Laura J McDonald photography | Ode to Santorini

Ode to Santorini

September 16, 2016  •  Leave a Comment

Photographer's playground, shopper's Mecca, foodie's paradise, artist's muse - all equally describe one unique little island that sits about 125 miles off the mainland of Greece.

Santorini. Even the name is beautiful.

Visiting had been a bucket list dream of mine for years (yes, ever since "The Sisterhood of the Traveling Pants." Cliché. I know.) But it took my sister's tears to finally pave the way. "The only place I've ever cried when time to leave," was how she described it to me. "I'm going back, and you're coming with me!" Gladly.

Oia (pronounced EEYA - the smaller village we stayed in at one end of the 35-square-mile island) is a land of blue domes and white walls. Tiny trinket shops, elaborately gilded churches, luxury resort accommodations and simple "cave" homes all share the volcanic rock hillside, intricately and intimately connected via roughly cobbled sidewalks with switchback staircases. It is the most interesting maze I've ever wandered. Between the distinct architecture, the dreamy alleyways, the extraordinary light/pattern/texture, and the occasional Greek supermodel, there were countless subjects to photograph. And even more photographers. This is the first place I've ever vacationed where pricey DSLRs outnumbered selfie sticks, and various "quintessential views" caused literal foot-traffic jams. It does not pay to rush here. Santorini demands to be patiently explored and savored. 

Bougainvillea randomly speckles its bright pink blossoms among the characteristic blues and whites and gorgeous neutrals of the village. I found myself mesmerized much of the time (almost punch drunk with photo ops), stopping and staring, shooting and reshooting, hoping against hope that the camera might do the place justice (it rarely does). The crisp white and creamy beige spaces were my favorite. Honestly, even the decay was picturesque.

But enough about my obsession. Rest assured, there's plenty to do if photography's not your jam. There are shops galore, most open well past midnight, all curated by genuinely endearing locals who are eager to find out where you're from. Many had heard of Atlanta, Georgia, fewer Grand Rapids, Michigan (ya know, the mitten state? hand held high-five-like in demonstration - blank stare). Treasures run the gamut from authentically Greek handmade jewelry, art, and clothing to imported Hugo Boss and Jimmy Choo. There's definitely a "Buckhead" stretch of the main shopping strip, but plenty of tchotchkes, sunhats, and souvenir Ts for sale as well. 

If adventure is your thing, you can make the steep (300 stair) descent to Amoudi Bay, grab a bite to eat at one of the waterside restaurants, then take a short hike to cliff jump into the refreshingly sapphire water. Bonus adventure (and quad saver): donkey ride back up to Oia.

Perhaps you'd rather simply relax seaside. The beaches we visited were all backdropped by breathtaking rock formations (perfect shadow casters for us lily-whites who prefer to remain in the shade). The Aegean Sea is beautifully clear and delightfully refreshing in September, with the sand varying in color from black to red to gold (depending on the color of the rock surrounding the beach, obviously). Shoes are most definitely recommended. Black sand is wicked HOT, and some of the "sand" is more akin to river rock.

Of course, there's plenty to eat and drink in Oia as well - cappuccino and warm chocolate croissants were an almost-daily breakfast treat, with lunch and dinner cliffside (or water's edge) as the norm. We even visited a local winery for a traditional tasting. The stuffed grape leaves with tzatziki were heavenly! I highly recommend the feta appetizer at any restaurant - all uniquely prepared and incredibly delish wherever/whenever we ordered.

Oh, and the sunsets. Oia is famous for them, especially viewed from the castle atop the island, covered like ants on a mound by nightly cruise ship tourists. We opted for other (quieter) venues, each more breathtaking than the last, none as crowded as the castle. Our favorite spot was Katharos Lounge, mainly for the amazing apps and quirkily adorable waiter Georgios (whom we secretly renamed Gorgeous). Shoulda gotten a photo with that dreamy dude. 

One of my favorite evenings had to be the dinner at Armeni restaurant. Definitely a trek from where we were encamped, but well worth it. The walk down to Armeni Port mimicked that of Amoudi, but included longer straightaways and had you hugging the cliffside during descent. There was an "are we there yet" element to the journey, and an ominous "how are we going to get back UP this thing after dinner?" happening simultaneously. Watching the sunset cruise boats sail by over dinner provided a blissfully serene compliment to the delicious sea bass and calamari. But the highlight had to be the post-meal discovery of the water taxi hailed to take us round the corner back to Amoudi Bay (where the trek back up was significantly shorter, although still a haul). As we clambered into the boat in the pitch black night, leftover packets in tow, we gasped and giggled and star-gazed all the way "home." Seriously surreal.

If this were a book (wait . . . it isn't?), now would be the time for acknowledgments. HUGE thanks to my sister Karen (for those tears) and her hubby Mark for the invite, the research, the tour guiding, the deep questions and the LOVE. Ya'll are treasure and blessing to me. Thanks to sweet soul Marygrace, for joining us and gracing us with your genuinely artful spirit and your brave vulnerability (not to mention your dancer's feet and dreamy poses). You inspire me always. BIGGEST thanks to my husband Kevin for jumping right in when this opportunity came along and persevering when the timing started looking a little shaky. You are my knight in shining armor. What a joy and blessing to have fun with you. 

If you've made it this far into the post, I would dare to say Santorini might be calling your name. Book it. Make it happen somehow. Check it off that bucket list and go see for yourself how unique and magical this place really is. I will be returning (someday), with plans of checking out a few of the surrounding islands as well. Crete, I'm coming for you.

So long for now, Santorini. Thanks for the beauty, the warm hospitality, and the treasure trove of photos (my favorite souvenir).


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