Santorini- Gloriously Resplendent
I remember how spellbound I was when I first saw a picture of the Island of Santorini, Greece. The landscape was breathtakingly dramatic, the kind that postcards were made of. I stared at the image for hours on end, its magnificence warming the cockles of my heart. At first, I imagined it to be one of those places reserved for people with islands and jets named after them.
*Long post alert*
This was on a hot afternoon in mid September, 2016. I started obsessing over the Island, following any accounts on Instagram that documented life in Santorini and hotels that highlighted the food, views and hues of the Aegean Sea. Most of the posts were from young couples, mostly honeymooners. I did not come across any from Richard Branson or Jay-Z and Beyonce, or even Barack Obama, now that he is living it up with no holds barred. This allowed me to entertain the possibility of touring the island.
Just in case the budget was too steep to bear, I decided to explore other options of getting there and not just rely on my savings. I remember sharing this image of my four-year old daughter Xena on Instagram in November. Clasped in her hand was her favourite drink, Fanta Orange. She wore a fake smile as she always does when I insist on taking her photo when she would much rather be drowning the drink instead. In the caption, I recall wondering what it would take for CocaCola Africa to sign her up as Fanta’s brand ambassador. I also stated my conviction that Xena would be the one to make my dream of touring Santorini a reality. CocaCola may not have responded, but Xena was signed up as Alladin’s brand ambassador in the same month, our biggest deal yet and what opened doors to several other lucrative deals.
The plan was for Xena to be my travel companion, after all, she was paying for the trip hehe. Unfortunately, I needed the break right after the brutal CFA exam and Xena would only close school in July. I couldn’t wait that long. Another spanner was thrown in the works. A good one, nevertheless. The mister’s cousin from the UK invited us for his wedding which would be in the month of June. The trip had to be built around the wedding, so the mister and I decided to do a mini tour of Europe, throwing in London, Athens, Delphi, Kalabaka, Santorini and Istanbul in the package.
Lucy from Travel Shoppe put it all together, having to deal with my fastidiousness for a whole week. Such would be my emails to her.
“It’s a lovely hotel Lucy, but it doesn’t have a view of the volcano” or
“That view is everything, but can you confirm my room has a balcony?”
We went through about 10 hotels in total before my heart was settled and Lucy was always so accommodating. It paid that we knew exactly what we wanted to see or do in the different cities, which made her work easier. Once all was firmed up, the excitement furiously built up, like an inexorable volcano. Speaking of volcanoes, Santorini was formed as a result of a volcanic eruption 3,600 years ago. The core of the island was catapulted into the sea, leaving a thin u-shaped stretch of land on the exterior. The eruption devastatingly left the city in ruins but birthed a gloriously resplendent island.
It was a clear Wednesday afternoon when our Aegean Airways flight from Athens started its decent to Santorini. The flight was short, about 30 minutes. The kind where one minute the pilot is announcing take off and just as you are done buckling up and reclining your seat, a voice comes on the intercom saying “ Cabin crew, prepare for landing!”.
I counted approximately 10 stunning but uninhabited islands with what appeared to be rocks and shrubs, each time hoping desperately that I would spot Santorini. I held my breath as I waited for it to show its face and finally, just as we were getting closer to the ground it did. A minuscule stretch of land with tiny white freckles, which I imagined to be buildings, clustered mostly at the top. My heart skipped a beat.
After a speedy and seamless airport checkout process, we met our tour guide Efi, a most hilarious lady in her 30s. She was heavy with child and carrying her seven month pregnancy so effortlessly under the 40 degree sun. There was no doubt she loved her job.
We hopped into a black air-conditioned Mercedes van. Actually, all tour guides that we came across in Greece had quite the funny bone, except one. She would narrate her childhood experiences every half hour or so and insist that we don’t try to guess her age, then let out a raucous laughter all by herself. It was annoyingly embarrassing to say the least.
Recently tarmacked, the roads were smooth and shiny black, reminiscent of a Congolese musician’s brogues. Numerous quad bikes, vans and buses infested the streets. A mob of tourists strolled on both sides of the sidewalks. We later learnt that 2 million tourists visit Santorini every year, which is 10% of the total number of tourists in Greece. That’s 20 million tourists in Greece, incase you slept through your calculus class. Also, Incase you are wondering, Kenya’s figure is approximately 100,000 shy of 1 million visitors per annum.
Efi pulled out her map and gave us a rundown on the Island. With a pink maker at hand, she highlighted a thin stretch on the map and turned to me.
