DOIN’ THE SANTORINI SUNSET SHUFFLE
Santorini….Stunning Santorini. This achingly-scenic partially-collapsed caldera in the Greek Cyclades is certainly the most distinctive island in Greece. It is also possibly the most popular, being a true bucket list destination. One can see the effects of this allure right from the point of landing at the small airport, since their modest building is under expansion. The dry landscape is dotted with construction and it is nice to see that the relevant style of local architecture is being maintained. So no high-rise hotels or garish villas are to be seen.
The roads are small and we saw very few old or beat-up vehicles. The class of transfer buses, both big and medium-sized is well above anywhere else we have visited. The “local” buses are huge high-rise tourist tour buses and most hotel transfer mini-vans are tall, spacious, cool, comfortable and powered by Mercedes. It seems that the folks here are doing well from the tourist boom, at least on first impression.
The impressive dawn view from the chapel above Finikia, looking over the collapsed caldera and Oia to the right.
THE BUSES ARE KINGS OF THE ROAD
The roads are busy. Quad bikes are very common, with occupants not necessarily wearing helmets, or even covering their heads in the blazing sun. Add motorcycles, winding roads that are not wide and are often hugging the sides of steep hills, numerous huge buses, countless large tourist mini-buses, rental cars driven by tourists admiring the dazzling view and you have precarious road conditions. The bus drivers seem to be comfortable moving at considerable speed, which can be disconcerting. They expertly swerve past obstacles with an inch or two to spare, which is very impressive as a passenger. We would reckon that it is substantially less impressive for those being maneuvered around.
One side note is that for all the high-end transport, the vehicles not in use are not parked under shade, so are simply baking in the hot sun. There are precious few trees around and even less shelters for vehicles, which we found odd. We were told that the island is beset by strong winds in winter. Still, putting up a garage that is strong enough to withstand wind couldn’t be terribly difficult. The reason for no evident vehicle shelters could also be directly linked to the infamous Greek tax (“tax avoidance”) system.
Above: the spectacular whitewashed village of Oia, spilling over the lip of the Santorini Caldera. Below: ships pass the Oia Castle viewpoint as they exit or enter the caldera.
FINIKIA: THE GATEWAY TO OIA
We stayed in the village of Finikia, which is the next village outside of the tourist mecca of Oia (Ia in Greek; which is pronounced “Ee-Ah”). Oia is famous for the whitewashed cascade of rooms spilling down from the inner edge of the steep caldera. The effect is extremely photogenic and hordes are drawn to the village for the quintessential Santorini sunset photos that are seen on computer screensavers and handphone lockscreens the world over.
We were informed at our hotel that dozens of tourist buses bring people to Oia specifically for the sunset most evenings, packing out the village. The result of the crush of High Season visitors is that the reward is simply not worth the effort required. After experiencing that rodeo on two successive evenings, we would agree.
We were visiting in early July, which is in their High Season. We were warned that come August it would be even more crowded. This scenario was difficult to visualize since it seemed already full past capacity to us. There are other, arguably better vantage points for sunset photos on Santorini, but the default destination is Oia.
Above: Santorini is a magnet for cruise ships. Below: morning views around Oia.
EARLY IN OIA IS BEST
Bruce went to visit Oia early one morning just after sunrise and found it virtually deserted. The only denizens were white-clad hotel employees out sweeping and straightening up the expensive accommodation offset by the black-clad old ladies out for a sunrise constitutional.
Around 8 am he started encountering the smarter selfie models, husbands with model wives and wedding photographers making good use of the morning light. Seeing well-made-up women in formal evening wear first thing in the morning was odd, to say the least. But at least it wasn’t crowded. And it wasn’t hot yet, as that day was forecast to be the hottest of the year to that point, at 40˚C. Some residents (none seemed to be Greek, curiously) were already out barking at those who clambered on to their rooftops or ignored No Entry signs to enter personal entry gates in search of better-constructed photo ops. The seaside part of the village is hopelessly “Instagrammable”, to the detriment of the residents.
Outside of the village on walking paths he noticed folks passed were English or American. Within the confines of the village, the selfie brigades were mostly Chinese and Japanese along with a lesser number of Russians and other Europeans, with a sprinkling of American and Aussie accents. The popularity of Oia spans the globe.
In those early hours the shops weren’t open yet and only a few restaurants were offering breakfast service. During the cool blue hues of the morning it was a charming and extremely scenic place to wander around. By afternoon it was a totally different situation.
