Here begins our little island hop in the Cyclades with my husband Peter and three of my teenage grandchildren, Ebonee, Macy and Maddox.
Before travelling, my thoughts were a mixture of excitement and trepidation. I want this to be a fabulous holiday for them all but was anticipating a potentially challenging airport experience. I know several of our clients travelling out to Greece have had short delays, one with missing luggage. Manchester Airport has had the worst press out of all of the UK airports and I had all of the proverbial fingers and toes crossed that it went without incident.
Our flight was due to depart at 10.45 but to err on the side of caution, we got there or 7am. I was surprised that we were able to walk right up to the check in desk with only half a dozen people before us. I commented on this to the lady that checked in our hold luggage and she said that it was very unusual for it to be this quiet. This is a fantastic start!
It’s clear that some changes have been put in place to ‘manage’ the queues. Firstly before you go through to security there is a holding bay. I was confused at first but then the penny finally dropped. They have put in place a filtering system letting around 30 people through at a time. Once through this first step we are directed along the back stair case and down the steps – an obvious way to avoid any bottlenecks.
Next we arrive at another holding area where small groups of people are let through at about 10 at a time to then queue to have hand luggage and ourselves scanned. The whole process probably took about an hour in total – longer that I’ve previously experienced. However, it is clear when we get through to the departure lounge that the airport is nowhere near operating to full capacity.
We head to Café Balzar where I know that they usually do a good breakfast but instead they tell me that they don’t have any hot drinks and the only food that they have on offer are Danish pastries. A member of staff tells us that we can get hot drinks from Starbucks an bring them back to the café to consume. Apparently they only opened the day previously and are running a very reduced menu due to staff shortages. This comes as no surprise as we are seeing staff shortages in many sectors especially in hospitality. I’m just thankful that we are through security and it has been a positive experience.
We had about an hour’s delay but I hardly felt it because I was bathing in the children’s excitement at going on holiday (though not children at 14, 17 and 18). BTW, I know my grandchildren don’t like being called kids or children. For heavens sake one of them will be going to university in several weeks time. For the purpose of this blog and after consulting with the gang I will from this point forward refer to them as the grandadults (their suggestion) – or GA’s for short.
The flight was none eventful but once we made it over to mainland Greece I delighted in pointing out the different locations along the way. Flying into Santorini as the plane navigates the runway whilst at the same time trying to lose altitude is always fascinating.
To make things as smooth as possible whilst travelling in a group of five I have arranged transfers from the airport via our hotel which costs 45€. A short journey later we arrive at Symphony Suites located in Pyrgos. It is on the cliff edge directly above the port and about a 10 minute walk from Santo Wines.
Georgia and Katerina are waiting for us when we arrive. After checking in we are asked to make our breakfast selections which will be delivered to our suite at the time of our choosing. I asked the GA’s what time they would like to eat and they decide between 8.00 and 8.30. I ask them if they are sure, knowing that getting out of bed isn’t their forte. They are adamant – 8.00 – 8.30am it is!
We have a lovely 2 bedroomed apartment called Phaedra which is the only suite they have that can accommodate 5 people. It is very modern and offers fantastic views over to the volcano. There is an enclosed terrace at the front of the suite but the experience is somewhat marred by the constant throng of quad bikes tearing up the road. (sorry – grumpy old woman coming out here!). The kids were enthralled by the view but also by the fluffy dressing gowns and slippers. I was enthralled by the view and the complimentary bottle of wine in the fridge!
Whilst planning this trip it was always going to be the Cyclades. Ask anyone to summon up an image of Greece in their mind and they will almost always think of the whitewashed cubist buildings and the blue domed churches of the Cycladic islands. With regular flights to both Mykonos and Santorini, these gateway islands will bring you into the heart of the Cyclades very easily. This can be a blessing and also a curse.
We only have one night on Santorini before heading off to Sikinos so we decide to walk into Fira to give them the Santorini experience. I think we underestimated how long it would take us. Georgia at the hotel said it was about 25 minutes’ walk when in fact it was more likely about 50. The GA’s take it in their stride and I think we all appreciate the exercise not to mention the feeling of the soft breeze and warmth of the sunshine on our skin.
The first stop that we make is to pick up our ferry tickets from the travel agency. The Dionisios Solomos is the only ferry in our itinerary where e-tickets aren’t available. I have booked it online via Ferryhopper but am required to pick up the tickets from the agency. I do love having a physical ticket in my hand but have succumbed to the ease of booking tickets online.
We head into the throng to find somewhere to eat. There is a lot of choice in Fira and as we pass each taverna we are met by members of staff stepping into our path inviting us into their restaurant. We carry on pushing through. Eventually we come to the entrance for the cable car and spot a restaurant that looks as though it has space so we ask for a table here. Despite being a typical touristy taverna, we appreciate that with the thousands of people currently in Fira from the cruise ships that beggars can’t be choosers so we settle for what we can get.
