Travel

This Popular Greek Island Is a Favourite for a Reason

Here's what to do other than take pics.

© Allard Schager/Moment/Getty Images
© Allard Schager/Moment/Getty Images
© Allard Schager/Moment/Getty Images

When daydreaming about Greece, it’s Santorini that you see. The country is made up of thousands of islands, but one in particular pretty much achieved legendary status. The blindingly white villages perched on the cliffside, blue-domed churches, and ancient ruins that most equate with this Mediterranean destination are all hallmarks of Santorini.

It’s one of the few destinations that actually lives up to all the postcards and Instagram posts-where the tiny fishing villages actually have octopus hanging out to dry in the sun and the azure waters are even more vibrant when you see them with your own eyes. In Santorini, all the country’s old-world draws sit alongside natural wonders like a hikable (and active!) volcano and otherworldly beaches that feel more like Mars than the Mediterranean.

So it’s no wonder you may have to throw some elbows for a prime sunset viewing spot or dodge honeymooners taking photoshoots along the caldera. The island welcomes about 2 million tourists each season, which mainly runs from June to September, hence why some have argued you should skip a visit altogether in favour of islands that remain a bit under the radar.

But consider this: If it’s the quintessential guidebook experience you want, that’s what you’ll get browsing in evil-eye-filled shops in Oia or taking a tour around the island’s most popular archaeological site. But if your ideal Greek getaway involves exploring less-traversed villages, sipping ouzo with the locals, and plunging deep into the Aegean from the tip of a weathered church, you’ll find that here too. From world-famous attractions to tucked-away villages, here’s everything you need to see when you’re on the island.

Westend61/Westend61/Getty Images
Westend61/Westend61/Getty Images
Westend61/Westend61/Getty Images

Visit the Akrotiri archaeological site

To kick off your trip, see an ancient city that got buried under volcanic ash. Taking a tour of the Akrotiri archaeological site will help you understand why this island is so darn pretty. While most know Santorini as one large, crescent-shaped island, it’s actually an archipelago with five islands in a circle that was formed after several volcanic eruptions split up the original land mass. As a result, all of the islands, collectively known as Santorini, have jaw-dropping cliff coastlines and are situated around a large volcanic crater under the sea called a caldera.

When the largest eruption hit the island 3,700 years ago, Akrotiri was covered in volcanic ash and layers of pumice, which preserved parts of the city. It wasn’t until 1967 that the ancient city was discovered in an archaeological excavation, and today it’s one of the most popular-and awe inspiring-tourist destinations on the island.

At the archaeological site, traverse the ruins on your own and you’ll see houses, art pieces, and remnants of the city’s streets and shop basements. Or take a guided tour on site for a few euros per person to get an expert’s intel about what life was like here at that time. The entire site and exhibits are housed indoors with a roof that regulates airflow, making this a perfect respite from the isle’s stifling summer heat.

Ivan Mateev/Shutterstock
Ivan Mateev/Shutterstock
Ivan Mateev/Shutterstock

Take a dip in the volcanic hot springs

To continue learning about the island’s volcano, head straight to the source. When looking out to sea from the western side of the island, you’ll see two small land masses called Palea Kameni and Nea Kameni (old burnt and young burnt), which house Santorini’s active (yet dormant) volcano.

Boat tours of the volcano leave several times a day from the old port of Thira. You can either sail around and see the volcano from the water or pull up to take a hike over black lava rocks to the top, 300 feet above sea level.

After working up a sweat, the boat takes you to Agios Nikolaos, a small cove on the Nea Kameni islet that has therapeutic hot springs. The water here is heated up to around 90 degrees F and is a rich yellow thanks to concentrated amounts of sulfur, said to be healing for the skin and joints. Though thanks to the almost-orange colour of the water at this one spot, you might want to leave any white bathing suits in your suitcase for a different beach day.

