Thursday, July 30, 2009

Mykonos & Santorini: Nothing you could expect or imagine!

by Richard L. Weaver II

For most of the places we’ve visited on our Mediterranean cruise, I have had expectations of what we would see and fairly clear images of what to expect. Every expectation and image, however, has been proven false, and the Greek islands of Mykonos (meek-an-nos) and Santorini were no exceptions.

We sailed directly from Istanbul, Turkey, to arrive in Mykonos at noon. It is one of the most famous islands in the Aegean Sea and one of the top international tourist destinations attracting thousands of visitors every year, and it is very clear why that is. Long, white, sandy beaches, crystal clear waters, an active nightlife with people dancing and drinking until morning, and a large gay community (liberal attitudes) — to me — might be insufficient alone, to attract thousands, but when you add that to beautiful landscapes, picturesque white-painted villages, hundreds of little churches, and windmills, then it becomes an island that is hard to resist.

In Greek mythology, Mykonos was the location of the battle between Zeus and Gigantes, and the island was named in honor of Apollo’s grandson, Mykons. Many Greek and international celebrities have summer residences there.

We did not select a Mykonos excursion but chose, instead, to wander the narrow streets and alleyways. We expected to be onshore on our own for several hours, and we expected Mykonos to be a typical, historical, small, Greek village where we would find various crafts and local artisans. None of this was true. The town painted all of the pedestrian walkways with white outlines to make them look like flagstones — a major error in my mind — and the public restroom was both small and dirty. Just as there were no flagstones, there was little original artwork, the crafts were shipped in (probably from China), and there was little to hold our interest. We were in town for less than 1½ hours — having allowed 3 or 4 — and we returned to the ship by tender to rest and take a nap.

Leaving Mykonos at 8 p.m., we arrived in Santorini the next morning at 7. We were early, and because we scheduled an early excursion, we set our alarm for 5:30 so we could be in the Ocean Cafe (Deck 10) for an early breakfast. Santorini is quite a different story than Mykonos — thank heavens!

Santorini is a small, circular, archipelago of volcanic islands located in the southern Aegean Sea. It is the southernmost member of the Cyclades group of islands with an area of about 28 square miles and a population of about 14,000. It is today what remains of an enormous volcanic explosion that destroyed the earliest settlements on what was formerly a single island.

When they say, “Santorini is one of the most spectacular islands in the Mediterrean,” the statement is true, but unless you have seen pictures, heard it described, or been there, there is no way to visualize it.

The eight mile by four mile central lagoon is a giant water-filled caldera — the largest in the world — and it is framed by two islands: Palea Kameni and Nea Kameni, and these are the youngest volcanic islands in Greece. It is into and across this caldera that cruise ships pass to reach the port area; however, it is the 984-foot-high, steep cliffs that surround the caldera on three sides that make the entrance spectacular. The port area is 1,300-feet deep and since cruise ships cannot anchor, they must keep their engines running to stay in place.

Our ship’s tenders took us to the port of Athinos — Santorini’s newest — and our excursion bus then drove us up a narrow, hair-pin laced, one-lane road, close to 1,000 feet to the top of the caldera. From the ship, looking up, you can see three villages perched on top of these enormous cliffs: Fira, the capital and most important of the villages, Pyrgos, southeasterly from Fira, and looking far to the north, Oia.

Our bus drove through Fira, out through the fields and rich, volcanic countryside, to Oia (pronounced E-ah) — the most famous of all villages on Santorini — which lies less than ten miles from Fira. Like a fishbone layout, the main pedestrian street connects its ends across the top of the cliff, with many local branches. Devastated by the 1956 earthquake, the town has not fully recovered; however, little evidence of this can be seen by tourists. Although there are numerous jewelry boutiques, handicraft stores, and souvenir shops, the town is most famous for its golden sunsets, and its narrow passageways get crowded during evenings.

Many of the homes in Oia, we were told by our guide, Kiki — a lifetime resident of Santorini — belonged to poor people in the early maritime days of the village. Today, many of these homes have been turned into hotels, and she said the tourist season lasts 8 months, and as many as 12 or 13 huge cruise ships may be found in the harbor at the same time. This can be an addition of as many 25,000 tourists at a single time! During our brief visit, there were four cruise ships. “Once the tourist season ends,” Kiki said, “the local people relax, and life returns to a very laid-back calm” for four months.

From Oia we drove to one of the many wineries on the island. The vines of Santorini are famous all over Greece. Our guide pointed out one of the vineyards, which nobody on the bus could identify. That is because grapes are cultivated in low, basket-shaped crowns, grown very close to the ground for protection from the strong winds and to help capture and hold the little moisture available. Because of the way grapes are grown and the size of the island, only limited quantities of wine are produced every year.

At the winery we sampled 3 different kinds of wine, had cheese, olives, and hard bread. The winery is located high on a cliff overlooking the caldera and offered unique souvenirs, a wonderful view, and clean restrooms.

From the winery we drove to Fira and followed an uneven stone pathway between jewelry shops, souvenir stores, and small restaurants to get to the Catholic Cathedral where the tramway up-and-down the 1,000-foot cliffs would return us to the port. It was a choice between walking down 588 steps (30 minutes), taking a donkey-ride down (20 minutes), or waiting 3 minutes for a cable car.

This was our final excursion on our Mediterranean cruise, and like the others, it was instructive, educational, entertaining, and very worthwhile. It would be impossible to have seen all that we did on this cruise and learn as much as we did as well, without our excursions or with having to negotiate our way around by ourselves. Our goal on this cruise was simply to see as much as possible given our time and financial constraints; as it turned out, each destination was, in addition, nothing we could have expected or imagined.

At, you’ll find a short description of the little island of Mykonos (plus an icon for a longer history) and 30 other icons for all the information you’ll need if this is one of your destinations. Also, there are plenty of pictures, too.

At additional tourist information plus three or four outstanding photographs. It was on this website that it says: “For more than 40 years, gays and lesbians have found in Mykonos the ultimate holiday destination where, under the bright summer sun, in the crystal clear waters, in a cosmopolitan setting, during the adventurous night life, anywhere and everywhere, they can experience an absolute feeling of freedom . . . Hotels, boutiques, restaurants, taverns, bars and night clubs, welcome gay and lesbian clients.”

At, there are panoramic pictures and about 30 icons to get tourist information.

The site called, looks like just another tourist site, but if you scroll down to the bottom, there are icons for geography and history, the volcano, and culture and tradition, as well as other tourist-related information. The photographs are great, and the information is just what you will want to know.


Copyright July, 2009 - And Then Some Publishing L.L.C.

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