Popular destinations tax a traveler: you bump into tourists all over the place (with one eye closed on the fact you are one of them), restaurants and shops are overpriced, it’s too loud… Avoiding such spots would be the easy path, but if you really wanted to avoid people, you’d become a hermit, so you must find the way. How do you make a home in a touristy place? How do you find travel bliss amidst the mob? To be more specific, how to you find travel bliss in Santorini, one of the most popular islands in Greece?
Finding travel bliss in Santorini, a tourist vortex
Santorini island attracts about half a million tourists every year, about 32 times its population. Losing the tourists isn’t easy even in the off- or shoulder season. While nearby beach locations like Naxos or Paros islands empty out after the weather turns, ‘view/sights places’ like Santorini that are spectacular all year round see tourist throngs well into October (restaurants didn’t start shutting down for the season until mid-month).
In fact, most of the island appears to function solely for the purpose of making money off of tourists who fly in, arrive by ferry, or (especially) disembark from giant cruise ships to engulf the main towns for a day. You could drive yourself crazy trying to avoid people, unless you went between November and April when you’d be walking through shuttered villages in the rain and whipping wind.
I found four ways to experience travel bliss on Santorini:
- I headed the other way.
- I did my thing.
- I took a few extra steps.
- I went to the center of things.
Finding travel bliss in Santorini: Head the other way
Most tourists on Santorini visit Fira and Oia, which offer the most spectacular views, particularly come sunset. Take a bus to other parts of the island and crowds thin out considerably.
The bus ride to Perissa is the longest on the island but the beach stretching south of the Profitis Ilias Mountain is the best.
Half the bars and restaurants had already packed up their beachfront loungers for the season when we visited, mid-month, and those that remained no longer bothered charging or forcing visitors to buy anything. Several Asian masseuses walked around offering their service to no takers.
I bought a swim suit and shared the sea with half-a-dozen waders and swimmers. I reclined in a lounge chair in the thatched umbrella’s shade, reading a Robert Ludlum novel, sipping a Mythos beer I lodged in the tiny dark-gray and black pebbles underfoot.
As the sun began to set behind our backs, we waded through shallow water to catch the day’s last boat taxi to Kamari, an even more beachin’ town. The barefoot captain showed off the fish he’d caught in between rides, trying in vain to pry the passengers’ eyes away from the mountain rock the boat was skirting slowly, as if the end of the day, of the season even, could wait a while longer.
On our first Saturday I ran down to Karterados Beach, on Santorini’s eastern shore, and popped in to Armenistis Restaurant to ask if they’d be open for dinner, since Panos Taverna just down the hill was closing for the season that day. A woman sweeping the floor, who turned out to be the proprietor, said yes and that they would also have live music beginning at 10 p.m.
Not accustomed to late dining, we walked 45 minutes down a dark valley and along a star-lit beach armed with flashlights to have, at 10 p.m., the best meat dinner we’d have on the island, to the tune of otherworldly rebetiko music (‘Greek blues’) played by a 5-piece bouzouki band, whose male players alternated with a woman chanteuse to sing their heart out while local men took turns on the dance floor in between meals and cigarettes.
This was our moment, the there and then that would feel spoiled had we pulled our cameras out. As we were leaving, the restaurant owner gave us a hug.
You can head the other way in time, too.
The earliest we got to visit Fira was at about 9:30 a.m.; we shared the town with vendors opening their shops and donkeys awaiting riders on the Old Port stairs (I bet it’s even quieter earlier in the morning).
When we wandered off the main drags of town at night, we shared the streets and alleys winding down the caldera with Jupiter high in the western sky, a white cat, and the town’s murmur trickling from overhead. We stared at the night and in that moment everything was alright.
Finding travel bliss in Santorini: Do your thing
I like to read and I like to run, among other things. Sticking to my favorite pastimes allowed me to both stay sane and healthy and to find righteous doses of blissful flow.
Mid-October, the beach town of Kamari resembles a ghost town. All but five or six beachside restaurants had already packed up their thatched umbrellas and lounge chairs. Despite the sunny day, the breeze and the water had become just a tad too cold to inspire a dip.
We settled into loungers right by the water, Lindsay writing in her journal, I reading The Picture of Dorian Gray. Next to us a red-haired woman with the magazine Биография propped against her thighs spoke on the phone mixing Greek and Russian. The Aegean Sea lapped against the shore, tired and weak as though the waves, too, felt the season’s end had arrived. A white dinghy with trim the color of the sea heaved against the horizon.
Then the beach rolled as the tremors from the 6.4-magnitude earthquake off Crete reached the island, and I knew everything was in its right place.
Two or three times a week I’d pass through the door marked BEACH in the shade of bougainvilleas for a jog to Monolithos Beach. Running down a dingy valley past a desalination plant, sad vineyards, and hut-like homes, I’d wave hello to an old man on a walk and to horses and donkeys.
The sea would meet me behind a final road bend. I’d grab a rock from the beach and clutch it as I’d run past the eerie volcanic-ash rock formations, a shutdown family restaurant, and a power plant to the Beach Entrance sign.
I’d head back huffing and puffing up the winding main road back to Karterados village, soothing all the barking dogs under my breath until I’d reach the alley behind Caveland Hostel where I’d have to move out of the way of horses a youngster was leading somewhere out of sight.
Finding travel bliss in Santorini: Take the extra step
The harder a location is to reach, the less crowded it will be. So head for the hills. Even on an organized Volcano Tour Lindsay and I found travel bliss on the main island’s satellite Thirassia simply by scaling some 250 steep steps to Manolas village.
We walked through whitewashed streets, deserted save for a handful of black-clad villagers and stray cats. In the village’s single restaurant we ate salad and sipped beer, watching Thira wedge sky from sea.
On a half-hour strenuous hike on a stone path up the Profitis Ilias mountain to the site of the ancient Thira excavations takes you by a tiny Orthodox church tucked into the rock next to a freshwater spring gurgling inside a cave. The strong wind cresting over the mountain threatened to blow my hat off even as it pushed me through the ruins of the ancient-Greek city. As much as I strained to imagine the city in its heyday, all I could see was the sea stretching to three sides until it faded into the horizon.
Finding travel bliss in Santorini: Run for the hordes
If hell is other people, being in the middle of a crowd would seem like meeting the Devil himself. Yet a surprising amount of bliss awaits in the busiest places.
You are most alone in the middle of a crowd. The trick is to step aside, stop moving, and just watch (best eat a gyros from Lucky Souvlaki while you’re at it).
Most October tourists on Santorini arrive on cruise ships. They disembark, engulf the place, and leave in the evening.
This was surprisingly amusing.
Different days brought different nationalities: there were German days, French-Italian days, American days, an odd Czech/Hungarian/French day…
Because most non-tourists on Thira are seasonal workers, watching tourists was not only the best people-watching experience but also an insight into various cultures.
How do people decide on where and what to eat? Under what circumstances does a German woman shush American honeymooners?* Who walks ahead of whom and who carries what in a family?
Amidst the crowd, bliss comes from learning something about the world and your place in it.
* Sunset at a caldera-view bar.
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