The Greek Cyclades – Santorini

The view looking south over Santorini from Fira

Santorini was the island in the Cyclades that I’d heard most about and I was really looking forward to visiting. We were now over half way through the island-hopping trip to Greece we had planned having already visited islands in the Sporades and spent some time in the capital city of Athens – taking a day to island hop in the Saronic Gulf while we were there. We had now just completed a stay on the island of Naxos which had been my favourite location we’d spent time in so far and were boarding a ferry from here to Santorini.

Views from Fira

The ferry was much larger than the one we’d taken from Athens to Naxos and this time, there were no set seats, we could sit anywhere in the economy area. With a lot more options for food – multiple cafes and a fast food burger restaurant, we spent most of our time on board trying to decide what to get for a snack.

Once we’d arrived at the main ferry port in Santorini, we quickly found our pre-arranged transfer to our hotel which was just down a (rather steep) hill from the town of Fira. All checked in, we made our way into town having to stop multiple times to get our breath back as we climbed one hill after another in the blistering heat!

Not really knowing exactly where we were going, we wandered along the streets deciding to just see what we’d find. And what we found were people and plenty of them! The streets were crowded making it difficult to pass through many of the narrower streets or get near any of the stores – not that that really mattered as many of them were touristy souvenir stores all selling the same thing at slightly differing prices.

View of the Fira cable cars from the steps down to the old port

As one of the streets lead us out to a view point, we could see one of the reasons for the number of people around – three large cruise ships were docked near the island. After the peace and quiet of Naxos, it was a bit of a shock to the system to find ourselves fighting for space on Santorini and it didn’t endear me to the town of Fira at all.

Still, the views from the lookout points were pretty and we had plenty planned to see more of the island over the next few days so I was sure my opinion would change over time.

Arriving on the island of Nea Kameni

After a disappointing dinner – a pizza that tasted like the kind you buy frozen at a supermarket – we returned to our hotel to spend the last hour of sunshine cooling down in the pool followed by a relaxing night in ready for the next day.

We were up bright and early the next morning to ensure we had time to grab some breakfast in town before walking to the old port. Deciding McDonalds might be a safe bet, we were surprised to find it didn’t have any breakfast options instead selling burgers and fries even at 8am! Luckily, we came across a bakery nearby where we found plenty of bread and pastry options.

After gobbling these down, we began our descent down the clifftop town of Fira to the old port, navigating almost 600 steps and trying to avoid the hoards of poor donkeys and mules carrying tourists back up. It took a long time to make it all the way down and I was thankful that there was a cable car option to bring us back up to the town at the end of the day!

Volcanic landscape

At the old port, we met our tour guide for the day and boarded our pirate-style boat which would be taking us out to the nearby ‘caldera’ – Santorini’s volcano on the island of Nea Kameni.

It didn’t take very long to sail there and once we were docked alongside the many other boats also taking trips there, we had some free time to make our way to the top of the island, enjoy the views, see some volcanic activity and make our way back down again.

The hotsprings of Palea island in the distance

The walk to the top of the island, which is made completely of black lava, was easier than we had expected and the views of the volcanic landscape, the crater at the top and out across the sea from the island really were beautiful.

On the way, we could see steam rising from the ground due to the volcanic activity still going on there.

Back on the boat, our guide gave us a bit more information about the island as we made our way to the second stop of the day, the island of Palea. We wouldn’t actually be stopping on the island itself, instead, the boat docked a short distance out from where we could see the waters change to a rusty orange colour where the islands’ hot springs were. We had the chance to swim out from the boat to the hot springs – an opportunity I jumped at although, not literally, as many people decided to jump into the sea from the side of the boat, I chose to climb down a ladder into the water! ‘Noodle’ float aids were supplied to anyone who wanted them.

Looking out from the steps up to Thirassia town

It was an easy swim out to the hot springs and the water did feel noticeably warmer once I reached them. As I was one of the last off the boat, by the time I reached the hot springs, it was almost time to swim back again.

This was a lot more difficult as we were swimming again the current and I was relieved when I finally managed to grab the ladder off the side of the boat and begin my climb back aboard!

It didn’t take long to dry out in the warm sun and breeze as we set sail for our final stop of the day, the island of Thirassia. Here, we had more free time to spend. The main town was at the top of a cliff up a steep zig-zagging path similar to that in Fira on Santorini island but there were plenty of restaurants – both sit-down and fast food places – in the port area for anyone that didn’t want the trek up. Having found somewhere to purchase drinks and sat by the sea to eat the picnic lunch we had brought with us, we decided we didn’t have the time or inclination to walk up to town so after climbing the first section of stairs to take some photos of the view, we made our way back down to the port again grabbing an ice cream and walking along the coast a bit until it was time to board the boat again.

