Sunsets in Santorini

Monday, Tuesday and Wednesday: arriving in Santorini, Pyrgos, Fira, climbing the skarvos, cruising the islands and beaches, and the end of a holiday.

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The ferry docked at Santorini’s new port around lunchtime on Monday. We gathered with the rest of the horde of people at the back of the boat, ready to sprint off the drawbridge like greyhounds released from the cage. We found our driver and then took the windy road from the port up to the top of the caldera. It was a long way with an impressive view.

He drove us to the town of Pyrgos where we were taken to the hotel next door to the villa Glen had rented. The hotel manages the villa on behalf of the owner and also provided the transportation service, breakfast and anything else we could have asked for. Definite a step above the usual AirBnB service.

We were given a 30-minute orientation briefing which provided information on the island and the various activities available that we might like to try, one of which was a five-hour cruise that went from the bottom of the island to the top and ended at sunset. We eagerly booked it at €150 per person. That was Tuesday afternoon sorted.

The villa wasn’t ready yet so we walked into Pyrgos, the sun bearing down on us, reflecting off the white buildings. I’m sure I got sunburnt. We had lunch and then climbed up to the Venetian castle and took in the view. Santorini is a smallish island so you can pretty much see from one end to the other. Not everyone lives in the villages so the countryside is dotted with houses.

After our climb to the top we trekked to the supermarket and the fruit and veg shop (though despite the recommendation the quality was a bit poor). We were wiped out from the heat by the time we got back to the villa at about four.

We were staying in luxury. A newly built, modern-designed two storey building with an infinity pool and a jacuzzi. We lounged in the air conditioning for a while then jumped in the pool, the water bath-like due to the sun and the heat. A few hours passed with us lounging around reading and cooling down.

In the evening we caught a taxi into Fira then walked to Firostefani and Imerovigli, through the picturesque towns, along narrow winding streets and past white buildings with blue roofs. As we’d been informed, the crowds thinned the further along the path we went. We continued to the skavos, an outcrop of rock that used to hold a Venetian fortress which has since crumbled, leaving little behind. We walked out, then climbed up the rock.

Anna and Glen went right to the top but I at first stayed below. My fear of heights – or more accurately, fear of falling – crept up on me and kept me grounded. This then warred with my desire to not get left behind so I climbed up a bit, only to be told by Glen not to come any higher as he was having trouble getting down. At this point, I looked down and almost hyperventilated and had to give myself a serious talking to to make me get down safely. I managed. At least I also managed to make it part way up.

We walked down the steps a bit, saw a church below where two shirtless guys looked like they were preparing to do some firetwirling. This is also the spot where you can do very expensive yoga. We watched the light change as the sun descended, then walked back to the town. We had dinner then caught a taxi back to Pyrgos.

Cruising around Santorini

Breakfast arrived at 8. We ate and then decided that we wouldn’t go to the beach as discussed the day before but instead relax at home. I did some work. I read more of my book. The morning passed. We then went for lunch down the road (I was disappointed in the chicken I had) and then returned to the villa to wait for the transfer to the boat at 2:15pm.

We were collected and taken down to the bottom of Santorini where we waited amidst the chaos of docking catamarans and people milling about and not listening for their names being called. We boarded the 400 S2, a once-private boat now commandeered for these twice-daily cruises. We were three of 15 passengers with three crew.

Our first stop on the catamaran was Red Beach. The beach itself isn’t red; the cliffs are. Probably due to bauxite/iron in the rock. We swam for about 10/15 minutes. The sea floor here is utterly devoid of anything but sand (also not red). It seems not much wants to grow in these waters.

Our second stop was White Beach. Not so-called because the sand is exceedingly white (it was pretty grey) but because of the cliffs (limestone). We snorkelled here for a while, fish being drawn in by bread thrown in the water. We saw a few different species, mostly grey but some green and black (dragon fish, with spines, venomous, spines) and some colourful striped ones too. The water temperature alternated between chilly and warm, mostly chilly, especially about 50cm below the surface. We then had lunch on the boat and set off again.

The catamaran went up towards the volcanoes, one extinct, the other dormant and growing by 4–5cm per year. Here we also went into the hot springs, really, they were warm springs. We were all suitably terrified at the prospect of sharp rocks and water that stained your white clothes red or tarnished your jewellery. Initially I wasn’t going to go in as I didn’t want the minimal amount of white on my red board shorts to stain but then I thought, what the hell. It’s only a pair of shorts. I went in. The water got warm. I swam back. The white parts are now pink.

