Santorini, also called Thira, or even Fira, lies south of the central Cyclades group of Greek islands. It is considered one of the hottest holiday spot in the Cyclades. Born in a massive volcanic eruption, the fumes still rise offshore.
Santorini caters to the well heeled with many luxury hotels, while cruise ships also ferry in thousands to gasp at the romantic sunset skies and to get turned on by Santorini's hot club scene.
Santorini has its own airport so it's easy to get flights and shuttle buses run to the main resorts. Santorini has plenty of quality hotels and, although the island attracts many independent travellers, finding budget accommodation can be a problem.
Santorini holidays are in huge demand and local prices can reflect the fact. Expect to burn a sizeable hole in your wallet to get the best highly charged views from the top clifftop tavernas and bars.
The capital town of Fira perches precariously on top of vertical cliffs. The view over the caldera and the romantic pull of those sunsets make this a favourite spot for honeymoon couples.
The hotels located in the main Santorini resorts of Fira and Firastefani are an ideal choice if you are looking for a lively buzz; those looking for a quieter time will edge further along the caldera rim.
The most popular Santorini beaches are pretty much confined to the south-east coast and the long strip of black volcanic sand that runs from Kamari to Perivolos. The western side of the island faces in towards the caldera and the centre of the former volcano an so virtually all of the coastline here is near vertical cliffs. There are a few beaches north-east and south-west but they tend to be small, without many facilities and much less visited. Not everyone takes to the black volcanic sand which is gritty underfoot and, being black or dark grey, traps much of the summer heat.
The island capital of THIRA, THERA or FIRA overlooks a magnificent caldera atop some 300m of sheer black, red and brown stratified cliffs. Holiday cruise ships anchor by the dozen in the bay below and most dock at the 'new' port of Athinios, built after the 1956 earthquake. A winding road snakes up the cliff in a series of tight hairpin bends.
The old port, 'Ormos', lies directly below Fira town in water so deep that ship anchor chains won't reach the sea bed. Giant mooring buoys have been built for cruise chips to tie to. The old port is little more than a quayside and holiday visitors don't stay for long, although there are now restaurants and some small shops.
Embarking tourists are pestered with offers of a mule ride up a steep, zigzag staircase but the less adventurous opt for the sedate Austrian-built cable car. It's not advisable to walk the 600 or so steps up to Fira. The 250m staircase path is heart-stoppingly steep and those not brushed aside by galloping mule teams must pick their way through copious donkey droppings.
It is no more advisable to mount a mule - although the saddles do seem popular with obese Americans. The grim-faced riders bounce along, scraping thighs and legs against the rough stone walls. Mule owners don't rely on customer satisfaction - there is always another cruise ship. Riding a mule down is an even bigger mistake. The animals career downhill at speeds that suggest they would love to catapult their burdens into the sea below.
In Fira itself white cube houses and blue-domed churches spill down the cliff terraces in an appealing mish-mash that was extensively rebuilt by cement mixers after an earthquake in 1956. Staggering views of the caldera are offered from cafe tables and watching the nightly sunset is a very popular, if very expensive, holiday pastime.
Nothing is now left of the quiet tavernas, the old kafenia or the tiny grocery shops that once lined the caldera. All have all been supplanted by trendy boutiques, expensive jewellery shops and outrageously pricey bars.
Everything in Fira now seems geared to teasing cash from an endless stream of holiday wallets. Although Santorini abounds in volcanic pumice, scores of shops sell 'rare' pumice to the gullible. Fira tavernas are geared to the fast-food appetites of cruise ship passengers - the ridiculous McZorbas says it all. The most expensive shops flank the main road and most nightclubs are found near the Fira main staircase.
Fira village winds like an artery along the caldera rim while a cliff path runs just below. The north of the village is less volatile, more peaceful and well worth exploring. A Catholic cathedral dominates the scene and a nearby convent sells hand-made rugs.
The Fira museum is a bit of a washout. The fabulous frescos found in excavations at Akrotiri have all been carted off to Athens. But the Megaron Gyzi museum is worth a poke around if only for old maps of the Cyclades and photos of Fira before the 1956 earthquake.
Taking the road north out of Fira brings you to THIRASTEFANI or FIRASTEFANI, once a separate village but now pretty well swallowed up by its growing neighbour.
