Santorini: The most beautiful one

By Justine Tyerman

Santorini, or Thera, is an island of many names but in ancient times it was known as Kalliste, the most beautiful one ... Justine Tyerman agrees.

From a distance, the cluster of pure white buildings on the rim of Santorini's volcanic caldera looks like a coating of fresh snow. Photo / Justine Tyerman
From a distance, the cluster of pure white buildings on the rim of Santorini's volcanic caldera looks like a coating of fresh snow. Photo / Justine Tyerman

Don't fly to Santorini. You must arrive by sea. It is the most spectacular way to first glimpse the island.

From a distance, the cluster of pure white buildings on the rim of the volcanic caldera looks like a coating of fresh snow. With few exceptions, the ferry passengers we travelled with from Crete froze mid-disembarkation, transfixed by the startling visual impact of the 300-metre-high crater wall towering above the port of Athinios. The sight of the rock face gouged with striations of red, black and ochre, was literally staggering - it made me take a step backwards to get some perspective and reassess what I was seeing. It was not a tranquil image, but dramatic and awesome.

Born of a violent, fiery explosion, Santorini is the crescent-shaped remnant of an island blown to pieces in one of the largest volcanic eruptions in recorded history, some 3600 years ago. The eruption left a broken necklace of islands encircling a deep sheltered lagoon of emerald-sapphire water with an active volcanic crater, Nea Kameni, in the centre.

The cataclysm may have caused a giant tsunami which led to the collapse of the great Minoan civilisation on the island of Crete, 110 kilometres to the south. It may have also buried the legendary Atlantis.

Christina met us in the melee of new arrivals at the foot of the zigzag road to the top of the caldera. She was carrying a statue of a seahorse and said she had brought two horses to take us up the hill to the villa. Why horses and not donkeys, the traditional form of transport in Santorini, I wondered. She winked and led us to her Citroen Deux Chevaux.

The two horses under the bonnet of the elderly 2CV protested about the heavy load but nevertheless carried us nobly up the steep narrow road with eight hairpin bends, to our villa in the cliff-top village of Firostefani, next to the island's capital, Fira.

Sea Horse Residence is a breathtaking vision of dionysos white marble, even more spectacular than the images on the website that first captivated me six months ago when I began my quest to fulfil a life-long dream to visit Santorini.

The only touches of contrast are the sparkling blue/green of the Jacuzzi and swimming pool, aqua glass seahorse statues, shocking-pink bougainvillea and a stately araucaria.

The 'blink, blink, blink' view from one of the villa's rooms. Photo / Justine Tyerman
The 'blink, blink, blink' view from one of the villa's rooms. Photo / Justine Tyerman

Built around 1720 into the volcanic rock on the wall of the caldera, the villa was originally a convent, and was once owned by a German prince, Karl von Hohenlohe-Öehringen.

Carefully restored between 1982 and 1988, Sea Horse was purchased in 1998 by a Belgian woman who created its present beautiful form.

Chantal is now developing the villa into a wedding, conference and reunion venue beyond compare, ably assisted by manager Christina and her husband Themis, the most hospitable, generous people you could ever hope to meet.

Built on four levels or terraces linked by a network of steep winding steps, Sea Horse is a series of luxurious fully self-contained suites which can function as one large venue or many individual apartments. The villa accommodates 18 people and hosts weddings and parties of up to 50 people.

Each room and suite is unique - there's a shower cut into the volcanic rock, a shell-shaped bath, sculptures in a rock inset by gifted Santorini marble sculptor Grigoris Kouskouris and stunning paintings by local artist Georgia Paraschi. Greek artefacts, urns, statues and Italian glassware complete the picture. In addition, all the suites have balconies facing the sunset-over-the-Aegean view that tourists fight over.

At pool level, a long outside bar with a white marble bench and tables adjoin a kitchen which can cater for large numbers in a climate where every summer day is cloudless and the nights are warm.

The pool and patio at Sea Horse Residence. Photo / Justine Tyerman
The pool and patio at Sea Horse Residence. Photo / Justine Tyerman

During our stay, three Indian women put the kitchen to good use, cooking elaborate meals for their family reunion group of 12, who dined outside by the pool.

We had the spacious second top level to ourselves, with a full kitchen, bathroom, bedroom and balcony, and a panoramic view of the whole island from Oia to Akrotiri that required me to blink, blink, blink when I opened my eyes each morning to ensure I was indeed awake. Lying in bed, over my toes I could see Therasia and Nea Kameni.

Watching over us a few steps above Sea Horse, was the famous, much-photographed blue-domed chapel of Agios Theodori with its triple bell-tower.

