My first glimpse of the caldera (a geographic term referring to the rim of a volcano that’s left after it erupts – more on this later) did not disappoint – it was breathtaking. I know, I know, everyone says this, but it really was. It’s like you’re looking at a picture perfect painting or Hollywood film – the calm, blue Aegean sea, dotted with yachts and hazy islands in the distance.
And, around you are sheer, black rocked cliffs frosted with brilliantly white Cycladic buildings with blue shutters and domes, either perched on top or on the cliff’s hillside, with infinity pools and hot tubs glistening at you. It’s hypnotic. Even in the dead of night Oia is gorgeous, in the sunlight it’s heavenly.
All this beauty did come at a price however – quick history lesson: Santorini was originally round, its present crescent moon shape was formed after one of the biggest volcanic explosions in history. It was six times the scale as Pompeii and they say 40,000 times the force of the Hiroshima bomb. Scientists think it happened 3,600 years ago, where it killed all the islanders and blew out the center of the island, leaving half of the rim. People also believe that this was the site of the lost city of Atlantis. If you’d like to find out more, then the Akrotiri settlement is fascinating.
Catch of the day
There’s much debate on where you should stay on Santorini, but I think there’s only two real contenders – Oia and Imerovigli. Both have that view and are in a prime position to see the famous Santorini sunset. Oia during the day can be busy because of en masse, meandering cruise passengers, but after the sun has set it’s a lot calmer and a lovely place to be – many shops and restaurants are open late, and there are a handful of small bars. Imerovigli has some stunning hotels and restaurants too but it’s slightly quieter. We found Fira (the capital) too touristy, and if you’re not in Santorini for long, then I would recommend you avoid it.
My husband and I stayed at the lovely Nostos apartments Oia, and we couldn’t recommend them enough – great location, breathtaking views, gorgeous decor, coma-inducing beds, a refreshing pool and the friendliest of staff – shout out to Stefanos who couldn’t be more helpful and accommodating. One of my favourite things about the hotel (I am here to write about food, afterall) was the breakfast – sweet and tangy, fresh orange juice (squeezed to order), seasonal fruit, creamy yoghurt and honey, spanakopita (spinach and feta pie), tiropitakia (cheese and egg pastry), crispy bacon, eggs and cakes, served with a side of that caldera view – *sigh* – a simply glorious way to start the day.
To be honest, we found it hard to leave our idyll at Nostos but lunch was beckoning. Amoudi Bay is a small port underneath Oia, you have to go down 300 steps and weave around a few donkeys (don’t be tempted to hire one as they’re not treated well – The Donkey Sanctuary have started a ‘In Their Hooves’ campaign), but walking is well worth the effort (you can actually get a taxi to Amoudi, but where would the fun in that be?) At the bottom of the steps you’re welcomed open-armed by drying octopus, fishing boats bobbing in the turquoise sea and five small seafood restaurants, but it’s Dimitris where you want to head to.
Ever since it opened in 1989, Dimitris has been regarded as one of the best seafood restaurants on the island. It’s a laid back, paper tablecloths on the tables that sit on the water’s edge kinda place with simple, fresh, delicious seafood in a quaint and lovely setting. We feasted on pillowy soft mussels, Greek salad served with fresh anchovies, deep-fried red mullet, red snapper served with a delicate lemon oil, Santorini’s cherry tomato fritters (I here by decree Dimitris the best tomato fritters on the island – fact. Do not go without trying them) and their signature spiny lobster (no claws but massive meaty tail) with linguini.
Served with an icy glass of Greek wine, the smell of chargrilled octopus in the air, tuna (literally) jumping out the sea like dolphins – you might as well call this a seafood lovers Elysium.
Another seriously good fish place is To Psaraki in Vlychada. You’ll need a car to seek this one out, but trust me, it’s worth it. Located above Vlychada port and down the road from the Tomato Industrial Museum, To Psaraki is housed in the prettiest white and blue open air wooden hut at the side of a road. Like its setting, the food has that back-to-basics, effortless-but-stunning thing nailed – the owners have over twenty years of experience in the restaurant business and rely on local produce and seasonality for their menu – we tried their fava bean puree (who knew puréed fava beans would be so delicious), served simply with olive oil, white onions, capers and caper leaves.
We literally just went to it with a spoon and devoured it all. Then came massive grilled shrimps with salad and spicy albacore (white tuna) served with skin-on french fries. Delicious, simple and relatively good value (for Santorini).
There are loads of restaurants claiming that they have the best sunset view, but if you want to see it from somewhere really special and indulgent, then book dinner at the Grace hotel, Auberge Resort Collection in Imerovigli. The hotel is stunning – understated, elegant, with airs of Ibiza luxe about it. There are only a handful of tables, so booking is essential. Start with a cocktail – the Grace signature ones are delicious, then sit back and watch the sky, sea and white Cycladic houses become awash with pinks and oranges. The food is just as charming – balls of butter dotted with bright pink roe, soft lobster served with deep fried watermelon cubes and a deconstructed lemon meringue (that looked like a piece of art) were stand-outs. This is a dinner experience you’ll never forget.
If you’re into that Ibiza-luxe thing, then you’ll also enjoy the beaches of Perivolos and Kamari. Kamari is probably my first choice because the black, volcanic sand is finer but Perivolos has got Sea Side. An impressive beach club and restaurant – the prices are up there with the highest but it’s very stylish, the decor is gorgeous – modern, bright and fun – and the food and drinks are great with the freshest seafood (check out the sushi bar), which is cooked with a modern, Mediterranean twist.
Room with a view
Pyrgos is a protected village located on the highest point of the island – the panoramic views are amazing and on a clear day the sunset is apparently outstanding. As luck would have it we visited on a cloudy evening, but with every cloud… our delicious silver lining was Selene. Overlooking local vineyards, the restaurant utilises the island’s fantastic produce and delivers it in the most creative and delectable way.
For starters, we had the Santorian tomato can which consisted of a variety of mini tomatoes, yellow and red tomato sorbet, a light strawberry foam and – to literally top it off – a tomatoey shell made from tomato skins, that is in the shape of half a tomato can that was cracked like a crème brûlée by chef Thodoris Papanikolaou.
The other standout dish was the 12-hour pork – served with celery sabayon and smoked roasted leek, with a little hot dog with red pepper ketchup on the side. It was hands down the best pork belly I’ve ever had. The skin was paper-like, it was exquisite. This is why foodies flock to Selene.
After all that feasting, I would definitely recommend the Fira to Oia hike (do it this way round as it’s more downhil than up), locals will look at you aghast when you say you’re doing it, but the views are truly magical. And, that’s what Santorini is – magic. From its lost city of Atlantis past, fairytale views and heaven-sent food, after a few days in Santorini, you’ll believe in magic too.