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Beautiful Greek Isle with an Explosive Past

June 28-July 3

Ask somebody to give their impression of the Greek Isles, whether they've been there or not, and it's likely you'll get an answer something like "whitewashed buildings with blue domes, blue skies, and blue water." Santorini is responsible more than any other island for perpetuating this colorful image of the Greek Islands. Santorini is part of the Cyclades Island group, a set of dry, rocky and rugged islands in the middle of the Aegean Sea. While all of the Cyclades offer beautiful towns with whitewashed buildings and the color blue everywhere (in the sky, in the water, on the tops of church domes), Santorini is unique.

Caldera MH

Breakfast with a caldera view. Spectacular!

Caldera JH

Jen and the Caldera, near our room

This uniqueness lies in the island's turbulent volcanic past. In 1450 BC, one of the greatest volcanic eruptions in Earth's history literally blew the top off of the island, once a cone-shaped volcano which had been inhabited since 7000 BC. A massive caldera was formed where the volcano first exploded and then collapsed on itself, giving Santorini its current crescent shape, open to the sea only on one side. On the caldera side of the island, steep cliffs over 100 meters (300+ feet) high drop straight down to the sea below. On some days, the sea inside the caldera is so calm that it looks like a huge table of deep blue glass. Many people consider it to be the most beautiful of all the Greek Isles (and there are 1400 of them!). We certainly agree.

Fira town, built down the cliff face

Fira town, built down the cliff face

Our first two days in Santorini were spent in the main town of Fira, perched high on the caldera's rim with an oustanding view of the sea below and the rest of the island in the distance. Many of the pictures you may have seen of Santorini are taken from Fira, with its magnificent views. Every morning we would wake up, take a look outside our window at the blue Aegean below, and marvel in the fact that we were actually here on this dream of an island!

Church Dome

Classic Santorini shot -- a blue-domed church

But while the view in Fira was great, the town was a little too touristy for us (and noisy at night), so we decided to move on to a quieter location in the town of Oia, at the northwestern corner of the Island. A bit more upscale and authentic than Fira, Oia was the right place for us. We rented a traditional cave house from a local named Triantafyllos, a friendly man with a head full of big, bushy snow-white hair and skin darkened by his life under the bright Cycladean sun. He has lived in Oia his entire 53 years. He was here during the massive 7.3 earthquake of 1956. He was down at the port with his father when the shaking began. He said afterward, there was so much dust in the air that it wasn't possible to see more than 5 meters in the distance for quite a while. That earthquake devastated Santorini, hitting Oia especially hard. A reminder that while the volcano is presently dormant, it could re-ignite at any time. Life on the edge in paradise!

Oia Sunset

One of Oia's famous sunsets

Our apartment was nice, built into the volcanic rock on the caldera's rim. Since it was basically a cave (but nicer, with white plaster walls), it was cool during the heat of the day and comfortable at night. We had our own private sun terrace with a wide open view of the big, blue waters inside the caldera. We really liked the town of Oia, and wished we had decided to come here for our entire five nights on the island rather than our last three nights, as we had done. The only time Oia gets busy is around dusk, when hordes of tourists from Fira flock to the town to watch its famous sunsets. From the cliffs overlooking the northern part of the island, you can watch the sun sink below the edge of the sea, far in the distance. As soon as the sun sets, all of the tourists pack back into their buses, leaving Oia a pleasant place to be once again.

Ammoudi Swimming

Swimming area near Ammoudi port

The flip side to all of Santorini's (geologically) recent history is that there are virtually no sandy beaches for swimming on Santorini. What few beaches there are are rocky and, due to their dark volcanic stones, require a straw mat for laying out on! When we stayed in the town of Oia, perched on the caldera's rim, we walked every day down the 300 steps (!) to the waterfront near the port of Ammoudi. Around the port, there are many rocky alcoves good for swimming. The water is so crystal clear, it's amazing. After the long walk down the stairs, the cool Aegean water was quite refreshing.

Church Dome 2

Hey, another church dome!

One of the most amazing things about the Cyclades is the quality of the natural light here. The tone the sun places on buildings, the sky, the sea changes throughout the day. Early in the morning, a soft, even light bathes every object (good time for photos). In the heat of mid-day, the sun's light is blinding, providing sharp differences between light and shade (bad time for photos!). Then, late in the day, the light softens again, casting a surreal, beautiful pinkish glow over the whitewashed buildings and the darkening sky. All of the Cyclades, and especially Santorini, are a photographer's dream.

After five days on the island, we were off to Greek Isle #2: Amorgos.

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