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Coming from the U.S., Santorini is one of the few Greek destinations I was familiar with. Of course everyone has seen the photos of the whitewashed buildings stacked up the side of a cliff looking out over the water. It looks different than anywhere else in the world and sticks in your mind. When you visit the island, you think it will be this magical place where everything is uniquely picturesque and charming.
And while it is, it also isn’t.
Between traveling on my own and during the tail end of the tourist high season, I think I saw a different Santorini than many people experience.
I didn’t stay in a luxury cliffside villa like one of these (fortunately I didn’t stay in a dorm either, luckily being offered a room as a special guest of the lovely Kallisti Thera Hotel just minutes away from the island’s main town of Fira) or sip cocktails with friends at a bar overlooking the caldera. Since I was traveling alone I didn’t splurge on a sailing tour or island hopping trip, though they were tempting and would certainly be on my list for next time. I didn’t even really spend any time lying on the beach.
When I first saw Santorini, slowly approaching the island on a large ferry, I didn’t know what to expect, but it wasn’t what lay before me. The main ferry port is situated along a small strip of land at the bottom of a giant cliff with just enough room for a street, parking lot and handful of tour operators and cafes before the cliff acts as a massive wall – you can’t see the rest of the island, just rock. From there you take a taxi or bus up a steep windy road with switchbacks to get on top of the cliff. While most photos you see of the island showcase clear skies and multicolored sunsets, when I arrived it was dark and blustery with low clouds sitting on top of the dark rock. Since the island has a desert climate, there isn’t much vegetation and my first night there was nothing like the bright, tropical beaches I’ve become used to.
There are parts of Santorini that are mesmerizing.
I had never seen a black or red sand beach before or been anywhere where the common architecture was so…cute. The view from Santo Wines was incredible and I lucked out sitting on their terrace with perfect blue skies. On the other hand, due to the type of island and climate, there are many parts to Santorini that are just bare and rocky with small, crumbling buildings popping up here and there. It was one of the most uniquely beautiful places I’ve been to…and at the same time one of the plainest.
I also went at a time when the seasons were changing – it was the very end of the high tourist season and autumn was coming. Because of this, the weather wasn’t nearly as perfect as what is usually shown and there were relatively few people on the island. While some restaurants, shops and hotels were still open, most were in the process of shutting down for the winter.
This made it feel like you had the place to yourself – I can’t imagine the narrow town streets in the high season and how people get around, they must be packed – but it also felt a little strange.
It was wonderful to have so much space to yourself, but it was also odd to be wandering around without much going on. You could see and do things without as much distraction or interruption from other tourists, but it felt like the island was low on energy.
In the end, I really enjoyed Santorini and would want to go back, though when people ask me what I thought about it, I don’t have a clear answer – it was great, and different, and beautiful and special, but just a little quiet and bare. It wasn’t exactly the dream destination as it looks in many photos, but it was also kind of a pleasant surprise to see its imperfections. While I would prefer to visit again when there’s a little more life (and sun), I also feel like I saw a different side of the island than most. Sure the resorts, restaurants and tourists were still there, but you could see a glimpse of what the island was before becoming a popular destination and the realness of it – not just a summer playground.
You might read this and think, “What’s the point?”. I’m not telling a specific story about the island, giving advice on how you should plan your visit or even simply sharing some inspirational travel photos.
Destinations always try to market putting their best foot forward, and rightfully so, but in the past several years with a boom in travel media it seems like instead of getting more varied and honest views of places, people tend to label things with generic hyperbole – a place is either “stunning” or “appalling”. Customer reviews and ratings swing from the “BEST EVER!!!” to “WORST IN THE WORLD!!!”. There is some value and purpose for these first impression, black and white observations but, in reality, nothing is ever black and white, either perfect or terrible – especially when it comes to traveling. The good, bad, beautiful and ugly are all mixed together and constantly changing. There are pros and cons to visiting a place during the high season as well as the low season.
I don’t ever want to portray my travels or tips as perfect or stunning – because my experiences are never perfect and all the beautiful places I’ve been have their dark side. I couldn’t write a post on Santorini saying only how incredible, it was because there were certainly things that weren’t as nice as I expected, and encourage you to try and see through the travel porn and “Stunning!” clutter for what places are truly like.
With that in mind, I want to know several things – first, have you been to Santorini and did you enjoy it? What time of year did you go? Also, what types of travel tales, tips and experiences do you want to read about in 2015? What are the stories or posts you tend to avoid?