The name Firastefani means 'crown of Fira' and it is said to have the best sunset views on the island, although the claim is moot since all the villages that sit along the north-eastern rim will claim the same.
Frankly one sunset view is pretty much as good as any other and one is as gaudy as the next thanks to the sulfur-heavy air that hovers over the caldera volcano.
Still, Firastefani is marginally less busy than its noisy neighbours and slightly less expensive. There is hardly a village in Firastefani as such. It is now almost entirely composed of holiday hotels, pools, villas and apartments with a few restaurants and cafes perched precariously along the Firastefani cliff top.
If you prefer your caldera sunset views without huge swarms of trippers then IMEROVIGLI is the place to head for. Though, like Firastefani, it is still little more than an extension of Fira it tends not to fill up with day visitors and is a little too far out of town at 3km for cruise boat passengers on shore leave.
It is the highest spot along the caldera rim and the awe inspiring views peak at the clifftop site of SKAROS, an imposing but ruined citadel fortress which the Venetians once made the island capital.
The village is now classed a 'Traditional Settlement' to protect it against over development even though much of the village was destroyed in the 1956 earthquake. The buildings that have survived have been tastefully restored, particularly the traditional 'cave' homes that have been deeply carved into the hillside.
The Church of the Panagia Malteza has an impressive iconostasis and icons depicting scenes from the Old Testament. A small white chapel nearby occupies the site of the Rocca - a once impregnable fortress that resisted all that an attackers could throw at it but was destroyed by the 1956 earthquake and a cliffside footpath runs from here back to Fira to offer some of the best views over the caldera.
If Fira is trendy, the phonetically challenged OIA (pronounced Eea) is upmarket trendy. The position is much the same as its noisier neighbour - splendid views over the caldera rim, yachts bobbing in the bay below and a winding staircase down to a small quay.
Once a major fishing port, quite a number of houses in Oia survived the 1956 earthquake and many have been tastefully restored. Some are bright, rich colours but most are painted brilliant white, clinging to the red and grey cliffs so closely that one family's roof can be another's courtyard.
Oia shops tend to sell more authentic - if expensive - goods, food is more traditional Greek and the annoying thump of disco music is usually absent. Oia is the place to go for designer jewellery, arty art galleries and card crunching boutiques.
Many people gather in the main square in Oia, overlooking the sea, to glimpse the gaudy sunsets. The square gets crowded in the afternoon as buses bring in the tourists. By early evening Oia can be packed with sunset watchers who will sometime offer an implausible and slightly daft round of applause as the sun sinks over the horizon.
Worth a visit is the Maritime Museum, with its models of ships and other sea-going paraphernalia which opens 10am - 2pm and 5pm - 8pm. Oia village also has several art galleries and a cultural centre among the inevitable souvenir and gift shops.
A warning for visitors in cars - stick to the official Oia car parks. Illegal parking can bring a swift and heavy fine. Unlike Fira, Oia has access to the sea at AMOUDI and at ARMENI, where there are small quaysides with waterfront tavernas. They are both at the bottom of very steep stone staircases of about 300 steps, or you can take a mule ride.
The far northern coastline is virtually inaccessible until you reach BAXEDES through an area of low rolling hills. The beach as Baxedes, also called PARADISOS, is long and pebbly but, notable for Santorini, the waters are fairly shallow. There is a beach cantina in the summer and some sunbeds for hire.
Another gritty black beach is found a little further south at CAPE KOULOMBO. This is a long but thin narrow strip of coarse sand backed by looming cliffs that wouldn't look out of place in a bleak sci-if movie. The wind has carved the cliffs at Cape Koulombo into weird and interesting shapes. There are no facilities and few holiday visitors make it to this exposed part of the coast. Koulombo beach is quite a walk from the car park. About 4km offshore is an underwater crater - the remains of a volcanic eruption that devastated Santorini island in 1650.
Further south still is a small beach at PORI, set in a tranquil bay beneath hillside vineyards and with a small fishing quay and a couple of tavernas. It is well worth a diversion for those looking to escape the crowds. Swimmers should take care here though as the currents are notoriously strong.
VOURVOULOS village is an inland continuation of Firastefani but a lot quieter with extensive views to both sides of the island. There are a number of small beaches along this stretch of coast. The most northerly is XIROPIGADO, a narrow strip of pebble down a dirt track off the main east coast road and not particularly notable.
