Are you going to visit the Greek island of Santorini on a cruise ship? Do you wonder what to do on the island if you are only staying for a day? Want to know how you can get from Fira to Oia, and why you should go there in the first place? Navigating Santorini without a booked shore excursion? Then read on…
This year we went to see the island of Santorini for a day, and we did it on a cruise ship. There, I am willing to admit it.
I am one of these people that come to the island on huge ocean cruising monstrosities. I tend to be part of the crowds that flood a destination with a flurry of activity, only to retrieve in the late evening hours. If you are not a cruise ship aficionado I know you will hate me for that. I know that if you have ever been in the position of staying in a destination that is being targeted by cruise companies you will now detest my very being.
But still I am not ashamed to admit that this was the way I came to Santorini, and I don’t regret any minute of it.
Views, Food and Culture: A Self Organised Shore Excursion in Santorini
Granted, it would have been much nicer to visit Santorini on a week-long vacation. To stay at one of the gorgeous whitewashed boutique properties with their blue infinity pools overlooking the caldera.
But I don’t have time for that. What I wanted was to get a taste of Santorini and then move on to other, equally fascinating Mediterranean destinations. By the end of the day I may not have seen everything there is to see on the island. Yet, in my view it’s better than not seeing it at all.
I wanted views, food and culture, and I got all of it in the convenient constraint of a few hours.
Santorini in a day: It can be Done
Despite what everyone is saying, Santorini is a great cruise port. However, if you are arriving at Santorini’s Old Port on a cruise ship you may want to plan ahead a little bit to get the best possible experience. After all, it’s only a tiny island, and on days that ships are in port it is painfully overloaded with visitors.
I cannot blame anyone wanting to put tabs on the daily visitor numbers. I do agree that a more regulated tourism approach would be more beneficial for everyone. It would have a much more positive effect on Santorini’s reputation.
An island made from fire
As our ship sailed into port my heart sank. I knew that visiting Santorini would not come without a price to pay.
Santorini has a unique shape, almost that of a banana. The main island forms a steep semi-circle around a sunken caldera, with cliffs that are some 400 metre above sea level.
The villages are sitting on the crest of this island, overlooking the caldera. Because of the special geographical situation, there are no villages to speak of on water level.
From the deck of our ship we could make out a handful of buildings fighting for space in a narrow stretch of land right next to the jetty. Above that the tell-tale zig-zag shape of roads hugging the sheer cliffs up to the villages. It dawned on us this very moment: Seeing Santorini on this day would not happen without a struggle. It wouldn’t be as easy as walking off the jetty and strolling into town.
A Bizarre Island you Simply Need to Explore
Santorini is best known for the white-washed villages that hang on for dear life on steep cliffs. They are representative of a geological oddity that you won’t find anywhere else in the Mediterranean. The houses are in fact looking straight into the caldera of an ancient volcano.
What we know as Santorini today are the remains of a series of massive volcanic eruptions that occurred over the last couple of thousand years. Some eruptions were so big, they are considered some of the biggest in recent times. In particular the most recent ones had a lasting effect on civilisations in Crete, Egypt and maybe even as far away as China.
Some people even think the myth of Atlantis was based on Santorini’s unstable geology.
Not the Most Welcoming Start
We don’t like booking day tours on cruise ships unless it is absolutely unavoidable. On a small island like Santorini it is not necessary to book a guided tour, unless you have an agenda to follow.
However, there is one big advantage if you book a day tour that is organised by the ship. Your tender boat will take you to the ferry port where bus coaches will take you to your destination. No need to work your way up the cliff in the brutal heat of a Greek summer.
Since we hadn’t booked a tour we were taken to Skala, the jetty that serves Fira (also known as Thira). Fira is the capital of Santorini. As was to be expected, the narrow strip close to the jetty was terribly busy with people. Everybody around us was trying to get back onto tenders, queuing for the cable car to get to the crest, and climbing onto the back of donkeys. It was total chaos, every inch of shade taken up by people just as confused as us.
The Hike up to Fira
It was immediately clear to us that the cable car was not an option. Rumor had it that waiting times would be around two to three hours to get up the crest. There was no way in hell that we would wait for hours just to start our exploration if we had two perfectly fine pairs of feet. However, if you are less mobile than us or if you visit with children, you would want to prefer the cable car. Maybe check if you can make a booking before you arrive on the island. I am not sure if that’s possible at all.
This was our first obstacle of the day: 400 metres up the zig-zag path to the old town of Fira. Without much further ado we set off to conquer this path in blazing mid-summer heat.
Beware of the Donkey Trail
It would have been much easier if the surfaces would have been in better condition, but not so. People in flip-flops all around us were clearly struggling to climb up the path without breaking a leg. Add to that the donkey poo littering the trail that everybody was trying to avoid as much as possible.
The stink of the poo, the sun burning down on you. The ringing of the bells when the next donkey caravan was about to pass by, claiming priority with brutal force, no questions asked. Tourists on the backs of donkeys, looking no more pleased than you as they were holding on for dear life.