“This is very safe area to walk. You can leave husband sleeping any time, even midnight, and walk to shopping centre on the left. Of course don’t forget his credit card.”
About 15 minutes later, we were standing at the top of this delicately steep island, curved like an amphitheatre with tiny white buildings resting at the top of the cliff and some gradually extending below. The Aegean Sea, whose name I later came to learn, lay still below us while stretching out on both sides into the yonder. This sea had the most amazing hues of blue which could easily pass as photoshopped. The highlight of the set up was the volcano that graciously sprouted from the middle of the sea, a few yards from where we stood, reaffirming the amphitheater feel. The volcano, though beautifully still, was the “action” that the island was built around.
Efi was mumbling something about the following day’s program and a porter was busy hauling our luggage on a trolley, beckoning us to follow him. Efi could keep her program and the porter could sell our bags for all we cared. All we wanted was to stand there and soak in the wonder that had just unfolded.
And we did. For three days, we woke up to a view of the volcano showing off from the sea where it sat, a layer of fog resting above it. It looked as if it was getting ready to erupt. Two cruise ships remained docked near the volcano during our entire stay. On the second day, we visited the red and black beaches which were stunning in their own ways but left me convinced that our beaches back at home (especially Lamu) reigned supreme.
We toured Akrotiri village which showcased the remnants of a village that was destroyed after the volcanic eruption, 3600 years ago. We visited a vineyard and a winery, sampling three different wines produced in Santorini. The portions were so little through, about 50ml, so when my neighbour, a hippie from Santiago turned out to be a teetotaler, I grabbed his three goblets and drowned them before he could change his mind! We drove to the highest point of the island which granted us a panoramic view of the island.
Finally, at about 7pm, we were perched on a rampart with hundreds of other tourists, waiting to witness the most glorious sunset in the famous village of Oia. If not for anything else, you have to go to Santorini for its volcanoes and sunset.
A decent hotel with a view of the sea and volcano will set you off a minimum of KES 30,000 (USD 300) a night for two including breakfast. This price goes as high as KES 150,000 (USD 1500) a night depending on how much more the hotel offers in terms of views (eg panoramic view, volcanoes, sunset), how modern the hotel is, your choice of hotel of room between standard, superior and VIP amongst other extras. Some rooms have clear vantage points with private balconies that allow you to experience the island’s grandiosity from the comfort of your room.
Alternatively, one could settle for a cheaper hotel in the city and take walks to the caldera to experience the view, or plan to have your meals at the numerous restaurants perched on the cliff. These will grant you uninterrupted views of the sea and volcano. Only caveat is that you will pay through your nose for the meals and drinks in such hotels.
To move from one part of the island to the other, one must go through this narrow corridors on the edge of the cliff that face the sea. The view is so hypnotic, you could easily cover 5km without taking cognisance of the distance! However, given the terrain of the area, there are numerous steps at different points of the walkway which would always leave me panting half the time. The mister questioned the legitimacy of the 10km runs that I always claim to cover with ease! There’s also the main road at the back of the city that could be used to access different parts of the island.
If walking is not your thing, you could hire a quad bike for 25 Euros a day (most popular means of transport), take a ride on a motorbike or call a taxi and end up sharing it with strangers as taxis around Santorini are not private. We did none of the above and chose to walk our way around.
Fira, the “capital” town of the island, is the life of the party. Numerous clubs, restaurants and shops are found in this part. It is the noisiest and busiest. If you are looking to mostly go shopping and clubbing during your stay in Santorini, Fira is the place to stay. We opted to stay at Belvedere Suites in Firostefani, a 10 minute walk from Fira that is quite hushed and with incredible views and sunsets almost as magical as Oia’s. Belvedere lived up to its name.
My only regret is that Xena who partly earned us this holiday, could not come along. When we got back, she asked us whether there was a lot of food in Europe. I think my expanded waistline and hips gave it away!
The dad told her that in deed there was lots of food in Europe. She pressed further.
“Was it pasta?”
“No sweetheart. We had lots of lamb and Mousaka.” I said to her, hoping the last meal would capture her interest.
“I want to go to Europe and eat lots of pasta.” She muttered, wearing this distant look on her face and completely ignoring my response.
“You will, babygirl. Just think about it hard enough and pray everyday for God to make a way.”
If she sustains the pasta craving for the next six months, we may be headed to Italy next.
Faith In Action, my friends.