Not everything on the menu was Greek. It was in fact it was a very Americanised menu but none the less we are starving and order a selection of foods to suit everyone’s taste. The wait for the meal is expectedly long. At 40 minutes they bring us some bread rolls which we eat immediately. 25 minutes later the meal arrives in dribs and drabs. We ask for more bread with which to eat the tzatziki and fava beans but they tell us that they have run out of bread. This isn’t one of my best Greek taverna experiences I’ve ever had but we are just glad to have found somewhere to eat.
For the duration of our meal there has been a constant queue for the cable car at least 3 people deep. It just gives a sense of how many people pour off the cruise liners into Fira. I know that it is a controversial subject. It has been suggested that the number of tourists coming onto such a small island en masse is damaging to the environment. We also know that it brings in massive amounts of revenue to businesses small and large. We are all travellers free to choose how we take our holidays. Cruise liners aren’t my particular cup of tea and I don’t enjoy being on Santorini – a stunningly beautiful island in peak season. There are just so many people arriving at once it makes everything feel very overwhelming. Anyway – hence the fact that we are only here for 1 night. Previous experiences of Santorini,(except for back in the days of yore) have made me realise that this is not what I’m looking for as part of my travel experience. Even the GA’s think Fira is a bit crazy. It’s an experience and I’m just grateful to be able to travel.
Anyway, we catch a glimpse of the sunset and are now exhausted and ready to head back to the hotel. The bus station is a short walk away but it is mayem! After standing there for about 10 minutes trying to fathom everything out I decided we should just get a taxi. The taxi rank is just behind the bus station where we join the queue.
Gosh we slept well when we got back!
We are suddenly awoken with a knock on the door. I knew I should have set an alarm! Breakfast is here and everyone is still fast asleep. It is like a scene from Home Alone (you know the one) with Peter and I grabbing the fluffy dressing gowns and trying to make ourselves look human before answering the door. A large tray of various breakfast elements are handed over to us. We lay the feast out on the large table on the terrace and 3 sleepy heads haul themselves from their slumber to eat.
Although a 2 bedroomed apartment is handy, having 1 bathroom between five people is not. I try to organise the GA’s into some kind of order to shower and get dressed – not an easy task! Finally we are ready.
We have no particular plans for today but agree on a strategy to go to the bus stop and to jump on the first bus wherever it is heading. As in most places in Greece the roads are very car-centric and the pavements practically non-existent which is the case of the road from the hotel to the bus stop. The first bus that arrives is going to Perissa so we board not really knowing what to expect.
We board using the back door to a very packed bus. Obviously the crowds staying in Fira are heading off to the beach. There is just one seat vacant which I tell my eldest GA to take and I make my way towards the back of the bus. A voice from behind me shouts ‘Lady, Lady! You must sit down!” I turn around to see the bus conductor approaching Ebonee and waving the palms of his hand up and down, indicating for her to stand up. He then proceeds to shout “Let the old lady sit down!” I’m mortified!
Although I’m still in denial about being 62 (nearly 63) it becomes clear that the ‘old lady’ is indeed me. I let out a laugh and say “Well say it how it is why don’t you!” which causes an eruption of laughter from the back of the bus. The bus conductor is insistent and hovers over Ebonee until she stands up. I then obediently take my place in the vacant seat feeling as though I have aged 20 years in 2 minutes.
The conductor moves his way through the standing passengers and leans into me and says “You could be my grandmother!” “Thank you” I said whilst at the same time thinking that he must be at least 34 so that would make me in my 80’s surely! I think I’ve just aged another 20!
Perissa is the last stop. There are beaches before Perissa but we figure our chances of getting on a less busy bus will be by getting on at the final destination where people will board first (if that makes sense).
We head directly to the beach which is immediately behind a beautiful church – and it is heaving. The black sand beach is crammed with sun beds and umbrella’s fronted by a taverna or café bar. Outside each establishment is someone trying to coax you in with the promise of a free sunbed if you eat there.
You don’t have to walk far before the sunbeds begin to thin out and there are stretches of beach lined with tamarisk trees providing some natural shade. We don’t actually have time to get comfortable on the beach as our ferry to Sikinos leaves later this afternoon. We pile into a nice café bar called Sellada for ice cream and cold drinks.
The GA’s spend some time on their own checking out the shops and sitting on the beach whilst Peter and I walk further along the beach. It’s all much of a muchness to be honest and I feel myself enduring my time here rather than enjoying it. We spin out more time having more drinks in the same café but can’t stretch it out any longer. We head back on the next available bus and wait for our transfer to the port there.
As we collect our luggage from the hotel reception, Katerina gives us 2 small bags and tells us that it is a gift from the hotel. Each bag has a small bottle of olive oil and a prickly pear liqueur – what a lovely gesture.
