I travelled to the Greek island of Santorini this summer, just before high season. This small Greek island is world famous for its beautiful sunsets, black, white and red sandy beaches, pristine traditional towns sat high upon volcano cliffs tops and the legend of the lost city of Atlantis.
Words and Photography by: Daniel Alford | @danielalford_
Almost as soon as I arrived on the island I craved being in the ocean. The heat was intense and I had arrived at the start of a heat wave, even the locals seemed to be struggling. I was staying in Kamari, a small town near the airport on the south side of the island. The main street is lined with bars, shops and restaurants which run along the entire length of a black sand beach. At the end of the beach, an impressive headland juts out made entirely of limestone, upon which you can find the ancient town of Thera, which has a history stretching back 3500 years.
I immediately found a shop to buy a cheap snorkel and mask and headed down the beach, across the hot black sand and into the warm, calm and crystal clear waters of the Aegean sea. I used to come to Greece as a child on family holidays and would spend hours in the sea snorkelling. I would feel like I had gained access to another world with fish darting past me in an endless soup of amazing blue water. On this occasion it was no different, apart from being a bit taller, I was just as excited. After a few adjustments to my mask (leaky mask), I was away. The water was warm and still and deepened a surprisingly short distance from the beach. Tiny fish swam together in shoals, shining and flashing in silver as they tried to escape the reach of my GoPro. Further from the beach you’ll find some rocky areas, it gets pretty deep but there are plenty more fish.
Santorini’s unique landscape was created by its fascinating geological past. The island itself is a vast volcanic crater which has collapsed in on itself after an eruption. The most famous towns and villages line the cliff tops of this crater which is called a ‘Caldera’. The eruption responsible for Santorini’s distinct landscape occurred around 1600BC. At this time an ancient people inhabited the island called the Minoans. They were an early Mediterranean civilisation based on the island of Crete who were famous for their impressive temple complex at Knossos, and their tradition of leaping over charging bulls. This civilisation is said to have inspired Homer’s myth of King Minos’s labyrinth and the ferocious Minotaur.
The volcano is still active today and you can visit the new island in the centre of Caldera, which erupted out of the sea in the 1950s. From the port at Fira, you can join a relatively cheap boat ride across to the new island. Arriving on the active volcano I noticed how unforgiving and ‘new’ this place was with almost no plant life. The lava flows are still visible and the path to the summit winds between these flows, which look like frozen rivers of black and red boulders pouring into the sea. It gets pretty busy up there. Multiple tours of the volcano happen each day and the lines of people can be intense, especially in the heat. But it's worth it. If you can listen to your guide they will tell you tales of the lost city of Atlantis, one of the many famous legends which the island has claimed as its own.
After climbing the volcano the captain sailed around the corner of the island for us to swim in a hydrothermal spring. Everybody lined up on the deck, eager to jump overboard and swim towards a small cove where the water had turned from blue to a sulphur rich orange. I leapt from the boat into the water and swam my way into a rocky cove with the water becoming warmer and more orange with every stroke. Steam rose around me as I was greeted with the distinct smell of eggy sulphur. I have been in a few natural hot springs in my time, but this had to be the strangest and the only one which dyed my cream swim shorts to match my red hair.
If you get the chance I would recommend you also visit the island of Thirasia. The island is part of the Caldera but you can only get there by boat. Typical of ports on the crater side of the island, the cliff face starts almost immediately where the boat ties up and then continues up for hundreds of meters. The island feels much more sleepy and traditional than the hustle and bustle of the towns on the opposite side of the crater. Leaving your boat you will be met with a few restaurants along the water's edge. However, for the best views and to beat the tour crowds, follow a winding path of steps up the cliff until you reach a restaurant which overlooks the whole bay. It's incredible and well worth the 300 odd steps in the 30 degree+ heat. When you get there, grab a table on the cliff edge to sit back and take it all in. There is another place to eat on the cliff top, you will see it signposted as the ‘Other Restaurant’ - I felt kind of bad for these guys...
You can hitch a ride from the bottom to the top of the steps on some donkeys which will cost you around 5 euros, minus the sense of achievement of course.
Santorini is a photographers paradise. The most picturesque part of the island, by far, is Oia. If you search for images of Santorini this is the place you are most likely to find. From here you get amazing views of the rest of Caldera. The town is perched on the crater's edge and has beautiful white buildings with blue domes which seem to be piled on top of each other. There are traditional windmills, pristine marble streets, expensive shops, a beautiful, world famous bookshop, bars, restaurants, an old fort, and crater view villas with private pools - this is the most desirable and affluent place on the island. Most of the images you will find of Oia are taken from more or less the same spot. This became apparent whilst I was walking around, not long before sunset you will find queues of people waiting to take a photograph from at least 2 of these popular locations. I had never seen this before and was quite surprised. It isn't uncommon for people to sit in one of these spots for hours before the world famous sunset arrives to avoid the queues and to get the perfect shot.
The sun sets right behind the town and the white and pastel coloured windmills provide the perfect scene to photograph it. I have never been to a place where crowds of hundreds will gather to wait patiently for the sun to set...and then clap when it disappears below the horizon! Oia is a must see, even if you don't like the crowds and prefer a quieter time, it's well worth the trip.