By Eileen Ogintz

ABOARD THE WIND STAR, Aegean Sea — Wow! 

There are only eleven of us on the Catamaran, including the captain, Niko Xarampopoyaoe and Elli Beqiri, the crew (and cook) and our guide Margarita Sigala. The boat can hold 22 they tell us.

We’re here on a Windstar Cruises excursion—a unique excursion for sure, though pricey (over $300 each). “And definitely worth the money,” said Kim Archbold, here with her husband and two other couples from Atlanta.

The famed Greek Isle of Santorini is actually the eastern rim of a volcano caldera that has erupted many times through the ages, the last major eruption being in 1950. It is still an active volcanic area, and scientists continually monitor it. It is gorgeous—like seeing the walls of the Grand Canyon from the river with the turquoise blue water and rock that ranges from light gray to black. 

Swimming in the volcanic waters of Santorini
Swimming in the volcanic waters of Santorini

From the catamaran, we see huge yachts and some traditional wooden boats but no crowds. That’s the point.  We are at the island of Thirassia across the bay from the main tourist sport. Only 350 people live here and the only tourists come by boat, usually for lunch or dinner at one of the tiny shorefront restaurants.

Only one person—a shepherd–lives on the volcanic island of Palea Kaimeni with his goats and chickens. Some come on boats to buy his cheese, Sigala said.  We see a small chapel dedicated to St. Nikolas, the patron saint of sailors.

Lunch is served aboard the catamaran
Lunch is served aboard the catamaran

You can walk six miles along the rim of the Caldera, from Fira to the famous town of Ia, known for its white buildings and deep blue domed roofs. Some 21 years ago when we were on this same ship, we rode motor bikes along the rim. But on a hot day, it’s a lot more fun to see the caldera from the water, we think. Certainly a lot more relaxing than hiking in the heat or navigating a motor bike.

We jump in and swim near the black volcanic rock. The water is greener here from all of the iron that seeps out of underwater hot springs, Skala explains.

The cable car from the port to the town of Fira atop the caldera on Santorini
The cable car from the port to the town of Fira atop the caldera on Santorini

We swim again near Thirassia as Beqiri prepares a small feast for us-–chicken skewers, pasta with olive oil and peppers, a Greek salad with the island’s famous small tomatoes and feta cheese. Yum!  

We learn there are caves all through the island and many islanders even build part of their homes underground to keep things cool from the hot summer sun. And though Santorini is very dry, 70 percent of the agricultural land is vineyards with 13 wineries here. The island is famous for a dry white wine called Assyrtico. The crops are not irrigated, but get sufficient moisture from the night and morning dew.

Archbold says she and her friends—this is their third Windstar cruise–typically plan their own on-short activities but opted for this one because it was so different than typical excursions. They like the small ship (maximum 148 passengers but just 58 this week). It is certainly a different experience–not only with so many fewer on board but the mask mandates. Everyone is not only glad for the protocols but are glad to be here at all. The Atlanta group had planned a Windstar cruise in Tahiti but cruises have been stopped there.  

View of Fira atop the Santorini caldera
View of Fira atop the Santorini caldera

Fira, in fact, is jarring when we get off the catamaran and take the 6-Euro cable car two minutes to the village.  It seems packed with shoppers browsing on the narrow stone streets, stepping in and out of jewelry stores, those selling tee shirts and linen clothing, leather sandals and more. And it is hot–very hot.

I’m too overwhelmed by the sheer quantity of goods to shop—except for a souvenir refrigerator magnet. And while the island seems crowded, it’s not, compared to the millions who visited pre-pandemic.

The donkeys of Santorini are famous but not hiking on the same trail is not recommended
The donkeys of Santorini are famous but not hiking on the same trail is not recommended

Every vacation day is about choices and while our excursion was a good one, we did make a dubious one at the end of the day—walking down the wide, steep 585 stone steps to the shore. We shared the walkway with dozens of donkeys and their riders (riding a donkey up the steps is a popular tourist activity and one I’m glad we skipped, though we got stuck in several Donkey Jams). Needless to say, the donkey’s don’t wear diapers and the hot summer sun creates a less than pleasant aroma all the say down.

“That’s one experience I don’t want to repeat,” my husband said when we got back to the port.

Me …but sailing in the Caldera…that’s another story.

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