Benefiting from an airline strike, part two

Day 36
Santorini, Greece

The Greeks like striking more than they like feta cheese.

Earlier this week, an Olympic Airlines strike led to the cancellation of our flight from Athens to Mykonos. Today, an Aegean Airlines strike left me stranded on this island — preventing me from making my 2:30 p.m. flight from Athens to Cairo. Stranded might not be the right word here though. There are certainly worse things in the world than needing to spend an additional day on beautiful Santorini.

I’ve been lucky that for every strike (and there have been several), there has been a gracious and understanding hotel that can accommodate me. After learning about the flight, Enigma offered not only to put me up for the night, but also to upgrade me to their jacuzzi suite. The duplex apartment is about 50 steps higher than our last place and features an inviting tub just outside the entrance.

The best news of all? Since this is considered a “travel interruption,” my trip insurance is picking up the day’s tab. I’ll take that.

My second attempt at flying to Cairo via Athens (hopefully) leaves tomorrow at 12 noon.

Setting sail for the volcano

Day 35
Santorini, Greece

After spending the morning snooping (Dad’s word, not mine) through Fira’s shops, we took the steep cable car ride down to the Old Port for a sail around Santorini. We could have gone by donkey, or walked the soiled path like my parents did when they were here 27 years ago, but the smell kept us away.

Our boat, Thalassa, was an exact replica of a schooner used in the 18th century. With only about 30 passengers on board (including a really nice young couple from Texas traveling around Europe for the month), there was plenty of space, and we soon started on our way to Nea Kameni, the port at the volcano, while Fira sat off in the distance.

We arrived at the volcano, a desolate place with no vegetation, and hiked to the rim of a crater left by an eruption in 1940. It was a steep walk up past steaming vents, but the view of the islands and sea at the top were pretty amazing.

Our next stop were the “hot springs” on the other side of Nea Kameni. The brochure for this trip described the hot springs with quotation marks — we didn’t fully grasp why until we arrived. The hot springs are not located inland, they’re actually just heated channels of the Aegean Sea right next to the island. So, swimming in the frigid water is the only means of getting to them. There was an intense game of chicken on the boat, as everyone waited to take the plunge. After a few Aussie women jumped in, it was time. Unfortunately, in Dad’s excitement to catch his son’s amazing feat of courage, he dropped the Nikon lens cap into the sea. May it R.I.P — and may we find a replacement before the dust of Cairo ruins my camera.

Next, we sailed past Thirassia, the second largest island of the caldera complex, and whose lights we see glimmering every evening from our patio. It has a tiny port and some of the bluest water I’ve ever seen.

Finally, we made our way to Ammoudi and Armeni, small ports at the base of Oia. A multi-talented sailor pulled out a saxophone and serenaded us as the sun set.

Back at the hotel, Dad packed for his trip to the States. His bag, stuffed now with much of my clothing, is huge. The bell boy faces an ominous challenge tomorrow hauling it up the hundred steps to the lobby. My flight to Cairo, Egypt via Athens departs shortly after his.

Sesame chicken in Santorini

Day 34
Santorini, Greece

With so much to see on this small island, we opted this morning to rent a bad-ass lime green Hyundai. It was a four-door and automatic. Behind the wheel of this 4-cylinder, it became immediately clear that no Greeks would be messing with us on the road today.

Our first stop was Oia (pronounced e-ah), a village that, like Fira, has been built precariously into the mountainside and offers tremendous views of the caldera and Aegean. It was once home to wealthy sea captains. Today, its narrow streets are lined with art galleries, jewelry stores and small shops selling unbelievable amounts of tourist schwag.

Santorini is well known for its wine, in particular a light white and dessert. We set out for Boutari Vineyard, the winery that produced the bottle we enjoyed yesterday afternoon. Five euros got us a tasting of their four varietals (two whites, a red and dessert).

Next, we drove south towards Perivolas, where a volcanic, black sand beach runs for miles along the water.

Just about 10 minutes away, in nearby Akrotiri, is Santorini’s unique Red Beach.

Our final destination was Pharos, the lighthouse on the south-eastern tip of the island. We returned the car and rested up at the apartment before heading into Fira for dinner. Greek food has been great, but after eight days and way too many gyros, souvlakis and mousakkas, we’ve started itching for something different. Walking through town, we came across China Restaurant — this is the actual name of the restaurant — and it occurred to me that I’ve not had any Asian food (Chinese, Japanese, Thai, Malaysian) in over a month. This has to be some type of record.

We shrugged, took our seats and ordered some extra spicy sesame chicken, fried rice and chicken and broccoli. It wasn’t Hai Hong and it wasn’t Meiwah, but you know what? It wasn’t half bad.

Livin’ on the (caldera) edge

Day 33
Santorini, Greece

My eighth ferry of this trip around the world left Mykonos a little before 3 p.m. — about 2.5 hours later, we had arrived here in Santorini, a spectacular island with a long and tumultuous tectonic history. Around 1650 B.C., Santorini was ground zero for what some have described as the largest explosion in the history of our planet. A series of earthquakes and volcanic activity created a 36 km high ash cloud. So much magma (about 30 km worth) was spewed that the center of this island actually collapsed, forming a caldera that the Aegean Sea quickly filled.

After a short transfer from the port of Athinios, we arrived in Fira, the largest town on the island. Our two-bedroom apartment, Enigma, has been built directly into the island’s rocky mountainside. It’s about 100 steps down to our front door, but the views of the multi-colored cliffs, surrounding buildings and the caldera at sunset were dramatic, to say the least.

