Pure white buildings. Perched atop volcanic rock, far above the deep blue sea. Starkly contrasting with the classic cloudless blue sky. Santorini looks just like the Greek tourism photos.
We’re first off the ship, in the tender that takes us to shore before 7am. The sun has not yet risen above the mountainous terrain, and the island towns twinkle with lights high above us as we move across the water through the semi-darkness. By the time we reach the town of Oia, we have absorbed our first lessons about the island from the local tour guide. And the sun has climbed to its golden hour, bathing the town in its morning glow. We are left on our own to explore.
There are major advantages to being early birds. The town is still quiet. It’s pedestrian-only streets are sparsely populated. Shopkeepers are just taking down their shutters and setting out their wares. We see the town as it wakes.
Walking the narrow passageways reveals new sights with each turn. Soon we are traversing the edge of the cliff face, which affords unobstructed views of the town as it clings to the mountain top and slides down its side. It is a maze of buildings all interconnected at multiple levels, each vying for the ocean view. The longer I look, the more I see. There is infinite detail among this pattern of structures.
All along our route are secluded lodgings and outdoor restaurants offering spectacular views. I imagine myself nestled in one of these guest rooms. I could easily be convinced to spend a week here. Exploring these walkways. Finding a niche to read a good book. Basking in the sunlight. Searching out swimming spots. Trying a new restaurant each night. Sampling the wonderful Greek dishes. I am reluctant to leave when we must move on to Fira.
This is the largest town on the island, and is already crowded with tourists. Its beauty is similar to Oia, and we stroll its narrow passages. But the spell has been broken. It’s more commercial. The shopping areas are teeming with cruise ship passengers, now that three additional ships have joined ours in the harbor. Already I miss the peace we found in Oia.
Our return to the ship delivers a final, unexpected twist. Shunning the cable car for its long queue, we opt for the steep cobbled path that zigzags its way down the mountainside to the old harbor below. It’s surface is uneven and slippery at times, but the real challenge is dodging the donkeys. Unpredictable at best, they are equally undisciplined whether being ridden up or returning unaccompanied to the bottom. The trip is unique, to say the least.
We are thankful for being early risers. It gave us the best of Santorini. The island still looks idyllic from the deck of our ship. Its white buildings like frosting atop the dark volcanic rock. It is spectacular.