We had full use of the complex including the Jacuzzi on the top level. Hard-working Ka Anna serviced the apartments daily and insisted on taking our laundry away to wash and iron.

One of the greatest challenges when you are surrounded by precious dionysos white marble is finding a safe place to paint your toenails. I finally resorted to the garden but even then, there were white pebbles everywhere.

The other challenge was keeping track of my foodie husband who was in recipe-collecting mode, having caught a whiff of some aromatic Indian cuisine wafting our way from the kitchen below. We overlapped with the delightful Indian family by a couple of days, long enough for Chris to learn to make sambar, a delicious lentil-based dish from southern India.

Towards the end of our week in Santorini, Christina and Themis hosted a Greek barbecue for the seven guests and family members staying at the villa. Christina seasoned pork and lamb kebabs and tasty village sausages with black and white pepper, sea salt, lots of oregano, olive oil and lemon juice, using a half lemon on the end of a fork to mix the ingredients and coat the meat.

We watched the sky turn lilac and vermillion as the sun set behind the island of Therasia, learned Zorba's dance, drank exquisite Lava rosé, came up with some ingenious solutions to the Greek crisis, and savoured Santorini delicacies like white aubergines and cherry tomatoes with an incredible intensity of flavour due to the lack of irrigation and rainfall.

The sunsets from the caldera rim are so dazzling that people flock in their thousands to the village of Oia at the far end of the island where they jostle and scramble for the best position to take photographs, and cheer and applaud as the fiery orange orb sinks into the Aegean. We felt smug because we had our own spectacular sunset heaven on the balcony by the pool where we toasted the "iliovasílema" with our Greek and Belgian friends at the close of each day.

Sunset, as seen from the Sea Horse Residence's Jacuzzi. Photo / Justine Tyerman
Sunset, as seen from the Sea Horse Residence's Jacuzzi. Photo / Justine Tyerman

To avoid the heat of the afternoon, we set off early one morning on the three-hour, 12km caldera rim hike to Oia to explore the postcard cobbled marble streets, artisan shops and Venetian castle well before the sunset hordes arrived.

The path runs through villages with windmills and traditional white vaulted-roof houses, past opulent resorts, up the spine of Black Mountain - Mavro Vouno - along paths of red and black scoria and around the edge of the volcano, dizzyingly high in places with sheer drops to the Aegean below.

Dotted along the way are Santorini's iconic white chapels with blue domes, each more perfect than the one before, built in the most precarious, inaccessible locations: into rock faces, on cliff tops, ledges and promontories. The 300-year-old Profitas Ilias chapel on the highest point of the island is a top contender for the beauty prize.

The 300-year-old Profitas Ilias chapel on the highest point of the island is a top contender for the beauty prize. Photo / Justine Tyerman
The 300-year-old Profitas Ilias chapel on the highest point of the island is a top contender for the beauty prize. Photo / Justine Tyerman

We also hiked to Skaros Rock, a dramatic headland topped with a rock crown, beside the village of Imerovigli. Once the capital of the island, there are remnants of a medieval castle there destroyed in an earthquake in the 1800s, and the exquisite chapel of Theoskepasti, standing alone, clinging to a cliff above the sea.

We scrambled for cameras, iPad and iPhone, trying to capture the essence of the landscape but these seemed small, humble and utterly inadequate tools to record such astonishing sights.

Santorini is the "perfect storm" for the photographer, the artist, the geomorphologist, the volcanologist; a dream classroom for the historian too with its well-preserved Minoan ruins at Akrotiri ... and for the romantic, it's a place where legends about Plato's Isle of Atlantis are fleshed out with archeological evidence.

It is also a paradise for the shopper, gourmet and beach-seeker.

Fira, the island's main tourist village, is a fascinating maze of bustling alleyways, with shops selling everything from local art and crafts to exclusive fashions and jewellery. We visited some quaint tavernas and swam at the famous black and red beaches, but Sea Horse was like a magnet. We were constantly drawn back to our idyllic, peaceful haven away from the crowds - mesmerised by the deep lagoon below with its yachts and cruise ships, sheltered by Nea Kameni, and the archipelago of Santorini's sister islands.

I often found myself just gazing, day dreaming, lost in time.

I left a little piece of my heart and soul in Santorini and will have to go back and retrieve it one day.

IF YOU GO

Getting there: Take the Hellenic Seaways high speed ferry from Crete to Santorini.

Where to stay: Sea Horse Residence.

Hiking: Fira to Oia; Imerovigli to Skaros Rock; the donkey path from Fira to the old port of Skala.

History: The Minoan ruins at Akrotiri.

Art/sculpture: Santorini marble sculptor Grigoris Kouskouris; Santorini artist Georgia Paraschi.

Bookings: Elliott Travel, Gisborne.

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