Levente Bodo/Moment/Getty Images
Levente Bodo/Moment/Getty Images
Levente Bodo/Moment/Getty Images

Avoid the crowds and see the sunset over the sea

As the Santorini sky starts showing off its orange hues, throngs of tourists head to one of the northernmost points of the island, Oia, and for good reason. The island’s famed sunsets are especially dazzling against the contrast of the bright white buildings around town. But if you want to avoid the crowds, book a sunset cruise instead.

There are dozens of yachting companies to choose from, employing vessels that range from modest catamarans to full-scale yachts. Caldera Yachting and Santorini Yachting Club have fleets that go out at sunset every day. Trips include sightseeing before the sun goes down and docking at a nearby destination like the cove of Thirassia Island or Amoudi Bay for dinner on board.

Pitogyros Traditional Grill House
Pitogyros Traditional Grill House
Pitogyros Traditional Grill House

Eat gyros, moussaka, and all the feta, olives, and tomatoes you can

All that cerulean water has to be good for something other than Instagram posts, and Santorini’s restaurant scene proves it by serving up some of the best seafood around. The island’s signature dish is grilled octopus served on a bed of fava, a yellow split-pea puree. A trip to any taverna around town also promises heaping piles of prawns and the catch of the day lightly fried with a quick squeeze of lemon.

Beyond seafood, be sure to enjoy the island’s briny pleasures like supple olives and oversized capers. If you’ve ever gone to the farmers market and been overwhelmed by the scent of tomatoes fresh off the vine, you already know the appeal of Santorini’s namesake tomatoes. Because the local soil is filled with nutrients from ancient volcanic ash, this cherry tomato variety is packed with intense flavour and aroma like nothing you’ve ever tasted. If eating tomatokeftedes (tomato fritters) at every meal isn’t enough to cure your craving, head to The Tomato Industrial Museum to purchase sun-dried and canned varieties to take home.

As for where to indulge in these local delicacies, one of the oldest restaurants on the island is Aktaion, a homey restaurant in Thira that’s currently celebrating its 100th year in operation, with a superb moussaka dish to show for it. Other star picks include To Psaraki, which overlooks Vlichada’s fishing port, and Pitogyros. But you can’t go wrong wandering into a little taverna that sits off the beaten path and covering your table with souvlaki, tzatziki, hummus, and saganaki. For finer dining, Selene is a restaurant housed in a converted 18th Century Catholic Monastery and has been a destination for the last four decades. It offers multi-course tasting menus that highlight seasonal ingredients in the restaurant’s stunning black- and white-tiled courtyard.

Olga Gavrilova/Shutterstock
Olga Gavrilova/Shutterstock
Olga Gavrilova/Shutterstock

Hike along the caldera from Thira to Oia

One of the best ways to see the length of the island while getting fresh air and stretching your legs is on a hike between Thira and Oia. Sidewalks, cobblestones, and dirt paths skirt along the top of the cliffs, making the multi-terrain hike a doable six and half miles, often done in about two or three hours. Along the way you’ll pass through the villages of Firostefani and Imerovigli, where you can hop off the walking path to refuel. Start early to avoid the peak day heat, and plan to take a bus or taxi back to your origin point rather than repeat the hike in the opposite direction.

Solomakha/Shutterstock
Solomakha/Shutterstock
Solomakha/Shutterstock

Visit beaches that span the rainbow

While Santorini comes up short on the ritzy beach clubs that islands like Mykonos are famous for, the island’s volcanic history has made some of the most breathtaking beaches in the world. With pumice, ash, and volcanic lava lining the seashores, Santorini treats visitors to a whole host of mystical beaches that make you feel like you’ve stepped into another world.

Arguably the most famous beach in Santorini, the Red Beach gets its colouring (and name) from iron oxidation in the volcanic sands. Located in the southern part of the island, it’s an ideal detour during a day exploring Akrotiri. Getting to the waterfront requires a short hike down a footpath, but once your feet touch the sand, you can bask in the sun for hours, enjoying the contrasting sand and crystalline water while lounging on a sunbed. Just be sure to bring your own refreshments, as this secluded beach offers few amenities.

