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DESTINATION: GREECE

A sunny view on Santorini

A self-guided winery tour around the scenic island leads to adventure and some cool discoveries.

June 05, 2005|Caitlin Liu | Times Staff Writer

Thira, Greece — There we stood, on the side of a highway on this Aegean island's wine country. We were stranded. Darkness was about to fall.

I glanced at Peggy, my buddy through thick and thin. Returning a worried look, she nodded. We turned to the traffic and struck the pose: right arm out, thumb up.

Cars whizzed by. Some were packed with no room for more, but solo drivers also ignored our gesticulations. Were we invisible? Surely our roadside posturing, no matter how shameless, conveyed the universal language that we needed a ride.

"What do the Greeks do when they hitchhike?" I asked, shouting above the whooshing din.

"How would I know?" asked Peggy, a former New Yorker who now lives in Taiwan.

As the sun edged toward the horizon, our hopes and egos plummeted. Maybe Peggy's beach shorts and my flowered mini-dress, in this part of the island at this waning hour, were hurting rather than helping our cause.

As befitting every good Greek tale, this one too had a deux ex machina -- a seeming miracle that saved the day. Let's just say Zeus and Apollo came to our rescue.

And that was how I got to see one of the prettiest sunsets in the world.

Splendor in the sea

I had traveled to the Cyclades more than a decade ago before. It was the summer after college, when having a good time meant hauling a backpack to such islands as Mikonos, where British lads launched drunken bacchanalia at midday, French nudists paraded on beaches and drag queens ruled the dance floor.

But what mesmerized me about these isles in the Aegean Sea was their splendor: glistening whitewashed buildings, meandering cobblestone streets and those times of the day when the sky and sea glowed the same velvety hue and the horizon ceased to be.

It was for such moments that I returned to Greece last August.

Out of dozens of Cycladic isles, Santorini is a geological drama queen that may be the most visually spectacular. Its turbulent past is said to have inspired the legend of Atlantis. Its crescent-shaped coastline of jagged cliffs formed 3,500 years ago, after a volcano on the formerly round island exploded so cataclysmically that its center collapsed into the sea.

Santorini continues to blow its top every so often, most recently in 1950. The 30-square-mile island also is prone to earthquakes. A 1956 temblor of magnitude 7.8 flattened villages, killed scores of people and caused thousands to flee for other islands.

Despite the ever-present specter of another colossal disaster, Santorini and its 10,000 inhabitants are a beacon of unabashed optimism.

Few could be more hopeful than the island's grape farmers, tilling and sowing year after year, despite the lack of rain.

Few could be sunnier than the restaurateurs and hoteliers erecting building after building at the edge of the volcanic crater right above where the land once plunged into the sea.

And few could have more faith in humanity than Santorini's sun-baked tourists, dropping heaps of euros at a time for baubles supposedly of diamonds and gold at the island's jewelry stores -- which operate alongside shops selling Burberry and Gucci knockoffs.

In similarly ebullient spirits, Peggy and I decided to visit the island's wineries. (Memo to snobs who pooh-pooh fermented grapes of Grecian vintage: Some Santorini wines are delicious.)

On Santorini, guided trips go virtually everywhere on the island; there are bus tours of ancient ruins, boat rides to muddy hot springs. So we were surprised we could find no tour or shuttle from Thira, also called Fira, that would allow us to vineyard-hop.

We were not deterred. Wielding a crude map delineating highways and dots marking wineries, we plotted our own itinerary.

Our first destination had an address like a clue for a scavenger hunt: "On the road to Kamari," a town on the eastern shore. Another winery had a cryptic single-word location of "Pyrgos," a village near the center of the island.

We were not fazed. If we couldn't find our way, we would ask for directions.

We thought it would be fun to travel as the locals did and ride the public bus. To places where transit might not go, we figured on hailing a taxi. A couple of wineries appeared to be next to each other on the map, so we could hoof it as well.

And so we set out -- I in platform sandals, Peggy in rubber flip-flops with plastic daisies between her toes -- as effervescent as the day was young.

Our journey began at the transit hub of Thira, the island's largest city with a population of 2,500, where we stayed during our four days on Santorini. A 90-cent ride in a rumbling public bus took us into the scenic countryside.

August is Santorini's grape harvest season, and we passed farmers with their donkeys in fields dotted with clumps of vines tightly coiled like baskets, a traditional practice to shield the delicate fruit from the island's brutal winds. After the tendrils are untethered and plucked clean, they are left sprawling on the dirt.

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