Serene Santorini Cliffs, Beaches and the Sapphire Sea Lure Visitors to Charming Greek Island

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Byline: Michael Virtanen Associated Press

OIA, Greece -- The afternoon crowd flowed down among the shops, cafes and picture-postcard lookouts on the Greek island of Santorini, speaking at least a half-dozen languages.

It spread along the cliff-top village of Oia's cobblestone walkways, drifting into storefronts or up the stairs to open-air restaurants, eddying to photograph scenes of white buildings with blue doors and blue-domed churches.

The crowd thinned to little more than a trickle down the 214 broad steps to Ammoudi Bay. There, seaside tavernas grilled the day's catch of fish and octopus. People lingered at outdoor tables, while a dozen small pleasure and fishing boats rocked gently on the Aegean. A cliffside pathway wound beyond to a cove, where you could lie in the sunshine amid the black volcanic rocks and swim in the sapphire sea.

"What is Santorini? It is an island of black rock," said Nicos Plevrakis, manager of the Hotel Belvedere, where my wife and I stayed. "It attracts sunbeams."

This "island of black rock" owes its unique, dramatic landscape to volcanic eruptions. A volcano, still active, stands at the center of a ring of islands, Santorini the longest. In between them is a vast, deep caldera, filled with water, surrounded by the islands' cliffs, volcanic rock, and black and red sand beaches. Geologists say an early blast created a tsunami that washed over Crete 60 miles away, wiped out Minoan civilization and reshaped this landscape.

The Belvedere, a cliff-top boutique hotel in the main city of Fira, overlooks the caldera, a huge basin of dark blue water 500 feet below. You can even visit what's left of the still-smoldering volcano. Today it is an uninhabited island at the center of the caldera, reachable by boat.

Santorini is about a 45-minute flight from Athens. While tourism is

down in Greece this

year partly due to a financial crisis that has led to protests and strikes, the disruptions have had little impact on areas outside Athens.

Santorini's capital, Fira, with narrow cobblestoned alleys lined with storefronts selling clothing and jewelry, perches high at the heart of crescent-shaped Santorini. The island is about 30 miles long, with Oia and Ammoudi Bay at its northern tip, Akrotiri and a red sand beach at the southern end, and miles of black sand beaches along its southeastern shore.

Temperatures on the island are in the 80s in July and August and in the 70s in September. Tourist businesses close from November through March, including the Belvedere, where Plevrakis ran a tiny office, offered advice and made arrangements. …