My whole life I have been coming to Greece: I’ve partied in Mykonos, swum the rocky shores off Patmos, marveled at the green hills of Skiathos, drunk sweet wine on Samos, seen Easter on Corfu. Mostly, though, I went to the rugged mountains of Sparta to visit my paternal relatives. The Spartans were the ones who sent their sons off to war with a "come back victors or dead on your shields" farewell. We’re a tough crowd, proudly immune to the allure of island life: sunsets, sailors, black-sand beaches, fresh fava, uninterrupted blue-and-white views, little Greek ladies dressed in black selling canned capers in the middle of town, long-haired iconographers working out of caves. And yet, over five days on Santorini, I fell in love.
At first glance we might seem an odd pair. The dusty road from the airport is dotted with unfinished house construction; we pass makeshift signs for the Hotel Hellas (SWIMMING POOL!) and another for the Acropolis restaurant (BURGHERS [sic] AND BEER), and declarations of summer love—chantal loves johnny, elias ♥ maria—are scrawled in spray paint on the side of a mountain of black volcanic rock.
Then, about 20 minutes later, a sign for Oia appears. Oia is a 1½-mile-long village located on the northeastern side of the island, right along the edge of the caldera, which was formed by a volcanic eruption back in 1500 b.c. It is a separate municipality from the rest of the island, with strict laws about everything from the paint color allowed on rooftops and stairwells (blue, white, and a certain shade of gray) to electric wires (nonexistent, all mandated underground). And it is, as one honeymooning New Yorker described it to me, a fantasy of what Greece is supposed to look like. There is no reason to stay in any other town on the island and very few reasons for leaving Oia once you are there.
Part of Santorini’s charm is that there isn’t an ounce of guilt associated with picking a spot and not moving from sunrise to sunset, whiling away hours just taking in the view. That is, in fact, the whole point of the place. That and the fact that in spite of Santorini’s competition with fellow Cycladic Mykonos as the most visited—and style-oriented—of the country’s 2,000-odd islands, Oia has managed to maintain the feeling of a traditional Greek village. No cars are allowed past a certain point. "We don’t have addresses up here," says Tony Mosiman, who owns 1864 the Sea Captain’s House hotel and co-owns the Ambrosia restaurant. "We use our own landmarks: ’That’s near Tony’s house’ or ’That’s next to French Maria’s shop.’ " There are still families selling the island’s fresh capers on the side of the main street, and little old Greek ladies dressed in black still comment on tourists as they pass them on the street. "Look there," whispered one to the other as an unusually tall man walked by with his extremely petite girlfriend. "My cousin and her husband are like that."
For the last 22 years, iconographer Dimitris Kolioussis has worked out of a cavelike space just a few steps down from the main road. The place is lit by candles and the white walls and ceilings are covered with pencil scribblings of client names and phone numbers. His sketches of Eastern Orthodox saints are stacked on wooden tables and finished works lean against the walls. "When I first came to Oia from my hometown outside Ioannina nearly thirty years ago," he says, "there was one taverna that made us eggs in the morning and grilled fish at night. Now look." The wild-white-haired Kolioussis points to a group of tourists who have gathered outside his door wondering whether they are allowed in. They are—sometimes. "I am always here working, even New Year’s Day," he says. "If I need to be alone, I close the door."
