I’ve been to Santorini several times, so I can’t pretend I’m a stranger to this singularly beautiful and unlikely island. So the first thing I do is something I’ve heard about but have never done: explore Ammoudi Beach, which rests far below a white windmill in the iconic village of Oia. (Don’t worry, I will spend time in Oia — everyone wants to hear about Oia.) So after I disembark from the tender sent to Fira from Nieuw Amsterdam on my Mediterranean cruise, I leave my family and friends to their shopping. With my swim trunks and towel in tow, I head down the twisty, cobblestoned donkey path to Ammoudi.
Down on the water, the bay has just woken up. Ammoudi is less a village than a simple row of authentic Greek tavernas set with white tables. There is no marked path, so I move across the tavernas’ diminutive terraces. All is quiet. A cook prepares his outdoor grill for fresh octopus. Pulleys and ropes to bring up the day’s catch hang from the rustic wooden eaves. I ask a man where I can jump in the water and he points south along the caldera. I walk the curve of the bay and stop to look back at the extraordinary view: the luminous rippling water dotted with red buoys; the jagged red cliffs above the tavernas; and Oia’s whitewashed villas spread out like frosting under a perfect blue-dome of sky.
I walk on, and it becomes more of a trek, but finally I see a few swimmers out on a small seaside platform. Why are they here? I look out, and there it is: a tiny island topped by a tinier church called St. Nicholas. In no time, I’m in the water, cool and clear. I swim around the island in a few minutes —it’s that small. This feels like an intensely local thing to do, and when I emerge under the stunning Greek sun, I feel reborn. I decide in that moment to go by the name Andreas, the closest translation of Drew.
To Demetrius the taxi driver, I am Andreas. To Spiros the baker, I am Andreas. To all the many guys named Konstantinos (Costas for short), I am Andreas. No matter how brief the interaction, I always ask people their names when I travel. When you’re on the global road, the people you meet are not your anonymous supporting cast and extras in your movie. Everyone has their movie, their own story. Asking people their names helps me to remember that wherever I go. And it must be said: Greek names are amazing — evocative and earthy — and in Mykonos I grow out my beard and hold onto my Greek name tight. I want to be one of them — of the rugged land and the silvery olive trees and the Aegean. Andreas is all of that.
I’m famished by the time I find my father and our family friends at the Sea Gull restaurant in Oia. Luckily I’d made a reservation because everyone is in a frenzy to find a scenic place to have lunch. We’re rewarded with an insanely well-placed table — we can almost reach out and touch the brilliant blue dome of a nearby church. I order a big meze platter for the table: grape leaves, hummus, tzatziki (yogurt dip), taramasalata (fish roe dip), and piles of sliced pita bread. We share a huge Greek salad topped with ample slabs of feta. With this view, the food doesn’t need to be as good as it is; by the end of the meal we are all but licking our fingers. When you’re the travel expert in a group of people that you love, there’s a lot of pressure. That Sea Gull turned out so well, so much better than I expected, gives me a rush of relief. I’m so happy that I could give them this gift.
We grab a taxi back to Fira. Fira is a labyrinth like Oia, but more horizontal (fewer stairs). I bring my group to the White House, the landmark clothing boutique where I always pick up a few gauzy white linen shirts. My friend Vincent and I are feeling adventurous, so while our parents head back to Nieuw Amsterdam, the two of us hike up the road. Immediately north of Fira is Firostefani, Fira’s bedroom community, though Fira is now so sprawling that it’s hard to know where Fira begins and Firostefani begins. But then it comes back to me. There is a main path with some tavernas and shops, but mainly this is a quiet residential stretch of white villas. I point out to Vincent a villa that I visited years ago — it has an infinity pool, the border of which is still dotted, as it was then, with museum-quality artifacts, antique busts and the like. Then there are other pools, grotto-like pools that begin inside a cave-like villa and flow outside to glistening basins in the sun. It’s so gorgeous: Around every turn is a crazy new vista.
“Should we keep going?” I ask Vincent.
“Oh, yeah,” he says.
THAT MOMENT IN SANTORINI WHEN…
…I find the island’s most famous rock.
We ascend. Our final stop will be Imerovigli, the highest town on the caldera. I understand that we’ll be cutting it close in order to make it to the last tender to the ship, but Andreas know his island. It’s a steep climb, but finally Vincent and I are rewarded. Imerovigli is a sharp and vertical village. It boasts the same aquamarine pools and floating islands as the other caldera villages, and something else: Skaros, a dramatic rock outcropping shaped like a cork atop an asymmetrical pyramid. We weave our way down into the village, and luckily find a bar with a vast terrace. For the price of a few glasses of a local white called Ktima Alfa, we can jump into the bar’s infinity pool. Skaros turns red with the waning sun. The wildflowers blaze yellow. The wine goes down like scented water. We savor it all. Not bad for the final moments of our Santorini port day.
Drew Limsky is the founding editor-in-chief of Holland America Line’s award-winning Mariner magazine and currently is a contributor to the publication, making him an ideal writer for Holland America Blog. As a travel journalist for outlets including The New York Times, Drew quickly realized that destination writing not only was a way of experiencing beautiful places, but also a way of meeting people from all over the world and hearing their stories. Drew broke into journalism as a book reviewer for The Washington Post and an op-ed writer for The Los Angeles Times.