Just south is Vourvoulos beach itself, down another dirt track and not particularly attractive either. It is the same thin strip of gravel, though black sand is more in evidence here and there. There is a small harbour with fishing boats, a coastal path is lined with beech trees and there is a taverna. A long cement wall doesn't add to the charm of the place and, being open and exposed, Vourvoulos beach tends to attract a lot of debris. If the wind gets up the waves can be seriously strong.
Further south of Vourvoulos is KANARAKI beach, named after a local factory owner, where dark greyish red bluffs of volcanic rock loom over a narrow beach of black pebbles. There are no facilities here or at nearby EXO GIALOS beach where caves have been hollowed out into the rock, although a small beach cantina sometimes opens in the summer.
MONOLITHOS is a rather drab seaside village about 8km from Fira that takes its name from an impressive rock outcrop where now sits the church of Agios Ionassis.
Monolithos beach is a grey sand and shingle, long and deep and backed by brooding cliffs that hang above a narrow road along the back of the beach. The sand dips very sharply at the sea edge but after that the waters are shallow enough to wade so it's fine for families with children.
There is a beach cafe and shower with some tavernas and pool bars nearby. Monolithos may have a rather desolate and empty air but this is a fine spot to escape the throngs of nearby Fira. A few trees can be found along the beach to offer natural shade.
The chimney stacks of a nearby tomato canning factory fails to add much to the views at Monolithos. A rough track runs south from the airport fence nearby and along the shore opening out into uninterrupted, but unremarkable, beaches all the way to Kamari.
Inland from Monolithos and the centre of Santorini island is the village of Karterados. A number of major tour operators now offer holidays in the area. grown in popularity in recent years . Karterados was built between two rivers and is almost invisible from the surrounding countryside. It's name means the hiding or ambush spot, presumably because islanders could hide here from marauding 17th century pirates.
The village square has a restored windmill and the notable 'Steps of Galaios' lead into a small neighbourhood of cobbled streets, and traditional Captain's houses and cave houses that have been built into the rock. Karterados is only a 20 min walk from Fira so it is nicely situated for those who want to avoid the crowds of the capital. The beaches of Monolithos also lie to the east.
The village is quite large and has a good permanent population. There are a couple of bakeries. several restaurants and cafes and a number of shops on the main road. The bus stop is on the main road ans there are services to Fira, Messaria, Megalochori, Emporio, Perissa, Perivolos and Kamari. There is also a bus service to east coast beaches.
Inland from Monolithos, near Karterados, and about 4km southeast of Fira is the heart of Santorini's wine making area and the village of MESSARIA, surrounded by vineyards. The a busy Messaria village crossroads, about 4km from Fira, is pretty much the centre of the island.
Over the past few years Messaria has been targeted by upmarket holiday developers and is now dotted with luxury apartments and holiday villas as well as a large number of speciality shops.
There are two fine churches at Messaria, Metamorphosis tou Sotiros and Agia Irini, both built around 1700. Messaria village retains some charm despite the recent additions and it's pleasant to stroll around the tiny streets. Away from the tourist throngs in Fira, Messaria is a good central base for those wishing to explore the island.
Higher up the mountain is PYRGOS, one of the oldest and most picturesque villages on the island. It sits on the northern slopes of the 566m-high Profitis Ilias mountain, about 8km from Fira and Pyrgos is the highest village on Santorini.
Pyrgos is very popular with holiday excursion tours, thanks to a good road and examples of the best of the island's traditional barrel-roofed houses as well as an attractive Venetian fortress. Pyrgos is also home to many vineyards that crawl up the side of the mountain.
Near the top of the mountain is a small Monastery of Profitis Ilias, built in 1712, which has scenes from the entrance of heaven and hell, the latter's doors noticeably wider than the former's - oh well.
There is also an interesting, if small, museum. It's unfortunate that the monastery should share the mountain with a rash of ugly TV and radio masts erected alongside the disfiguring communication towers of a military base.
A motley collection of more than 300 hotels, and even more bars and tavernas, make up Santorini's main beach resort at KAMARI. Black stones dominate the beach which is about 2km long and generously strewn with sun beds and backed along its length with whitewashed concrete villas and holiday apartments.
