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Thursday, September 10, 2009

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Come undone. In the enormous crowd of tourists from all over the world no one will notice anyway. Besides, if you decide to explore the island, white limestone dust will deem all outfits equal. The land is barren, with gray olive trees, dwarfy grape vines and withered brown grasses. The sea is gorgeous, deep blue, and the views are spectacular from any side of any cliff.
There is no vast open space to people watch or to be seen. Iconic white and blue houses cling to the black and red cliffs like swallows’ nests, and the streets are all narrow, vertical, and teeming with window shoppers day and night. You hear shreds of conversations in German, French, Italian, Russian… you watch your step along randomly placed marble stairs here and there… you gape at the jewelry displays, blinded and dizzy from the blazing sun, and run for cover in the shade to take a sip of water from a hot plastic bottle. Night is more forgiving, with precious sea breeze, moonlight painted over the smooth surface of the sea, and leisurely crowds settling for 10 p.m. dinners at countless fish tavernas. If visiting Santorini is on your list of things to do before you die, and if you think it’s still a budget find like it used to be in the hay day of Frommer’s and Fodor’s, think again. You will soon learn to read hidden messages of travel guidebooks and brochures. “A private beach” - a narrow patch of rocky sand littered with cigarette butts, but no amenities - is for you and for hundreds other authenticity seekers. “A boat-to-grill” fish costs a fortune, and a tavern with oilcloth-covered tables and uncomfortable chairs is a well-oiled speedy operation, offering a simple menu in six languages and charging credit cards to their limits. A cold foamy frappe, which is all the rage in European coffee industry these days, will cost you 12-13 American dollars, and yet… looking back at my pricey vacation, I feel a strange magnetism of the place…

The best views on Santorini are found in Oia, a small village in the northern part of the island famous for its spectacular sunsets. Every evening, northbound traffic to Oia packs both winding narrow main roads. Tiny rental cars pass motorbikes driven by the adventurous first-timers, and tourist buses, filled with cruise ship travelers as well as with island dwellers. 20-30 full size bases take up the entire village parking lot, and a cheery crowd equipped with cameras climbs cobblestone streets of Oia in search of a good spot. The coral-red sun sets into the humid air over the caldera, formed by a volcanic eruption 3.5 thousand years ago. Its calm clean waters are blue with purple undertones – not a hint of green anywhere… The sun reddens like a chunk of cooling ember, and looses the shine, then slowly descends in the marine layer to peek out again from underneath a gray cloud, greeted as a movie star with countless camera flashes and rounds of applause. Then the crowd dissolves into buses heading back to Fira – the main city that never sleeps, and Oia’s population prepares to enjoy yet another moonlit silent night.

Oia’s Sunset is a traditional small hotel in the heart of the village, and an oasis of calm and hospitality. Panos Loutos, manager, will meet and greet you at the tiny entrance bar, while his right hand, Stavros Koukouvelis (a.k.a. Steve) will offer you a drink before letting you into your room. 15 rooms, equipped with a kitchenette and a patio, are located on two levels in a clean and picturesque white-and-blue mansion, with potted plants on every landing, and a deep blue pool, refreshing and inviting on a hot cloudless day.

Church bells and roosters will wake you up in the morning, and if you don’t feel like traveling to designated beaches in the south, just take 300 stairs down to the caldera, take a dip in a cool crystal clear water, and stay for lunch in one of the “downstairs” tavernas. White eggplant salad is a Santorini specialty, and a treat like no other. Don’t worry about those extra calories – you’ll shed them on your way back, climbing upstairs.
Some residents at Oia’s Sunset seem to never leave the premises, though, lounging around the pool, drinking cocktails and good strong coffee, prepared by Panos or Steve, and reading beach books on their patios.
According to Panos, Oia’s Sunset enjoys 15% return customers from Germany, England, France, and Belgium. Tourists from USA, Canada, and Australia, who can’t come every summer, send along their friends. Small groups of friends, honeymooning couples, and families with children equally enjoy the premises, and some book their next summer stay a year in advance. The high season in Santorini starts at the end of April and extends through October. Then the hotel closes for a month to let its staffers get some rest, and then seasonal repairs start in anticipation of a new beginning. “I live here eight months a year,” said Panos, “and I’m here all the time. I’m not the owner, but I feel like it’s my business.” Judging from my own experience, and from what I’ve learned from my neighbors at Oia’s Sunset, anyone who ever stayed here must be able to attest to that statement.
“So, do you love your job?” I asked (unnecessarily). “Of course, I love my job,” he said. “Of course, I do.” I knew it was true. For more information and reservations, go to: To email Panos directly, write to: Photography by Yuri Krasov.


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