The real wonder of Santorini is that it exceeds all glossy picture-postcard expectations. Like an enormous crescent moon, the island encloses the pure blue waters of its caldera, the core of an ancient volcano. Its two principal towns, Fira and Oia (also transliterated as Ia), perch at the summit of the caldera; as you approach by ship, bending back as far as possible to look up the cliffs, whitewashed houses look like a dusting of new snow on the mountaintop. Up close, you'll find that both towns' main streets have more shops (lots of jewelry shops), restaurants, and discos than private homes. If you come here off season -- say in early May -- you'll still find Fira's streets, shops, and restaurants crowded. In August, you'll experience gridlock.
Akrotiri is Santorini's principal archaeological wonder: a town destroyed by the volcano eruption, but preserved under layers of lava. As soon as you reach Santorini, check to see if Akrotiri is open; the site's protective roof collapsed in 2005, and it has been closed partially or totally since. If Akrotiri is closed, don't despair: If it weren't for Akrotiri, the site of ancient Thira would be the island's must-see destination. Spectacularly situated atop a high promontory, overlooking a black lava beach, the remains of this Greek, Roman, and Byzantine city sprawl over acres of rugged terrain. Ancient Thira is reached after a vertiginous hike or drive up to the acropolis itself.
Arid Santorini isn't known for the profusion of its agricultural products, but the rocky soil has long produced a plentiful grape harvest, and the local wines are among the finest in Greece. Visit one of the island wineries for a tasting; if you want to plan ahead, check out www.santorini.com/wineries. And keep an eye out for the tasty, tiny Santorini tomatoes and white eggplants -- and the unusually large and zesty capers.
The best advice we can offer is to avoid visiting during the months of July and August. Santorini experiences an even greater transformation during the peak season than other Cycladic isles. With visitors far in excess of the island's capacity, trash collects in the squares, and crowds make strolling the streets of Fira and Oia next to impossible. Tip: Some accommodations rates can be marked down by as much as 50% if you come off season. Virtually all accommodations are marked up by at least as much for desperate arrivals without reservations in July and August.
Nomikos Travel (tel. 22860/23-660; www.nomikosvillas.gr), Bellonias Tours (tel. 22860/22-469), Pelican Travel (tel. 22860/22-220; www.pelican.gr) and Kamari Tours (tel. 22860/31-390) are well established on the island. Bellonias, Nomikos and Pelican offer bus tours, boat excursions around the caldera, and submarine tours beneath the caldera. Expect to pay about 40€ for a bus tour to Akrotiri or ancient Thira, about the same for a day-trip boat excursion to the caldera islands, and about twice that for the submarine excursion.
Note: This information was accurate when it was published, but can change without notice. Please be sure to confirm all rates and details directly with the companies in question before planning your trip.