There is only one caldera in the world that boats can sail into - the volcanic lagoon of Santorini, Greece. The penultimate way to get there is on the tall ship Star Clipper.
We had been experiencing recalcitrant weather along the ancient Anatolian (Turkey) coast for some time; we were logged to make a stop at the Dalyan River for the mud baths and old Lycian ruins and temples, but the motor launches from shore could not get out to the ship lying in deeper water. We berthed farther down the Turquoise Coast and some passengers were able to take motor coaches to the Caria-era beauty mud bath treatments, and the clear sulphur water was invigorating at 40 degrees Celsius. This end of the Mediterranean was Minoan culture country, so I am certain they found the anti-rheumatoid baths a pleasure.
Sailing into the caldera.
So far the food on board had been excellent for the entire voyage, with entrees ranging from sea bass, salmon, roast beef, and the light and delectable lamb, to Lobster Thermadore on Captain's Night.
Cruise ship in the lagoon.
Once we pushed off from the Turkish Coast it was a nonstop unfurling of the sails to Santorini.
We made great progress at eight knots with a stiff easterly wind to the most southern of the Cycladic Island that blew its top about 1,650 B.C.
Once anchored in Santorini's calm lagoon waters we steamed over in our own tenders to the old port (called Scala).
Most ferries and cruise ships berth off the newer port, which means a taxi ride to the capital city of Fira, on the main island of Thira. But the old port means a swift cable car ride (four Euros each way - six to a car - 36 passengers total) up a volcanic cliff where we debouch in the heart of souvenir shops and trinket traders with our fat tourist wallets. But the shopping is fun, and the bargains are galore. Some of the finest linen and lace is found in Thira. I picked up a beautiful table cloth for only $25 USD.
The old port cable cars.
Some Star Clipper passengers took a tender to the new port for the awaiting motor coach tour of the ancient city of Akratiri, which was recently opened to the public for guided walking wonders. Akratiri sits on the other side of Thira island, below the closed Orthodox Church monastery, which sits on the highest point on the island with ramshackle TV towers.
I had visited Santorini previously on an earlier trip two weeks back, taking the day Blue Star Ferry over from Piraeus, Athens, and then climbed into a cab commandeered by Nick. The roads were steep out of the new port, with few guard railings, and I don't think there was a break shop on the entire island. Nick braked with the pedal mashed to the floorboards; the island bird twitter is the sound of screaming disk pads on metal and we clamored over the verge of the ridge with a screech at a stop sign.
A church above the old port.
Akratiri is one of the most important Minoan cities, dating back to over 3,500 years. The ruins are amazing, excavated from mounds of ash and pumice and rock after the violent eruption of the volcano that tore the island apart. Homes are frozen in the debris.
The lost city had squares and cobble stone streets. Some of the homes had frescos as fresh as the day they were buried. Household items and utensils and drinking vessels were still intact, waiting for the owners' return. The tour continued to Oia, a picturesque village on the northern tip of Thira island, with wonderful views of the volcano. Thira and Oia have ridgeline walking paths that wind by the whitewashed houses and blue onion-domed churches. The island is a photographers delight; artists are at work in their workshops.
The volcano from Fira.
During my sojourn on Santorini Nick hooked me up with Maria, a delightful B&B hostess, who owned a small villa on the cliff edge with maximum views of the lagoon. Luxury hotels could only dream of such a location. I threw open my window for the light, scented sea air. The best Villa was #7 (my villa), which had an open sundeck just below for tanning or sunset cocktails.
Each morning promptly at 8 a.m. Maria arrived with a superb Greek breakfast. If I was watching the clock I could have set the time by her morning smile.
Ridge line walking path in Fira.
The walking path runs right past Villas Maria and one afternoon I went down to the cable car for the bouncy ride to Scala to meet my traditional Greek sailing vessel, the Jason. I didn't see many Argonauts on board, but it was a popular tourist ship that brought us over to the National Geological Park on Nea Kameni island in the central lagoon. There is a four Euro entrance fee into the park, but is free in winter. It was a long uphill hiking grind on volcanic pea gravel and white powder pumice. This part of the volcano is still active, but dormant, since its last eruption with lesser force in 1950, but there are continued rumblings that are constantly monitored by volcanologists.
A traditional Greek sailing ship, the Jason.
The islet of Nea Kameni, or also known as the volcano, is a testament to beauty and destruction, a site of major scientific study and preserved as a nature park. The Hellenic Ministry of Culture has declared it and the rest of the Santorini island group an historical site. The Palea and Nea Kameni and caldera have been nominated to the World Heritage list of geological monuments. The municipality of Thira is now responsible for protecting the site.
Talus on a lagoon islet.
It is the youngest volcanic landform in the eastern Mediterranean. It is an active volcanic center with its oldest rock formations dating back 450 years and the newest only 60 years ago. The infamous blast in 1,650 B.C. was so complete there is little record of it in the new caldera formation. The inlet formed from volcanic eruptions over a length of 430 years in six different blasts, so scientists now can study geological and biological phenomenon, in a balanced, geo-ecological environment untouched by humans.