Around the corner from the fiery sands of Red Beach, a tiny beach sits under the glow of a dramatic wall of white cliffs. The White Beach is only accessible by boat, so hop on a boat taxi or have your catamaran make a pitstop and enjoy an ultra-exclusive beach day.

Finally, Santorini has several black sand beaches. Perivolos Beach is the longest (stretching over four miles) and also boasts the most amenities of Santorini beaches, as it’s studded with beach clubs, restaurants, and places to rent water sports equipment. On the southeastern coast, Kamari Beach has some of the island’s darkest inky black pebbles and plenty of waterfront tavernas and beach bars.

kavalenkava/Shutterstock
kavalenkava/Shutterstock
kavalenkava/Shutterstock

Jump into Amoudi Bay from a waterfront chapel

With so much rocky landscape, it’s no wonder daredevils find plenty of thrills cliff jumping in Santorini. One of the most picturesque places to make your heart race is Saint Nicholas Chapel in Oia.

Take the 214 steps down to Amoudi Bay, where some of the best seafood in the city lines the port. Go past the restaurants to an obvious path that takes you around the tip of the island over some rocks, where people lounge on a boulder-filled beach. There you can jump into the pristine water and either hang out paddling around or swim the very short 100-foot distance to a tiny island topped by a church.

To the left of the island, you’ll find a rope helping you up onto land. You can then head up towards a church that sits on the edge of the cliff (aka the jumping off point). Here, many people jump off the stone platform and plunge into the crystal clear waters of the Aegean.

As a reward, hang around Amoudi Bay for a bit, which many consider the most picturesque port in Santorini. Choose a taverna with freshly caught octopus stretched across a line outside like Sunset by Paraskevas, Dimitris Ammoudi Taverna, and Ammoudi Fish Tavern. Clink glasses to your bravery with a bottle of ouzo, an anise-flavoured liquor that’s only produced in Greece from the remnants of winemaking. Just beware: It’s strong enough to make you want to jump again.

Unsplash/Think Big Designs Co
Unsplash/Think Big Designs Co
Unsplash/Think Big Designs Co

Explore the small villages of Imerovigli and Pyrgos

Beyond the essential visits to Oia and the capital city, Thira, smaller villages provide plenty of real estate to explore, where you’ll find donkeys roaming the cobblestone streets and old-world neighbourhoods where there are more churches than houses.

Imerovigli provides all the iconic sights that Oia boasts in a more laid-back environment. It’s also home to another hike that’s popular with tourists: Skaros Rock. The jagged black rock headland was inhabited during the medieval era, because its location protruding over the sea was perfect for keeping pirates at bay. The ruins of the original castle fortress remain today. A hike to the area is about a half mile each way, making it an easy way to see the island from a different vantage point.

Another village that remains a bit under the radar is Pyrgos. Once the bustling capital of Santorini, the area is now a popular destination for history buffs, as it houses one of the best preserved medieval settlements on the island. Santorini of the Past is a cultural village and museum. Other popular historic sites include the Venetian castle of Kasteli and the Church of the Presentation of the Virgin Mary, which dates back to 1660 and remains one of Santorini’s largest places of worship. Plus, Pyrgos sits in the foothills of the Profitis Ilias mountain and is one of the highest points on the island, making for exceptionally underrated views.

Domaine Sigalas
Domaine Sigalas
Domaine Sigalas

Learn about Santorini’s unique winemaking style

With so many famed wine regions around Europe, don’t forget that this Cyclades island knows a thing or two about winemaking. For more than 3,700 years, Santorini has been exporting crisp dry whites made from the indigenous assyrtiko grape variety and the amber-coloured, unfortified dessert wine known as Vinsanto.

Vineyards like Domaine Sigalas and Santo Wines offer tours and tastings-just don’t expect the sprawling lines of greenery you’d find in the European countryside. Santorini’s grapes are kept unstaked and are manipulated to stay low to the ground in a halo shape, looking like low bushes, to protect the grapes from intense winds and brutal sun.

To sample wine made by multiple producers without making multiple pit stops, Selene Antique Caves offers private and small group tasting experiences where you can sample the local terroir and compare Greek wines to varietals from other lands. All of the tastings in this cavernous space in Thira are curated by Master of Wine Yiannis Karakasis, who’s one of just 416 experts in the world to hold that distinction.

