Santorini, also called Thira, or Fira, lies south of the central Cyclades group of Greek islands. It is considered one of the top holiday hotspots in the Cyclades. Born in a centuries-old massive volcanic eruption, the fumes still rise offshore.
Santorini caters for the well-heeled holidaymaker, with many luxury hotels and swish bars. Cruise ships also ferry in visitors by the thousand to gasp at the island's romantic sunset skies and to turn on to Santorini's vibrant club scene.
Santorini has its own airport, so it's easy to get flights, and shuttle buses run to all the main resorts. Santorini has plenty of quality hotels and, although the island attracts independent travellers, finding budget accommodation can be a problem.
Santorini holidays are in huge demand and local prices do reflect the fact. Expect to burn a sizeable hole in your wallet to secure the best views from the Santorini's clifftop tavernas and bars.
The capital town of Fira perches precariously on top of vertical cliffs. The view over the caldera and the romantic pull of those sunsets make this a favourite spot for honeymoon couples.
Most holiday hotels are located in the central Santorini resorts of Fira and Imerovigli, both of which are an ideal choice for those looking for a lively buzz; a quieter time awaits those visitors who edge a little further north along the caldera rim.
Santorini beaches are mostly confined to the south-east coast where a long strip of black volcanic sand runs from Kamari to Perivolos. Not everyone takes to the grey and gritty volcanic sand which can sizzle with trapped summer heat. The western side of the island rings the caldera, the flooded volcano crater, and it is just one long crescent of a near-vertical cliff. There are a few beaches north-east and south-west but they tend to be small, with sparse facilities.
The island capital of Thira, variously spelt as Thera or Fira, overlooks a magnificent caldera atop some 300-metre high cliff of black, red and brown. Holiday cruise ships anchor by the dozen in the deep bay below and most dock at the port of Athinios, built in the wake of the 1956 earthquake where a winding path snakes up the cliff in a series of hairpin bends.
The old port of Ormos lies directly below Fira in water so deep that ships' anchor chains don't reach the seabed. They moor to specially built giant buoys.
Embarking tourists can take a mule ride up a steep, zigzag staircase but most opt for the sedate Austrian-built cable car. Some will tackle the 600 or so steps up to Fira on foot but the staircase path is heart-stoppingly steep and walkers risk being brushed aside by mule teams as they pick their way through copious donkey droppings.
Mule rides appear popular with obese Americans. Grim-faced riders bounce along and owners don't rely much on customer satisfaction – there is always another cruise ship.
In Fira itself, white cube houses and blue-domed churches spill down the cliff terraces in an appealing mishmash of styles. Staggering views over the caldera are the staple of restaurants where enjoying a romantic sunset meal is a popular, if expensive, holiday pastime.
Old kafenia, bakeries and grocery shops have long been supplanted by trendy boutiques and pricey bars. Santorini may abound in volcanic pumice, but shops still sell 'rare' pumice to the gullible.
The less exclusive tavernas are geared to fast-food appetites – the ridiculous McZorbas says it all. The most expensive shops flank the main road and most nightclubs cluster near the Fira main staircase.
The north of the village is less volatile and well worth exploring. The Catholic cathedral dominates and the convent sells hand-made rugs.
The Fira museum is a bit of a washout as the fabulous frescos found at Akrotiri have been carted off to Athens but the Megaron Gyzi museum has old maps of the Cyclades and photos of Fira before the devastating 1956 earthquake.
The road north out of Fira leads immediately to Thirastefani, also spelt Firastefani, which was once a separate village but is now so swallowed up by its neighbour Fira that they are indistinguishable.
The name Firastefani means 'crown of Fira' and, slightly higher, is said to have some the best sunset views on the island, although this is the claim is made by every Santorini village that sits along the island's north-eastern rim.
Frankly, one sunset view is pretty much as good as any other, caused as it is by the sulphur-rich fumes that spout from Santorini's offshore islets and hover miasma-like over the whole caldera.
Still, Firastefani could be considered marginally less busy than its neighbour and slightly less expensive. There is no village centre in Firastefani as such. It is now almost entirely composed of holiday hotels, pools, villas and apartments with a few restaurants and cafes perched precariously along the top of the cliff.
Holidaymakers who prefer sunset views over the caldera away from the swarms of camera-wielding trippers will head to Imerovigli. It may be little more than another extension of Fira but it tends not to fill up quite so quickly. At three kilometres from the capital, it can be a little too far for cruise boat passengers on shore leave.
This is the highest spot along the caldera rim and those awe-inspiring views peak at the clifftop site of Skaros, an imposing ruin of the citadel fortress that the Venetians once crowned the island capital.
Though much of the village was destroyed in the 1956 earthquake, Imerovigli is still classed as a 'Traditional Settlement', protecting it against overdevelopment. The buildings that did survive have been tastefully restored, notably the traditional 'cave' homes that were deeply carved into the hillside.