Above: Approaching the famous viewpoint known as The Old (Venetian) Fort, we show part of a large family dressed up in white with their own professional photograper, two people and then a couple taking/checking pictures of each other with a wedding photographer at the bottom shooting a Chinese couple in a doorway. They all probably have memorable results. That is the reward for rising early. At this spot in the late afternoon it is already packed with tourists, some staking out their sunset viewpoint two hours before the actual sunset! Below: That View – what you see from the most popular single viewpoint in the Cyclades. We could not get anywhere near it around sunset time during our visits to Oia.
Clockwise from top left: A chair with a splendid morning panorama; many of the restaurants have vertiginous views: one of the countless accommodation options (notice the artfully entwined olive trees); local art for sale; the pathway from Fira descending into Oia; cats are a Greek village staple.
DOIN’ THE SANTORINI SUNSET SHUFFLE
Entering Oia as the sun was nearing the horizon and thinking that we would get nice photographs of the post-sunset glow, we arrived strategically just as the hordes vacated the popular photo vantage spots. That was the plan. The reality was rather different, throwing our intentions out of the proverbial window. We could not help but to notice the high numbers of parked vehicles and large numbers of visitors, even as we were just entering the “back” side of the village. This area, which is without the striking foreground, was just a gently dry slope to rocky beaches on a golden sea.
Once into the village proper we hit the torrent of people leaving the most popular sunset viewing sites. They were rushing to secure tables for their dinner before the restaurants filled to capacity. By torrent, we mean it in the worst way. Stopping was impossible as we were compelled to shuffle along like a penguin, keeping our arms in by necessity (but usefully, to protect our valuables). We were unable to appreciate our surroundings at all in this scrum. We immediately realized that fighting against the current was virtually impossible, so simply went with the flow. Only when we ducked down an alley to the side we could catch our breath and think of taking a picture or two of the impressive views.
The lights were coming on as the skies started to darken and the restaurants filled. It was simply far too many bodies in play to enjoy the surroundings. We noted that there were no cruise ships in the harbour at that time. If there were, we could not imagine how those additional crowds could be shoe-horned into the existing walkways.
TRY TRY AGAIN
On the following evening we went around Oia earlier, well before the sunset and after walking around we spent some time in a restaurant enjoying a very late lunch, which allowed us to pick any table since it was between the busy seating periods. Finding both shade and a memorable view was easy. We enjoyed watching others jostle about, taking pictures of each other, while hotel and villa guests sat out on their verandas with the hordes streaming by as little as two meters away.
As beautiful as Oia was, we were so glad that we weren’t staying there. Finikia was just fine with us. Watching the sun sink into the sea from our own balcony away from the vertiginous caldera was far more relaxing and quiet.
Notice that the two pictures above were taken in front of the same shop, showing two contrasting moods: early morning and late afternoon. Quite the difference! And this wasn’t even in the busiest part of Oia, near the more well-established viewpoints! Below: Watching the sunset from our balcony in Finikia was supremely more relaxing.
AVOID THE MASSES
We would recommend visiting Santorini in April/May/early June or mid-September/October. During the winter we were told that many places shut down and that it is windy and cold. The island is attempting to brand itself as a year-round destination, but so far only the Chinese market has responded, the locals informed us. The number of High Season visitors was unbelievable at times since they tend to concentrate in a very limited number of locales.
Watching the hundreds of tourists disgorging from the morning ferry from Pireaus (Athens) was a sight to behold. It was not unlike migrating wildebeest on the Serengeti plains (wildebeest with roll-on suitcases, if you can visualize that). Since there were a few ferries reaching the harbor daily, the statistic that over two million tourists visit Santorini annually (most during the Summer) is well understandable. Those numbers do not include the cruise ship daytrippers, which has been recently capped at 8,000 per day.
Taking all those tourist numbers into account, the island is suffering from its popularity and challenges will have to be addressed constructively to create balance and foster sustainable growth.
Left: a church in Oia at sunset; Right: The arriving Star Ferry disgorging new hordes to add to the existing ones
SANTORINI: OUR VERDICT
Overall, we would say that the beaches are just OK, the prices are considerably higher than most other islands and much of the shopping is geared towards the higher-end as well. But the Santorini experience is still extraordinary. The food was excellent every time we sat down for a meal (top marks to Finikia Restaurant), we loved our accommodation at Kiklamino Sunset Suites and the scenery was incredible. So in our opinion Santorini is well worth a visit, but not a lengthy one. For relaxation there are other, less expensive, better-suited islands, with many to choose between.
Cruise ships loitering inside the caldera near the harbour.