Two weeks in Crete on a last-minute deal: from Chania and Rethymon to Iraklio, Chersonisos and Siteia, we packed it all in those 14 days!

Day 6 : 18 July 2003 : Santorini

Santorini - island of legends

Everywhere we looked in Chersonisos we had seen adverts for trips to Santorini. This was a popular destination, but why? Essentially, the Greek island of Santorini is the place for picture postcard quality photos. You see a picture of a Greek church in blue and white, chances are it was taken here.

The trip had been billed as a 1-day luxury cruise but soon after getting on the boat it became fairly clear that it was more like a cross-channel ferry than a cruise ship. Every day it ventured back and forth across the Aegean Sea, and it looked well 'lived-in'. And because it does the trip every day, the staff on board the Golden Princess know exactly how to handle the guests - with an iron fist!

Actually, truth be told, it's all down to one person - the ship's captain. We first saw her about an hour into the trip as she walked around the decks, yelling through a loudhailer. She was informing everyone in Greek, English,German, French and some other language I couldn't identify about a very important meeting that people should attend - they had a schedule organised for the different nationalities and you felt that if you didn't attend you'd be in trouble. To say that she came across a bit butch and domineering would be an understatement - she made Anne Robinson look like a shrinking violet.

If I have one regret on the holiday it's this - I wish I'd taken my video camera to that orientation meeting. As all the English contingent had filed in to the theatre, she began her performance.

"Let me tell you what you have paid for on this cruise. You have paid for the coach transfer, you have paid for the boat trip, you have NOT paid for the excursions! The excursions MUST be paid for on the boat."

And so she set out the conditions. Most people had probably assumed, like we had, that the whole day had already been taken care of. The holiday reps had not mentioned that the coach trips were an additional €20 each, and the captain was evidently very keen to point this out; learnt from experience. She scared me. She scared everyone. And then she pulled out a large baton ...

Now, obviously it was a pointing device, as she had a map of the island right next to her, but it was a laughable performance. I could not have been the only one who had images of Hitler or, in my case, Herr Flick's hard-nosed woman from Allo Allo, passing through their minds. You could imagine that if you made a noise, she'd send that baton crashing down and scream "Silence!". A comedy performance that wasn't intended to be! "Any questions?" she asked ... and I wondered if anyone would be so brave.

Still, she could have been very handy had there been a problem on the boat. For example, a fire. The kind of thing you see on Holidays From Hell, except that we really did. Not long after the meeting, we noticed that one of the upper decks was getting a bit smokey, and it was coming out of the windows. Peering down a flight of stairs it became clear that this was not just a chip fire limited to one floor - it didn't appear to be so trivial. Cue boat staff ushering everyone out on to the upper decks while passengers start to wonder whether there are sharks in this part of the world. Thankfully, there was no call to abandon ship - the rumour mill suggested that some maintainance work had caused an electrical fire that had been acrid but, to our relief, put out. In fact, there was an upside to this - the upstairs lounge with the comfy seats was now deserted, and so Manda and I were able to go claim somewhere more luxurious to rest our behinds. Sleep.

The arrival in Santorini is a breathtaking one. The island is effectively a volcanic crater and the towns and villages cling desperately to the top of the caldera, hundreds of feet above the sea. It wasn't always like this - in 1647BC the island was a complete piece, but a huge volcanic eruption sent the centre of it into the sea and with it the Minoan civilisation; it's even claimed in some ancient texts that ancient Thera, as it was known, could have been the legendary Atlantis.

Santorini Church, Pyrgos.
A church in the oldest part of Santorini, Pyrgos.

Manda by a church in Pyrgos, Santorini. Manda by a church in Pyrgos, Santorini.

The first stop on our tour (we succumbed) was the oldest part of the island, a village called Pyrgos. It was a capital in ancient times and an example of a fortified settlement. Never mind the fortifications, just climbing up some of the steep alleyways should be enough to put off any potential invaders! It was hot, sticky work fighting our way through all the other tourists in the narrow alleys who were all trying to get that perfect 'blue-domed church overlooking the sea' photo.

We then headed from the southern end of the island all the way north, past Fira (the modern capital) to the northernmost town/village of Oia. More picture postcard views were to be had from here, including a particularly spectacular panoramic view across the whole of the crater.

Panoramic view from Oia, Santorini.

Ah,the old blue domed churches of Santorini ...

They like the colour blue here.

It seemed that every corner you turned in Oia, there was another beautiful shot across the water or another spectacular building to capture on film. And truly, this was the place of postcard photos - from the very northern most tip of Oia you could look back and see the images of the buildings that we'd seen in countless postcard racks in the shops of Chersonisos.

The final stop of the excursion was in the capital itself, Fira, which we'd driven straight through earlier on. Our guide had told us that we had almost a couple of hours to look around and told us that we needed to be at the harbour below to get the last tender boat to the cruise ship at 4:45pm. Getting to the harbour would involve either a cable car ride (2 minutes) or a trip down a winding trail on the back of a donkey.

We knew that there was a plenty of time until we had to be there, so we took our time walking up towards the place where we had been told we could get the cable car/donkey from, stopping along the way for ice cold cokes. This was probably the hottest day yet - pushing 40 degrees, possibly over - so any respite from the sun was welcome. We also stopped for a while, keeping one eye on the time and the other on the waiter who looked to be taking things a little easy. By the time we'd settled up, we thought it best to make our way to the cable car departure point. It was only just 4pm, but as we approached we could see a queue forming; we joined it only to discover just how long the queue was.

So, let's recap - the cable car takes 2 minutes, while the donkey will take 15 minutes. For many people this must have meant a later arrival at this point than 4pm, and we only managed to get to the ticket booth for the cable car at 4:47 - 2 minutes after we were supposed to be at the bottom waiting for our tender boat, and there were a lot of people queueing after us.

We made it to the last tender boat with a good 15 minutes to spare, but even with this extra time allotted I couldn't help but think that there must have been a lot of people that would later be hastily trying to secure accommodation on Santorini for the evening.

We cruised on into the night, watching the sun set over the Aegean sea, eventually arriving back at the apartments just shy of midnight. It had been a long day, but I'd have done it all over again. Apart from the queue, perhaps. Oh, and the fire scare.

Sunset over the Aegean Sea.