Three decades may have changed Kolioussis’s Santorini, but it says everything about the island that even as boutique hotels with infinity pools and chic little restaurants popped up in Oia, his makeshift studio never became a dress shop selling beaded djellabas and sandals from Capri. And though the hotels in this village are some of the best in all of Greece, they, too, follow the unwritten code to maintain the island’s savage charm. At a hotel called Perivolas, owner Costis Psychas’s mission is to present the Santorini experience at its purest and finest. The towels that sit perfectly folded on lounges around the infinity pool are done in a custom-ordered shade of gray. Psychas has exacting rules about where his staff should place each lounge, resorting to taped markings when a new member can’t seem to get it right, and in the middle of a conversation he might walk away to ask why a certain lightbulb is brighter than the mandated wattage. Each room is in fact a meticulously restored cave, in keeping with the island’s Cycladic architecture. The interiors are sparely decorated in white and wood with shots of turquoise or magenta from bed linens. When I first walked into house 12, there was no full-length mirror, no TV, no CD player, not even a blow-dryer (later I discovered the blow-dryer hidden in an antique wooden lockbox in the closet). I was surprised, even a little worried. But after one afternoon by the pool, I understood the luxury that comes with letting go.
Psychas came to Santorini in 1984 to reconnect with the island and its role in his family history. Psychas’s great-grandfather was one of the island’s great sea captains, a man who sailed back and forth from Santorini to Odesa in Ukraine when the island’s main income came from exporting wine. (The cave houses that became Perivolas, located a little farther south of the main town, were home to sailors who crewed the wine ships.) Over the last 20 years, Psychas has bought properties surrounding the hotel to expand—and also to protect—his view. And when I sit in the lounge directly to the left of the pool, I see why. The blue of the Aegean is interrupted only by the white of a yacht floating in the middle of the sea. ("A shipowner from Athens," Psychas tells me, following my gaze. "He has a house, a gorgeous house, on the island, but he prefers to stay out there.")
These days Psychas can also be found on the water, often sailing to his latest project—a villa on the largely uninhabited islet of Thirassia, about a three-minute speedboat ride across the Aegean from Perivolas. (Before the 1500 b.c. eruption, Santorini was a round island that included Thirassia. Afterward, the caldera formed and the landmasses were separated.) The property is an old stone structure, partially built in the water, which housed mine workers back when "Santorini earth" was being excavated for use in the Suez Canal. Next year, when it’s finished, this unnamed structure will be able to house about ten people.
A devastating earthquake in 1956 sent most natives scrambling to the mainland, so many of the people living here now are from someplace else. Ted Stathis, who gives private yacht cruises around the caldera, defected from New Jersey; Majda Anderson, who does reservations and marketing for Perivolas, from San Francisco, California; Tony Mosiman of 1864 the Sea Captain’s House, from Wichita, Kansas. "It’s the drama of the island, I think," Mosiman says. "They say there’s a special energy sent out by the volcano." I add this to the list of all the other myths surrounding this place: that it is the lost city of Atlantis, the setting for the biblical Exodus, the spot where Jason and the Argonauts tossed the monster Talos. For Glen Donovan, who runs Earth, the London-based travel agency with a client list limited to 150 of the world’s most demanding, there’s nothing supernatural about it. "From my first view of the caldera," he says, "I was hooked. I travel extensively, but it was Santorini that kept calling me back. In 2001 I decided it was time to buy a house."
I decide to fish around about real estate myself, driven by a certain fantasy of my own little house on Santorini. A 30-year-old cabdriver named Bobby tells me there are no real estate agents on the island. "You tell me the house you want," he explains. "I know who owns what and I will ask them if they want to sell." I can’t believe this could possibly be true, but Costis Psychas from Perivolas tells me that to buy the house on Thirassia, he had to track down 25 members of the family who owned the property. I figure it is all part of that rustic charm. "On New Year’s Day 2001," Glen Donovan recalls, "I walked through the rain and saw a very faded For Sale sign with a telephone number painted on the wall of a cave house. The final deed transfer involved me sitting with an interpreter in a lawyer’s office as the lease was read out in Greek and a Bible intermittently came out of a drawer and was thumped on the desk for me to swear on. I consider myself a modern male, but I never feel as at home or sleep as well as in the cave. Perhaps evolution hasn’t come as far as we think."
Maybe, but I still prefer my caves with a little infinity pool on the side.