Homes here are among the most sought after in the Greek islands and a typical 'cave' house will set buyers back at least €1 million. Hotel visitors can also expect to pay top prices for rooms.
The local Church of the Panagia Malteza has an impressive iconostasis and some icons depicting scenes from the Old Testament. A small white chapel occupies the site of the Rocca at Skaros which resisted dozens of sieges before falling to the 1956 earthquake. A cliffside footpath runs from Imerovigli back to Fira and offers some fine views over the caldera.
If Fira is trendy, the phonetically challenged Oia (pronounced Eea) is upmarket trendy. Oia has splendid views over the caldera rim and a winding staircase down to a small quay.
Many homes here survived the 1956 earthquake and most have been tastefully restored. Some are in bright, rich colours but most are brilliant white, clinging to the red and grey cliffs so closely that one family's roof is another's courtyard.
Oia shops tend to sell more authentic – if expensive – goods, food is more traditional Greek and disco music usually absent. Oia is the place for designer jewellery, arty galleries and swish boutiques.
The main square in Oia overlooking the caldera and acts as a gathering point for sunset watchers who sometimes offer an implausible round of applause as the sun sinks on the horizon.
Worth a visit is the Maritime Museum, with models of ships and other sea-going paraphernalia. Oia has several art galleries and a cultural centre among the souvenir and gift shops.
Unlike Fira, Oia has access to the sea at Amoudi and Armeni where there are small quaysides with waterfront tavernas. Both are at the bottom of very steep stone staircases of about 300 steps, or visitors can opt for a donkey ride.
The far northern coastline of Santorini is virtually inaccessible until you reach Baxedes through an area of low rolling hills. The beach here, also called Paradisos, is a long swathe of pebble but the water, notable for Santorini, is relatively shallow. A beach cantina opens in the summer with sunbeds for hire.
Another gritty black beach is found a little further south at Cape Koulombo, a long but narrow strip of coarse sand backed by looming cliffs that wouldn't look out of place in a bleak sci-fi movie as the wind has carved the cliffs into weird shapes.
There are few facilities and the beach is a long walk from the car park. About four kilometres offshore is an underwater crater – the remnants of a volcano that devastated Santorini in 1650.
Further south still is a small beach at Pori, set in a tranquil bay beneath hillside vineyards and with a small fishing quay with a couple of tavernas. It is well worth a diversion for those looking to escape the crowds. Swimmers should take care as the currents here are notoriously strong.
The village of Vourvolos is an inland continuation of Firastefani but much quieter with extensive views to both sides of the island. A number of small beaches lie along this stretch of the east coast.
The most northerly is Xiropigado, a narrow strip of pebble down a dirt track off the main east coast road. Just south is Vourvoulos beach itself, down another dirt track and a not particularly attractive strip of stone and sharp black sand.
It has a small harbour and a taverna. A long cement wall doesn't add to the charm and, open and exposed, the beach can attract debris.
A coastal path lined with beech trees leads to a beach at Kanaraki, named after a local factory owner, where dark grey and ochre bluffs of volcanic rock loom over a narrow beach of black pebbles.
There are usually no facilities at Kanaraki or at nearby Exo Yialos where caves have been hollowed out into the rock, but small beach cantina s may sometimes open in the high summer.
Monolithos is a seaside village about eight kilometres from Fira that takes its name from an impressive rock outcrop now topped by the church of Agios Ionassis.
The grey sand and shingle is long and deep and backed by brooding cliffs that hang over a narrow road along the back of the beach. The sand dips very sharply at the sea edge but, after that, the waters are shallow enough to wade, so it's fine for families with children.
A beach cafe has a shower and some tavernas and hotel pool bars are nearby. Monolithos may have a slightly desolate air and the chimney stacks of a tomato canning factory fails to add to the scene but this is a fine spot to escape the throngs found on other beaches.
A few trees dotted along the beach offer natural shade and a rough track that runs south from the airport fence opens out onto uninterrupted if unremarkable, beaches all the way to Kamari.
Inland from Monolithos and the centre of Santorini island is the village of Karterados. The village makes a fine base to explore Santorini and some tour operators now offer holidays here.
Built between two rivers and is almost invisible from the surrounding countryside, the name means the 'hiding' or 'ambush' spot and acted as a hideaway from marauding 17th-century pirates.
The village square has a restored windmill and the notable 'Steps of Galaios' lead into a neighbourhood of cobbled streets, traditional Captain's houses and 'cave' houses built into the rock.
Karterados is only a 20-minute walk from Fira, so it is nicely situated between the popular capital to the west and the beaches of Monolithos to the east.
The village is quite large and boasts a couple of bakeries, several tavernas and cafes as well as a number of shops on the main road.
There are daily buses to Fira, Messaria, Megalochori and Emporio as well as services to the beaches of Perissa, Perivolos and Kamari.