Enjoying the view from the cable car

Although we had no more stops to make, the day was not over yet as we took the scenic route back to Santorini sailing up to the town on Oia at the north of the island and making our way down the east coast of the island back to Fira enjoying the views of the white-washed houses and blue-domed churches on the cliffs above.

Once back on dry land, we took the cable car back up to Fira town and had a much more enjoyable meal – chicken souvlaki – at another one of the restaurants in town before returning to our hotel for another late evening dip in the pool.

For our final full day in Santorini, we had a coastal walk from Fira to Oia planned.

Above, the town of Imerovigli, and below, more views on the coastal walk from Fira To Oia

Heading into town, we quickly picked up the coastal path and began the 10km-or-so walk. Despite the 30-something degree heat, the beautiful views, especially in the town of Imerovigli with its white-washed hotels and houses built into the cliffs, kept us going and made some of the more brutal hills worthwhile in the end!

A well-deserved treat in Oia

When we reached Oia, almost 6 hours later, we were exhausted and decided to treat ourselves to a sweet treat of crepes covered in hazelnut sauce and with a dollop of ice cream from a local cafe.

Feet rested and fuelled up on sugar, we then spent some time exploring Oia.

With its mainly wider streets and white footpaths and buildings, first impressions of Oia were a lot more favourable than Fira. It was busy but didn’t feel quite as crowded. We found a viewpoint for its famous three blue-domes churches and grabbed photos, saw the castle from a distance and walked to some windmills too. We had originally planned to stay in Oia until sunset but had read that it got ridiculously busy around this time of day and could be extremely difficult to get a bus back to Fira at the end of the night. So instead, we decided to catch the bus back to Fira late afternoon, grab dinner there then watch the sunset from somewhere along the coast path near there.

The buses were already busy, even in the middle of the afternoon but we managed to get a seat on the second one that came along and were soon back in Fira. After dinner in Fira’s main square, we took a stroll to one of the many viewpoints over the coast to watch the sunset.

Exploring ancient ruins at Akrotiri

The next day we would be taking a ferry to our final island stop of Crete but as our ferry wasn’t scheduled until 4pm, we still had plenty of time that morning for some sightseeing. We had decided to use public transport to head to the south of the island and see the archaeological site at Akrotiri.

Having arrived back to chaotic scene at Fira bus station the night before, we should have been prepared for what would await us this morning. The bus station was more like a large car park with buses coming and going while people stood around here there and everywhere, walking out behind reversing buses and in front of buses about to pull away not knowing where they should be going. None of the bays were labelled and none of the buses or routes seemed to be numbered. Instead, whenever a bus pulled up and parked, the driver would just yell out its destination and there be a mad scramble to get on before all the seats went!

Despite the chaos and disorganisation surrounding us, we somehow managed to board the bus to Akrotiri. Once there we took the short walk to the archaeological site and spent some time exploring the ancient ruins.

The seafront at Akrotiri

While interesting to see, the museum didn’t take us very long to go round. It is possible to take taxi boats out from the small, pebbly beach at Akrotiri to visit Red Beach and White Beach, two popular Santorini attractions but unfortunately, we didn’t have enough time if we were going to make our ferry to Crete.

After my initial reservations, the island of Santorini definitely grew on me. It’s certainly very beautiful but I feel tourism has spoilt it slightly and the complete contrast to the slower paced Naxos island we had just come from made the busy, crowded streets of Fira a shock to the system at first. If I was to return I think I’d consider choosing a different part of the island than Fira to stay in and would definitely choose a quieter time of the year than the middle of August to visit! But there was plenty to enjoy and I was glad to have finally ticked it off my list of places to go!

The Greek Cyclades – Naxos, Iraklia and Koufonissi

On the ferry to Naxos island

Stop number 3 on our 16-day vacation to Greece was the island of Naxos in the popular Cyclades island group. It was an island I hadn’t even heard of before starting to plan this trip but one I was looking forward to visiting after reading lots of positive things about it.

Our lovely guesthouse in Naxos

Having started our Greek adventure in the Sporades Islands, we were currently in Athens and after a long daytrip sailing to three of the Saronic Islands yesterday, we were now on our way to another marina, or rather, the city’s main ferry port, Piraeus to board the first of three passenger ferries we’d be taking this trip.

