Monday, August 6, 2012

May 2011 Trip Part 3 - Santorini, Greece

So, the last entry ended with us taking the ferry from Mykonos to Santorini.  I’d like to elaborate on the ferry a little more.  I’ve had some bad experiences in the past with seasickness.  As a result, I was very hesitant to go with the ferry for our transport between Mykonos and Santorini.  However, it made a lot more sense from a cost and timing standpoint than flying as there was no direct flight available from Mykonos to Santorini.  I also read a lot of positive reviews about the fast ferries that operate between the Greek islands.  As I said in the last blog entry, the experience was much better than I anticipated.  Things were a little hectic at the port in Mykonos while we were waiting for our ferry (the Flyingcat4) as there were a couple of different ferries that arrived and departed before ours and very little organization to the boarding process.  Once the Flyingcat4 arrived, we had little trouble boarding and locating our seats.  The seating was more like economy class in one of the older jets in the US but on a much larger scale.  Unless you were seated by the window, there wasn’t much to see.  I had taken my Dramamine in advance to prepare for the trip, but fortunately, the ride was very smooth.  I’m sure it’s a much different experience when the water is rougher, but thankfully, the seas were not angry that day.

We were very excited to visit Santorini.  Ever since we first saw the amazing pictures of Santorini, it was high on our list of places to go to.  What we didn't anticipate was how much we would enjoy Mykonos.  We intentionally went to Mykonos first as we thought we needed to save the best place for last.  While Santorini was an awesome place, I think our expectations may have been too high.  For an overall experience, I think Mykonos might have a slight edge over Santorini.  What Mykonos doesn't have over Santorini is screensaver worthy views and some of the most amazing sunsets we've ever seen.

Upon arrival, we were picked up by a van from our hotel Astra Suites at the ferry landing.  The island of Santorini is the remnant of an ancient volcano that exploded thousands of years ago.  The main part of the island now is one portion of the rim of the volcano.  The road from the ferry landing has to ride all the way up the inside of the volcano rim until you get to the top.  Once up top, you are treated to some truly stunning views.  Astra Suites is in the village of Imerovigli which is at the midpoint of the island and at the highest elevation.  This makes for some of the best views on the whole island.  Most of the hotels are perched dramatically on the side of the caldera seemingly defying gravity.  As a result, getting to and from our room required hiking up and down quite a few steps.  What was really impressive was seeing these guys on the hotel staff effortlessly hauling huge suitcases up and down the steps.

Amazing views abound on Santorini

As I mentioned earlier, our five nights on Santorini didn't quite measure up to our stay on Mykonos, but we still had a great time enjoying the different parts of the island and some great food.
Here are the highlights from our time in Santorini:
  • Astra Suites balcony - Every morning we were served breakfast on our balcony with the amazing view to entertain us.  It's hard to imagine a better way to start the day.  We also enjoyed several breathtaking sunsets from the balcony.  The balcony was so enjoyable that we skipped going out for dinner a couple of nights and instead ate dinner while watching the sunset.  As with Mykonos, the local tomatoes and olives in the stores were so good that we were content with making simple salads for dinner.
Breakfast on the balcony