From the volcano we went up to Oia and watched the sunset with all the other catamarans. About 30 seconds before the sun dipped beneath the horizon a large cruise ship cut in front of it and blocked it. The catamarans scrambled to get around the ship so the passengers could see the sun disappear. The succeeded, though we thought it especially hilarious that the main driver for the cruise at this time was to see the sunset and we were about to be thwarted.

A zodiac then took us to the dock and a driver took us up to the top of the caldera to the town of Oia and dropped us off so we could find dinner. We wandered through the town, all the way to the end and then turned around and came back in to get dinner. By this stage it was already 10 o’clock and we were largely over it.

After dinner we requested a taxi. The first one picked up the wrong people. The second one never came but we got in one that was nearby and was full of other people going elsewhere on the island. The driver went right past our village so we were the last ones in the taxi and getting angrier by the second. It took over an hour for us to get home so it was well after midnight. Anna was ropeable.

I collapsed into bed; I could pack in the morning.

Santorini–Athens–Abu Dhabi–Perth

We woke up at seven, packed, ate our breakfast, checked out and went to the airport. The aircraft was late taking off, not helped by the disorganisation going on around us as we stood outside for about 20 minutes waiting for the bus to take us to the plane. I was worried we’d be running late for our flight to Abu Dhabi from Athens but we had plenty of time.

While I was sad the holiday was at an end, I’m ok with going home. It actually felt like the holiday had finished when we left Mykonos, and the few days in Santorini had merely extended the inevitable. I definitely preferred Mykonos to Santorini. The beaches were better (from what we saw of the Santorini ones) and it just felt like there was more going on in Mykonos than Santorini.

Santorini, however, has the more dramatic scenery with its towns perched on the top of the caldera, its volcanic rock and blue-domed white buildings. Perhaps one day more would have helped me appreciate it more but I don’t feel a strong desire to go back. Mykonos, however, I could easily go again for a week.

Back in Athens, we waited and waited for our luggage then checked in. Anna wasn’t leaving til about 6 or 7 hours later. Unfortunately she couldn’t check in so we said our goodbyes. It was really good travelling with her, no arguments, no destroyed friendships, easy going travelling (although she did have to listen to Glen and I bicker on occasion).

We proceeded to our gate, sat in the terrible Swissport Lounge (though any lounge is better than no lounge), and then boarded our flight at 2:15pm to Abu Dhabi. I finished my book, the fourth of the trip and damn excellent (Britt-Marie was Here, if you’re interested). We had a short flight with enough time to do some work, have lunch and finish watching the last two episodes of Apple Tree Yard before landing.

Short stay in Abu Dhabi. Long flight back to Australia. Slept. Watching almost all of Big Little Lies and touched down in Perth just after lunchtime on Thursday. Holiday complete.

Three Islands on the Saronic Coast

Thursday: on cruising to the islands of Hydra, Poros and Aegina along the Saronic Coast just off Athens.

I’d booked a day-long cruise to explore some of the islands just off the coast of Athens. There’s a popular cruise that takes in Hydra, Poros and Aegina. Briefly, I’d considered catching a ferry by myself and visiting one or two of the islands and doing everything myself. I’m not usually a fan of big tour groups and super structured activities, plus doing it alone (Glen had the conference) I was a little reluctant. But the effort involved to do it under my own steam seemed too much so I paid the money and got on the bus at 7:30.

I had an unpleasant experience with the guy corralling us all. I’d booked the tour only a day or two before and the confirmation said I either had to print the voucher or show the email confirmation on my phone. Not having a printer handy, I was ready to show my phone. I then got flack from this arsehole who said, ‘All this stuff [I assume he was referring to my bag] and you haven’t printed the voucher.’ I said I didn’t have to and when he gave me some bullshit about his accounting department, I was ready for a fight but he backed down. I was pissed. It was not a good start to the tour.

The bus took us to the port and we boarded the boat with what looked like 300 other people. I wondered if I could have found a smaller tour group that could have taken me to the islands instead but that would be no use now. I got on the boat, found a place to sit and the cruise began.

Hydra

First stop was Hydra after a couple of hours on the boat. I read a book. I’d paid to go on a 45-minute walking tour of Hydra. You don’t cover much ground in 45 minutes. I could have easily bypassed this tour as there wasn’t much that really held my interest. Apparently it’s a well-known island for the rich and famous. It also doesn’t have cars so everything is transported by donkey.

We stood in a square underneath a bougainvillaea where they filmed a scene in Octopussy. We also went in the church where we saw the relics of the saint. His bones are arranged in a silver box. It’s a bit grotesque.

After the tour, I went for a short walk along the coast, taking some photos and looking longingly at the sea and wishing I could go for a swim. I got back on the boat at quarter to 12 and we headed to our second island.

