After nearly nine hours on the sun-beaten ferry floor of the slowest, cheapest, ferry from Athens, I vaguely resembled a sultana – brown and sun-shriveled.
My girlfriend and I were surrounded by Greek families, hyper children with orange juice stained mouths and grandmothers shrouded in wicker sun hats, all of whom seemed to be coping with the heat much better than we.
“Pfft,” we thought.
“We invented the tan.”
How wrong we were, we realised, as we crouched, parched and foreign on the ferry approaching Santorini.
As we reached the port, familiar tangs of salt and fish smacked the air … a reminder of Fremantle at home.
With strained shoulders from hauling overpacked suitcases over chalky rock, we boarded a bus that was to navigate us to the top of an incredibly steep cliff.
Our driver, and Santorinians in general, maintained a casual approach to matters like giving way and lefts and rights, and we hurtled haphazardly up the cliff to the island’s capital, Fira.
The Santorini islands are what remain of a massive volcanic explosion nearly 4000 years ago, with the main island, Thira, surrounded by steep cliffs.
Initially christened Kalliste, meaning ‘the fair one’, by Herodotus in the ninth century BC, Santorini is a place steeped in history, as the ghosts of Christian crusaders and pirate raiders linger in the blue caldera and the pink horizon.
This had been a place I’d always dreamed of going … something about it had infiltrated my mind when I was little and had waited, pulsing warm and shimmering, until I’d finally made it as a uni student on mid semester break.
I stayed in a modest hotel in Kamari, a two kilometre stretch of black-stoned beach, adorned with palm trees and shops flogging sun cream for an outrageous 20 Euros a bottle.
At night, the restaurants and bars awoke, a mass of light, colour and music pulsating along the beach.
Prices ranged from eight to more than 20 Euros for a meal. Traditional Greek faire, characterised by Santorini tomatoes, eggplants and seafood, was often cheaper and better than the cuisine designed to placate the tastes of tourists.
I lived off the cheap gyros that had cost as little as two Euros.
There are regular buses running from Kamari’s main retail strip to Fira, which is a 10 to 15 minute trip away.
The dominant images of Santorini are Fira’s stark white buildings and blue-domed churches overlooking the cliff down to the port.
Fira had a jumble of jewelery and craft markets, clothing stores and art galleries, surrounded by cafes, restaurants and small ‘nightclubs’ which resemble Australian bars.
In Fira, restaurants’ locations influence their pricing, so the most expensive and touristy places will have the best views, but not necessarily the best food.
We quickly discovered this when we decided to ‘treat ourselves’ to an exorbitantly priced lunch of what looked and tasted like the shredded chicken of my school canteen days.
Once we tired of browsing endless stalls of turquoise and silver jewellery and had been tempted by the most decadent bakeries I’d ever seen, we realised how much more Santorini had to offer.
On a replica historic sailing boat we embarked on a one-day cruise from Fira’s port to the middle of the caldera, where we hiked up the volcano’s remnants with a guide who explained the history and culture of Santorini.
We bathed in the volcanic waters of hot mud springs. This was an amazing experience, but unfortunately not the miracle skin treatment I’d heard it to be.
In the late afternoon, I suffered a terrifying donkey ride up yet another cliff to Oia, the best vantage point from which to experience the famous Santorini sunset.
I expected to be underwhelmed but I have never experienced anything like the magic of that orange sun dissolving into pristine water amidst the cheers of tourists and locals perched on rooftops all over Santorini.
A beautiful end to my time on Santorini, worth far more than the 40 Euros I’d been hesitant to pay for the boat ride.