SANTORINI - For our daughter's college graduation gift in May, my husband and I promised her a trip to "someplace fabulous." There was a catch: She had to go with her mother. (It fell under the time-honored parental principle: You pay, they'll go.)
But where to go? For weeks, Megan and I e-mailed websites and "deals" back and forth. She wanted a 21-day road trip in Africa that involved words like "hostels," "tents," and "minibus." I countered with ideas that included "charming hotels," "sweeping views," and "unforgettable feasts."
In the end, we settled on a two-week trip to Greece and Turkey. We would make four stops: the Greek islands of Santorini and Mykonos, then Athens and Istanbul. The beaches for her, the cities for me.
In mid-May, we flew from Boston to London, then on to Athens, where we caught a 45-minute flight to Santorini. We were exhausted by our 22-hour door-to-door trip, but Santorini was like a hit of smelling salts. As our plane banked over the Aegean Sea, our heads swiveled from side to side, our eyes wide open.
It was dusk when we arrived at our hotel in the village of Pyrgos, and the setting sun was a parfait of colors: peach, raspberry, and orange. The whitewashed cube homes set on terraces above the deep-blue sea, the riotous colors of flowers, the salty breeze, the stunning views - all made for sensory overload. Add a platter of fresh calamari and a shot of the bracing local ouzo and we couldn't have been happier. We opened the doors of our balcony for the night air and slept soundly.
With daylight, there's not a bad view on the island, and every other step we took during our three days here evoked oohs and ahs from both of us. You can be on the beach, on the road, in a restaurant, or on a donkey and have a spectacular backdrop of the sea, the mountains, the archipelago of neighboring islands, or the charming towns clinging to the hillsides.
By far the best view is from the caldera, or the volcanic cliffs. Santorini - said to be the site of the mythical city of Atlantis - is the largest island in a chain created by a huge volcanic eruption about 3,600 years ago. You can feel the presence of the volcano every where, from the black-rock beach in Kamari to the heady heights of the caldera, nearly 1,000 feet above the sea.
Santorini has an efficient bus system, and we took the bus to Kamari, with its dark pebbly beach and picturesque boardwalk lined with tavernas offering the catch of the day. When we sat on the rocks that jut into the sparkling sea, I thought, this is just what I had in mind back in Boston.
Later that day, we hopped another bus to Fira, the island's capital. One look and you knew why this is a honeymoon heaven: It's perched high on the caldera, with charming inns literally carved into the mountainside and private balconies offering sweeping views of the submerged volcano.
We had been told that a couple of hours walk on the winding pathway along the caldera - with shops and cafes overlooking the sea - would get us to Oia (pronounced "ee-a"), a village at the northern tip of the island. Our goal was to make it in time for the acclaimed sunset. But after two hours, we were hot and tired, and Oia seemed a distant mirage.
So, after years of telling my kids never to hitchhike, that's precisely what we did. I quickly updated my rule to: "Never hitchhike without your mother," as a nice Albanian man picked us up. (Even the female manager of our hotel assured us that hitchhiking is safe on the island.) The sunset was indeed spectacular from our front-row seats at a cafe several hundred feet above the sea. Oia is an art colony and a wedding destination, and we saw both: artists painting the sinking sun, and a bride and groom emerging from a church.
Another day, we took an excursion on a reconstructed 18th-century schooner to the nearby island of Nea Kameni, now a wildlife and scientific preserve. Though the last eruption was in 1950, the volcanic island contains some "hot spots" where you can see, smell, and feel the sulphuric steam seeping from the earth. On the way back, the boat stopped so we could swim at some thermal springs. We stopped again for lunch on a tiny island, and Megan and I took a "sketchy" (her word) donkey ride uphill for tuna kebabs prepared by an old man on his rickety grill.
A view of a different sort awaited us back on the boat. As we sat on the bow watching the ouzo-induced dancing of some passengers, a German couple facing us decided to change out of their swimsuits. Right there. The woman made a pretense of using a towel as a curtain. But the man simply dropped his swim trunks, in effect mooning us, and stepped into his street clothes. "At least we didn't get the frontal view," said my horrified daughter, once our giggles dissolved.
Reluctantly, we left Santorini for Mykonos with its reputation as Party Central, particularly for gay men. The ferry ride was two hours and we arrived midafternoon. Megan was thrilled with our balcony view of Ornos Beach, just a few minutes' walk from the hotel. To that point, the weather had been perfect: high 70s and low 80s with the brightest of blue skies.
We spent our mornings at the beach, where we ate moussaka, tzatziki, and warm pita bread for lunch washed down with a Mythos beer. Late afternoons, we took the bus into Hora, the small and lively capital. Megan's father had secretly given her some money for a "special adventure" for us. We chose scooters.
But Joe at Joe's Motors wouldn't rent them to us since neither one of us had ever driven one, so we settled on an all-terrain vehicle. Megan took the wheel first, with me on the back, and we headed for a far beach. Space constraints - OK, embarrassment - prohibit me from sharing all the details of our "special adventure." Here are a few: empty gas tank, two women pushing ATV, angry Joe. I don't speak Greek, but I'm pretty sure Joe used all of George Carlin's "seven dirty words" when he came to our rescue.
