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Posts Tagged ‘Santorini’

Exploring Santorini

Another must-see on a Greek island itinerary is Santorini, (known as Thira or Thera by the Greeks), one of the world’s most photographed and famous islands. Some even go so far as to call the island’s village of Oia one of the most beautiful and romantic sights on earth.

But this is no ordinary island. Santorini is a large volcano that has repeatedly exploded and collapsed, leaving a ring of steep cliffs surrounding a large water-filled caldera. Its eruption around 1,650 B.C. is the largest in recorded history, rumored to have wiped out the Minoan civilization on Crete and caused havoc in Egypt, throughout the Mediterranean, and as far away as China. But this tumultuous history is long past, and today Santorini is famous for its quiet, stunning beauty.

Santorini today is a magnet for the jet set, romance seekers, artists, photographers and those simply wanting to experience a slice of Greek island paradise at its finest. Arriving by boat, the clusters of Cycladic white houses scattered atop Santorini’s cliffs look like a light snowfall. When lit up at night, the homes resemble a glittering string of Christmas lights strung along the crescent-shaped island.

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Why now is the time to visit Greece: Q-and-A with our favorite Greek tour guide

Greece is a richly complex country, filled with unmatched natural beauty, antiquities, a warm and welcoming culture, and world-class cuisine. To truly appreciate the wonder that is Greece, I sat down with a long-time friend and awesome Greek tour guide, Aliki Karvelas, to discover, from the perspective of a true professional, what makes Greece a destination of a lifetime for tourists.

For more than 23 years, Aliki has been introducing English-speaking visitors to the people, history, and beauty of Greece. Her unmatched passion for the country makes her the perfect ambassador for this nation, which is now finally reemerging as a top European destination.

Here’s what Aliki had to say about the country she loves.

1. Friendly Planet Travel: How would you compare tourism in Greece before the 2010 and 2012 Greek protests, during the protests, and now? Do you think tourism is on the rise?

Aliki Karvelas: The Olympics returned to Greece in 2004, and the international attention spurred Greek tourism for the next few years. Then the 2010 economic crisis hit, sparking a wave of protests and demonstrations in Athens that generated a great deal of negative publicity from the international media. Yet much of the story was misrepresented. Few people realized that the demonstrations and protests only took place in specific areas in Athens, and the majority of demonstrations were very peaceful. Because of the negative publicity, Greece suffered three years of low tourism, drastically reducing visitor numbers. As a nation whose economy relies heavily on tourism, this decline bankrupted many restaurants, hotels, and stores.

Today, things are almost back to normal in Greece. We’re very optimistic about the return of our tourism sector. Last year alone, around 17.9 million people visited. For a country with a little more than 11 million residents, that’s a significant number. Visitor numbers are looking equally favorable this year, with experts predicting around 18.5 million people visiting Greece in 2014. If the tours I’ve already booked are any barometer, 2014 will be a great year for Greek tourism.

2. Why is Greece a fantastic destination for travelers?

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Part seven of our first-hand look at the Athens and 3-Day Greek Isles Cruise

When I left you last, I was about to go to the most famous (and some say the most beautiful) Greek Isle: Santorini. To pick up where I left off …

The Aquamarine set a course northward from Heraklion, Crete toward our next destination. And just a few hours later the ship was in the caldera (like cauldron). It’s the large, central lagoon from which Santorini’s 900-foot cliffs rise. The land mass is what remains of a volcanic eruption. Its crescent moon shape wraps around a large basin where the island literally collapsed in on itself.

It’s a stunning view from the caldera, looking up at the white-washed towns built into the cliffside. This is where our group had a decision to make. How would we get to the top? There were three options.

1. Take a bus to Oia (pronounced ee-a), the town with white buildings and blue domes where many well-known photographs of Santorini are taken.

2. Walk up a steep, winding path to Thira.

3. Ride a donkey up the cliff.

Obviously, I went with option three. It was a crazy experience that I won’t attempt to describe. Watch the video instead!

After saying goodbye to our donkeys, we spent some time exploring Thira, which is packed with little shops and was bustling with tourists. As it got later in the day, we looked for a place where we’d have a perfect view of the famous Santorini sunset.

The spot we chose was the deck of a cliffside cafe. We ordered our five thousandth Greek salad, a few cappuccinos, and the photo shoot began. It really was the most incredible sunset I’ve ever seen. Here are some of the shots I took.

When it was all over, we rode a gondola down the cliff to the water …

… and embarqued on the Aquamarine one last time. In the morning, we’d be back in Athens for the remaining days of our trip.

A Michigan family’s adventure on Friendly Planet Travel’s Athens and 4-Day Greek Isles Cruise

Taking your whole family to the Mediterranean can be an adventure of a lifetime, and it sounds like it was for Sarah Hirsch from West Bloomfield, Mich. She went on Friendly Planet Travel’s Athens and 4-Day Greek Isles Cruise with her husband, Kevin, and son and daughter, Jacob and Elena.

The Hirsch family recently returned from their tour of Greece and sent me an e-mail recapping their trip. I thought I would share with you all the kind things Sarah had to say and her beautiful photos. Thanks Sarah!