Church in old Naxos town

The journey to the ferry port was pretty straight forward, taking just one metro line from near our hotel all the way to the Piraeus stop. Arriving in plenty of time, we grabbed breakfast from a cafe near the station before setting off to find our ferry.

This was a little less straightforward, the information on our ticket not being enough to identify our boat from all of those docked nearby. Eventually, we found someone to ask who pointed us in the right direction and find that point forward, we boarded without problems, a staff member helping us to load our luggage in the correct compartment for our port of call.

The remains of a Venetian Castle in Naxos town

Finding our seats – like on a plane, we’d all been allocated seat numbers! – we settled down ready for the journey only to find ourselves in the middle of chaotic scenes as other couples, groups of friends and even families with young children found they hadn’t been allocated seats together.

What ensued was like a game of musical chairs crossed with a jigsaw puzzle as we all tried to move around to accommodate those that had been separated. Realising it was a bit of an impossible task, we at were at least able to make sure that the young children were as close to their parents as possible.

The ferry ride was not what I had expected. I thought we’d be able to freely road the boat and that there’d be an outside deck we could maybe stand on if we wanted similar to when I’d used the ferries between the Scottish islands. Instead, we were encouraged to mainly stay in our seats – at one point told not to move around the boat at all as we hit rough seas – and while we could walk from one end of the boat to the other to visit the shop or cafes on board, many areas were out of bounds.

The sun starts to set with the Temple of Apollo on the hill in the distance

Naxos was the second stop after the island of Poros. The rough seas had delayed our arrival time by about an hour but upon arrival, we were still met by the owner of the guesthouse we’d be staying at who had offered us free transfers from the port.

We were actually staying within walking distance from the port but with it being on a slight uphill gradient to the guesthouse and as we were armed with our luggage, we appreciated being transported the short journey.

Walking back to town after watching the sunset

Once settled in and armed with the maps and information given to us by the guesthouse owners, we set out to start exploring. We followed the instructions given us to walk to the elevator which would take us up the hill to the old Venetian Castle at the top of Naxos old town.

The elevator actually led to the Archaeological Museum of Naxos – which was unfortunately closed during our visit – or to a rooftop cafe bar with pretty views over the island. Despite us not purchasing anything from the bar, no one seemed to mind us and other visitors stopping to take a few photos before we made our way out via the museum shop to the narrow paths old the old town.

Artefacts in the small museum for the Temple of Demeter

Unsure exactly where we were, we wandered through the pretty, winding streets, up and down steps and along narrow alleyways passing churches, guesthouses and galleries along the way. Being high up, we could often see views of the sea or the port so just kept turning in that direction and going downhill until we eventually reached the main street running along the sea front.

After stopping for an ice cream from one of the many cafes and restaurants lining the front, we decided to walk away from the main port following the coast path and we eventually found ourselves at the busy Agios Georgios beach. Stopping to rest for a while, we then retraced our steps back into town and followed the road from the port around the hilly old town back to our guesthouse to cool down in the air con for a bit.

That evening, we walked back into town choosing one of the many restaurants along the front for dinner and both ordering a delicious chicken souvlaki meal. Then we took a walk up to the Temple of Apollo, ancient ruins stood on a hill along the coast and a popular spot for seeing the sunset. While it was already busy when we arrived, we managed to find a spot to sit just before more crowds of people made their way up there. It really was a beautiful sunset and a beautiful spot to watch it from!

The next day, we had booked a rather reasonable day tour of the highlights of Naxos island. Meeting our coach by the ferry port, we set off for our first stop, the Temple of Demeter where we had a bit of free time to see the ruins and explore the small museum.

Next stop was out in the countryside in the small town of Damalas where we visited a small pottery store to see a traditional Naxos ceramic wine decanter being made and then stopped by a small museum to see a traditional olive press as our guide explained the process that would have been used to make olive oil.

Above, Monastery Panagia Drossiani, and below, exploring the marble town of Apeiranthos

After stopping at the beautiful church of the Monastery Panagia Drossiani, we were taken to the pretty town of Chalkio where we visited a distillery and had the opportunity to try citron liquor.

A ‘coffee stop’ in the village of Apeiranthos was next. Apeiranthos is known as the ‘marble village’ as most of the buildings and roads here were built out of marble. We spent the free time we had here wandering through the narrow streets and stopping for ice cream to keep us going until lunch.