Dinner on the balcony
  • Imerovigli and Fira - One of the really neat things about Astra Suites is that it is right on a walking path that goes along the caldera rim from the village of Imerovigli to the island's main village of Fira.  It's about a 20-25 minute walk from Imerovigli to Fira along the path, and you get to enjoy different perspectives of the caldera rim along the way.  We made the walk to Fira a couple of times for dinner. 
Great views on the path from Imerovigli to Fira
View towards Fira, notice how the hotels are perched on the cliff
  • Renting a car - We rented a car for two days while we were in Santorini, and I would highly recommend this for anyone who goes to Santorini.  There's quite a bit to see on the island, and renting a car is the best means for exploring.
Our lovely rental car
  •  Oia - Possibly the most well known village on Santorini is Oia with its bleach white buildings perched on the north end of the caldera.  We drove to Oia the first day that we had our rental car and spent a couple of hours walking through the labyrinth of streets and paths.  You feel like you're in a picture book the whole time you are there.  If visiting Oia from other parts of Santorini, it's best to go on a day when there aren't too many cruise ships in port on the island as it can get quite crowded with tourists.  We were fortunate that there were only a couple of smaller cruise ships in port the day we went.
Hanging out in Oia
Baklava in Oia
  •  Sigalas Winery - After going to Oia, we ventured to Sigalas Winery on the backside of the caldera.  What's not evident from all the dramatic pictures of the Santorini caldera is that there is a substantial part of the island on the backside of the caldera that is relatively flat.  This part of the island contains quite a few wineries as the dry climate of Santorini is quite suitable for growing grapes.  We had an enjoyable wine tasting on the outdoor patio at Sigalas.  It almost felt like we were in California wine country.  We ended up purchasing a few bottles to take with us.
Wine tasting at Sigalas
  •  Santo Winery - The last stop on our first day with the car was Santo Winery.  This winery has wines from several winemakers on the island.  The tasting room is set on top of the caldera with the typical amazing Santorini views.  Definitely not a bad place to taste a few wines.
  •  Southeast coast beaches - On our second day with the rental car, we ventured to the beaches on the flatter Southeast coast of the island.  As I said before, this part of the island contrasts drastically with the caldera side.  We drove to the famous red beach and walked around for a bit.  Then we drove to Perivolos Beach which is famous for its black sand.  We had lunch there and then relaxed on the sand for a while afterwards.  It looked like it was a place that got really crowded in the high season.  I can imagine that the black sand gets really hot.
Black sands of Perivolas Beach
  • La Maison - On our first night in Santorini, we had dinner here since it was a short walk from our hotel down the path towards Fira and it was recommended to us by the hotel owner.  The most memorable items were the tomato balls which are a local specialty and the Santorini salad.  They are basically little fried balls made out of a combination of local cherry tomatoes (Santorini is famous for these) and herbs.
Santorini salad
  • Ellis restaurant - We walked to this restaurant in Fira on our second night on the island.  The highlight of this meal was the lamb kleftki which is lamb roasted in a foil packet with vegetables and herbs.  Other items we enjoyed were the fava dip and the Santorini salad.
  • Katina’s - If you make it to Oia, you have to make time for a meal at Ammoudi Bay which is the little fishing port below the village.  There are a handful of restaurants to choose from all of them with seating right on the water.  We decided on Katina's based on some reviews that we had read before going.  Eating at Katina's was similar to a couple of the places we went to in Mykonos in that you go inside the restaurant to select the fish that you want to eat.  We chose red snapper for our main course with starters of roasted eggplant puree (delicious), fried zucchini (very good) and grilled octopus (not as good as others we had).  While eating our appetizers, we got to watch our red snapper being cooked on the outdoor grill.  The fish was absolutely amazing.  It was very simply prepared, but it may have been the best fish we had in Greece.  It was definitely a memorable meal.
The "menu" at Katina's
After a visit to the grill.  So tasty!
  • Sabbas Greek Tavern - We had lunch here on the day we went to Perivolas Beach.  The only memorable thing we had was the fried zucchini blossoms.  That's not to say it was bad, but there was nothing that stood out about the place.  That seemed to be the case for a lot of the restaurants on the beach.
  •  Stamna - It's hard to believe, but it took us until our second to last day in Greece to get souvlaki.  There were several to choose from, all of them had the obligatory guy trying to lure us in.  We settled on Stamna for souvlaki, and it satisfied our craving.  Ashley had a traditional chicken souvlaki, and I got a lamb gyro.  It wasn't fine dining, but it definitely tasted good.
  • Anogi - We went here our last night on Santorini at the suggestion of the hotel staff.  It's a fairly new family run restaurant focused on home style Greek dishes.  This was one of the best meals of our time on Santorini.  Highlights included calamari salad, grilled octopus and shrimp giouvetsi (kind of like Greek risotto).
Calamari salad

Grilled octopus

Shrimp giouvetsi