Friday, June 3, 2011

DAY 8 - Santorini, Greece (Oceania Cruise)

For a cruise of the Greek Isles, Santorini is a “must see.” It’s quintessential Greece: whitewashed buildings with blue trim, windmills, and to-die-for views of the caldera!

The volcanic explosion that produced the caldera around which Santorini is built, was believed to have spewed 35 times as much rock and ash as did Mount St. Helens. The resulting hole (now filled with water) is 7.5 x 4.3 miles in diameter and almost 1,300 feet deep.

We tendered ashore at the Port of Skala, but that’s at sea level, of course. And once ashore, you need to get “up there.” There are only three ways to do this: cable car, donkey/mule, or walk up the approximate 850-foot ascent. Our cruise director said he’d done the walk once, but that he wasn’t likely to do it again. It’s a very rough, 45-minutes up, on the same path used by the donkeys. (Having said that, it’s not that they don’t ever clean the path.)

We took the donkeys, and I loved it!! It was the highlight of my day and one of the memorable highlights of the trip.

Donkeys await riders in Santorini, Greece

Captain of the donkeys in Santorini, Greece

Donkey rides up to Fira in Santorini, Greece.  Oceania ship, Marina, is in the distance.

What I’d read beforehand made it sound a lot more precarious than what it seemed to us in person. The path is quite a bit wider than I’d imagined, and there is a wall (albeit, a low wall) on the sea/drop-off side. The views were amazing, and they just kept getting better and better the higher we went. (It wasn’t recommended to take the donkeys back down the hill, as they rush past each other to get to their food at the bottom, and it can be a little precarious. So we took the cable car down, which also provides a great view and is quicker, though there can sometimes be a line.)

Fira, Santorini, Greece

Arriving at the top in Fira (also called Thira), we made our way to the bus station, asking locals for directions. Fira is pretty, but we first wanted to make sure we had plenty of time in Oia (pronounced EE-ah), which is considered the place you really want to see. The bus was very modern and clean – and full of tourists (we don’t know what the locals ride!) – so for only €1.60 each (which is paid after the bus is en route), we were set for the comfortable, 30-minute ride to Oia. It went like clockwork. The return, however, was something else again! (See caution below.)

I’ve never heard of anyone who didn’t love Santorini. Is it even possible for a sky to be any bluer? It was nice, on such a beautiful day, just to stroll around Oia, checking out the windmills and famous blue-domed churches (symbols of Santorini).

A church in Oia, Santorini

Windmill cafe in the Oia section of Santorini, Greece

Windmill in Oia, Santorini


Glimpse through open doors in Oia, Santorini

Terraced cliffs of Oia lead down to Santorini's caldera

Sea horse sculpture at an art gallery in Oia, Santorini

Before heading back, we sat on a restaurant terrace, seemingly on top of the world, and enjoyed a light lunch and libations, trying to etch the view into our memories forever.

Al and Vicki enjoy a restaurant in Oia, Santorini, Greece

Back onboard Marina, I called my 82-year old mother from the ship and was reminded of a TV commercial. My version of it is: Oceania “Grecian Glory” cruise (including air): $3,700 & up, depending on cabin.  Ship-to-U.S. phone call: $4.95/minute.  Hearing my mommy say, “And tomorrow you’ll be in Ephesus?” (she was keeping up with our itinerary):   Priceless!

The scenery of the Santorina caldera from our cabin on Oceania's ship, Marina

We went to Martini’s (the ship's elegant bar/lounge) for happy hour.  Two drinks for the price of one, plus free munchies.

The upholstery in Martini's is studded with bling (on Oceania's ship, Marina).

The effects of the lighting on my glass of champagne in Martini's, aboard Oceania ship, Marina

Friday night we had dinner at Jacques, the French specialty restaurant.

Chairs used in Jacques, the French restaurant aboard Oceania's ship, Marina

Bread basket in Jacques, aboard Oceania ship, Marina

Having fun at Jacques, aboard Oceania ship, Marina

Chef hard at work at Jacques, aboard Oceania ship, Marina

Everything was wonderful, but it was too hard to decide on dessert. (Any wonder, with French desserts?)

Dessert menu at Jacques, the French restaurant aboard Oceania ship, Marina

The winner was Baba au Rhum: a fruit-topped, little round cake onto which the waiter empties a small pitcher of old French rum – yum!!

TIP re THE SANTORINI DONKEYS: The donkeys generally don't like getting too close to the low wall bordering the drop-off, and therein lies the complaint some have had: they will sometimes rub your leg against the mountain side. Knowing this, I wore jeans, and it wasn’t a problem. When they brushed me against the cliff, I gently pressed into the animal’s side with the stirrup, and he moved out. Al pushed on his donkey’s neck, which worked as well. He also said he talked to his donkey and told it to “move over.” :)

CAUTION re TRANSPORTATION IN OIA: I can’t speak for all times of the year, but on this busy day in May, busses were only scheduled to run every hour between Oia and Fira. We reached the bus terminal about 25 minutes early for the 3:30 bus, so stood in the taxi/bus line, thinking maybe we’d spring for a taxi back to Fira. Just as everyone said, there are no taxis stationed in Oia; you have to catch one that's dropping off a new arrival. In the 25 minutes before the bus came, only two such taxis arrived, and we were not first in line for them.

Once the bus arrived, gone was the line and it was every man for himself. I got on and was surprised to see it was already standing room only, and I couldn’t see Al anywhere behind me. What neither of us realized is that people had been pouring in through the back door as well. I said to another passenger, “I don’t see my husband.” She said, “What’s his name and we’ll start calling it out.” So we both started calling “Al…Al…Al.” Those on the outside heard it, and he’s convinced that’s the only thing that allowed him to go ahead of them to get on the bus. Had he had to wait for the 4:30 bus, and then take the cable cars down and catch the tender, there’s a chance he wouldn’t have made it back to the ship before sailing. That’s a little scary!

If we had it to do over again, we’d try to get to Oia as early as possible, and return no later than the 2:30 bus, when (with a little luck) it may not be quite as crowded as later. Better yet, we might want to pay a taxi to take us to Oia, stay with us, and return us. Some say that costs less than having them return for you (which must be prearranged…and hopefully they remember), as there is a pick-up charge for anything outside Fira. The other option is to go with a tour bus. Every option is better than missing the ship.

CRUISE INFO: I was originally a little confused about which port we’d go into, but Oceania’s personnel explained it well to all of us before arrival. We first stopped at the Athinios Port. (We were told there was nothing there except for the busses that would take passengers who’d signed up for the cruise line’s shore excursions.) The ship then moved to the Port of Skala for the rest of us to disembark, as desired. Santorini is the one place we visited where ships are required to employ local tender boats to shuttle us to shore, rather than the ship’s lifeboats, which we used at other times.

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