There are many different types of lavas found on the islets, including: Dafni, Fouque, Ktenas, Niki, Afroessa, Georgios, and Liatsikas lavas, all formed during different eruptions over thousands of years.
The creation of the Nea Komeni and Palea Islets
The island group of Santorini includes Thira, Thirasia, and Aspronisi, which are all that is left over from the volcanic eruption from the time when the island was occupied by a Minoan culture similar to Crete. The islands were occupied during the late Bronze Age (and named Strongvli, which means rounded), when they formed a solid mass from Faros to Aspronisi, From a small opening between Faros and Aspronisi the sea flowed into a narrow caldera which probably was the super charged steam effect of the resulting super pyrotechnic blast..
Fira sprawls along the cliffs above the lagoon.
From time to time the volcanic magma that remained in the bowels of the earth after the destructive eruption in 1,650 B.C. welled up in the center of the caldera adding layer after layer to the islets of Palea and Nea Kameni, Between 1,650 and 197 B.C. a series of submarine effusions led to a huge underwater volcano, where the peaks now form the Palea and Nea Kameni islets. These series of eruptions were mild compared to the earlier destructive power of the volcano that collapsed the walls of Thera (modern name is now Thira) into cliffs.
After the last eruption of Nea Kameni in 1950 it has remained dormant. The only evidence of hot magma below is the appearance of hot springs that gush along the shores. On the peak of Nea Kameni fumaroles emit hot gases and carbon dioxide, methane, hydrogen sulfide, and carbon monoxide, with temperatures ranging from 75 to 95 degrees Celsius. Sulphur and gypsum crystals formed around the fumaroles vents. The island's Volcanic Observatory, which is part of the Institute for the Studying and Monitoring of the Santorini Volcano, senses any geological changes through a network of seismic, ground deformation, geophysical, and geochemical instruments. They can predict an eruption up to a year in advance. Some of the lava is spongy with gaps caused by the magma's gaseous bubbles. The highest point on Nea Kameni is 127 meters. The Liatsikak flow, which formed in 1950, is the largest flow on the island. For more about the volcanoes visit http://ismosav.santorini.net
Nets dry on a lagoon islet.
Later in the day the Jason sailed (more correctly - motored) to the tepid thermal springs of Palea Kameni where guests swam. in the dark green sulphur waters that seeped from declivities in the sharp rock. Tour operators also offer kayak and catamaran tours to the hot pools. The Jason sailed over to another, more remote island, where I had a pleasant lunch at Captain John's with the Greek chefs serving freshly grilled swordfish kabobs washed down with cold Mythos beer. Life is good in Greece!
Fira on Thira from the Jason.
Today, white-washed hotels and homes cling to the cliffs like snow capped mountains, The Fira town Square is only a few minutes by foot from Villa Maria, where restaurants serve fresh fish from the lagoon.
Tour operators, bakeries, bars, banks, car and motorbike rentals. and other businesses are also in the Square. But Maria's is so convenient with a mini mart steps away.
The villa was Spartan, but comfortable, with copper-colored Spanish tiled floor and shower, mini fridge, TV, and queen bed.
Fishermen offer Square dinner deals.
Santorini's summer season begins May 1, the same day as the Greek Labor Day. This is also the start of the season for the infamous donkey trains winding down the stone steps from the cable car station to Scala. Two mega cruise ships were in port and the line for the cable cars was hours of waiting so I hopped on a hay burning cuss of a donkey for the nail biting switchback ride down the stairs; many others walked the ass doo-dooed route. I am still nursing saddle soars.
Ready for a wild ride?
Aegean Airlines flies into the tiny Santorini airport near the popular black sand beaches below Akratiri. Vineyards are draped about the landscape like surreal Renaissance paintings. Nick picked me up with his daughter Morini (We joked, "Morini from Santorini" as a new song title.) for a drive over to the only winery on the island, and I must say, the volcanic soil produces strong and sweet and fruity aperitifs. We met up with Nick's brother and his wife, Layla, and we cheered and toasted the setting sun over the lagoon.
Beautiful Greek Orthodox domes.
I must agree with my maties that the most awesome way to tack into or out of the Santorini caldera is on the Star Clipper. In my earlier stay on the island I took the slow night ferry out of the new port back to Athens, but it was so late arriving from Crete that I was grateful that the ticketing office in the Square set me up with a sleeping berth in advance. Other angry passengers tried to book a bed while on board but all spaces were gone. So instead, visit Star Clipper at www.starclippers.com for your own adventure voyage into the world's only sailable caldera. Read more Jetsetters Magazine features about The Star Clipper.
An infinity view of the lagoon.
— Feature and photos by Kriss Hammond, Editor, Jetsetters Magazine.