We’ve all seen the pictures. Beautiful shots of white buildings with pretty blue domes, the narrow streets of the town of Oia, with its many cute stores and fancy restaurants and terraces, luring tourists to the northern tip of the famous Greek island with the promise of an idyllic sunset over the Aegean Sea. Romantic? Yes. Realistic? Not so much!
I was one of those tourists rushing at the end of a long day of sea travel, trying to make my way among hundreds (maybe thousands) of other cruise ship passengers who, like me, were dropped off from our busses and told by our guides to “keep walking straight to the very end to witness the most amazing sunset of our lives.”
With only a few minutes to spare before the sun dipped into the island’s sea-filled volcanic crater – and literally masses of people on the same impossible quest as I was – I took out my phone and started shooting randomly left and right as I was pushed along the narrow cobbled road without a chance to stop and truly take anything in.
Then it started raining. The floor became slippery but that didn’t dissuade the hordes in front of me from chasing the ever-elusive sun starting to paint in orange hues the skies ahead. We continued marching forward like a swarm of ants on a mission.
I tried to stop a few times looking for a decent spot to settle in and enjoy the famous views I’ve come so far for. My group was out of sight. People kept pressing against me fighting for my precious, if reduced, real estate. I was starting to get cold under the rain, so I decided to venture down a side alley and let Santorini surprise me, or at least look for a not-so-crowded café to wait the rain out.
The path ended up in a parking lot perched on top of a cliff overlooking the road below, and further out, the sea. There, as if waiting for me to reach this particular point just then, was my very own Santorini sunset. I stood under the rain, perfectly drenched by now, and took a few breaths in. I have to admit it was indeed beautiful. And then, just like that, it was over. It was time to rush back to our meeting point where the buses would be waiting to rush us back to the port and to our cruise ship, amid a choppy sea, fully enveloped in the dark of the night.
An idyllic island under a lot of pressure
Approximately two million tourists visit Santorini every year. And even after local authorities decided to limit the number of cruise ship visitors allowed to disembark here (reducing it from 12,000 to 8,000 people per day), thousands continue to arrive at the same time – effectively creating mayhem at the port and plenty of frustration for those like me, desperate to get the perfect picture during our very limited island stop.
As much as an increase in tourism has been welcomed in a country that is still recovering from a huge economic downfall, the overflow of tourists is putting too much strain on charming Santorini and its habitants. Lack of appropriate infrastructure, excessive new developments, increased volumes of trash, larger water consumption needs, are all problems faced by Santorini today.
This also seems to be taking a toll on the air quality of the island. According to a report from The Telegraph, air pollution levels are 17 times higher than those found on busy roads – a problem linked to the shipping and cruise industries.
As much as Santorini lives up to its fame by offering unparalleled views and majestic sunsets, it saddens me that its popularity is putting it at risk of loosing precisely what makes it so special. Overexploitation is a real problem in the tourism industry. I only wish there was a way to truly regulate it in order to preserve these picturesque sites that we all love to enjoy.
As for me, after the massive chaos of my cruise ship excursion experience, I feel like I need a redo to truly experience all that Santorini has to offer – including its booming wine industry which, sadly, I didn’t get to check out.
So, to Santorini or not to Santorini?
My verdict is, if you must do it, please get there on your own, meaning, not as part of an organized group tour and definitely not with a cruise ship excursion. You should plan to stay a few nights to truly start immersing yourself in the island’s lifestyle. And, be ready to splurge. Everything in Santorini, from luxury accommodations (most of them are in some way or another) to its stores, restaurants and bars (even its public restrooms!) come with a stiff price tag. Good news for luxury vacation lovers. Not so great if you’re on a budget.
You should also take into account that the main towns of Oia and Fira sit atop cliffs, far from the beaches. If direct access to the sea is what you are after, you won’t find it there. However, what they lack in beach access, they make up for with spectacular caldera views and quaint shops and restaurants.
Which brings me back to Santorini’s famous sunsets. If I ever return to the island, I would definitely want to secure a nice table at one of the restaurants or bars adorning Oia’s cliff-top edge for a panoramic view of the spectacular sunset minus the multitudes of people standing all around me. And I’d like to take my time exploring the many little shops and other landmarks, like this cute library!
Depending on how much time you actually have to spend on the island, here are a few things you could try doing (none of which I got to experience during my limited 3-hour Santorini excursion):
Go wine tasting – There are many wine tours in the island to choose from (plus it’s always a good idea to have someone else do the driving so you can actually enjoy the wines!) Among the most famous wineries is Santo Wines, which I’ve heard is a must if you only have time to visit one winery. Others include Domaine Sigalas, Venetsanos Winery, Estate Argyros, Gavalas Winery, Canava Roussos (the oldest on Santorini), and many more.
See the ruins of Akrotiri – The archeological site of Akrotiri was one of the most important ports in the Aegean Sea and is often referred to as the “Greek Pompei” because the site was covered in volcanic ash following a volcanic eruption in the 17th Century. It is also considered to may have been the inspiration for Plato’s Atlantis.
Watch the sunset from the Akrotiri Lighthouse – On the opposite side of the island from Oia, the Akrotiri Lighthouse site offers a relaxed and romantic alternative for sunset gazing, favored by the locals.
Hike to the Monastery of Profitis Ilias – Built on the highest point on the island, the monastery offers outstanding views of the whole island. You can hike up there from the beautiful village of Pyrgos, about 3 miles.
Explore Santorini’s famous black sand beaches – The volcanic nature of the island has created the most dramatic views from Santorini’s most famous beaches such as the Red Beach, Cape Koloumbos (with an active underwater volcano crater), Vlychada, Perivolos, Perissa, Kamari, Eros and the White Beach.
Catch a movie at the Open Air Cinema Kamari – In a garden-like environment at the entrance of the town of Kamari, this open air cinema shows movies in English with Greek subtitles and offers a full bar, ice cream and snacks.
Go sailing around the island – Typically, a good quality boat tour around the island should include a visit to the island’s hot springs (heated by the underwater volcano, of course!), a snorkeling stop, a visit to one or more of the famous Santorini’s black sand beaches, and plenty of delicious food and beverages.
Go off the beaten track – Escape Oia’ and Fira’s crowds and visit Santorini’s inland villages, equally beautiful and packed with options to enjoy delicious and authentic food at much affordable prices. Check out Pyrgos, Messaria, Emporio, Megalochori, Exo Gonia, Vothonas, Firostefani and Imerovigli, among others.
For more tips on how to avoid the crowds of tourists that flock to Santorini, I recommend reading this Culture Trip article.