The seaside resort of Apollon

The final two stops of the day were in Apollon, a seaside resort on the North-East coast of the island. First we stopped in the town itself where we chose one of the seafront cafes to sit and have lunch before taking a stroll through the town and along the popular beach.

Apollon Kouros

Then we stopped up the hill just outside the of the town to visit Apollonas Kouros, a huge, ancient statue which still lies flat on the ground having never been moved to where it may have been intended to end up!

Our tour ended with a drive along the scenic coast road back to Naxos town and after dinner at another of the seafront restaurants, we walked back to our guesthouse exhausted.

Arriving on the island of Iraklia

For our final full day on Naxos island, we had actually booked a trip to the nearby islands of Delos and Mykonos, Delos because it was home of another archaeological site we wanted to visit and Mykonos because while we felt we shouldn’t come to the Cyclades without visiting, an afternoon there would be more than long enough.

Above, and below, a blue-domes church on the island of Iraklia

Making our way down to the pier where our boat would depart from, we were confused to see it about to depart 45 minutes before the time we had been told. Racing down the jetty, we spoke with the crew who told us the trip we had been booked on had been cancelled ‘weeks ago’.

As we had had confirmation from the tour company with instructions on how to find the boat within the last 24 hours, this seemed strange to us but the crew told us it was nothing to do with them and we’d need to speak to the operator to sort it out.

Above, and below, on the beach at Iraklia

Googling the tour company’s name, we found it had a branch along the seafront in Naxos so walked the short distance there to explain to the assistant what had happened. It turned out the boat to Delos had been cancelled the day before and we just hadn’t been informed. The assistant looked into other options for us but it was impossible to get to Delos or Mykonos that day and back and still have enough time there.

Seeing we were at a bit of a loss with how to spend our day, instead, she suggested a boat trip out to the islands of Iraklia and Koufonissi.

Above, arriving on the island of Koufonissi, and below, lunch with a view

While many of the day trips had already left for the day, this one was yet to depart and we’d still have time to make the boat. So, unsure where we were really going or what there was to do there but needing something to do, we exchanged our tickets and made our way back to the jetty to board our new boat!

Above, the clear sea of Koufonissi, and below, walking along the coast

With everyone on board the boat in their swimwear, we had a feeling there wouldn’t be a huge amount to do to keep us occupied at either island and we were completely unprepared for a beach day ourselves having expected to be exploring the ruins of Delos that morning.

Arriving onto the island of Iraklia, we decided to walk up a rather steep hill to a viewpoint that was marked on google maps then returned back into the small town and wandered towards a blue-domed church we had spotted before returning towards the sea front, stopping to buy a drink to cool us down. We spent the last half hour of our time there sat in the shade at the back of the pretty beach until it was time to make our way back to board the boat. Iraklia seemed a lovely quiet spot to spend a relaxing holiday away from it all or a few hours on the beach and we wished we’d been more prepared to enjoy it a bit more.

Beautiful Koufinissi

Pulling up at the larger island of Koufonissi, we could see the large sandy beach in front of us but were hopeful that there’d be more to do in the town here to occupy us, starting with finding a spot of lunch.

Heading inland, we soon settled on a pretty cafe-restaurant sat up on a hill with a patio offering beautiful views over the bay and ordered sandwiches and drinks before wandering through the quiet streets past shops, galleries and more pretty blue-domed churches.

View of the marina

Leaving the town behind, we then walked down to the beach and followed the coast path past some rocky coves where we sat paddling our feet before continuing on to another beach further along the coast. The walk offered some really pretty views.

Returning back to the town, we had another walk around and up to another viewpoint before it was time to return to board the boat back to Naxos. Koufonissi was another really beautiful island and another place you could spend a really relaxing holiday getting away from it all.

Arriving back in Naxos late evening, we again ate dinner at one of the restaurants along the front before returning to our accommodation ready to pack to leave the next day.

With our ferry being early afternoon, we had the morning to spend in Naxos town. The owners of the guesthouse we were staying in very generously offered to look after our luggage and to meet us down at the ferry port with it later meaning that we could stay in town all morning and walk straight to the port without having to return to our accommodation to pick anything up. We spent the morning again wandering through the old town, getting lost in its narrow alleyways knowing that eventually all roads lead back to either the old Venetian castle walls or the seafront. Then after lunch at a cafe overlooking the seafront, we made our way to the main port to pick up our luggage and board our ferry to Santorini.

I’d really loved Naxos Island with its relaxed vibe, friendly locals and authentic feel and would definitely like to return there one day in the future.

