ANCIENT AND MODERN; Next Month Athens Unveils Its New Acropolis Museum. Charlotte Ross Combines a Historic Preview with the Best of Greece Today

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Byline: Charlotte Ross

NOT SO long ago, Greece was stuck firmly in the past. My first visit, age 10, was to a country of basic beds and jaw-dropping monuments. For a glimpse of the latter, you could happily forgive the former. Now accommodation has fast-forwarded a century or so, with some hotels rivalling the ruins as attractions. On the island of Santorini, it's a close-run contest.

We arrived in the evening, after a 45minute flight from sweltering Athens, to a pristine white hotel perched precariously on the edge of Imerovigli village. A freak fog had left us with no view of the volcanic isle's fabled sunset, just of dense, swirling cloud. So we retreated to our whitewashed room, sleek and compact as an iPod, burrowed into the side of the spectacular crater formed by a centuries-old eruption.

This is how Santorini's inhabitants have lived for generations, their homes balanced along the spine of the island's west coast like a jumble of blue and white Lego bricks. Our hotel, Santorini Grace, apes the tradition but with every luxury and technological advance you could hope for. And it's in pole position for sunset spotting. Being marooned here -- even in the fog -- is bliss.

The next morning, with the mist burned clean away, we saw the full honeymoon appeal of the place from the heated bath on our terrace. The hotel tumbles down to a tiny private chapel then on to the crashing sea where a rocky isthmus attaches to the craggy islet of Skaros. Beyond is the caldera, an eternal expanse of cobalt ocean, dotted with distant cruise ships.

Stunning Santorini provides the perfect mini-break from frantic Athens. There are certainly bits to avoid: much of the other side of the island is a seamy rave scene built around grubby windswept beaches overflowing with package tourists. And you don't want to be in the wrong place when the cruise ships disgorge a thousand rich Russians to clog up the narrow streets.

But hire a Smart car, as we did, and you can nip between modern restaurant and crumbling mountain-top civilisation, black sand beach and picture postcard village and still make it back in time to see the sun drop into the sea from your hot-tub. Or take a moonlit walk along the clifftop footpath that links the tiny towns, stopping for grilled fish or cold beer, and you'll wonder if anywhere on earth is as romantic.

Athens, where we returned after several dreamy days, wakes up the senses in a different way. The streets around our hotel were high with the charnel stench of the nearby meat market. A strip-lit doorway on the corner revealed a row of prostitutes and broken glass underfoot all helped give the area a palpable air of menace.

We were staying in the hip Omonia district, where sleek gay couples and party people congregate at the fashion-ablFresh Hotel, a modern design haven that mixes industrial functionalism with bursts of neon Perspex.

It is also a good point from which to explore the city. There are underground stations yards away, and a few minutes walk delivered us into the thronging heart of the beast, Monastiraki with its hustle of kebab restaurants and tat-peddling street vendors. Though we wan-derethrough the flea market, inhaled the extraordinary fragrance of long baked-in olive oil and bought handmade sandals from the local cobbler, we were really in Athens for a preview of the long-awaited New Acropolis Museum, which opens its doors to the public next month. …