Thankfully the bus is here to transfer us to the port. After zigzagging down the narrow road to Athinios port we unload our luggage and wait for the ferry. The cattle pen is already full of other travellers but we manage to squeeze a spot on the concrete seating to wait. The ferry Dionisios Solomos is late by over an hour and half. The wind has picked up sending litter spiralling around the port. Today has really been a test of endurance rather than pleasure – not ideal but of course this is all part of the island hopping experience. It is busy but honestly, I’ve seen it worse at Athinios port.
The Dionisios Solomos finally arrives and I turn to the GA’s to offer some advice. I tell them “Stick together and show no mercy!” “We won’t let you down Grandma” they reply! As the crowd moves forward we join the throng and inch our way on board. The GA’s do me proud and we all make our way up onto the deck as a group without any mishaps. The odd thing about this particular ferry though is that we are directed up to the deck of the ship with all of our luggage. Very odd. It is usual to drop suitcases onto the car deck but this isn’t the case here.
It is about 30 minutes before everyone has boarded and the cargo lorries disembarked and re-loaded. We are now 2 hours behind schedule. Margarita our host at Ostria Studios on Sikinos has arranged to meet us at the port – but she will know the situation.
Eventually under way, the sun begins to set over the volcano. The delay has actually rewarded us with one of the best views of the sunset that you can get free of charge. Who’d want to be in the middle of a heaving throng in Oia? Sure as heck not me! I apologise now for the blurry, grainy images. I’ve yet to master the art of taking photographs from a moving vessel in low light on a smart phone – another skill for me to try and master!
As the night sky darkens, the view of Santorini comes into its own. The little white jewels on top of the cliff edge alight. Again apologies for the photo’s that don’t do it justice. However – it’s to do with the experience right?
As we reach Oia I can see something unusual in the distance but can’t quite figure out what it is. After a minute or two I can see that it is the moon rising over Santorini – but just not any ordinary moon. It is the biggest, fattest, orangey-ist moon I have ever seen! Tonight is a Super Moon and what a way to view it! This is one of life’s special moments – though I think the kids are more involved with Tik-Tok! Sometimes you just have to stop and feel the moment. One day the GA’s I’m sure will come to appreciate this. This is the only photograph that I took of this amazing spectacle – shame it is so awful!
Once underway, we hear an announcement – not a very clear announcement but I’m sure they are asking for Mrs Stephanie and Mr Peter to report to the Purser’s office. I know it is unlikely but Peter goes to check this out just in case it is us. When he comes back Peter tells Macy and I that because the ferry is running late they will not be stopping at Sikinos for a handful of people. We will have to stay on until Folegandros and then wait for another connecting ferry that will take us to Sikinos. We will arrive at around 2am.
After a few expletives and exasperated breaths (from me) Peter laughs and tells us that it’s a joke and the Pursers office were after some other people who hadn’t paid the right amount for their tickets. Macy who is quite fond of practical jokes suggests that we tell Ebonee and Maddox the story and don’t let them in on the joke until we arrive.
Ebonee wasn’t very impressed at the news (fake news) but Maddox thought it would add to the adventure. Being a practical young man he suggests that we save our pastries from the bakery until we are really hungry. “That’s a really good idea” I say feeling a little bit guilty. We do eat the pastries anyway – growing GA’s need food!
The joke is further embellished with a video call to their mum to let her know that they will be arriving on the next island in the early hours of the morning. Macy did call her back separately to let her in on the joke.
Eventually we arrive to the port of Ios which will be our next destination after Sikinos. The super moon is now high in the sky and its beam is reflected in the marina. Sikinos is now just 30 minutes away.
Once the announcement is made (and I know the GA’s are oblivious to this and our little joke) we make our way down to the car deck with all our luggage. I want the GA’s to soak up every drop of this experience. I love this part of the ferry journey more than anything and want the grandchildren to feel this too.
Only a handful of people disembark which makes the process so much more pleasant. Before we walk down the ramp I tell them that we won’t be able to go very far from the port as the next ferry to take us to Sikinos will be here in one hour – laying the joke on a little thicker. As we walk forward I see Margarita holding the sign for Ostria Studios. We greet each other and she asks us to load our cases into the car. The studios are only a short walk from the port but it is kind of her to help with the luggage. Ebonee looks as though she isn’t quite sure what’s going on and Maddox also is oblivious to it all. We ask them if they realise what is happening and that we have actually arrived on Sikinos and that it was all a joke. The response was “That’s lame”. Well Peter, Macy and I found it funny!
We are on Sikinos for 3 nights only. The kids are in a triple studio next to ours and it is the early hours of the morning before they get to sleep excited from the day. Yes shenanigans were had (don’t ask!) – but at least they are in a separate apartment with nobody above or below them – just us next door!
Tomorrow will be a day for relaxing and unwinding and shaking the Santorini stress from our bones.