With whitewashed, cliff-side villages, electric blue waters and black sand beaches, Santorini (also known as Thira) is the dangerous beauty of the Greek Cyclades, in the Aegean Sea. Positioned on the rim of an active volcano that arguably produced the greatest eruption in history, in 1470 B.C., Santorini is still rumbling since its last blowout razed several villages in 1956. Its chief attraction is the sea-filled crater left behind when the 1470 blast blew out the island's center -- which wiped out Minoan civilization and is believed to be the inspiration for Plato's notion of Atlantis, the fabled continent that sunk after an enormous explosion. Yet Santorini's volatility -- which has left the island shaped like a giant mandible, looking ready to devour what it wills -- does almost nothing to keep visitors at bay. More than half a million come each year to take in the red, black and brown striated cliffs that rim the magnificent caldera, and the island's sunsets, said to be among the world's most spectacular, at the southernmost end of the Greek island chain.

Given the volume of visitors, it's highly advisable to travel in spring or fall. Come peak season in the capital of Thira, in July and August, unmanageable crowds, tourist trappings, and naturally sulfurous air create a combustible atmosphere that's best avoided. It's also much cheaper to travel mid-season, especially with an air-hotel package. This April & May and then again in September & October, Gate 1 Travel (tel. 800/682-3333; affords you three nights on Santorini, three nights on the eastern-rim island of Mykonos, and two nights in the mainland capital of Athens -- a total of ten days and eight nights -- for only $1,069 from New York.

The trip begins on the Cyclades' eastern rim, on Mykonos, the most urbane of the islands. Its sophisticated shopping, dining, lodging, and dancing venues have made it a favorite among gay travelers. It's also the launch site for a requisite trip to the nearby island of Delos, the legendary birthplace of Apollo and Artemis, now preserved as a tiny, island-wide museum with ruins nearly 10,000 years old. Its treasures include five intact plaster lions, known as the Terrace of the Lions, near the Sanctuary of Apollo, that date from the 7th-century B.C.

From Mykonos, travelers journey by ferry to Santorini for three nights, then fly to Athens for two more nights before departure. The capital's streets are congested and smog-filled, but these modern degradations are a small price to pay to see the remains of Greece's Golden Age, including the Acropolis, with the Parthenon and Temple of Athena Nike. Gate 1's optional tours include guided visits to the Acropolis, the island of Delos, the Santorini volcano, and the Temple of Zeus in Olympia, a few hours' drive west of Athens.

Accommodations are very basic, budget hotels: the three-star Artemis or two-star Les Moulins on Mykonos; the 2-1/2-star Hotel Alexandra Beach on Santorini; and the three-star Oscar and Oscar Inn in Athens. Upgrades of varying degrees are available, for up to an additional $600 for five-star hotels. Alternate departure cities are also available for an extra fee.

Gate 1's discount rate includes all transfers, daily breakfast, transportation between islands, and local hotel taxes. Flight taxes and fees of $50 to $200 are not included. Discount rates are subject to availability.

Go Today (tel. 800/227-3235; runs a similar package for considerably more money ($1,839 for nine nights or $2,059 for 11 nights, through April and May). Unlike Gate 1, however, they also feature winter specials to Athens. Six nights in the Greek capital are $569 from New York JFK and Newark, for travel now through March 16, if you purchase the trip by January 27. For the base price, you have a choice of three budget hotels: the Kanigos 21 Hotel, the Marina Hotel or La Mirage. You'll pay more if you wait until April to travel: Three nights are $729 for travel from April 4 through May 29.

The package includes air, hotel, daily continental breakfast, and hotel taxes and fees. Airport fees of $40 to $200 not included. Numerous alternate departure cities are available for an additional fee.

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