Travel & Leisure

Why Instagram can never ruin Santorini – the Greek island that has always welcomed hedonists

We arrive in Santorini late evening, driving down dusky backroads en route to our destination, the Grace Hotel, part of the Auberge Resorts Collection and perched on the world famous caldera. At the village of Imerovgli, we make our descent, weaving down the cliff edge passing small-scale luxury hotels and yposkafa, cave-like dwellings with friends and couples sitting drinking and chatting.

Upon reaching the Grace, we’re feeling calm, no doubt aided by the ice-cold champagne and our private warm plunge pool, which we jump straight into even though it’s approaching midnight. After a long day on a plane and negotiating what the tabloids are calling “airport chaos” it’s the absolute tonic. Looking out across the caldera, the lights twinkling and becoming, Santorini already seems rather special.

I’ve seen the pictures, I’ve seen the TikToks, but what greets me come morning is something else. At 6am the caldera sits in the shadows of the Aegean sea. From my terrace I see an entire spectrum of blues: from Yves Klein to baby blue and indigo. In the distance, I spot other islands, and what appears to be snow-capped mountains to the south. It turns out they are actually tiny villages nestled on clifftops. Our suite sits further down the cliff and looking upwards reveals whitewashed buildings glistening in near-violet light, cascading downhill against a backdrop of arid flora and cacti.

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I realise I am also in these ‘snow-capped mountains’ – just on the other side. The Grace is undeniably impressive. Suspended directly in front of Skaros Rock, it was designed to integrate with the cliff, offering 180° unobstructed views out to sea. The Cycladic architecture is sleek and understated, offset by natural materials including fragments of volcanic rock.

Most of the 20 rooms and suites include a heated plunge pool, and if not, the hotel is home to the largest infinity pool on the island. Sweeping across the middle level of the resort, its jagged outline resembles a spaceship when viewed from above. Truthfully, the place does a feel a little otherworldly. It is a little hard to leave the Grace, but Santorini beckons.

Our first stop is Oia, the second largest town after the capital Fira, famed for its plethora of blue domed churches overlooking nearby Thirassia. Despite the crowds, Oia has a lot of charm. Orthodox churches, independent galleries, and quaint shops line the narrow streets, selling everything from linens and olive oil to dolls and fine jewellery.

Kyriacos, a local shopkeeper and aficionado pours me tsikoudia, a fragrant grape-based brandy that hails from Crete. He proudly tells me that the island was created by Euphemus, as a refuge for the daughter of the sea god Triton, his pregnant nymph. It was here that she gave birth to Theras, giving the island its Greek name Thera. Sipping my (very strong) drink I listen intently, eyeing up his selection of donkey milk soap.

Next on the agenda are the excavations at Akrotiri, a prehistoric Minoan settlement on the south coast. Santorini has a rich history, which is often overshadowed by its status as a destination for IG influencers and alike, but there is plenty to see for those interested in classics. The site is home to the island’s very own Pompeii, an ancient city which was buried by a volcanic eruption in 1600 BC, it is also believed to be Plato’s inspiration for the city of Atlantis.

Back at the hotel, relaxation is on the cards and the Grace takes sleep very seriously. Drawing inspiration from the ancient healing traditions of the Mediterranean, amenities include lavender lip balms and sleep sprays. A bespoke pillow menu boasts a selection of goose down and natural rubber flake pillows, aptly named after the Greek gods. Thank you to Narkissos II for a great cat nap.

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The seven-course champagne breakfast includes fresh breads and pastries, cheese and olives from neighboring Naxos, and options including toasted brioche with crab. A highlight is the daily smoothie offering, served in a glass bottle and bubble gum pink with dragon fruit, goji berries and watermelon. It is undoubtedly healthy, yet somehow tastes like a very naughty milkshake.

On our final morning we sample the ‘submarine’, described as mastiha in water. Our waitress tells us that this sweet treat is often given to local children by their grandmothers, and I wonder if I’m about to experience the Greek Angel Delight? Sadly not. I am sure this sludgy white fondant in tepid water combo evokes warm memories for many, but it’s a no from me.

The Grace has recently welcomed Varoulko restaurant, sister to the original Varoulko Seaside, one of the most celebrated restaurants in Greece. It was here in 1987 that the ‘Gordon Ramsey of Greece’ Lefteris Lazarou introduced the world to his playful brand of fine dining. In 2002 he was the first Greek chef to be awarded a Michelin star, which he holds to this day.

Lazarou’s seven-course coral tasting menu is served at sunset and is an education in seafood gastronomy. We’re told the star dish is the squid with pesto Genovese which has been around since 1994. I enjoy the basil flavours, but it underwhelms in comparison to the sea bream, which is a succulent, pearly white and complimented by the Assyrtiko wine pairing (Argyros Estate), a grape indigenous to Santorini with notes of lemon oil and peach.

The meal is low-key theatrical and each serving plate feels purposefully chosen, not solely to compliment the dish but in keeping with the stages of the sunset. The sun cuts through my Aperol spritz, bouncing off the turquoise plate and illuminating Shrimp Kataifi. I can’t help but notice how this all resembles an Ancient Greek sundial. If this wasn’t intentional, then it’s a genius accident. Dessert arrives and I abandon any attempt at being cool.

“Wooow” I shout as the Green Apple and Chocolate is presented. This apple is petite, shiny and very clever: flavours of vanilla, star anise and coffee are balanced with the sharp tang of a Granny Smith. An unexpected but happy conclusion to this aquatic adventure. You get the sense that Santorini is making up for lost time.

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Tourism accounts for 18% of Greece’s GDP and is essential to post-Covid economic recovery. Thankfully, the island attracts visitors from across the globe (and we hear an American accent more often than Greek.) Some say Santorini has been ‘ruined by social media’, but locals and hospitality workers disagree. The island has always attracted hedonists, pleasure seekers and yes, photographers, welcoming them with open arms. “I think I will go blind” one of the Grace’s managers informs me, “from being surrounded by all this brilliant white”. He is referring to the scenery and explains that he likes to look guests in the eye, so refuses to wear sunglasses.

A little extreme, but this conversation is symptomatic of the service on the island. As one of the world’s most-photographed destinations, Santorini is no secret. But in this corner of the caldera, at around 8pm, watching the sun collapse into the Aegean with a glass of Assyrtiko, you almost feel like it is.

This article was culled from cityam.com

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