours of my stay on my veranda, feet up on the front wall, ouzo in hand, watching fireworks explode on the Santorini's tiny little neighbouring islands. The rockets popped and bloomed without a sound. It was an incredible moment. I couldn't believe my luck to be here at this time. It was as if they were sending me off with a multicoloured cheer. They weren't of course - They were making me cry.
It was a rare and emotional moment. It was a moment that had made me fall in love, which, when on your honeymoon, is a very good thing indeed...... Even if the sublime and unexpected gift of Santorini had been opened alone.
Santorini had been a joy. More than I could have hoped for. I was coming back, I knew. Going into town when the cruise ships weren't around was a lesson learnt very quickly. Oia's peace and serenity was a revelation and not something that the trippers could possibly relate to. The locals were friendly, taxi sharing was great fun and the food and wine was much improved since my last visit to Greece. It's a perfect honeymoon destination still, and May is the time to go, and with someone else is the way to do it.