There Is Nowhere in the World as Captivating as Greece, Writes MICHAEL VIRTANEN; the Senses on Greece's Santorini Island
The afternoon crowd a speaking at least half a dozen languages a flows down among the shops, cafes and picture-postcard lookouts on the Greek island of Santorini.
It spreads along the clifftop village of Oia's cobblestone walkways, drifting into shops or up the stairs to open-air restaurants, eddying to photograph scenes of white buildings with blue doors and blue-domed churches.
The crowd thins to little more than a trickle down the 214 broad steps to Ammoudi Bay. There, seaside tavernas grill 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 can 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," says Nicos Plevrakis, manager of the Hotel Belvedere, where my wife and I are staying. "It attracts sunbeams."
This a[approximately]island of black rock' owes its unique, dramatic landscape to volcanic eruptions. A volcano, still active, stands at the centre 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 96km away, wiped out Minoan civilisation and reshaped this landscape.
The Belvedere, a clifftop boutique hotel in the main city of Fira, overlooks the caldera, a huge basin of dark blue water 152 metres below.
You can even visit what's left of the still-smouldering volcano. Today it is an uninhabited island at the centre 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 the financial crisis that has led to protests and strikes, the disruptions have had little impact on areas outside Athens.
Fira, with narrow cobblestoned alleys lined with storefronts selling clothing and jewellery, perches high at the heart of crescent-shaped Santorini.
The island is about 48km 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.
The sea was startlingly blue up close.
We ride to Oia on a public bus packed with day-tripping cruise passengers. But down at the seaside it was much quieter, and the sea is so clear you can see the small fish. Diving underwater it's the same, entirely blue and translucent, with dark blue minnows darting by.
Temperatures on the island are around 26 degrees in July and August and 21 in September. …