Before my visit, if I thought of Santorini I’d picture traditional white painted villas clinging to the side of cliffs, cobbled narrow streets, blue-domed churches and a calm serenity surrounding the entire island. What’s more, as an archipelago of volcanic islands, a short boat ride away there are volcanoes to climb and hot springs to explore. We had high hopes. In fact, fair to say this was the stop we were most excited about on our cruise.
Well, we all know pictures can be misleading. If that’s what you had in mind too, then read on as I delve into our 8 hours in Santorini. This is split into our two adventures; active adventuring and slowly sightseeing.
Volcano Hike & Hot Springs Tour:
Unlike all our other ports, this time we awoke anchored out at sea. With early morning alarms, we were up onto the tender boats before any queues formed and dropped off ashore. It was a smooth process, and it wasn’t long though before we were back on the ocean waves; this time aboard the beautiful ‘Princess’ ship. Today we were kicking things off with a Volcanic Hike and Hot Springs Tour, arranged by the Celebrity Cruises excursion team.
Our boat of about 30 people dropped us off on the volcanic island of Nea Kameni, where our hike began from sea level. There were mixed abilities in the group, but as soon as the majority had arrived the tour guide began her explanations of the volcanoes and volcanic activity; past and fairly present too (the last volcanic activity was in 1950).
The slower members of the group often joined us as late as the end of her talk in each area which meant they missed out on the history; but this did mean that our group could keep moving fairly swiftly.
The ground is fairly uneven and rubbly so Clem and I marvelled at the varierty of footwear chosen; from evening loafers and plimsolls to flip flops and Crocs! Hiking boots aren’t necessary but I’d definitely recommend trainers for the climb.
The sites from the top of the volcano were really beautiful, and, although it doesn’t show well on camera, it was really interesting to see the steam rising every now and then. Our tour guide also pointed out various locations where you could feel intense heat blowing out small holes that had formed. For Clem and I, it was a great start to the day, but there is only so much excitement you can get from dull-coloured volcanic rock so if you do this trip, manage your expectations accordingly…!
Once back on board our small boat, we were motored around to Palia Kameni where we would find the hot springs. Unbeknown to us beforehand, we had to jump into the fairly cold water and swim to the hot springs. Refreshing after the volcano hike but still pretty chilly and there were a lot of shrieks; particularly those returning from the hot springs back into the cold water. The temperature was more ‘tepid’ than hot, so we didn’t stay long. A fun experience if you’ve done nothing like that before, but not as stand-out as I’d expected.
On top of this, I got stung by a jellyfish so was quite happy to return to the boat and nurse the welts that were forming around my thigh!
By 11:30 we were back at the Fira port. This is at sea level and the town itself looms a high 260m above you, so from here you have a few options. You can get up to Fira town centre by foot (winding up 588 stone steps), by donkey (on this same path) or by cable car. Unfortunately the cable car only fit 36 people every 5 minutes, so the queue was snaking back around the port. Instead, we decided to jump on a boat around to the picturesque town of Oia, just 20 minutes boat ride away.
Oia (pronounced ‘ee-yah’ by the locals) was talked of as the more beautiful but quieter part of the island. However from the point we arrived we discovered this was not the case. Rather than the usual 3 cruise ship maximum, an additional ship had made a last minute stop, and now 4 large boats with their 3,000+ guests had flooded the small island. We could barely move an inch through the narrow alleyways, and we couldn’t find any peaceful restaurants with nice views. On a cooler day this would have been more bearable, but we found it a little overwhelming and were glad to finally find a space for lunch. Friends we met later on the trip found this to be one of their favourite places, so perhaps with a bit more luck on our lunch spot we’d have enjoyed it more.
The views, when you did find them, were breathtaking. However, I do think that on this island the views are better from above, below or in front of. Sitting inside this tiny town was hot and bothersome, but from inside it’s hard to really enjoy the real beauty of the place. What you can’t tell from any of these photos is that behind me there was a constant flow of people squeezing to get past me!
I perhaps haven’t painted the best picture of Santorini and I would have to put this down to our departure rom Oia tainting the whole trip. We arrived at the bus station at 2:50 for our 3:00 bus. We stood in a huge line in the heat of the sun for 45 minutes before getting on a coach. Then on the coach, the usual 15 minute journey took us over an hour and 15 minutes because the roads are so narrow that we were at gridlock.
Returning from Fira
Upon arrival back at Fira we were hot and bothered, and the last thing we wanted to do was join the hour-long queue for the cable car. We also didn’t fancy donkey’s downill, so donned our trainers and made our way down. I’d be tempted to recommend this option to others, but would do so with the caveat that the stones are sometimes slippy so trainers are advised. You’ll also pass (and be passed by) donkeys, so avoid walking too close behind them (I was terrified of them donkey kicking backwards) and be prepared for the smell of ‘donkey droppings’…! Final word of advice is only to do it if you’re fit enough. Sounds daft going downhill but there were 5 fainters on the way back and one nasty fall; plus we met a couple who had walked back and the lady they were with had to go and have a nap afterwards! Assess your own fitness and if you can’t handle it just be sure to allow plenty of time to get in the cable car queue.
Don’t worry about rushing back early to avoid the queues, as the views from the ship are still spectacularly stunning. We were very kindly invited to the Helipad for drinks, and couldn’t have asked for a better spot for this as the sun headed down into the distance.