Santorini: Heaven in the lap of the Gods

Born of fire and brimstone, the vertiginous island of Santorini now envelopes its visitors in peace and tranquillity, a natural work of art, says Adrian Mourby

If you could go anywhere in the world, right now, where would it be? For me the answer has always been the same: Santorini. My wife asked me this question on our first date and so, as soon as possible, we went. I wanted her to experience the island's unforgettable serenity.

What makes Santorini so special is that most of its townships sit along a precipitous cliff edge that drops 1,000ft down to the deep grey Cycladic sea.

Getting out of bed, padding out on to your own white-painted terrace and looking down that vertiginous drop to the sea must be what living on Mount Olympus is like. Zeus-like, you gaze down on the world of mortals, watching little ocean-going cruise liners nose their way silently into port.

The silence of Santorini in the early morning, a silence broken by the tinny clang of the occasional church bell, is worth any number of hours bouncing across from Crete in a Flying Cat, or any number of delays in Athens airport.

And yet it wasn't always so. Recent research has shown that where I'm perched this morning, drinking my freshly-squeezed juice, was once a mere foothill on the side of a vast volcano that blew apart aeons ago, leaving this 1,000ft crater rim.

It's believed that Santorini is the remains of ancient Thira, a volcanic island whose demise was so spectacular that the resultant tsunami smashed into Crete 60 miles away and destroyed Minoan civilisation.

But it was only in April this year that scientists uncovered the petrified remains of an olive tree buried on Santorini the day of that catastrophic eruption. Carbon-dating now means that they can tell us not only the exact moment when the Minoans were wiped out, but also confirm that layers of ash found in Egypt, the Black Sea, Greenland and even California were laid down during a Bronze Age "nuclear winter" that followed the cataclysmic destruction of Thira.

The date of the eruption is now known to be around 1600BC. Most of the island was vaporised. With it went what appears to have been a very sophisticated society, according to wall paintings remarkably preserved around the olive tree. What remained when all the ash had settled were two stumpy islands that had been the outer edges of the old volcano. These became known as Thirasia and Santorini. The 10-mile wide crater lake between them, where the heart of the volcano had been ripped out, filled up with sea water.

That's what I'm looking down into now, a sight so serene it is impossible to believe it was once a cauldron of exploding rock. However, there are small reminders. The grey, flat surface of the caldera is disturbed by three islands that have thrust up from the seabed in recent centuries. The largest, Nea Kameni, is in fact a small active volcano. Close up, it is a pile of ugly, rubble-strewn rock, thrown up as if some giant were down below digging into the seabed and flinging up the debris behind him. It stinks of sulphur, and the sea all around bubbles with hot springs.

But, sitting up here, you'd know none of this. Those of us who holiday in the towns of Fira, Oia and Imerovigli are removed from everything apart from cafés, bars, restaurants and art galleries. Santorini is nature's work of art, a lofty vantage point from which to enjoy the vast bright blue and white seascape that surrounds this island. Not surprisingly, it has inspired painters, potters and jewellers to set up studios and shops here. Spend a day walking between your favourite cafés and restaurants and you'll be unlikely to come back without something beautiful - and a hole in your pocket.

Though you can live cheaply on Santorini by lugging back wine and olives to your terrace every day, it has recently become a place to take your money on holiday.

These days the island is awash with young American lawyers and corporate types, an affluent and discriminating clientele. These guys get very little annual holiday so wherever they go has to carry a guarantee of perfection. Not surprisingly, companies such as ITC Classics and Small Luxury Hotels of the World have moved in, marketing Santorini's apartments with their infinity swimming pools, al fresco massage tables and terrace dining. Your suite may be a whitewashed skafta (cave house) dug into the cliff face, but the DVD player will be state-of-the-art, the kitchen chrome and the toiletries covetable.

Myself, I've always stayed at the same place - Ikies, a honeycomb of old cave houses just south of the village of Oia. There are several small terraces, each with its own pool, a staff whose only desire in life is to fix you drinks, and a power point on the deck so I can sit out with my laptop and try to write. Inevitably I'm distracted by the comings and goings of the cruise ships below. Just watching their bows carve long, perfect Vs out of the still waters of the caldera can absorb me for hours and, before I know it, lunch and a bottle of Boutari are calling.

In the afternoons people take siestas, rising tousle-haired for a few lengths of those minuscule swimming pools before setting off for the sunset in Amoudi. This is an unmissable event. Folk drive from the south and east ends of Santorini to watch the sun go down from this small fishing village. Fortunately you can walk from Oia, which is what I have always done and what I now do with my wife.

We'll probably eat on the quayside at one of Amoudi's two tavernas, overlooking the tranquil sea. It's such a silly, romantic thing to do - who can avoid falling in love all over again?

Then we'll wind our slow way all the way up again and wander home through Oia, where the village shops and bars have suddenly sprung to life. People do rash things on the way back from Amoudi after the sun has set. I have been known to buy jewellery and I don't imagine I'm the only fond husband to have done so.

Next, it's the cliff-top path home, lights twinkling below us, swimming pools glowing aquamarine and the sea in darkness. And another day to look forward to, another day rising on your own personal little white cloud and watching the world go by below. Mount Olympus might seem a bit tame after Santorini.

Of course, in a few thousand years' time, the whole place may blow up again. Volcanic activity tends to go in cycles and fissures in the seabed have a habit of building vast igneous islands only to blast them apart when you're least expecting it.

They say Nea Kameni gets bigger every year. But until it destroys itself, and Santorini with it, we have our own heaven on earth.

GB Airways (0870-850 9850; ba.com) flies from Gatwick to Crete five times a week. Return tickets cost from £129.80. Crete Travel (0871- 871 2891; cretetravel.com) can arrange tickets on Hellenic Seaways Flying Cat ferries to Santorini from €62 (£44.30) return; average crossing time one hour 45 minutes. Holiday Autos (0870-400 0010; holiday autos.co.uk) offers car hire on Santorini from £132 for seven days.

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