Your Own Private Greece By Yacht
There is no better way to explore the islands in the northeast corner of the Mediterranean than by chartering a yacht. Cruising season is April through October, though it’s best to avoid mid-July through August because of the Meltemi winds, fierce gusts that can thwart even the most powerful yacht. June is the optimal time to go.
Virtually all ships are managed by agents and, to further confuse the situation, virtually every boat has multiple representatives. Still, some brokers are more reputable than others. Here, a few of the best.
Camper & Nicholsons
C&N has been in the business of chartering yachts for more than 230 years, and for this reason it has access to many perfectly preserved classic ships, as well as the most modern of power- and sailing boats. The two-year-old GALAXY was built in Italy, where it was fitted with exotic woods and leather paneling. A glass elevator that travels from deck to deck also serves as an atrium, letting in light. The vast upper deck of this 184-foot-long, six-cabin yacht has a large crescent-shaped dining area that’s perfect for parties. $248,000 for one week, plus taxes and gratuities; 561-655-2121; cnconnect.com.
Fraser Yachts focuses on boats 100 feet long and larger. Its brokers are thoroughly knowledgeable, as they travel constantly to attend boat shows and visit private yachts. Diane Fraser recommends KINTARO for one very specific reason: Its average cruising speed is 24 knots, around 10 knots faster than the speed of the other ships listed here, which means passengers spend more time exploring the islands and less time at sea. Built in 2005, it features a design that is refreshingly minimalist and modern. Eleven guests, in the care of seven crew members, can travel comfortably in the six cabins. $123,000 for one week, plus taxes, provisions, fuel, dockage fees, and gratuities; 949-675-6960; fraseryachts.com.
Ileana von Hirsch
A private broker, Von Hirsch comes from a distinguished Greek family (and she just happens to have a Greek island of her own, called Skinos). Hers is a boutique operation that sets up potential renters with Greek yacht companies she knows well. $415,000 for one week, all-inclusive; 44-208/422-4885; five stargreece.com.
This U.S.-based company’s fleet has a healthy range of sizes, starting with the smaller 80-foot-long ships. They specialize in power yachts but can also supply a lazy old sailboat if a client so wishes. The O’CEANOS, a seven-cabin ship built in 2006, is one of the fleet’s newest acquisitions. The spacious owner’s suite—it extends over two thirds of the upper deck—includes its own separate office and a private balcony overlooking the waves. The 161-foot boat also has a 3,230-square-foot sundeck with a whirlpool and barbecue—plenty of space for 14 guests to spread out. $272,000 for one week, plus taxes, harbor fees, fuel, crew gratuity, and food and bar bills; 954-791-2600; merrillstevens.com.
Burgess specializes in large yachts—120 feet in length and longer—ranging from speed cruisers to elegant sailing crafts. Brand-new for summer 2007, the company’s 161-foot-long O’PTASIA will be one of the most in-demand yachts in all of Greece. The seven cabins include the owner’s stateroom on the main deck plus three other VIP suites. There is also a grand dining room and an outdoor barbecue station. In addition to the whirlpool, water-skiing equipment, Windsurfer, and other toys, this vessel has something few others do—a helipad. $248,000 for one week, plus taxes, marina fees, fuel, canal dues, and bar bills; 212-223-0410; nigelburgess.com.
The typical yacht in private broker Jim Webster’s portfolio is 220 feet long, with six cabins, a gym, library, exercise pool, large sundeck, and other features. There’s a world-class crew of 17 to serve the legal maximum of 12 guests. Though in the end, says Webster, what everyone really wants to know is, Does it have Wi-Fi? The answer is yes. $600,000 for one week, all-inclusive; 954-525-5101; jimwebster.com.
From An Insider
Delta and Olympic are currently the only two airlines that fly direct to Athens; Continental begins service in June. From Athens, take the 45-minute Aegean Airlines or Olympic flight to Santorini (which you may sometimes see referred to as Thíra). Don’t take the ferry; even the fastest ones are too slow. If you are visiting several islands, use the new Sky Express interisland airline.
