…but on a peasant’s budget.
I think Pam missed her calling as a travel agent… but I’ll settle with her choice in speech therapy since it’s probably a little more lucrative.
To celebrate our 10-year anniversary, Pam really wanted to go see Greece. Perhaps not the most romantically done by my part, our 10-year lacked the surprise and thoughtfulness that I normally deliver as part of some big anniversary production. Pam truly did all the legwork. I just funded her research with the credit card. That combination worked out pretty well though, because the 4 days we spent in Santorini were awesome (and relatively inexpensive). Here’s how to do it:
Sometime in the 1960s, someone got the bright idea to turn the 28-square-mile desert island of Santorini into a tourist paradise. And trust me, it truly is a desert; in fact, travelling the countryside reminded me a bit of the barren parts in Iraq or Afghanistan with dust everywhere and trash caught up on the scraggly bushes. Unlike those countries, you get a 360° view of the sea regardless of the direction you face. The “wow” factor of Santorini is derived from the stark contrast of the blue-domed, white-washed buildings and the sheer volcanic rock and cliffs upon which they sit; it makes for a very pleasant sight.
If you’re like me, you hate crowds. I used to not mind them when I was young and single, but now I want to enjoy my surroundings rather than be surrounded by a stampeding herd of vacationers. Santorini in summertime is just that: a stampede of people that will put New Orleans to shame during Mardi Gras and Pamplona to shame during the running of the bulls. Once the summer is over and it starts getting frigid (like 75°F according to the locals), about 85% of the restaurants and shops close down and the locals sail off to spend the winter on the mainland. Santorini becomes a ghost town. This mass exodus begins in October and culminates with boarded-up buildings during the first week of November.
Because of this, it is a must to go to Santorini in late October or the first week of November.
Avoiding “Where’s Waldo” while on vacation gets you:
Our tickets from England to Santorini were $50 per person one-way. Seriously. Fifty dollars. Moreover, this was my view (when my eyes weren’t shut) on the four-hour flight there:
Yes, including us, there were only 8 people on this flight. The airplane was yours to stretch out in… for $50!
Pam found us a room with a view for about $100 per night. Upon landing in Santorini, the owner picked us up from the airport in his own car. We didn’t have to worry about a bus, taxi or shuttle. We arrived at the “hotel” and were greeted with two glasses of white wine (wine that the owner brewed himself from vines in his backyard) and a free upgrade to their Honeymoon Suite (our balcony at right).
To top it all off, we were the only ones staying in the hotel! The privacy bestowed upon us was an unexpected touchdown.
We stayed at the Aroma Suites. I highly, highly recommend them (especially during off-season!).
During the summer, the restaurants are booked full. According to the staff, you have to make reservations a few nights in advance just to eat dinner at the average restaurants. What we experienced was quite different from that. After checking into the hotel, we walked to the nearest eatery and were one of only three couples waiting to rip into the Greek fare. We were presented with a feast of fish, shrimp, squid and octopus tentacles.
Grilled octopus tentacles are probably one of our new favorite novelties now.
Here’s the point though: We were consistently only one of 3 or 4 couples eating at a restaurant that had the capacity for 200 people. We received five-star service at every restaurant we went to. The waiting staff was a pleasure to chat with and took the time to get to know us. We were given a free liter of wine (a little more than a bottle) every place we went to (and we didn’t even pull out the “10-year-anniversary card”)! Not one meal fell short of heavenly. And the prices tended to be a little less than they are during peak-season. That seafood platter pictured above, along with a huge Greek salad, dessert, and 2 bottles of wine, cost about $80. Score.
The places we ate:
- Naoussa: Serves the standard Greek Mediterranean fare. The food was excellent. This restaurant is one of a few that have the same owner. It’s branding is more Applebee’s-like: it’s great food and atmosphere, but at a more reasonable price adhering to less of a dress code.
- Ellis: The uppity twin of Naoussa. Roughly the same traditional Greek fare with gourmet twists and better presentation.
- Señor Zorbas: This is probably the best Mexican food I’ve had in Europe, hands down. I was a little skeptical at first because 1) Mexican in Europe? and 2) the prices seemed steep. Take comfort: the portions match the prices. The portions are huge! And then I found out why it’s so authentic: the owner is an expatriate from Colorado.
