Some Santorini hoteliers and restaurateurs are reporting bookings down a staggering 50 per cent this year - it's a crying shame. The good news is? The island has one of the longest "seasons" in the Mediterranean, starting from early March and finishing end of November, so there's still plenty of opportunity to go.
Most visitors will pass through the island’s capital of Fira - the only place that comes even close to a mass market Mediterranean destination - loud music, nightclubs, discos, bars and a young feel - but this is very much the exception on Santorini.
Santorini is a product of nature at its rawest and as such can be quite challenging. Just about everywhere dangles on the edge of a cliff and it means that steep climbs are an everyday fact of life. The elderly may find it difficult to walk about easily and most hotels do not allow children under 14 for safety reasons.
And despite the last volcano eruption occurring in 1956, the island is still subject to tremors. On one night I was there, Santorini had seven earthquakes - mostly small but one at 5.1 on the Richter scale that had my room shaking from side to side.
And just in case anyone thinks 5.1 isn’t all that, some locals spent the night in their cars – a reflection of the violent explosion 1,500 years ago that virtually wiped out the Minoan civilization that is still flexing its muscles today. Having said that, the millions of tons of rock that exploded upwards and eventually imploded into the sea forms the almost perfect circular caldera that makes Santorini so impossibly wild and romantic.
The island of Nea Kameni sits glowering at the centre of all this smouldering activity and it’s perfectly possible to take one of the numerous boats from Fira - use the telepherique to descend the mountain (€4 single trip) across to its base. But be careful. The blazing heat - despite the wind - makes the 381ft ascent an extremely tough proposition. Take plenty of water and sun cream - this is nature throbbing at its most powerful.
But for the sheer thrill of walking up to a still active volcano on the hot black lava, it can’t be beaten. Climbing up 381ft sounds a doddle, It isn’t. It’s an arduous, difficult ascent on moon-like rock strewn with damp magna and amid sulphorous smoke still pouring out of the ground, but the magnificent view from the summit looking down into a volcano’s crater is worth it.
Getting about is fairly straightforward from the ubiquitous donkeys to a plethora of buses. The driving standard is unpredictable though. Be prepared for some ancient Mercs, cliff-hugging bends and the omnipresent quad bikes replete with unhelmeted tourists.
The central bus station at Fira is a hive of activity as fleets of vehicles – often air-conditioned embark and disgorge beach passengers. Check the times carefully, hotels often provide timetables but these do not always correspond to the actual departure.
As the local Oia Santorini blogger puts it: “During peak months the island's transport system is clearly stretched to its very limits, however, it manages to run fairly efficiently and in a timely manner.”
Apart from tourism, Santorini’s other main income is wine-making and the Wine Museum near Santorini Airport presents a fascinating tour through the island’s viticulture history using moving mannequins and memorabilia from the four family generations.
The museum, whose annual 40,000 visitors include 10,000 Brits, also explains the uniquely challenging feat of making wine on Santorini. An often fierce wind means grapes simply cannot grow conventionally; rather they are encased in circular vines at ground level to protect them from the tough climate.
One huge advantage that the island enjoyed however, is that its grapes escaped the ravages of phylloxera that so decimated the vineyards of western Europe in the 19th century. And the close relationship between Greece and Russia, particularly due to the Orthodox religion, explains the presence of Cyrillic writing on so many Wine Museum barrels - the wood came from Russia .
Sunset is an industry on Santorini and on summer evenings there is an upsurge in activity around 6pm as visitors hustle and bustle their way to favoured vantage points.
Cliff-side restaurants and terraces come alive after the torpor of the day and as the jockeying for position settles down, the quick descent of the sun turns the behemoth cruise ships in the harbour a deep gold. Indeed for the hour or so prior to sunset, boats from the cruise ships ferry thousands of passengers to the telepherique at Fira for the ascent to the cliff edge and what they have all come for; the sunset.
Favoured spot to watch the sun disappear is Oia, whose lack of thumping bars and nightclubs makes it a more relaxing place to watch Santorini’s finest performance (tip: for those wanting to avoid the madding crowd, the tiny collection of bars and restaurants in Amoudi at the bottom of the cliff at Oia is a less crowded and equally spectacular viewing point).
And to see the sun disappear from an entirely different perspective. There are several boat companies that offer tours and one of them, the Santorini Ships Joint Venture offers island cruises on board the 90ft long Afroditi, which costs from €45 including dinner, and claims to be the largest traditional wooden sailing boat in the Caldera.
I tried a late afternoon trip which costs took in the vertiginous hike up the volcano, as well as a cooling dip at the thermal springs, whose warm water is attributed to volcanic activity in the area. An early evening al fresco dinner is offered on board with the accent very much on seafood - lobster, mussels and sea bass - washed down with a refreshing Santorini white wine.
There’s a certain satisfaction of watching a sunset from the sea - and from seeing the thousands gather on Oia’s cliffs, while you sip something cool and it somehow connects the visitor to Greece’s strong relationship with the sea.
Aegean Airlines operates twice-daily from Stansted to Athens with onward connections to Santorini - a 30min hop from the Greek capital.
The airline has just refurbished its lounge at Athens Airport, which offers a refuge from the madding crowd, but if travelling down the back, the transfer is not as bad as others - Greece’s hosting of the Olympic Games in 2004 has led to the shiny new facility of Eleftherios Venizelos airport being a vast improvement on the previous site.
- The taxis on the island will almost never stop for a pick-up fare in the street. The only way to get a taxi in Fira is to walk to the taxi rank, which is a few metres down from the main square.