My daughter Sarah and her husband Jonathan came to visit us in Croatia last summer and as part of this trip we decided to fly to Greece as she had always wanted to visit there and flights were cheap and easy to come by (pre-Covid-19) from Croatia. Her main goal had been to visit the island of Santorini to stay in one of the beautiful white domed cave houses that grace the mountainsides there and enjoy the beautiful sunsets that Santorini is famous for.
We flew in to Athens from Zagreb and met up with Jonathan’s mom and spent the first few days there visiting Athens with its incredible ancient ruins at the Acropolis and scattered about this lively city. The delicious food at every turn, the gritty street art and the vibrant and friendly people there made this visit amazing, but exhausting as walking up to the Acropolis in the heat and crowds demands a lot of energy for your typical tourists, even ones in pretty decent physical condition.
Making a List
Athens is an amazing, thriving metropolis, but after a few days of the buzzing electric atmosphere that is Athens, we were ready to relax and unwind a bit. We booked a day trip by ferry at my lovely Greek friend Dimitra’s recommendation to go to Hydra, a little island about an hour or so away from Athens by ferry. I was hesitant to go because I had never heard much about it which is a big, BIG mistake many tourists make when making plans to visit places. If you haven’t seen it on Instagram or heard it been broadcast as a top 20 destination via Lonely Planet or Fodor’s, we tend to be a little hesitant to go there. Is it going to be worth it? Is it beautiful enough? Will it check off a mark on a bucket list or some other sort of nonsense?
And Checking it Twice
Well, so I read a bit about it on Rick Steve’s (I know, I know, but I had to get some more validation it was going to be worth it) and decided it would make a great day trip from the busy port city of Athens. The island was known for its lack of motor vehicles and it’s dependence on donkeys as not only as a means of transportation, but a way to convey supplies throughout the island.
Well, Hydra was lovely — a really beautiful smallish island with no cars allowed and very relaxing. Watching the donkeys sitting passively at the docks was fine, but a little nerve-wracking seeing locals riding on them and whipping them with sticks to get them through the stony roads that meandered about the island. Poor fellows!
Still, the island was gorgeous! We walked a beautiful cliffside road, stopped at a beach and swam then went and ate dinner at a a restaurant overlooking the Aegean. Our view was breathtaking. It was calm and perfectly blue and tranquil and the slight westerly winds were just enough to make for a comfortable afternoon here. We had such a lovely relaxing day here. We weren’t spending the night, so we couldn’t stay and watch the sunset, but it would have been breathtaking if we had. Looking back I think it was a mistake that we didn’t. The peace and quiet on this island was the calm before the storm.
Be Careful What You Wish For
Yes, we had bigger plans. Instagram, bucket list worthy plans, Pinterest, 1000 Places to See Before You Die plans. We were heading out to Santorini the following day to stay in an incredible white cave home built up on the cliffside on the famous island. Sarah had made reservations there for three nights, and we all put in for the rather extravagant cost to stay, so we could watch the beautiful sunset from our dreamy back balcony.
The cave home itself presented some problems right from the start.
At least getting there did.
When we got to the port on the island after our ferry ride there, we had waited patiently for the van from the host of the cave home that was supposed to pick us up from the port where the ferry had dropped us off. It was mayhem there with hundreds of people everywhere scrambling for rides in the tiny area where cars were allowed to pick up passengers. We stood there in the sea of people reading the names on the signs that taxi drivers and vans held up to pick up their passengers. Our names were nowhere to be found. I can’t even imagine this scenario post Covid-19.
Forty five minutes later, our van finally arrived, and we climbed the cliffs in the van of the magical island of Santorini. The large van was comfortable enough, but was playing some jangly-bangly screeching instrumental music very loudly that was giving me a headache. I don’t think it was Greek music but if it was, it wasn’t the soothing Greek music I had heard in other places. That combined with climbing clifftop roads with tiny lanes and plenty of large tourist buses inching by, and I just wanted to get there. But it seemed that our “private” van had a few stops to make and picked up other passengers before we got to our drop-off point in Edris about 40 minutes later.
