Stay in Imerovigli: the laid-back village with views
Everyone raves about the sunsets in Oia, but if you head around the caldera rim to the quieter, more laid back village of Imerovigli the views are just as spectacular and – out of season – it’s easier to find budget accommodation. I check into Merovigla studios, a cheap, clean hotel with pool near the centre of Imerovigli’s tangle of cobbled alleys. Upon the owners suggestion, I head for Tou Steki Tou Nikou (Nikos’ place), a cosy tavern packed with locals, where I order aubergines stuffed with minced meat washed shown with the local white Assyrtiko wine, whilst a local band play laouto (a Greek lute instrument) and violin.
In a bid to get even further off the beaten path, the next day I meet Nikos Boutsinis of Santorini Walking Tours. Nikos tells me there is a network of about 60 miles of hiking paths in Santorini that hardly anyone uses. Pulling on sturdy boots we hike for hours along dusty, deserted tracks, discovering abandoned Byzantine churches, flocks of grazing sheep and vines grown in the tight, nest-like circles that protect them from wind and heat. “This is a side of the island that visitors rarely see,” Nikos tells me.
Sunsets in Santorini don’t have to be viewed with hundreds of other tourists © Heidi Fuller-Love
Rent a scooter and head for the beaches
Another way to get off the beaten path is to rent a scooter. Aboard my buzzing Vespa on the third day I set off to discover the island’s beaches. The landscape en route is rocky, with scattered farms making the most of the fertile volcanic soil to grow sun-sweet local cherry tomatoes, grapes and pistachios. Santorini isn’t known for its beaches, except for the stunning Red Beach which is currently closed due to erosion, but there are a few hidden coves worth visiting. One of these is Kouloumbo, an endless black sand beach a few miles outside of Oia, where I spend a lazy afternoon in the sun before enjoying fresh fish lunch at family-run Koloumbos taverna.
Visit the wineries
With rich volcanic soil and lava-hot climate it’s hardly surprising that wine has been made on Santorini for thousands of years. Apart from main producers Santos and Boutari, there’s a cluster of artisan vineyards that are well worth visiting. A long looping ride past whitewashed villages and woolly vineyards takes me inland to Mesa Gonia, a tiny hamlet where the Roussos family (no relation to the singer) have been producing wine since 1836. I meet Yiannis, fifth generation of this wine producing family who shows me the low vaulted canava wine cave and the oak barrels where the sweet Vinsanto wine is fermented, then I taste some of the family’s wines, including the purple Caldera Roussos, which is dense and spicy with ripe red fruit flavours.
Tasting locally produced wine reveals another side of Santorini © Santorines/Shutterstock
I spend the night at Carpe Diem, a hip boutique hotel with panoramic views tucked into the side of a hill near the hilltop village of Pyrgos. Despite the fact that Pyrgos was the island’s capital up until the 1800s, tourists rarely stop here and the winding lanes lined with churches, cafes and old houses, are near deserted. That night, as the wind howls and rattles through the bamboo groves outside, I lay awake remembering that Santorini was once famed for its vampires, the dreaded vrykolakas, or walking dead, who were said to stalk the island at night.
Next morning bright blue skies and brilliant sunshine dispel thoughts of rusted stakes and ropes of garlic. Instead I seek out the spirit of music at La Ponta, a cultural centre set in an old winery in the village of Megalochori where owner Giannis gives me a wheezy demonstration on the tsampouna, a 2,000 year old Greek version of the bagpipes made from goatskin.
The stacked hillside at Pyrgos © Heidi Fuller-Love