Santorini: Walk down the isle

The romance of the Greek island of Santorini is now even easier to savour, with new flights from London

Santorini is the sort of island that everyone wants to get married on. And indeed most of the world does seem to be getting married here, or at least having its picture taken in a wedding dress. Wedding packs, some with as many as five brides, roam the streets, followed invariably by a Brangelina-sized group of photographers, making it something of a necessity to duck and dive as you pass through. Marriage, my guide informs me, is a major industry here.

You cannot resent them for their posing, for this little 28-square-mile speck of an island is a jewel amid jewels; the brightest in the Cycladic necklace and has long been a draw for the starry-eyed who come to watch the sun, slip, inch by unimpeded inch, into the Aegean sea. And, anyway, as the locals say, “one man’s roof is another’s terrace”, so one takes it on the chin.

It is unconscionable, as you walk through the tiny jewellery-shop-lined streets of the main town Fira – newly serviced by two weekly BA flights from Heathrow – amid the clicking cameras and clip-clopping of donkeys carrying tourists up the steep escarpment from the ferry port, to think that this island has been shaped in geography and temperament, and even in its food, by tragedy.

A Minoan sailor returning to his prosperous and, judging by the frescos rather merry, island home in late 1650BC would have found the place he left a month before very different. Akrotiri, as the settlement was known, was eviscerated by a vast volcanic eruption sometime in that year. The innards of the island rose up like a heaving chest and then collapsed again much deeper, leaving a crescent-shape land mass with a small outcrop of land within its embrace called Thirassia. The place was coated in volcanic ash. The buildings all razed or sunk. The only thing that grew here for centuries was the myth that it was the lost city of Atlantis.

Today, though, those lava flows seem something of a boon. Tragedy is not the first thing you think of when you see Santorini (the name comes from a medieval corruption of Saint Irene, its patron). Looking down across the 300-metre-deep caldera, the cauldron-like formation created by the vast pyroclastic flow, what strikes you is the exquisiteness of it all; the terrace in front of my hotel room has a view that Odysseus might have admired.

Room keys have letters rather than numbers Room keys have letters rather than numbers The Iconic hotel, in the up-scale village of Imerovigli, has been entirely carved out of a cave. The rooms, each assigned a Greek letter instead of a number, are cut into the cliffs. The effect is a hotel on about a dozen levels, each room a fraction higher than last, so you feel like they are unfurling into the sea. It can get a little difficult to navigate, but as one of the unfailingly-friendly staff says, “it adds to the adventure”.

The hotel has all the usual boutique amenities – the Aesop toiletries, the Coco-Mat beds, reliable Wi-Fi and wireless stereos, showers as big as London flats – but its real draw is the sheer head-lolling beauty of the surrounding.

The gods may have got fed up with Atlantis-Santorini a few thousand years ago, but they have toothy grins today. Brilliant blue skies fight for space with clouds and the deep greys and browns of the granite cliffs form a frame around me. Bobbing in the infinity pool it feels, through artful design, like it is just me and the ocean. This, it occurs to me, is a place to wallow in.

My assistant in the wallowing comes in 70cl bottles. There are two varieties of wine in Santorini: assyrtiko and vinsanto. Both are unique to the island. The first is white, astringent, punchy and the second is red, thick, sweet and heady. To totally relax, I take a tasting tour of the vineyards of Estate Argyros, whose 150-year-old, low-hanging grapes are quite unlike anything you are likely to see at any other wine estate – the roots have to go low to extract moisture and nutrients from the volcanic terroir. It also has the added bonus of being quite near the Prophet Elias Monastery, one of the highest points on the island, the hike to which, as my companion on the walk points out, “will clear the fuzziest head”.

A 15-minute car journey south and back down to sea level brings us to the beach at Perissa where the slate-coloured sands lead onto more beach bars than it is possible to count. Though, if you want to experience the nightlife available on the island, Fira is the place. Here the bars are perpetually in “happy hour”.

In Oia, where the streets are paved with marble, things are quite different. A hippyish town at the northern end of the caldera which has the feeling of somewhere that has just woken up after a long lie-in, it is a treasure trove. Its white and blue houses are piled one on top of one another on the cliffs like sugar cubes. Its shops sell silks and art, rather than tourist trinkets. The restaurants serve light and simple Santorini tomato salads and plates of moussaka for between €10 and €15.

It is here you will also find Atlantis, an English language book shop of astounding range, which opened a decade ago and is staffed by bookworms who come to work here in exchange for board and lodgings. It’s hard not to leave without having made a friend of the shop cat or else with an extravagant pile of books. I am in love.

Back at the hotel, staring out onto the endless sea, my books safely stowed, the beaches and the vineyard seem far away. I feel as if I am the only person in the world, an island on an island. I have chilled out on a volcanic rock – and I feel as contented and happy as any one of those roaming brides.

Travel Essentials

Getting there: Santorini is served from Heathrow by BA (0844 493 0787; and easyJet (0843 104 5000; from Gatwick.

Staying there: Iconic Santorini, Imerovigli, Santorini, Cyclades, Greece (00 30 22860 28950; santorini). Doubles from €495 with breakfast.

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