Photo courtesy of Katikies Hotels
Photo courtesy of Katikies Hotels
Photo courtesy of Katikies Hotels

Where to stay in Santorini

Most of the action in Santorini occurs on the western coast along the caldera, making Oia, Thira, and Imerovigli the most popular villages to stay in. For the picture-perfect Santorini experience, Katikies Hotels are the move. The boutique luxury hotel group owns five properties on the west side of the island.

Options range from the flagship property situated the heart of Oia to the more secluded, wellness-focused Katikies Kirini where you can spend the afternoon at the spa or dip into your own private plunge pool just steps from your bed. Each location features Santorini’s signature chalky walls and stairs (which the hotel repaints daily to keep up the stark white appearance). With infinity pools, stunning cavernous rooms, and top-notch alfresco restaurants that were recently upgraded by lauded Greek chef and restaurateur Ettore Botrini, Katikies is creating a luxurious experience you’ll never want to leave.

Staying in a hotel with caldera views is quintessential, but what Andronis Concept Wellness Resort lacks in a wash of white buildings, it makes up for in sprawling pools and serene accommodations set back from the hustle and bustle in Imerovigli. Beachfront hotels like the Kamari Beach Hotel and Santo Mira Mare, and cave-like homes on Airbnb are other strong alternatives for those who want a more secluded stay.

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Liz Provencher is an editor at Thrillist. You can follow her on Twitter or see what she eats on Instagram.

Travel

Ditch your Phone for ‘Dome Life’ in this Pastoral Paradise Outside Port Macquarie 

A responsible, sustainable travel choice for escaping big city life for a few days.

nature domes port macquarie
Photo: Nature Domes

The urge to get as far away as possible from the incessant noise and pressures of ‘big city life’ has witnessed increasingly more of us turn to off-grid adventures for our holidays: Booking.com polled travellers at the start of 2023 and 55% of us wanted to spend our holidays ‘off-grid’.  Achieving total disconnection from the unyielding demands of our digitised lives via some kind of off-grid nature time—soft or adventurous—is positioned not only as a holiday but, indeed, a necessity for our mental health. 

Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, an accommodation collection of geodesic domes dotted across a lush rural property in Greater Port Macquarie (a few hours’ drive from Sydney, NSW), offers a travel experience that is truly ‘off-grid’. In the figurative ‘wellness travel’ sense of the word, and literally, they run on their own independent power supply—bolstered by solar—and rely not on the town grid. 

Ten minutes before you arrive at the gates for a stay at Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, your phone goes into ‘SOS ONLY’. Apple Maps gives up, and you’re pushed out of your comfort zone, driving down unsealed roads in the dark, dodging dozens of dozing cows. Then, you must ditch your car altogether and hoist yourself into an open-air, all-terrain 4WD with gargantuan wheels. It’s great fun being driven through muddy gullies in this buggy; you feel like Laura Dern and Jeff Goldblum in Jurassic Park.  As your buggy pulls in front of your personal Nature Dome, it’s not far off that “Welcome…to Jurassic Park” jaw-dropping moment—your futuristic-looking home is completely engulfed by thriving native bushland; beyond the outdoor campfire lie expansive hills and valleys of green farmland, dotted with sheep and trees. You’re almost waiting to see a roaming brachiosaurus glide past, munching on a towering gum tree…instead, a few inquisitive llamas trot past your Dome to check out their new visitor. 

To fully capture the awe of inhabiting a geodesic dome for a few days, a little history of these futuristic-looking spherical structures helps. Consisting of interlocking triangular skeletal struts supported by (often transparent) light walls, geodesic domes were developed in the 20th century by American engineer and architect R. Buckminster Fuller, and were used for arenas. Smaller incarnations have evolved into a ‘future-proof’ form of modern housing: domes are able to withstand harsh elements due to the stability provided by the durable materials of their construction and their large surface area to volume ratio (which helps minimize wind impact and prevents the structure from collapsing). As housing, they’re also hugely energy efficient – their curved shape helps to conserve heat and reduce energy costs, making them less susceptible to temperature changes outside. The ample light let in by their panels further reduces the need for artificial power. 