Our family at the Acropolis in Athens, Greece

It may be a small world after all, but it sure seems big when trying to narrow down vacation options. Luckily, Friendly Planet Travel makes planning a vacation easy with a variety of specific itineraries of the best destinations around the world.

I had always wanted to go to Greece and see the beautiful islands, and visit amazing historical sites like the Acropolis, Agora, Plaka, and Panathenaic Stadium.

The Athens and 4-day Greek Islands Cruise itinerary offered by Friendly Planet provided me the opportunity to do all of this and more. With help and guidance from our Friendly Planet Travel agent, Becca, it was easy to prepare for a once in a lifetime family vacation.

Our journey began with an overnight flight to Europe, and our layover in Germany gave us a morning to explore the lovely Frankfurt. We arrived in Athens in the late afternoon, and were met by a Friendly Planet representative who brought us to our hotel.

Our family on the Greek Isles

It was so nice to eliminate the stress of handling ground transportation as that was all taken care of, since it is included on every vacation booked through Friendly Planet.

Our evening consisted of an informational meeting with Yanni, our Friendly Planet point person in Greece, who gave us all of the information we would need for our cruise and oriented us for the week.

We chose to have dinner at the hotel’s rooftop restaurant, which featured a view of the Acropolis all lit up for the night like a beacon welcoming visitors to Athens.

The next morning we were taken by bus to the port, where we embarked on our cruise. The ship brought us to the ports of Mykonos, Kusadasi (Turkey), Patmos, Rhodes, Crete and Santorini in the span of four days and four nights.

We were at each destination only briefly, just long enough to taste each island’s unique flavor. These ports of call are so fantastic that even to simply walk around town and spend a few moments dipping our feet into the Aegean Sea equalled an incredible experience.

Elena and I in Ephessus, Turkey

Friendly Planet offers optional excursions for an additional fee in each of the ports. We mostly chose to explore on our own, though we did take an organized tour that we booked through Yanni to the ancient ruins in Ephessus in Turkey, which gave us a look back to the way of life experienced thousands of years ago.

Our final stop was Santorini, which is so unique a place on Earth that it kind of blows your mind a little!

After the cruise, we had two more nights in Athens. Our hotel was located just a couple of minutes walking distance to most of the best sites to see in Athens. Because we chose to go during the middle of summer, the temperature hovered around 100 degrees, so we broke up our days by spending the siesta hours at the hotel pool to keep us cool.

Kevin, Jacob, and Elena in front of Greece’s famous windmills

We began our days with the complimentary breakfasts at the hotel, and spent our mornings and evenings seeing Athens’ great sites.

From the Parthenon and Acropolis, to Syntagma Square, where we used the free wifi to check in back home. The Parliament building where we caught the changing of the guards at the tomb of the unknown soldier, the Ancient Agora, the Temple of the Olympian Zeus, the Panathenaic Stadium, home of the first modern Olympics, the new Acropolis museum, the National Gardens, and the Plaka, the main streets of Athens, where we found many great shops and restaurants to enjoy.

We left early on our final morning, with a 3:30 a.m. wake-up call, but as tired as we were, Yanni was there with a friendly smile to help us arrive in the right place at the airport.

Overall our voyage was indeed incredible. It was everything that I had always imagined my desired trip to Greece would be, without any of the stress that can come along with trying to manage all the details of traveling abroad. I will always be grateful to Friendly Planet Travel for providing my family with this wonderful experience. Thank you!

Part six of our inside look at the Athens and 3-Day Greek Isles Cruise

I closed my previous post in this series talking about my 8 a.m. wine tasting appointment. And I wasn’t kidding! We woke up early to disembark at Heraklion, Crete. Crete is the largest of the Greek Isles, and has a culture and dialect that has remained separate from that of mainland Greece. Heraklion is the largest city on Crete and is also the capital.

Right after stepping on land, our group boarded buses that would take us on a half-day shore excursion, appropriately named, A Taste of Crete. The drive itself was breathtaking. We followed a winding, two-lane highway through the countryside that came right up against olive groves and vineyards that seemed to go on forever.

We arrived at a modern winery about 30 minutes from Heraklion where we watched a film about how local wines, olive oil, and raki (a strong alcohol made from the pulp, skins, and seeds of grapes) are made; and how important these goods are to the culture and traditions of Crete. We had a chance to try each of the wines made there, and many people bought bottles to bring home with them.

Then we were back on the road. On route to our next destination we stopped along the side of the road at a spot where you can take beautiful pictures of the landscape and one of the oldest farmhouses in Crete, dating to the Minoan period 16th century B.C.

We arrived in Archanes a short while after. This settlement sits on the site of an ancient Minoan settlement that spread over the same area. It is a beautiful, quaint town who’s economy is based largely on grape and olive processing and marketing.