I am not the fittest person but normally I can manage climbs like this. However, with the tightness, the stink and the heat I had a couple of episodes where I had to catch my breath and cool down a bit before continuing our climb.
It amazed me to think that a place that lives off tourism had such an anachronistic system of ferrying people to the businesses where they would want to spend their tourist dollars. The cable car in Santorini is completely out of place and way beyond capacity. The donkey rides are cruel for the animals and uncomfortable for the riders, not cute nor quaint. The walk up the donkey path is in disrepair and hardly accessible.
This lack of Greek business acumen also becomes obvious as soon as you reach the first houses of Fira. The very first shop selling cooled water charges no more than EUR 1.00, or maybe make that EUR 2.00. They could have easily charged us twice as much, we would have accepted it gratefully.
Why we fled Fira and chose Oia instead
Here’s the thing: Most people will find the first available spot after the strenuous hike up the caldera cliff and stay put. They may walk around Fira, check out the souvenir shops along the narrow and steep laneways, maybe visit an archaeological museum or a Greek Orthodox church. But we were taken aback by the masses of people squeezing through the narrow lanes. You could hardly stop and have a look around, let alone take photos.
All restaurants and shops were facing the caldera, but only a couple of metres further the town looked like any other busy Greek town. There was a rather unromantic police station and the central bus station. Car, scooters and quad bike rentals galore, plenty of modern and cheep looking housing.
Finding the Romantic Side of Santorini
This was not the Santorini we wanted to see. We wanted views and romance. Our hearts craved relaxation and culture. We didn’t want to get stuck in a place that had lost its appeal a long time ago with the introduction of motorised traffic and electric street lights.
So we quickly left the pedestrianised old part of Fira to find a taxi that was willing to take us to Oia to the north of the island, rumoured to be the oldest settlement on Santorini. It turned out to be 20 EUR that were well invested.
What we didn’t know back then: There is the option to take a speed boat to Oia right from the jetty. This has the massive advantage that you won’t have to climb the Z-shaped path with the donkeys all the way to Fira. If money is not your concern then this is an option well worth considering. (However, just checking this website here and realising that the service is inoperative at the moment due to legal issues – didn’t I just mention the lack of Greek business acumen?).
Our Magical Santorini Experience in Oia
In constrast to Fira, Oia felt like a breath of fresh air. After a 30-minute ride the taxi dropped us off at a central location, and the driver pointed us in the right direction to the pedestrianised old town. Unlike Fira, the main streets were broad and level.
They followed the crest and offered charming views of the caldera over the roofs of the lower lying houses.
The pavement looked like marble, adding an air of elegance to the already charming surroundings. Cheap and tacky souvenir shops gave way to designer boutiques and art galleries.
Yes, there were still quite a few people here but decisively less than near the cruise port. We felt immediately at home.
With a way more relaxed pace we strolled along Oia’s streets. It was here that we found the most iconic views of the island.
If you Only Have one day, Visit Oia
Blue domed Orthodox churches overlooking the caldera. Whitewashed houses with the carved wooden doors. The confusing arrangement of terraces, stairs, roofs and backyards.
We saw quite a few derelict houses, not whitewashed but crumbling, with collapsed walls and chimneys sticking out of the ruins. Maybe victims of the regularly occurring earthquakes, abandoned and condemned. They were at odds with the luxury boutique properties that were neighbouring them, adding contrast and authenticity to an otherwise rather polished appearance.
I took photos of Oia, hundreds of them. Colourful flowers in pots, placed strategically in front of blindingly white walls. Views through windows and holes of the bright blue of the Mediterranean. Broken and weathered wooden doors, stubbornly claiming their right to stay in the perfect surroundings of luxury retreats and measured modern restorations. You will see my most favourite photos on the bottom of this post. And more tips and ideas for Greece can be found here!
Sunset Views, Souvenirs and Good Food
We bought a tasteful souvenir – a small bowl made of volcanic rock with a blue glass bottom. Then we found ourselves a shady spot in a restaurant overlooking the caldera.
You cannot travel to Greece and not enjoy some of the delicacies here. So we ordered olives and bread, tsatsiki and dips. We washed it down with glasses of ouzo, toasting a heart-felt “Yiamas!” each time we clinked our glasses together.
There was no need to order a big meal. Just a few little dishes were enough to get us into the right holiday mood.
The end to a Perfect Day
Sadly, we couldn’t stay to view the sunset from Oia. We had a ship to catch. I have no doubt that a sunset in Oia would have been magical, the way the light would reflect on the white surfaces of the houses, the colours that would touch the blue of the sea. It must be one of the best experiences you can have in the Mediterranean.
Instead, we took the taxi back to Fira (the driver had kept his word to pick us up at an arranged time), found our way to the cable car, enjoyed a short wait of maybe half an hour, and then flew down and back to port along cave dwellings and a palette of colours on the cliff surface.
We watched the sunset from the balcony of our stateroom. It was still spectacular and magical. A perfect ending to a perfect cruise day in Santorini.