Monday, October 19, 2009

Santorini, Greece

Santorini, the whole reason we decided to take another cruise through the Mediterranean. Our first trip to this most iconic of Greek islands was so enchanting and alluring that we wanted to re-live it all over again. I've never before seen such a breathtaking island paradise. I've been to many places in this world, but somehow Santorini has haunted me since I first visited 3 years ago.

I'm very fond of saying that if a picture is worth a thousand words, then being in Santorini is worth a million words. As gorgeous as pictures of this beautiful island are, nothing compares to being there in person.

The Captain had informed us the previous night that if we were up early on Santorini day that we wouldn't be disappointed as the island should be coming into view at around 6:00 am. As we had wanted to be one of the first ones off the ship that day, we were already up and at breakfast by 6:00 am and we weren't disappointed by the stunning view. Just before 6:00 am, the twinkling lights of the small village of Oia that sits high atop the caldera on the northern end of the island could be seen. It was still dark out, so all you could make out was the silhouette of the island itself and the glowing lights of the village. Oia, sleepy and quiet, waiting for daylight to come and the throngs of visitors that are sure to follow. As we came closer to the island, the first hints of light appeared out on the horizon, just behind the island. The island was starting to become awash in brilliant reds, and fiery oranges as the sun was starting to rise. We could now make out the pure white color of the whitewashed buildings set against the dark black of the volcano cliff face. It was a spectacular sight to say the least.

In the three years since I've been to Santorini, I had read about the headaches of going ashore and coming back to the ship, and I wanted to make sure that I didn't get stuck in the mess of it all. What makes Santorini a difficult place for cruise ship passengers to get to is the fact that the island does not have a deep harbor port. And as the ship enters the caldera of the volcano, dropping anchor is impossible too. So what the ship has to do is idle in place out in the ocean and transfer passengers to land via tender. The unique aspect of the tendering process here in Santorini is the fact that the local authorities require the use of local tender boats rather than the ship tenders, so that slows down the process quite a bit. However, as Santorini gets 2-3 ships a day during the busy summer months, the local tender operations are very familiar with the drill. But, you can imagine, on a very busy day, with tens of thousands of cruise ship passengers all wanting to get off the ship and on the island, the process can be rather time consuming.

We wanted to make sure that we weren't stuck in the hordes of passengers that we were ready bright and early. At the appointed time, we went and got our tender tickets, and were assigned to the first tender off the ship. Now, it was just a matter of waiting until the local tender operations set up. In the morning, as we were rounding Oia and the sun was rising, we had already seen the Splendour of the Seas making her way around Santorini and coming in right behind us. And from my research, I knew that there would be at least one other large cruise ship in town that day. So it really was imperative that we get on the island as soon as possible.

Once tendering operations began and we got on board the first tender, we were greeted by a sight I certainly didn't expect to see: fog. There was fog everywhere. It was so thick that we couldn't see to the top of the caldera and Fira, the town that rests up there. Another unexpected sensation, humidity. It wasn't a cold fog we were experiencing, it was more like a thick haze, and very high humidity. We later found out, that this was unseasonable humidity that the locals never really experience. And the haze was just weird because the locals say it's never like this either. In fact, the haze never really burned off all day long. The bad thing about having the haze around all day is that it was hard to see Santorini in all it's glory without the sun's rays glinting off the ocean and accentuating the whitewashed houses of the island. But it only but a slight damper on the day, it certainly didn't ruin it by any means. The island was still just as I had remembered it, beautiful, special, amazing.

Upon getting off the tender, you're dropped of at the base of the caldera where there are a few shops, but not much else. If you want to see the island, you need to get yourself to the top of the caldera to the city of Fira (or Thira). There are 3 ways to accomplish this task: take a cable car up to the top, walk up a zig-zagging path, or use that same path and ride a donkey. Walking uphill can be difficult, and probably isn't recommended. The donkey's are a unique experience, and before there was a cable car, it was probably the method most people used. But the risk of smelling like donkey the rest of the day wasn't too appealing, saying nothing about the fact that some of the donkeys appear to be unhappy and emaciated. So cable car it was. Last time I was here, I took the cable car then too. The cable car system was donated to the island by a wealth Greek businessman. The system contains 6 cable cars on the right track, and 6 on the left track. Each cable car only seats 6 passengers, so at any one time, the maximum number of riders you can have is 36 going up while 36 come down. Now you can see why trying to get 10 or 15,000 passengers from the bottom to the top can be quite the process. Luckily for us, getting on the first tender, off the first ship to begin tendering operations, meant that we were one of the first ones up the cable cars.

It was a bit of a weird feeling as we were sitting in the cable car climbing to the top of the caldera. Due to the fog, it was difficult to really be able to see anything. Once we got to the top of the caldera and into Fira, it was a bit better, but it was still hazy. Our plan was to immediately walk to the bus station and take the local bus over to the village of Oia. From our previous trip here, we already knew where the bus station was, so we just started walking.

In another sign of the increased tourist activity to Santorini, when we arrived at the bus station, we saw that there was a large sign written in English that said "Bus Station," plus there was a board with the names of the bus destinations and a map and prices written on it. Lastly, the man sitting at the information window was passing out sheets of paper in English with the map, the prices, and a bus timetable on it. The first time we were in Santorini, there was none of this: no sign for the bus station, no maps, no time tables, and people who barely spoke English. By the time the first bus left from Fira to Oia, it was packed with cruise ship passengers.

The ride from Fira to Oia only takes about 25 minutes. As we approached Oia, we could see that there was fog here at the northern tip of the island as well. The hope was that we would make it up to Oia before the cruise ship shore excursions passengers overran the city. By the time we arrived, we discovered that there were already some cruise ship passengers there, but it wasn't too bad.

The best part of Oia is the views. This little village atop the caldera is really the quintessential Greek island community. It's what you picture in your head when you think about the Greek islands. Narrow cobbled lanes, completely whitewashed houses, churches with blue domed roofs, infinity pools that seem to just drop off, all clinging to the edge of the volcano in this island paradise. We ended up staying in Oia for quite a few hours. We stayed while most of the tourist horde came and went and the village was quiet again. We even enjoyed a light refreshment on a rooftop terrace overlooking the ocean just to soak up the sights and the sounds.

From Oia, we took the local bus back to Fira and decided to spend the remainder of our day there. Even when we returned past midday, the fog was still so thick that it was hard to see the cruise ships idled out in the water from the top of the caldera. We spent the rest of the day just shopping, walking around, enjoying the views and the sights and the sounds, and of course, partaking in some ice cream! By the time we were ready to head back down to catch the tender to the ship, we discovered that the line for the cable cars was enormously long. This is something we didn't encounter on our first trip to Santorini either. But with the influx of cruise ship passengers, and with the cable cars only being able to handle 36 passengers going down at any one time, the line had gotten pretty long. We knew that as the day wore on, the line would just get longer and longer, so we decided to just get in line now. The line took about 30 minutes to get through. But once we were back down at the harbor, it was a quick little jaunt from the tender back on board the ship.

Shortly after 5 pm, once everyone was back on board, the ship set sail in a southerly direction headed for our next port of call in Naples, Italy, but not before we were to enjoy our one, and only, sea day of the cruise.

Santorini will be a place I always consider special. The views and the sights of this island are just beyond what words can describe. This time around, the crowds and the fog put a little bit of a damper on the experience, and if I hadn't ever been here before, I might have a different perspective on the island. But having seen the beauty and amazement that Santorini can offer, this experience didn't dull my senses to what has to be one of the most gorgeous spots on Earth.