Inland from Monolithos, near Karterados, and about four kilometres south-east of Fira in the centre of the island and the heart of Santorini's winemaking area at the village of Messaria.
Over the past few years, Messaria has been targeted by upmarket holiday developers and is now dotted with luxury apartments and holiday villas as well as a large number of speciality shops.
Surrounded by vineyards, Messaria village retains much traditional village charm despite the recent addition and has two fine churches at Metamorphosis tou Sotiros and Agia Irini, both built around 1700.
Away from the tourist traps of Fira, and Imerovigli Messaria is an excellent central base for anyone wishing to explore the island.
High up the 566-metre high Profitis Ilias mountain sits the village of Pyrgos, one of the oldest and most picturesque villages on Santorini. It lies on the northern slopes about eight kilometres from Fira.
The village is very popular for holiday excursion tours, thanks to a good road, a Venetian fortress and some excellent examples of the island's traditional barrel-roofed Pyrgos houses set among vineyards that crawl up the side of the mountain.
Near the top is the small Monastery of Profitis Ilias, built in 1712, which has a painting of entrances of heaven and hell, the latter's doors noticeably wider than the former's – oh well.
There is also an interesting if small, museum. It's unfortunate that the monastery must share the mountain with a rash of ugly TV and radio masts alongside the disfiguring communication towers of a military base.
A motley collection of more than 300 hotels make up most of Santorini's main beach resort at Kamari. Black stones dominate the beach which is about two kilometres long, generously strewn with sunbeds and backed by holiday apartments, hotels and villas.
Kamari is a modern, charmless beach resort, wholly rebuilt after the 1956 earthquake with wall-to-wall hotels, tavernas, bars, cafes and tourist shops.
The busiest beach on Santorini is very family oriented with regimented lines of sunbeds to keep holiday visitors well organised and plenty of beach facilities.
The black gritty sand and stone can get very hot at the height of summer, there is a sharp drop into the water and strong currents further offshore, so it's not ideal for families with children.
The church of Panagia Myrtidiotissa holds a festival in late September when tourists are invited to party with the locals.
In August the Panagia Episkopi church celebrates the feast of the Virgin Mary, and there is an annual jazz festival as well as an outdoor cinema the road to Fira.
The mountain at Profitis Ilias looks down on the long, black sands of Perissa and the pretty seaside setting has attracted holiday developers in force.
Apartments have sprung up in ramshackle fashion but are set well back from the beach, which saves the scenery but can result in a tiring trek to the sands which stretch south for around five kilometres.
The black shingle and sand get very hot, and a shade-free midday can be more barbecue than a beach. The large headland to the north also keeps Perissa well sheltered from any wind.
Perissa beach shelves steeply into the sea and slippery slabs along the shore make it less than ideal for children. However, it has all the usual tourist facilities and a wide selection of watersports.
There is a large campsite here, an excellent bakery and several mini-markets. Eucalyptus groves provide some shade in the resort centre.
Perissa is also a popular day trip target for those based in beachless Fira. There is a waterpark nearby, but visitors report little more than a pool and a couple of slides.
The beach resort at Perivolos takes holiday overspill from Perissa which is a 20-minutes walk along the pretty coastline on the south-eastern side of the island.
Perivolos is popular with youngsters and several beach bars belt out the loud club music that attracts a lively holiday club scene crowd in the high summer season.
Bars and tavernas line the back of the sands which are virtually indistinguishable from those at Perissa, except for looking a slightly lighter shade of grey.
Like much of this part of the coast the sand drops sharply into the sea, so families with children must take care, although the sand is softer out to sea than on other Santorini beaches.
Further south the beach blends into Agios Georgios, again with no noticeable markings but a headland there marks the southern tip Santorini, and it is considerably quieter with just a few beach bars.
It is quieter still at nearby Vlychada where there is a small marina and a beach backed by eroded cliffs and strangely sculpted rock and sand formations; like a landscape from another planet.
Just below the archaeological site at Akrotiri is a string of small beaches, the best known of which is Kokkino Paralia or Red Beach where sunbeds sit on pebbles beneath startling blood-red cliffs of lava that plunge almost vertically to the black sand shore.
The beach, a favourite with naturists, is narrow and shelves steeply into the sea. The sheer cliffs behind can give a claustrophobic feel. There are meals and snacks served at a nearby hotel and boat trips from here to some less accessible beaches on this stretch of shore.
These include Aspri Paralia or White Beach to the west and Kambia Beach which is signposted from the lighthouse down a dirt track. Kambia has large pebbles, sunbeds and a summer cantina.
Also along this stretch of coast is the stone beach of Mesa Pigadia, again off a dirt road near the lighthouse and notable for its unusual rock formations and caves. There is a summer cantina here.
All these beaches are served by taxi boats that leave daily from the beach below the entrance to the Akrotiri archaeological site.