- Lithos: A nice view. A lot like Naoussa and Ellis in the fare: traditional Mediterranean Greek. Different owner.
What to do
We rented a trusty steed and set out to experience the island (by the way, I now officially hate motor-scooters. Compared to my Harley, it’s so wobbly and cramped. I felt like it was going to tip over its nose the entire time we were riding).
On the southern shore of the island lies an excavated settlement. It’s 3600 years old, dating to 1630ish BC. To put this in perspective, Pompeii was buried by Mount Vesuvius in 79 AD, 1700 years later. Moreover, Biblical followers will be impressed that this is around the same time Moses was panhandling the Egyptian Pharaoh to let his people go. This is what blows me away: here you have a civilization from almost caveman times, yet they sported pottery, wine, running toilets, and hot/cold water plumbing! The same most certainly cannot be said of mankind from just 1000 years ago.
Alluded to above, the reason the excavations are so pristine is because of an enormous eruption that took place around 1630 BC, burying everything in ash preserving the colorful frescos, pottery and buildings. Go take a look at the map and you’ll see Santorini looks suspiciously like a volcano rim with a crater of water in the center. There are theories abound resulting from this cataclysmic explosion…
- The Lost City of Atlantis. That’s right. First written down by Plato in 360 BC, there’s very convincing evidence that these remnants, that thrived on the side of a volcano, were the city of Atlantis. Why? Well, look at the amenities for one (plumbing, toilets, etc). Also, the excavations show that almost every house had a fresco in it, bringing about the belief that there were no poor people. If everyone was “rich” enough to have beautiful frescoes, then the culture fits the mold for the advanced socialist utopia fabled from Atlantis. And lastly, the city was teeming with people and trade (like Akrotiri) until it was destroyed in a day and a night.
- The cause of Moses’ Biblical Plagues. This volcanic eruption was a major event… it was probably one of the most violent eruptions mankind has bared witness to. Some theories say that the resultant ash cloud that engulfed the Mediterranean region blotted out the sun, killed many crops, and brought about a considerate climate change. The sky darkens for a while, the crops die, water sources become poisoned from the volcanic fallout and fish die, then disease starts to flourish from the weakened environment. Any of these sound familiar? Like I said above, Moses’ tribulations date to around the same time the volcano of Santorini blew its lid.
The Booze Cruise
Go to the sea-port and hop on a boat that takes you to ground zero of a sleeping volcano (it’s like $30 for two). The last time it blew was in 1950. The island is completely devoid of life: no plants, no insects, no wildlife. Just us stupid humans scrambling around the volcanic rocks. A 20-minute walk will take you to the new volcano crater… don’t worry, you’re not looking down into the lava of Mount Doom to throw your ring into. It’s all buried with rocks and stuff. But you can still see yellow-white stained rocks with sulfur-smelling steam coming off them.
After the volcanic hike, the boat takes you to some lava-heated springs in the sea off the island. I didn’t go swimming in them, but the locals say it’s not all that… they’re more like luke-warm springs.
The rest is just eating and enjoying the royal treatment. Though we didn’t do it, the locals suggest hiking to the top of the highest mountain on the island for a view. The village of Oia (pronuonced Eeyah) on the northern part is renowned for its sunset view, but it didn’t seem any better than where we were staying in Fira.
The Santorini wine is quite good as well (though they don’t have the luscious Italian-style vineyards you would expect… they almost look like weeds growing out of volcanic rock! – at right). The whites are better than the reds. We meant to do the wine tour, but miscommunication prevented it. Book it in advance here, and be sure to follow up with a phone call (our mistake and lesson) once you reach the island.
For the beer: the Grecian powerhouses (Alpha, Fix and Mythos) are about as tasty as their American counterparts (Bud, Coors and Miller)… meaning they’re kinda shit. But rest assured, there are some gems to be had on the island. Santorini Brewing Company makes their Donkey beers which are quite good. I only had the “Donkey Yellow” – and I can attest that it tasted like beer (though I’ve never tried the alternative to compare…). The Volkan is also a delectable beer, which reportedly uses the perforated volcanic rock as a filter during the brewing process.
Yep. For three nights, we got a peak into what royalty feels like…