The beauty of Santorini is no mystery. Its quaint blue-domed churches, white-washed villages, and stunning vistas frequently grace the covers of travel magazines. I was worried that such a popular destination would offer little mystery or surprise. I was wrong.
Despite the thousands of tourists that visit the island every year, it’s still possible to grasp the “real Santorini.” You can find what makes Santorini special in a leisurely lunch of regional specialties, an unhurried conversation with a local, the serenity of an early morning meditation, or a refreshing swim in the Aegean.
Volcanic Soil, Rich Flavors
I love Greek food and while you can find the ubiquitous gyro pita sandwiches practically everywhere, there is also a great deal of culinary variation across the country. Every region in Greece has its own specialties, reflecting both cultural and environmental differences. In Santorini, for example, mineral –rich volcanic soil provides nutrients to plants not available in other areas and makes this island the only significant wine producing culture in the 6,000-island Cyclades chain.
Santorini is also well known for its sweet cherry tomatoes, which are laid out to dry in the sun, and for caper berries, fruits of the caper bush that are less intensely flavored than regular capers. Along Santorini’s streets and main walkways, local growers sell these specialties preserved in jars with brine or olive oil.
Other products worth trying include local nuts like pistachios and sesame coated almonds, and white wines such as the very sweet Vin Santo, and those made from the native Assyrtico variety. During my stay in Oia, every morning I passed by one local grocery store where I was offered a sample of Vin Santo from a plastic cup. This sweet dessert wine (or ‘breakfast wine,’ in my case) is made by laying the grapes out to dry naturally in the sun for several days before crushing them; a process which concentrates sugars in the grapes and intensifies their flavor.
Popular dishes utilizing local flavors and seasonal products are on every menu. Try sweet, crispy tomato fritters (tomatokeftedes), healthy and flavorful wild greens (horta), or creamy fava bean puree made from a variety found only in Santorini. Many shops sell a sticky sweet called koufeto, blanched almonds soaked in honey – a treat not to be missed.
In most tavernas (local taverns), you can also find thick Greek yogurt with honey and walnuts. While this simple yet luxurious dish can be found across Greece, it tastes far more heavenly when served with the stunning views only Santorini can offer.
A Taste of the Aegean
Of course, there’s more to do in Santorini than eat. A fun activity is to take a boat ride around the caldera (the ancient cauldron left from a collapsed volcano) . Ships depart several times a day and take visitors to the nearby islet of Nea Kameni, where you can hike the volcano before heading on to some local hot springs, and then on to enjoy a leisurely break in the small fishing village of Thirasia. This village’s quiet beach is lined with a dozen or so small tavernas and restaurants where you can sip ouzo and dine on octopus souvlaki (grilled octopus) just inches from the water.
I recommend Taverna Cadouni, a modest establishment that will entice you with friendly servers, skewered fish splayed on the open grill, and a convincing sign that reads “Don’t miss to try our cuisine.” It was sound advice.
Wine tasting at Domaine Sigalas
If you like wine, you’re in for a treat in Santorini. The wines of Santorini generally exceeded my expectations, offering unique flavors and qualities. Many grapes used in the local wines are native to the island, and some can be found nowhere else. Santorini is most famous for white wines (about 80% of the vineyards are dedicated to white varietals). However, the red wines are also excellent.
My favorite was the Mavrotragano produced at Domaine Sigalas, a small but internationally recognized winery located just a few kilometers from the center of town. Visit after the busy summer months, and you may well have the patio to yourself as you taste your way through a unique selection of both red and white wines made from indigenous varieties such as Assyrtico, Aidani, Athiri, Mandilaria and Mavrotragano. Try them all, as the price is quite reasonable at just a few cents per pour.
Pleasant surprises at Chelidonia Villas
If you’re lucky you may even be offered a sample of homemade wine during your stay on the island. Chances will increase if you stay at Chelidonia Villas where the host is both amiable and, as it turns out, a talented wine maker.
During our stay at Chelidonia, the owner once hinted at the possibility that we might get to taste his locally produced wine. We expressed our great interest, and hoped he would follow through on the offer.
Sure enough, while enjoying the sun set over the caldera on our final evening in Santorini our host approached us with a carafe of amber-red wine from his private reserve. Already we were quite content; lounging on the porch of a cliff-side villa with an assortment of local nuts, salami and figs as the sun descended. This generous gift – a real taste of the soil and spirit of Santorini – was perhaps the only thing that could have made it better. — by Lindsay Milich, RFT Contributor
Yoga with a view
Enjoy a refreshing yoga session with Cassandra, a friendly instructor who hosts casual small group classes in a serene setting: a quaint home terrace situated on top of the cliff at the west (sunset) end of Oia. Join a regular afternoon class, or schedule a private morning session to enjoy the experience before the daily pedestrians arrive to steal the silence.
Contact Cassandra for details:
Phone: +30 698 403 6225
Shopping in Santorini is an experience in itself. The tiny shops here are interspersed between cafes and restaurants primarily along the main walkway of Nikolaou Nomikou. My favorite shop was Maria Baba Vida, a small boutique with an eclectic selection of Byzantine inspired jewelry and unique designs.
Maria Baba Vida:
Great wines in a relaxing setting just outside of Oia town. Taste them all if you’re up for it, but definitely don’t miss the Assyrtico, the Mandilaria, and the Mavrotragano.
Phone: + 30 22860 71644
Genuine hospitality and authentic accommodations. Everyone from the owners, to the porter, to the housekeepers go above and beyond to make your stay comfortable and enjoyable. To stay in these traditional homes is a truly memorable experience – not to mention the view from your front porch.
Phone: +30 22860 71287