A brief visit to the Greek Sporades

Despite all the summer airport chaos, we arrived into Skiathos airport right on time on an early Sunday evening in late July. Clearing security and receiving our cases quickly from its small but efficient airport, we were met outside by someone from the guesthouse we were staying in – many of the small family-run guesthouses in Skiathos town offer free transfers the short distance from the airport to their properties.

Above, Skiathos marina, and below, the town at night

After settling onto our modest but adequate room, we took a stroll downhill through the narrow back roads winding down to the main hub of Skiathos town. The sun was already going down and the seafront and harbour looked pretty in the red glow of dusk.

Our first priority was to find the old marina where the boat trip we had booked for the following morning would depart from. Easily locating that, next on our list was food. Although we’d eaten an all day breakfast at the airport before departing the UK that afternoon, that was now 6 hours ago and we needed some kind of snack to keep us going until morning.

We eventually settled on a seemingly popular Greek fast food-type place where we ordered chicken souvlaki – chunks of grilled chicken and salad along with a few chips in a pitta – opting to have the tzatziki sauce on the side in case we didn’t like it. It was dark by now and after a quick wander around some of the souvenir stores, we decided to call it a night and find our way back to our accommodation.

Breakfast at Mamma Mia cafe in Skiathos town

We were up early the next morning so we could wander into town to grab some breakfast before our cruise departed. We were again spoilt for choice with all the local bakeries and cafes on offer but sticking with the theme of the day (we’d booked a ‘Mamma Mia’ cruise) we chose to visit the reasonably priced Mamma Mia bakery.

Setting sail from Skiathos

While the tour had been marketed as a Mamma Mia tour, it actually had very little to do with the film other than a final stop at the church on a hill featured in the hit musical. From reviews we’d read online, we’d at least expected some Abba music to be piped into the boat – something that was obviously expected by other passengers too as one later asked a member of staff about this and offered to hook up his own iphone to the sound system. This lead to a full on party complete with drunken dancing from a group of fun-loving Italians on board once the cheesy pop classics started blaring out after our lunch stop.

Heading down to the old marina, we managed to locate the tour company we’d booked with from the many others all offering the same selection of island tours and Mamma Mia themed excursions and boarded our boat finding seats in the shade on the top deck.

Arriving at our unexpected stop of Panormos Beach, Skolpelos

Departing Skiathos old marina, the boat took us around the east coast of the island and up to Lalaria Beach on the north coast. Here, the boat docked at this well-known and extremely popular bay for about an hour. The beach had been separated in two overnight by a landslide and with the tide being in, this forced us to scramble over the fallen rocks to reach the far end of the beach and its pretty arched rock formation.

After a bit of sunbathing and paddling in the turquoise blue sea, it was back on board the boat where we found we were all stopped from sitting on the top deck – something which wouldn’t have been a problem except for the crew smoking indoors downstairs. Finding a seat by the window, we soon found out that the upstairs was out of bounds for safety reasons and due to rough, high seas the day’s itinerary would have to be changed.

The cave of Skiathos

While we would still be heading to the island of Skopelos, we would no longer be able to stop at Skopelos town and would instead be heading to a small bay on the island.

As Skopelos town was to be our lunch stop, we were reassured that there were cafes and restaurants where we were going.

Arriving at Panormos Beach, we found that it was pretty enough but there wasn’t a great deal to do. Avoiding being herded into the first restaurant we came to with the rest of the group, we walked the length of the bay eventually sitting at the furthest restaurant along and ordering some reasonably priced toasted sandwiches before returning to the boat via a small convenience store to grab ice poles to cool us down.

After our makeshift lunch stop, we passed the cave of Skiathos before docking at a port on the west of Skopelos Island. From here, we left the boat and boarded coaches which took us across the island to the stop we had all been waiting for – the church of Agios Ioannis Kastri, or the ‘Mamma Mia church’. Made famous in the Meryl Streep musical, the church sits on the top of a large rock, only accessible by walking up 110 steps. It was a pretty climb and the views gave us plenty of excuses to stop on the way up.

Sailing back to Skiathos at the end of the day

This was the last stop of the day so from here, it was back onto the coaches which returned us to the boat ready to sail back to Skiathos. Arriving late afternoon, we had a bit of time to explore the town some more before grabbing dinner and heading back to our guesthouse.

We had to be up at 4am the next morning to make a 7am flight to Athens so our time on Skiathos had come to an end. I’d liked what I’d seen of it and wished we had a bit more time to see more of the island.