If you want a modern, charmless beach resort with all the facilities then this is the place. Completely rebuilt after the 1956 earthquake the resort at Kamari is basically a beach with wall-to wall tavernas, bars, cafes and tourist shops.
If it's peace and quiet you are after, think again. The airport noise alone may be enough to put you off and the crowds rival any other resort on Santorini. Kamari is very family oriented with nothing in the way of clubbing nightlife.
Regimented lines of sun beds keep the holiday visitors well organised but the black grit beach can get insufferably hot at the height of summer. Wise visitors will grab a spot near the sea where they can quickly cool off.
The beach at Kamari however drops sharply into the water and there can be strong currents offshore, so it's not ideal for families with children. There are also millions of fag ends and visitors report problems with stray dogs that frequent the resort.
That aside it is a very popular resort indeed and features in most Greek island holiday brochures, if only for the novelty of a black sand beach. Of note is the church of Panagia Myrtidiotissa which holds a festival on September 24 when tourists are invited to wine and dine with the locals. On August 15 Panagia Episkopi celebrates the feast of the Virgin Mary. There is also an annual jazz festival and an outdoor cinema opens in the summer on the road to Fira.
Looking down from the mountain at Profitis Ilias you can easily make out the long, black sands of PERISSA and the pretty seaside setting has attracted holiday developers in force.
Apartments have sprung up in ramshackle fashion at Perissa and set well back from the beach, which saves the scenery but gives holiday visits a long and tiring trek to the Perissa sands which stretch to the south for around 5km.
The black shingle and sand tends to get very hot very quickly. By midday the shade-free resort can feel more barbecue than beach. The mountainous headland to the north also keeps Perissa beach well sheltered from the meltemi wind, so it can feel stifling.
Perissa beach shelves steeply into the sea and along the shoreline lie slippery slabs, so it's not a great place for children. However, it is growing in popularity and now has all the usual tourist facilities and a wide selection of watersports.
Perissa has a rough and tumble air that attracts young couples and it sports a huge campsite to house them. There are a couple of good launderettes,an excellent bakery and several mini-markets. Eucalyptus groves provide some shade in the resort centre.
Perissa is also a popular day trip target for those based in beachless Fira on the other side of the island. There is a water park nearby but visitors claim it is little more than a pool and a couple of slides.
The beach resort at PERIVOLOS is mainly used for holiday tourist overspill from Perissa which lies about 20 minutes walk along the pretty coastline on the southern side of the headland.
Perivolos beach is long and deep and the sand is a little lighter than its more popular neighbour. The village of Perivolos has little more than a handful of tavernas, a minimarket and a bakery.
Like other beaches on this part of the Santorini coastline the sand drops sharply into the sea, so families with children must take care. More in its favour is that the sand seems softer underfoot beyond the shoreline than on many other Santorini beaches.
There are plenty of bars and tavernas along the back of the Perivolos sands and popular beach bars belt out club music that helps to attract a lively club scene holiday crowd in the high season. There is little to show where Perissa beach becomes Perivolos except for the sand turning a lighter shade of grey.
Further south the beach becomes AGIOS GEORGIOS, again with no noticeable markings but a headland there shows that you are on the southern tip of the island. It is considerably quieter here with just a few beach bars.
It is quieter still at nearby VLICHADA where there is a small marina and a beach backed by eroded cliffs and strangely sculpted rock and sand formations that look like a landscape from another planet.
Just below Akrotiri is a string of small beaches, the best know of which is KOKKINO PARALIA or RED BEACH where sun beds sit on pebbles under the most startling blood-red cliffs of lava that plunge almost vertically to the black sand shore.
The beach, a favourite with nudists, is narrow and shelves rather steeply into the sea. The sheer cliffs behind give a claustrophobic feel. There are meals and snacks served at a nearby hotel and boat trips from here to some less accessible beaches along this stretch of shore.
These include ASPRI PARALIA or WHITE BEACH to the west and found down a narrow dirt track, although it is more usual to arrive by boat; KAMBIA BEACH signposted from the lighthouse down a dirt track which has large pebbles, sun beds and a summer cantina.
Also along this stretch of coastline is the stone and shingle beach of MESA PIGADIA, again off a dirt road near the lighthouse that is notable for its unusual rock formations and caves. There is a summer cantina here. All these beaches along here are served by boats that leave daily from the beach below the entrance to the Akrotiri archaeological site.