Santorini, Greece—It began with tickets to "Mamma Mia!," a musical set on an unnamed Greek island. We loved the show, an enchanting tale about a wedding, and a story of love, adventure, and the past. It was spring, and I started dropping hints about a vacation in Greece.
A few months later, my husband and I were nibbling grapes and cheese on our seaside balcony at the Chromata Hotel in Santorini. For years, I had dreamed of traveling to a Greek island and unpacking my bags in a white stone house with cobalt doors and shutters, perched high above the sun-drenched Aegean. I yearn for romance and magic, sun and surf, gorgeous settings, and, all right, a plate or two of fried calamari. So for our 25th-plus-one anniversary, my husband surprised me with a trip to Greece.
It was September and the crowds had thinned. It was still hot. At sunset, pink and blue streamers appeared in the sky, and our view from the caldera rim, which formed when a volcano erupted 3,500 years ago and sent two-thirds of the island falling into the sea, was astonishing.
"Santorini is the most beautiful place I've ever seen," I tell Bill as we uncork the welcome wine delivered by the staff. "This trip was worth the wait." The view from the Chromata is incredible. All around us, red-black cliffs, bathed in sunlight, loom hundreds of feet above the sea.
The 30-square-mile Santorini (ancient name, Thira) often is described as the most spectacular of the Greek islands, and it was a fitting destination for our celebration: Describing its appeal is like explaining long-term love. It has been tested and weathered by time, but is still keen on adventure. It has a rich but turbulent history (scientists theorize the eruption of the Thira volcano was so powerful it wiped out the Minoan civilization on the island of Crete, 63 miles away), but today is the top travel destination in the Cyclades islands, surpassing Mykonos, Paros, and Andros. Simply put, Santorini is beautiful, a mix of sun and surf and ancient sites amid 14 charming towns and villages with names like Oia, Fira, Perissa, Kamari, and Imerovigli.
We relish every minute. During the day, we climb to the top of the still-active volcano (last eruption, 1950) with a pack of tourists and a guide. (The squishing sound of footsteps on lava rock is not unlike the sound of boots treading on ice in New England in February.) The sun is blistering. A few days later, sitting in the saddle of one very strong donkey balancing precariously on a volcanic rim, I feel panic. "Do you want to stop?" says our guide, Manuel, as he leads Bill and me and three donkeys down a clickety-clack cobblestone path, more than 500 steps to the sea. "No," I say. "Go, but slowly."
Boston seemed very far away.
When we first arrived at the Chromata in the peaceful township of Imerovigli (a few miles from the busier capital town of Fira), I had announced that after 18 hours of traveling (we flew Boston to Milan to Athens to Santorini), I was going to bed.
"That's what everyone says, but then they wake up," says Eleni, of the hotel staff. She is right. I am awake for the next eight hours admiring Santorini's splendor. I hear bells ringing from the blue-domed steeple of the nearby Orthodox church. I squint in the brilliant sunlight to see its rays reflected in the glassy water of the hotel pool. I smell the freshly brewed coffee wafting from the village kafenia. I taste the tangy olive oil used to fry the hard cheese in my saganaki appetizer at dinner. I feel the warmth of Bill's hand as we stroll home by moonlight later that night. My senses are alive.
The landscape is seductive here, flirting dawn to dusk with my desire to return home with great photographs. The blue sky, the little white houses perched on gigantic rocks that lead dramatically into the sea, the lemon and orange groves, the pink and white churches that look like gingerbread cakes, the passionate faces and gestures of the Greek people, all conspire to make me take 20 rolls of pictures. No matter how amateur one is, Santorini is a simple point and shoot.
Almost everyone who visits Santorini comes to the village of Oia to watch its famous sunsets. Everyone gathers on steep ledges along the island's northwest rim as the sun lowers itself inch by inch. Then suddenly, as if someone were tugging from below, it drops from view and the moon appears. Oia is also worth a visit for its richly colored stone houses, art galleries, and elegant cafes and boutiques.
Modern Greek is the first language here, but most people involved in tourism speak some English, and the friendly islanders (Santorini's population is 11,000) go out of their way to accommodate visitors. We had lively conversations with waiters and shopkeepers, bus and taxi drivers, and Arturo, our volcano guide.
There's much to do on Santorini. Fira is a bustling commercial town lined with bars, restaurants, and shops. You'll see the usual T-shirts and "I Love Greece" posters, but the town also has upscale clothing and jewelry boutiques. And it has a robust night life with bars like the Tithora Club, in the main square, open for dancing until dawn.
Akrotiri, in the south, is a Minoan town preserved in volcanic ash like Pompeii. Visitors can stand in the ruins and look at Minoan pottery and frescoes, and with a little imagination feel what it would have been like to live in ancient Greece. The black sand beaches in Kamari and Perissa are wide and rugged and, in summer, a haven for European backpackers and beachgoers. Boats also leave Fira and Oia for Aspronisi and Thirassia, the quietest islands in the Cyclades.
Santorini is a rambler's fantasy; the best way to explore is by walking its winding alleys and picturesque squares. The towns are hilly and full of stairs but the climb is always worth it. We roamed day and night and were pleasantly surprised to shed 12 pounds between us during our 10 days in Santorini and Athens.
Late spring and early fall are probably the best times to visit. Rates go down by around 25 percent, temperatures are still in the 70s and 80s, and you avoid the crowds and traffic jams that are said to cripple Fira in the summer.
Eating out is a dream for those who enjoy the Mediterranean diet. We had fresh fish, vegetables, and meat dishes at several moderately priced restaurants (average $50 for two) in Imerovigli, Oia, and Fira. Santorini wines are also quite nice and tours of local wineries are possible.
Santorini is not easy to get to but it's a cinch to get around. An inexpensive bus service runs up and down the island several times a day, there are taxis, and auto rentals are available. Buses leave Fira for the airport and port, where ferry service goes to Athens and other Greek islands.
I came home with beautiful photographs. I also came home with a respiratory ailment that made me feel lousy for days, probably the result of another 18 hours on three separate flights from Greece. Santorini is a journey -- but then so is a quarter-century of marriage.
On our last night in Santorini, after a dinner of eggplant, grilled fish, and swordfish souvlaki at the Sunset Cafe, a Japanese bride and groom, dressed splendidly in gown and tuxedo, ran through the alley that passed our cafe, toward the church to be married. The streets of Oia were bathed in a dazzling light. I called out and asked if I could take a picture. The groom took the bride's hand. She smiled. I clicked my shutter and then Bill and I watched the happy couple hurry toward the village square. Could they possibly find another place on earth as beautiful when it came time for them to celebrate their 25th anniversary?
I can't imagine.
Marie C. Franklin can be reached at email@example.com.