The magic of Santorini: Stunning views & a laid-back lifestyle make for aperfect vacation
Editor's note: Laura and John Spalding have romped through Santorini more than once and renewed their vows their on their 10th wedding anniversary, but no visit was more meaningful than this summer, when the Spaldings and their children — Lexie, 10, and Jeb, 9 — took a house there for more than a week, indulging in the beauty and rich culture of the Greek Isles.
We did it. We are moving to Santorini!
I am selling all of my clothes (keeping some special ones for my daughter) and giving away anything else that will not fit our new lifestyle. We put the house on the market and will send most of our furniture to storage. We are calling the kids’ school to request that they be given spots upon their return. This might not be a forever thing.
We will stay in a simple villa in Fira, the main city, until ours is built. We have the perfect location—a bluff from which you can see both sides of the water surrounding the island. To be able to watch the sunset is a must and we forewent many great pieces of land to get that.
Okay. We are dreaming, but we have had this recurring dream more times than you can even imagine. If you have ever been to Santorini, you understand completely.
Do we have a great life here in Houston with family, children happily ensconced in a marvelous school, deep friendships, commitments? Absolutely. Nonetheless, if you have never been to Santorini — and I mean BEEN, as in stayed, not just rushed off of your cruise ship to ride up the cliffs on a donkey, buy some trinkets, and watch the sun set with a cocktail before shoving off — then you cannot begin to imagine how serious I am when I tell you that every time my husband and I go, we envision an entirely new way of life. A simple way.
It’s the damndest thing. Everyone who lives in Santorini has the same story: They came on holiday 20 years ago and never left.
We get it.
The entire island has a vibe. Vanquished are any gala gowns, tuxedos, suits, unbending schedules. Heels can often make you look ridiculous. As the days go on, the amount of make-up I wear diminishes. Flowy dresses, flip-flops and a hat are all I need.
A special beauty
The Greek Isles are stunning, but none is as achingly beautiful as Santorini. It is beyond breathtaking and photographs do not do it justice. The cliffs rise forbiddingly from teal blue water and the cities perch atop them. I remember standing on top of a cliff looking out and thinking that, if you did not believe in God, you would after seeing this place. It is an odd thing to think and I have no idea why that thought entered my head, but that was 15 years ago and it has remained. The drama of the landscape seems to put life back home, with any of its problems, into perspective. Whatever troubled you, well, it’s just not that significant.
There are so many reasons to make that call relinquishing home, find some way of making a living and never returning to civilization as we know it. In order to understand this gravitational pull, you must go to Santorini and spend several days.
I would wager that every picture you have ever seen representing the Greek Isles is a picture of Santorini. The Cycladic architecture is sexy and alluring, fresh white with touches of royal blue. Villas are cut into the volcanic rock and rooms are scooped out.
This time, our villa was The Blue Angel, huge by the island’s cliffside standards (with three bedrooms), ethereal and luxurious. The stained glass touches and rounded walls made us feel as if we were living in something Gaudi conceived.
Everything stops for the sunsets. Every evening around 7:20, we rush to get to the prime viewing locale, clutching our cocktail, to watch as the magnificent sun gradually slips behind distant islands. If you look at the city, you can see flashbulbs going off all over and you know the cameras will never do the job of capturing one of the most stunning natural occurences ever created.
After the sunset, people linger over drinks, then head for dinner. We like traditional Greek food and savor the bonus that Greece is cheap by comparison to other foreign countries. You can have a lovely three-course dinner with a bottle of decent table wine and dessert for under $50.
Wining and dining
For a special evening out, The Sphinx in the heart of Fira is lovely. Or, you can venture to quiet Oia, on the tip of the island, and go to the multi-leveled Ambrosia or 1800. The food at these places is pricey, but much more elegant, continental and the meal still will not break your piggy bank.
Then, there is the nightlife. The pebbled streets thump to the music of all different kinds of bars and clubs. Murphy’s is a favorite and it sits alongside a row of similar pubs offering cheap drinks, music of all kinds and an energy that is intoxicating. You can roll off the beach, grab a drink and dance on the bar until the sun comes up. It is great fun to go to the Absinthe Bar with a view of the caldera, the still-active volcano that lies in the middle of C-shaped Santorini. Happy Hour is 10 p.m. to 11:30, not 5:00 to 6:30. Relax! That’s “Island Time” and you need to be on it!
We try to make it to Mama’s House for the 1:00 p.m. breakfast. We remember when she started in a little shanty and served “American Breakfast” all day long. She is now on Facebook! Getting to her before 1:00 p.m. is not an easy feat. After a night of ouzo or “the green fairy,” only a greasy American breakfast will do. My husband loves her because she calls him “her baby” and always hugs his head.
Shop 'til you drop
Shopping is fun and I particularly like haggling over various evil eye accessories, which you find in every shop. The great buys include cool linen shirts and pants for men, leather sandals of every variety, cool clothes you will not see anywhere else, talavera-style pottery, linens for your home, and TONS of tchotchke.
We go to Makis’ shop, located in the last corner of the pebbled path of shops along the cliff. He gives us hugs and kisses and immediately pours ouzo for all of us with a hearty “Yamas”! The shop contains mostly alcohol and olive oil, but also sells all kinds of souvenirs. We start on absinthe as we pick out the best olive oil, preserved sea animals (a personal yuck for me, but a huge score for our kids) and ouzo to send home.
The jewelry on the island is amazing. I have never seen such creativity and luxury. Nick the Greek is a good choice, but I prefer the guy across from Makis’ shop. There are so many astounding pieces producing complete visual overload. To pick just one would be torture for any woman.
On the beach and the water
The beaches are lovely, albeit crowded. Skip the most popular red and black sand beaches and spend a day on Kamari Beach. It is also a black sand beach, but has less people. The water is not even that cold (at least this last time) and has a buoyancy that we do not get in Galveston because of the saline. Massage therapists are on hand to rub sore muscles at the cheapest prices—great cure for all the stair climbing and any suffering from the night before. The tavernas off the beach are great fun for taking in football (soccer) and local Greek cuisine.
On this last visit, we chartered a sailboat and floated around the islands. That way, our happy troupe could see the beaches and the island from afar. We swam around the caldera. Our swimsuits might have turned orange, but we can surely say that we did it. The outing was great with offerings of light Greek food and plenty of drinks for all.
We headed home with what is called the “Sunset Armada,” the boats that head out to catch the glorious sunset, then head back in when the sun has dropped. It was the perfect way to spend the day, feeling accomplished, seeing breathtaking scenery and yet not really doing a darn thing!
Please just trust me and go. Getting there is not cheap. Staying there is. I just ask that you send us a postcard if you don’t plan on coming back! I will live vicariously through you for the rest of my happy days here in Houston, and raise a thimble-full of ouzo to you every now and again.