All we needed to complete the picture? A glass of local Santorini white wine.

Problem solved.

Windmills and white-wash

Day 32
Mykonos, Greece

We didn’t think breakfast could get much better than what we had in Istanbul — then we saw the buffet this morning at the Mykonos Grand. Made-to-order omelets, fresh fruit, Greek yogurt, all so delicious that it not only fueled us for our excursion into town, but actually held us until dinner at 7 p.m.

Afterwards, we made our way to Hora, the main port town, to walk the narrow alleyways lined with cafes, clothing boutiques, jewelry shops and art galleries. The morning clouds would soon burn off, creating a blue sky backdrop to the white-washed buildings and their vibrantly colored roofs.

We walked up to the old remaining Mykonos windmills from which there’s a great view of Little Venice, a promenade along the Aegean Sea filled with outdoor cafes and restaurants.

On our way back, we came across what at first looked like several statues of pelicans. Upon closer inspection, we realized that these gigantic beasts were actually alive — and not scared of humans!

We spent the rest of the afternoon reading, lounging around the pool and resting up for our trip tomorrow to Santorini.

Benefiting from an airline strike

Day 31
Mykonos, Greece

Olympic Airlines employees wanted more benefits and higher wages. We wanted to get to Mykonos, our first destination in the Cyclades. This afternoon, our two interests clashed — and the flight we had booked here from Istanbul via Athens was canceled due to a strike.

We learned of a Sea Jets ferry that was leaving at 2:30 p.m., about an hour later than we had been scheduled to arrive in Mykonos. So, we hopped in a cab bound for the port of Rafina. After a 2-hour boat ride, the white-washed buildings of this island came into view and we were met for our transfer to the Mykonos Grand.

The friendly young lady who checked us in felt bad about our plight and offered to upgrade us to a suite with private pool. We happily obliged.

It doesn’t get better than this.

The donkeys of Hydra

Day 27
Hydra, Greece

Needing an escape from Athen’s never-ending traffic, we hopped on a two-hour ferry this morning to Hydra, an island that prohibits motor vehicles. Stepping off the boat and taking a whiff, we could immediately tell that the gas fumes had been replaced with something a bit different — donkeys are the only means of transportation here.

Hydra (pronounced e-drah) is the largest of the Saronic Gulf islands, with a dramatic landscape that contrasts its rocky interior with the crystal blue waters of the surrounding Gulf of Hydra. The port is filled with fishing boats, yachts and sail boats and lined with cafes, restaurants and small shops.

First up: a delicious, traditional lunch of tzatziki, Greek salad and meatballs at a family-run spot.

Afterwards, we walked through the town’s windy streets before following the road (really, a glorified donkey trail) around to more isolated parts of the island, passing deserted swimming coves, the red-tiled roofs of churches and homes perched precariously on hillsides.

It was a nice way to spend our second, and last day, in Athens. We’re off now to what will undoubtedly be a delicious dinner (can’t beat Greek food) and then need to pack for our early morning flight tomorrow to Istanbul.

7 hours in Ancient Athens

Day 26
Athens, Greece

After being delayed in Croatia and then again in Italy, my flight didn’t arrive here until past midnight this morning. And, as my taxi crawled through surprisingly crowded late-night streets, Athens demonstrated first-hand how it has become the traffic capital of the world.

My Dad arrived here yesterday morning — we’re staying at the Athens Gate Hotel, a recently renovated hotel with views from our balcony of both the Temple of Olympian Zeus and the Parthenon, which was our first stop of the day.

We hoped that it was early enough that the cruise ship passengers were still gorging themselves on their breakfast buffets. Unfortunately, we found the Acropolis swarming with tourists — when is it ever not? We walked through the ancient Theater of Dionysos before making the climb to the small Temple of Athena Nike, the Erechtheion (with its famous Caryatids columns) and, of course, the Parthenon, at the Acroplis’ highest point.

While they couldn’t rival those of the Parthenon, the city views of the Athens sprawl (and air pollution) were also pretty impressive.

Our next stop along the Ancient Promenade — a 3 km traffic-free oasis — was the Agora, once the center of life here. Socrates came to the Agora to expound on his philosophy while St Paul sought to win converts to Christianity in 49 A.D. The well-preserved Temple of Hephaestus was particularly striking, especially considering that it was built in 449 B.C.

After walking the stalls of the nearby central meat and fish markets and buying a sampling of some delicious (and huge) green olives, we checked out Attica, the country’s largest department store, which only reaffirmed to us how weak the U.S. dollar remains. Admission to the Benaki Museum was a lot less than a new Paul Stuart bathing suit, so we spent the next two hours exploring this fascinating collection of more than 20,000 items, spanning the Neolithic period (6500 – 3200 B.C.) to the early 20th century.

On our way back to the hotel, we stopped by the Parliament, housed in the formal royal palace of King Otto. Out front, the Tomb of the Unknown Solider is guarded by evzones, huge kilt-wearing presidential guards that stand stone-faced while getting taunted by tourists. Every hour, in a regimented ceremony, the guards are relieved — and do a little dance in some very dope pompom shoes.

We walked through the National Gardens, once the private grounds of the royal family, back to the hotel, where Dad asked if every day would be this much walking before promptly falling asleep. We’ll get some dinner at a local taverna in the Plaka tonight and then probably get to bed early. Our ferry to Hydra departs tomorrow at 10 a.m.