Don’t go with kids (quiet is the rule at most hotels), if you are averse to walking down steep flights of stone stairs, or if you are traveling in August.
Where to Stay
Rumor has it that almost every hotel on Santorini uses the same local photographer to shoot and design its Web site, so buyer beware: They all look as if they have dreamy views of the caldera. They don’t. The village of Oia offers the best view and accommodations, and after sunset you can walk, eat, and shop on its winding stone streets. If these three places are booked, change your dates.
Perivolas Traditional Houses
All that makes Santorini what it is—the view, the mountains, the blue-and-white houses, the mix of luxury and tradition— is on display here. A ten-minute walk from town, this hotel is actually 20 simply decorated cave houses. The Perivolas Suite has a private pool, steam room, stone hydrotherapy massage pool, and—in keeping with the slightly bohemian vibe—an olive tree growing in the living room. From $625; 30-228/607-1308; perivolas.com.
There is something vaguely familiar about this boutique hotel located steps from the main town of Oia. The white sheers and leather chairs could be from Miami, the perfectly gelled staff members straight from Los Angeles. On one September afternoon all eight poolside lounges were occupied by Americans—one resembled Burt Bacharach. When a cell phone interrupted the exquisite silence, everyone laughed and then went back to their paperbacks. But the sexy drama of the hotel (and its excellent restaurant) works, especially at night when strategically placed lanterns light the way. From $640; 30-228/607-1401; katikies.com.
The Sea Captain’s House
If you want to experience what it would be like to have your own house on the caldera, stay here. Tony Mosiman has transformed one of Oia’s neoclassical mansions into a three-suite hotel. Many of the original moldings are intact and each room is furnished differently, with Greek and British antiques. Mosiman is a great host and knows everyone on the island (he co-owns Ambrosia and Ambrosia & Nectar, two of the village’s best restaurants). The drawback is that there is no pool and because of its location—right in the center of town—things can get a bit noisy. From $500; 30-228/607-1983; santorini-gr.com.
Where to Go
You don’t come here for trendy nightclubs or any kind of scene. But there are a few things worth interrupting your time at the infinity pool for.
1 A trip around Santorini on Greek American Ted Stathis’s 43-foot speedboat catamaran. Full day, from $1,275, limited to ten people; santorinisailing.com
2 A stop at Replica (30-228/607-1916; replica-artwork.gr) in Oia to buy carved coral and wooden worry beads; Anthemion (30-228/607-1043) for a gold and turquoise ring by young Cretan designer Spiros Kanakis; and Dimitris Nakis & Co. (30-228/607-1813) for a vintage amber necklace.
3 A visit to iconographer Dimitris Kolioussis’s cave/studio in the center of Oia across from the clock tower. 30-228/607-1829
4 The feta phyllo pastry drizzled with honey and the white-aubergine moussaka at Ambrosia & Nectar. Dinner, $90; 30-228/607-1504; ambrosia-nectar.com.
5 A trip to the town of Megalohori to sample the leek pie at Marmit. Ask for Dino and a table on the platea (town square) side. 30-228/608-1603
6 Lunch at Katina taverna at Ammoudi, a tiny port located 214 steps below Oia. The walk down is tough but charming. Take a taxi back. 30-228/607-1280
8 A day seaside. Mykonos is about the beach, Santorini the view. Still, you must take a dip in the Aegean. Perivolos beach is the local favorite; ask the cabdriver to drop you off at "Ta Dichtia" Fish Tavern (30-228/608-2818) and walk to your right. Get a chaise in front of Notos Seaside Lounge (30-228/608-2801; notos-restaurant.gr), which serves the best iced-Nescafé frappés on the island. Later, go back to the tavern for fava spread, fried tomato balls, and fresh fish. It’s also a good place to have the taxi pick you up for the 30-minute ride back to Oia.