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By Lauren Hill | April 18 2017
By Rachel Howard
This story originally appeared in the March/April 2017 issue of Elite Traveler.
There’s a good reason why Santorini is one of the world’s must-see destinations. As author Lawrence Durrell said, “the reality is so astonishing that prose and poetry will forever be forced to limp behind.” The landscape is pure drama: a flooded volcanic crater enclosed by towering cliffs in every shade of red, green and gray – no wonder it’s a contender for the lost city of Atlantis. Brilliant-white villages teeter on the cliff tops, like seagulls poised for flight. Many of Greece’s finest hotels and restaurants are hidden in the tangle of alleys, a photogenic playground for honeymooners.With a wealth of antiquities, rainbow colored beaches and award-winning vineyards, there’s plenty to explore on this cosmopolitan island. But the caldera has a hypnotic pull – days drift by in a lazy haze, like the cruise ships floating across the horizon. No matter how many times you’ve seen it, that view never fails to blow you away.
Bespoke is the watchword at this fully staffed villa, where everything is tailored to your whims. Aqua yoga in the infinity pool? Iced tea delivered to your floating sun bed? Movies by moonlight? Check, check, check. As well as heartfelt, can-do service, guests enjoy the luxury of absolute privacy: This is the only place on the caldera where nobody will see you skinny-dip. Paola Navone’s playful design, in a calm palette of gray, black and white, feels timeless but totally now.
Accessible by speedboat or helicopter, this waterfront villa is marooned on its own black-sand beach on Thirassia, a castaway island three minutes’ boat ride from Oia. Daringly spare interiors – low-slung beds, hot-pink cushions, a Jacuzzi for eight – allow the giddying views of Santorini to take center stage. If you’d rather be close to the action, stay at the Perivolas Suite in Oia, with an indoor–outdoor pool spilling over the horizon.
Suites cascade down the cliff at this hip showstopper in low-key Imerovigli. Champagne cocktails are served by the pool, and the food at Santoro is cutting edge: fava-bean gyozas or seared octopus with truffle and lime honey. The Concept Store is a trove of Cycladic inspired trinkets and kaftans. The Bespoke by Grace service offers tailor-made excursions and a choice of pillows, room fragrances and toiletries, personal training and an in-room cocktail kit.
The Pompeii of Greece, this Minoan city was buried by a volcanic eruption some 3,600 years ago. Only a fraction of the settlement, unearthed by chance while quarrying ash for the Suez Canal, has been excavated. Signage is minimal, so a guide is indispensable. My Odyssey, a bespoke Greek travel concierge, has the island’s leading archaeologists on speed dial.
Houses in ancient Akrotiri were decorated with wall paintings of monkeys, saffron pickers and fishermen. Most of these frescoes are in the Archaeological Museum in Athens, but a few are on display at this small but stunning museum in Fira. The Bronze Age jewelry, ceramic vessels and marble figurines are extraordinarily delicate.
Santorini’s volcanic beaches come in every hue. Avoid the crowds at black-sand Perissa and Red Beach; instead, dive into Vlychada, backed by cliffs of sculpted lava; Katharos (“clean” in Greek), which lives up to its name; and – if you dare – Kolumbo, overlooking an active underwater volcano.
Cruise the caldera Santorini’s flooded volcanic caldera looks spectacular from the air, but nothing beats sailing right through
it. Wear sneakers so you can scale the smoldering crater of Nea Kameni, then cool off in the hot (actually, lukewarm) springs at Palea Kameni. Sunset Oia has a tip-top fleet of catamarans, sailboats and speedboats for private charter.
A vertiginous path links the cliffside village of Imerovigli to this rocky outcrop. A medieval castle accessible via a wooden drawbridge, by the 17th century this fortified rock housed 200 dwellings. It was later abandoned. The vista from the top is like stepping inside a View-Master. Clamber (carefully!) down the sea-facing path to the hidden chapel of Theoskepasti, dangling above the caldera, where you’ll have the sunset all to yourself.
Everyone descends on Oia to watch the sunset, jostling for the best spot with selfie sticks. Head in the opposite direction, to the lighthouse on Santorini’s southern tip, where it’s like watching the sun fall off the edge of the world. This is a mind-blowing spectacle, with none of the crowds.
Santorini’s volcanic terroir produces world-class wines (notably crisp white Assyrtiko and amber, liquid-caramel Vin Santo). Former math teacher Paris Sigalas is one of the most groundbreaking vintners. At his estate, superb wines are paired with refined dishes using local ingredients – cucumber gazpacho, white eggplant layered with goat cheese and pine nuts, sea bass carpaccio with beetroot jus and citrus mousse. Everything tastes even more luscious as twilight paints the vineyards gold.
The setting, in Pyrgos village, may be understated, but the food at Selene is effortlessly sophisticated: Greek salad tortelli with dried olives and onion chips, or veal sweetbreads with Vin Santo zabaglione. The wine bar downstairs offers casual mezes and inspiring cooking classes.
You can’t miss this cozy, family-run restaurant in Oia’s backstreets – the candlelit terrace is cloaked in bougainvillea. The slow-roast lamb and salt-crusted sea bass are the stuff of Greek dreams.
Overlooking Vlychada beach, this quintessential blue-and-white taverna is a cut above. Everything is grown or caught locally, from the cherry-tomato fritters to the sardines stuffed with herbs.
After hours, tourists hit the dubious nightspots in Fira. Those in the know head to this former butcher shop in Oia for killer margaritas and mojitos.
This deceptively simple tavern in Vourvoulos has been serving a long line of happy customers since 1983. With a pretty setting on the Kamari beach promenade, it offers a selection of the best local produce. You might try the excellent cherry tomatoes, fava beans or wild boar, all served with freshly made pita bread. This is a small place, with just nine tables, but the atmosphere is relaxed and the welcome genuine.
Intensely sweet cherry tomatoes were once Santorini’s biggest export. This tomato-canning factory, where you can try out the cranky machinery, now houses a gallery and Greek design shop. Witty souvenirs are “gift-wrapped” in cans.
This elegant antique shop filled with vintage maps and prints is one more reason to visit Pyrgos, one of Santorini’s prettiest villages.
Seek out this boutique in Fira for butter-soft Valia Gabriel sandals and beach-ready jewelry by Mary Gaitani.
Dreamed up by a gang of literary adventurers, this beautiful bookshop in Oia is packed to the rafters with novels, travelogs and, of course, Greek mythology and philosophy. The journals and totes make great souvenirs.