Our group entered a local tavern where we got to try a number of Cretan foods: olives, cheeses, breads, desserts, and yes, even raki. So now it was about 10 a.m. and we’d already sampled six kinds of wine and one of the strongest drinks you can get in Crete. This made the next part much easier: dancing with traditional Cretan dancers! I shot a quick video of the four dancers who showed off their moves. You won’t see this in the video, but every single person in the room was up dancing in a circle led by the pros. 🙂

After a morning spent eating and drinking, we headed back to Heraklion and boarded the Aquamarine once again, setting course for our last, and probably most anticipated stop: the beautiful Santorini!

The wondrous Greek Isles: Heraklion and Santorini

If three days of sailing throughout the Mediterranean just isn’t enough to take in all the wonders of Greece, there’s also an Athens and four-day Greek Isles cruise. The itinerary for the two vacations are almost identical, but on the four-day cruise, the M/V Aquamarine also docks at the most popular of all the Greek Isles, Santorini, as well as a stop at Heraklion, Crete.
Two Friendly Planeteers enjoying the breathtaking views of Santorini.
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On the four-day journey, after a day in Rhodes, travelers will enjoy a trip to Heraklion. Just five kilometers from the Heraklion city center lie the ruins of Knossos — the capital of Minoan Crete and today the island’s major tourist attraction — which travelers can visit on an optional shore excursion.
Other points of interest here include Heraklion’s Archaeological Museum — one of the finest in the Mediterannean — which houses exquisite findings from Knossos and other Minoan ruins, numerous Venetian fortresses, and fountains and loggias scattered throughout the city.
At the Historical Museum of Crete, Byzantine and folklore collections are on display. The island’s open air market is a must-see, where colorful and boisterous crowds buy, sell, and trade everything from goats and sheep to enormous cauldrons of freshly churned yogurt.
The next port of call is Santorini. This striking island, with breathtaking panoramas and rugged landscapes, is actually a volcanic crater slightly immersed in the sea. The island is famous for its whitewashed houses, narrow streets, open-air cafes, and glittering boutiques which cling to steep cliffs, accessible by foot, cable car, or mule. Like Mykonos, it is not only Santorini’s physical beauty that makes it one of Europe’s most popular destinations, but its dynamic nightlife as well.
The island of Santorini was formed by one of the largest volcanic eruptions on the planet, which destroyed the earliest settlements on what was formerly a single island. The Minoan eruption (sometimes called the Thera eruption) occurred approximately 3,600 years ago at the height of the ancient Minoan civilization.
Vacationers can enjoy an optional tour of Santorini that takes them up along the Caldera (volcanic crater). They can also drive uphill along the rocky sides of the Caldera and pass through many traditional villages to Oia, a village that brims with many fine examples of Cycladic architecture. At the end of the day, passengers return to the ship for a final evening at sea before returning to Athens.

The wondrous Greek Isles: Mykonos, Rhodes, and Patmos

On the third day of our Athens and Greek Isles cruise, vacationers head to Piraeus, a large coastal city just 10 km from the center of Athens, where they’ll board the M/V Aquamarine. Travelers can pass their time enjoying the sun, warm sea breezes, pool, and shipboard facilities while they sail to Mykonos.
The island of Mykonos is famed for its cosmopolitan character and energetic nightlife (some say it’s the best in Europe), as much as it is for its labyrinth of winding alleyways and whitewashed buildings, basket-laden donkeys, and cascading geraniums. Chic crowds flock to the island’s trendy restaurants, discos, and clubs each night, and vacationers sit seaside, sipping ouzo and watching the sunset while listening to traditional Greek music.
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The next day takes travelers to Rhodes, the stunning “Island of Roses.” Historically, Rhodes was famous throughout the world for the Colossus of Rhodes, one of the Seven Wonders of the World.
In the heart of the island’s biggest city, also named Rhodes, is the largest inhabited medieval town in Europe, a fascinating web of Byzantine, Turkish, and Latin ruins. There’s no wonder why it’s been declared one of the few World Heritage Sites. Its mighty fortifications provide the finest surviving examples of defensive architecture of the time.
Lindos, with its dazzlingly white houses clustered beneath a soaring castle-capped acropolis, is Rhodes’ most picturesque village and most important Doric settlement because of its natural harbor and vantage point built 125 meters above sea level. Here, travelers can explore on their own, or take advantage of Friendly Planet Travel’s optional shore excursions.
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The following morning, the M/V Aquamarine docks in Kusadasi, Turkey. Just 10 km from the port of Kusadasi lies the ancient city of Ephessos, where travelers will find an archaeological site that ranks among the wonders of the world. The day’s optional tours include the the Great Theatre of Ephessos, which had a capacity of 25,000 people, and the Library of Celsus, dating from 135 A.D.
Vacationers will then sail to Patmos, Greece. The Aquamarine docks at Skala harbor, a lively atmosphere with whitewashed houses, flowered courtyards, tavernas, and shops. The Island of Patmos is famous in history as the place where St. John wrote the Book of Revelation. An optional tour takes you to the cave where St. John lived and the nearby Monastery, built on one of the island’s highest points, housing priceless icons and manuscripts in its Treasury.
From there, it’s back to Athens for a final few days in the Paris of the Mediterranean.