Poros

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We had 45 minutes on this small island but I liked it the best out of the three from the little I saw. I had hoped to go for a dip in the ocean but couldn’t find a beach nearby. (I contemplated just jumping in where the boats docked but didn’t.) Instead I walked through narrow streets and along the edge of the water. I bought an ice-cream (which was sickly sweet) and a bottle of water and got back on the boat for lunch.

Aegina

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Temple of Aphaia

If it weren’t for visiting Aegina and the Temple of Aphaia, I probably wouldn’t have booked the tour and instead just picked one island and gone to that. I chose to go on the ‘classical’ tour which took us up to the temple and then to a monastery. (The other tours were a scenic tour or a swimming tour – which I was sorely tempted to go on.)

The Temple of Aphaia is one of three temples that form the Sacred Triangle – the others being the Parthenon and the Temple of Poseidon. I can now say I’ve been to them all. It’s the most intact temple out of the three. You can also see where the altar is and more of the broader complex. Aphaia was worshipped there in the second millennium BC and later became incorporated into Athena. Athena is worshipped on the mainland and Aphaia on Aegina.

Twenty minutes later we got back on the bus and headed to the monastery of St Nektarios. (I kept thinking of him as St Nectarine.) The island of Aegina – as well as being briefly the first capital of modern Greece (1827–1829) – is also a highly significant religious site for the Orthodox Church. Adherents are meant to go on a pilgrimage to the island at least once in their lives. Not a bad spot to go on a pilgrimage, that’s for sure.

The cathedral is finished on the outside (it was only built about 30 years ago) but the inside is still undergoing works. I saw the relics of the saint, less gruesome this time, in the smaller chapel. Beautiful paintings on the roof.

After that, it was time to return to the boat. Nearly two hours had passed.

Return to Athens

The boat docked at about 7:30 and then it was a bus ride back to the city. I can’t say I really had the best time. Perhaps it was tiredness, being on my own, or just not being all that interested in what I saw. I was glad to have gone to the Temple of Aphaia but I think I would have enjoyed it more if I’d had more time on the islands to go swimming, to have lunch, to relax.

Instead I spent 8 out of 12 hours travelling. It can’t really be helped considering the distances we travelled. I’d even worked that out beforehand but went anyway, hoping it would be amazing. Oh well. I did it. It’s done. Mykonos tomorrow and finally – finally! – a swim in the ocean.

I got back into Athens later than expected so Glen was ready to call the police or the coast guard or Superman to find out if I’d sunk. He was on the balcony waiting for me when I got back at 8:30.

We then went for dinner at Macro Provato (again) with Anna, Michael, Alison and Michael’s friend, and ate an enormous feast before heading home to pack at 11pm. Athens has been great.

Doubtful Sound

A couple of people had recommended Doubtful Sound to me, preferring it over Milford Sound, so I booked a day-long coach and cruise tour. This meant getting out of bed at 5:30 am, a horrible time of the morning at any time but after crappy sleep for nearly a week, it’s a bit of a shock. Glen dropped me off at the bus pick-up point at 6:15 and the coach came by soon after.

Much like when we did tours in Iceland that started during the darkness, the next two hours were just driving so I fell asleep at some point for a little while. When I did look out the window it was to see farmland, mountains, low-hanging clouds and rain. Beautiful.

The coach dropped me and another couple at Te Anau, before another bus picked us up and took us with others to Manapouri. From there we caught a ferry across the lake, and then onto another bus to go through Wilmot Pass. The drive took another hour, stopping at a few places along the way to get some snaps at suitable vistas. At the end of the drive we then boarded another boat, which took us into Doubtful Sound.

The three-hour cruise took us through the sound out to the Tasman Sea. The whole thing reminds me of a similar experience we had in Newfoundland – stunning expanse of water, tree and moss covered hills surrounding us, little tree-lined islands and waterfalls dotted here and there. Standing at the front of the boat, feeling the wind blowing in your face as you go past a majestic landscape…I couldn’t help but wish I’d brought my beanie.

We didn’t see many birds on the trip, really only spying a few seabirds when we got to the ocean, but we did, however, see about 20 fur seals. They’re so cute! No wonder sharks like to eat them. They were chilling out on one of the rocky islands. They’re so small! We watched them for a while and then headed back into the sound. We also were on the lookout for dolphins but alas, none were sighted.

We then repeated the backward journey, going by coach over the Wilmot Pass (no stops this time) to the return ferry across the water to Manapouri and then back on the same coach from the beginning back to Queenstown. (We passed a coach that had taken the corner too fast and slipped off the road. Luckily that wasn’t us.)

I got dropped off at 7:30 pm and Glen was there to meet me. We then went for dinner with a couple of the radiologists. Much food and drink and chats were had.