We loved the postcard-perfect section of Hora known as Little Venice, so named because the stucco tavernas are perched at water's edge, so different from sky-high Santorini. From here we watched Mykonos's famed row of windmills set against yet another stunning sunset. We decided the views are best in Santorini, but the sunsets are better in Mykonos.
Because Mykonos is so expensive, we ate a lot of gyros, which are delicious and affordable, Greece's answer to our burgers.
You can't go to Mykonos without a day trip to Delos, one of the most important archeological sites in Greece. The island was inhabitated as early as the third millennium BC and the remains are remarkable: a sanctuary dedicated to Apollo and Artemis, Cleopatra's House, and the Terrace of the Lions, among others. We hiked to the highest point and looked down on the ruins of an amphitheater and the sea beyond. I wore a Red Sox cap and passed a man in a Yankees cap. We smiled.
Megan and I had a great time, though our clocks were out of sync: She preferred to sleep in and skip breakfast, which irritated me since "breakfast is included." We compromised; she slid into breakfast five minutes before closing. We got along great, though I kept telling her to apply sunscreen and she kept telling me to stop taking so many pictures. Our biggest "argument" was over where to eat.
Our last day there, we wandered one last time through the twisting alleys of town with its combination of high-end stores and T-shirt shops (best T spotted on a guy: "I'm the Pink Sheep of the Family"). We said goodbye to the huge white pelican who mooches scraps from charmed tourists. We grabbed one last gyro and headed for the airport for a half-hour flight to Athens.
After a week on islands, the bustle of a big city was startling. Our hotel was directly across from the National Gardens with its subtropical trees and ponds, Athens' answer to Central Park. Since we arrived in late afternoon, we took our books over to the park. The main path veered into smaller little alcoves of benches. We found a spot and opened our books. Then the pervert appeared, with a map in his lap and a leer on his face.
When I glanced over and realized what he was up to, I hustled Megan out of there. Funny thing, I had just given her a half-joking lecture on park perverts as we were walking to our bench.
Much of modern Athens consists of charmless concrete buildings and a film of smog, and we stuck to the historical sites: the Plaka, with its winding alleyways; the Acropolis crowned by the Parthenon; the agoras. We were impressed with the magnificent ruins and the panoramic views of the city, but depressed by another sight: the legions of homeless dogs. When we asked our waiter about them, he looked puzzled. "They're not homeless. They're just free," he said.
Our favorite view of the Acropolis was by night. We sat at a cafe and watched the lights come on as the sun went down. So far, we hadn't spent much on souvenirs, as Greece is on the euro, a disaster for our dollar.
"Wait until Istanbul," I kept telling Megan. After a 90-minute flight from Athens, we arrived at the ancient city that has one foot in Europe, the other in Asia. Turkey uses the lira, and the prices there were cheaper, so our money did go further.
From the start, we adored Istanbul. It was huge and crowded with crazy traffic, but the blend of modern and ancient, east and west made for a fascinating pastiche. We saw women in tight jeans and heels walking next to women in burquas - one with a pair of hot-pink Converse hightops peeking out.
We wore modest skirts or pants in Istanbul, and when we went into the gorgeous Blue Mosque during prayer time, we took off our shoes and pulled scarves around our shoulders. We tried to imagine how this place with its thousands of tiles from the Byzantine era, beautiful stained glass, and six minarets was built some 2,500 years ago. We watched as men heeded the call to prayer and knelt facing Mecca. Just across the way, the Hagia Sofia was equally impressive with its soaring dome, and the Topkapi Palace offered a blueprint of how the Ottoman sultans lived.
One night, we took a cruise on the Bosphorus, the strait that separates Asian Istanbul from European Istanbul. The small boat chugged up the river along the European side with its chic clubs and restaurants next to stately mosques and palaces. We came back along the Asian bank, with lots of antique wooden homes from the Ottoman era. The crew had prepared a dinner of grilled fish and we ate while we watched the city light up.
The Grand and the Spice bazaars are incredible shopping mazes, and we picked up ceramic bowls, scarves, earrings, and spices. Carpet salesmen were everywhere, and relentless. "Let me help you spend your money," was a favorite line. But best of all was the young man who followed us down the sidewalk, asking me how many camels I wanted for my daughter. He even offered to throw in his ancient uncle for me, much to Megan's amusement.
Since she wanted to set foot in Asia, we took a commuter ferry to one of the Princes' Islands in the Sea of Marmara. No cars allowed, so we took a horse and buggy ride along a quiet coastal road with its Victorian-looking summer homes.
Alas, our last night arrived way too soon, and at dinner we watched the twinkling lights of the Bosphorus and debated the best views, funniest moments, favorite places, greatest meals of our vacation. I wrote down all the answers, as I do on the last night of every family vacation.
Last question: How would you summarize this vacation, in one word? Megan: "Fun!" Mom: "Perfect." We had survived each other's company for two weeks, around-the-clock, something we had never done in her 22 years on earth.
Now Megan wants to honeymoon in Santorini and live in Istanbul. Later, in a thank-you e-mail, she wrote: "My friends are surprised we didn't kill each other, but we actually had so much fun! I'm already planning our next big trip to Africa."
Just so long as it doesn't involve "hostels," "tents," and a "minibus."
Bella English can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.