Due to their low environmental impact, they’re an ideal sustainable travel choice. Of course, Tom’s Creek Nature Domes’ owner-operators, Cardia and Lee Forsyth, know all this, which is why they have set up their one-of-a-kind Nature Domes experience for the modern traveller. It’s also no surprise to learn that owner Lee is an electrical engineer—experienced in renewable energy—and that he designed the whole set-up. As well as the off-grid power supply, rainwater tanks are used, and the outdoor hot tub is heated by a wood fire—your campfire heats up your tub water via a large metal coil. Like most places in regional Australia, the nights get cold – but rather than blast a heater, the Domes provide you with hot water bottles, warm blankets, lush robes and heavy curtains to ward off the chill.

nature domes port macquarie
Photo: Nature Domes

You’ll need to be self-sufficient during your stay at the Domes, bringing your own food. Support local businesses and stock up in the town of Wauchope on your drive-in (and grab some pastries and coffee at Baked Culture while you’re at it). There’s a stovetop, fridge (stocked as per a mini bar), BBQs, lanterns and mozzie coils, and you can even order DIY S’More packs for fireside fun. The interiors of the Domes have a cosy, stylish fit-out, with a modern bathroom (and a proper flushing toilet—none of that drop bush toilet stuff). As there’s no mobile reception, pack a good book or make the most of treasures that lie waiting to be discovered at every turn: a bed chest full of board games, a cupboard crammed with retro DVDs, a stargazing telescope (the skies are ablaze come night time). Many of these activities are ideal for couples, but there’s plenty on offer for solo travellers, such as yoga mats, locally-made face masks and bath bombs for hot tub soaks. 

It’s these thoughtful human touches that reinforce the benefit of making a responsible travel choice by booking local and giving your money to a tourism operator in the Greater Port Macquarie Region, such as Tom’s Creek Nature Domes. The owners are still working on the property following the setbacks of COVID-19, and flooding in the region —a new series of Domes designed with families and groups in mind is under construction, along with an open-air, barn-style dining hall and garden stage. Once ready, the venue will be ideal for wedding celebrations, with wedding parties able to book out the property. They’ve already got one couple—who honeymooned at the Domes—ready and waiting. Just need to train up the llamas for ring-bearer duties! 

An abundance of favourite moments come to mind from my two-night stay at Tom’s Creek: sipping champagne and gourmet picnicking at the top of a hill on a giant swing under a tree, with a bird’s eye view of the entire property (the ‘Mountain Top picnic’ is a must-do activity add on during your stay), lying on a deckchair at night wrapped in a blanket gazing up at starry constellations and eating hot melted marshmallows, to revelling in the joys of travellers before me, scrawled on notes in a jar of wishes left by the telescope (you’re encouraged to write your own to add to the jar). But I’ll leave you with a gratitude journal entry I made while staying there. I will preface this by saying that I don’t actually keep a gratitude journal, but Tom’s Creek Nature Domes is just the kind of place that makes you want to start one. And so, waking up on my second morning at Tom’s —lacking any 4G bars to facilitate my bad habit of a morning Instagram scroll—I finally opened up a notebook and made my first journal entry:

‘I am grateful to wake up after a deep sleep and breathe in the biggest breaths of this clean air, purified by nature and scented with eucalyptus and rain. I am grateful for this steaming hot coffee brewed on a fire. I feel accomplished at having made myself. I am grateful for the skittish sheep that made me laugh as I enjoyed a long nature walk at dawn and the animated billy goats and friendly llamas overlooking my shoulder as I write this: agreeable company for any solo traveller. I’m grateful for total peace, absolute stillness.” 

Off-grid holiday status: unlocked.

Where: Tom’s Creek Nature Domes, Port Macquarie, 2001 Toms Creek Rd
Price: $450 per night, book at the Natura Domes website.

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