The Greek island of Santorini had its heart torn out by a gigantic volcano in ancient times. Now it offers a warm welcome to visitors including Hollywood celebrities
The view of the volcano caldera at the heart of Santorini island has to be one of the most spectacular views in the world. A sweeping curve of pale rugged rock streaked with mineral deposits soars to nearly a thousand feet. It is topped in places by clusters of white cube houses that look from a distance like baby teeth. At its centre, sitting like a huge bath plug, is the black dome of warm lava rock where the ancient volcano rumbles on. Perched on the crescent of cliffs and tumbling down its face is the island’s capital, Thira.
Some say Santorini, the most southerly of the Cyclades islands in the Aegean Sea, was once the fabled city of Atlantis. Others believe the massive eruption and giant tsunami that followed wiped out the Minoan civilisation of the island of Crete to the south. It left a crater eight miles by four miles. This was the dramatic setting for the opening scenes of the sequel hit film Tomb Raider: The Cradle of Life, where Angelina Jolie leads a diving team to examine fabulous archaeological remains revealed by a subterranean earthquake.
While shooting the film, Angelina stayed near the village of Megalochori at the Vedema resort – the name means “harvest” in the local dialect. This beautiful hotel is designed in the style of a local village and blends perfectly with its surroundings. Facilities include a shuttle bus to the hotel’s private beach, sailing tours of the volcano and speed boat trips to nearby islands. The Vinsanto restaurant has an open area and also offers covered dining in the atmospheric vaulted chamber of a 400-year-old winery, which hosts tastings. There is also a spa, and the Vedema can even arrange all the details for your wedding, from the paperwork to the reception.
The distinctive architecture of Santorini, recognised worldwide, features long and narrow vaulted buildings with exteriors painted brilliant white or lively pastel shades, as depicted on so many classic Greek postcards.
The capital, Thira, has fantastic views down across the caldera and it is worth having a coffee on the cliff edge just to drink in the views. In the main street behind there is plenty of shopping, including a number of jewellers and gold shops, and plenty of nightlife around the centre of town. If the buzz of Thira gets too much it is easy to hire a car or scooter and tour the quieter, more traditional areas of the island.
Santorini is also famous for its black sand beaches, which are made from volcanic rock that burst out during the ancient eruption. The most famous beach is Kamari, which can get very busy. Monolithos is quieter, while White Beach and Red Beach are worth a photo opportunity. They really do live up to their names but can get crowded.
Archaeologists are investigating an important Minoan village site at Akrotiri but this is currently closed for renovation to its roofing. However, the long history of the island is charted in the archaeological museum in Thira.
The quiet village of Oia comes to life in the evenings, when people from all over the island gather to watch the sun sink into the sea in a fabulous natural display of blazing reds and golds.
In addition to growing small tomatoes and fava beans, Santorini has a thriving wine industry that dates back more than 3,500 years. The type of asyrtiko grape unique to the island thrives in the volcanic soil, making wines with a strong dry flavour. Unusually, the vines are grown along the ground to protect them from seasonal winds.
You can tour and taste at the wineries of two major local growers. Santo Wines, south of Thira, has an oenotourism centre with magnificent views south across the caldera. The Koutsoyannopoulos Winery at Vothonas began in 1870 and the fourth generation of the founding family still make Volcan wines. There is also a wine museum.
The Dionysos In Atlantis, in the centre of Fira, has a great relaxed atmosphere and a lovely vine-shaded courtyard. Be sure to try their wonderful homemade sausages and the local fava beans.