I first came to Santorini in the summer of 1984. Brought up in Greece, it was my first holiday with friends and without family.
We’d risen at a stupidly early time for late-teen boys and bussed our way to Athens’ port of Piraeus from where most of the island-bound ferries depart. Our destination was the Cyclades, Greece’s main group of tourist-friendly islands, nestled in the center of the Aegean.
Transport was via huge, creaking boats on which deck tickets cost just a few hundred drachmas (around $2 then). At the time it seemed like a king’s ransom, but the value became more apparent the further we got from Athens. Paros (the ferry hub of the central Aegean), windsurfers’ paradise Naxos and the party island of Ios all passed us by during our sailing. At each the ferry doors would slowly swing open, spewing people, mopeds and cars onto the docks and sucking more back in, like a huge whale gathering krill.
Some 15 hours later our boat hulked its way in the gap between the sparsely inhabited island of Thirasia on the opposite side of Santorini’s caldera and Santorini herself. We were windswept, sizzled from the sun and sozzled from a diet of lukewarm cheese pies and cheap cans of warm beer, but we’d arrived.
By contrast – my journey now is much easier. While Piraeus remains a chaotic hub, the ferries have changed. Gone are the wooden decks seeped with salt that looked like ice and felt just as slippy – replaced by supersleek airline style seats, TV lounges, bars and restaurants that sell food that’s actually edible and hydrodynamic shapes that cut through the water at speed. Fellow passengers are no longer scruffy youngsters but cool, chic and sophisticated travellers with huge Rayban glasses and Louis Vuitton cases that belie Greece’s financial troubles. Greek island hopping has grown up.
“The islands have changed beyond recognition,” says my friend and serial island-hopper Christos Kontos as he sips from his ice-cold coffee frappé in one of the cafés in the village of Oia – said to be home to the most beautiful sunsets in the world. “It used to take 15 hours to get here, now it takes half the time. Unless you’re really young, no one stays in campsites anymore and some of them have even become hotels – and there are so many good hotels to stay in. Plus competition keeps them relatively cheap.”
What does remain the same is the lure of the islands themselves: the first dive into the chilly Aegean that leaves the taste of salt on the lips as you bake under a hot sun, the unmatched freshness of a ripe tomato drowned in fragrant olive oil, the hidden villages tucked away in the hills untouched by time and the deep, aniseed smells of ouzo – clouding over as a measure of the spirit hits ice in a glass.
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