And then to on to our rental home or cave. We were dropped off in a crowded parking lot and a guy met us to guide us there and help us carry our luggage. There was one of him and five of us and we each had a piece of luggage, so he could only help so much. We snaked through small crowded sidewalks and tiny roads crammed full of people from everywhere. Up and down steps trying to get by strollers with luggage that couldn’t roll through certain areas. Cramped stairwells where one slip up felt like you would go plunging off a cliff or into a road.
But the cave house would be worth it, right? We finally got to our cliff house and it was very charming and quaint, but not luxurious in the least. Just extremely basic, bordering on a little shabby. But the view was truly incredible and there was a table and some chairs on the terrace that overlooked the Aegean. Our nerves were frazzled from the journey, but we had made it and were ready to enjoy the picturesque sunset that was world renown. We looked out over the Aegean Sea and marveled at its beauty. It was truly breathtaking.
But wait. We needed to eat and drink. There was a little bit of panic when we realized there was only one bottle of water in the fridge and nothing else, no coffee or tea or even some ouzo, wine and snacks like the Airbnb in Athens had generously supplied. We would have to meander back though the crowded alleyways and steep sidewalks in search of food and drinks before we could relax.
The store we found up a few alleyways and many steep steps was as tiny as the streets and packed full of other tourists trying to get a snack or some groceries. We stocked up and trekked back precariously to our cave home.
We poured some refreshing Greek wine and opened some delicious lemon herbed olives I had brought from Athens and took a seat on our terrace. It was already 5ish by the time we had settled in and begun to relax after our journey. We were ready to sit quietly and enjoy nature’s beauty. A golden glow settled on our surroundings and the area became suffused with the magical light of the sun’s graceful exit to the day. It was truly a beautiful place. The terrace area of the home had been relatively calm and quiet when we first went out, but I started to sense a buzz as it got close to sunset time.
I happened to look behind us on the walls that surrounded the town. People were everywhere, sitting on the stonewalls, sitting on the steps, sitting here and there and everywhere. Some glamorous young girls in beautiful long dresses were actually standing precariously on walls that overlooked the cliffs, which made me quite nervous as a mother. There was just a quiet buzz of humanity and it felt good to be a part of this shared human experience.
Until it didn’t.
(The video above shows the calm before the storm about an hour before sunset and those precarious girls taking selfies.)
Yes, it was just perfect until it wasn’t. I mean, the closer it got to sunset time, the louder it got. More people showed up. And more. And more. Then we started noticing tourboats filling the sea down below. And then the hum became chatter until it became a loud noise that sounded like a weedwhacker.
A what? What was it? Was someone doing gardening at sunset? How inappropriate. We were all looking at each other wondering what in the heck was making the loud noise. Then we spotted the culprit. Over our shoulders was a drone, yes, a drone hovering around us and making a horrid buzzing sound. “Malakas,” I said to my daughter and son-in-law. We had learned that word from our Greek friend Dimitra. (Look it up.)
Apparently a drone needed to get a picture as well and was doing so behind us. We shook our fist at it, and it may have backed away and went buzzing around behind someone else. “This is why we can’t have nice things,” I thought.
But that wasn’t the extent of our experience. Our private balcony became a place for photographers shooting engagement pictures or for tourists to just come sit with friends and drink a beer, right in FRONT of us sitting on our porch. It definitely ruined the mood. Do you stare at them or the sunset? Do you pretend they are not there or offer them a glass of wine? We did both.
It felt like at Mardi Gras in New Orleans when you stake out a place hours before a parade and someone shows up right at the last minute and stands directly in front of you. It became a nerve-wracking experience, not a calm, serene contemplative-type experience. It showed a selfish side of tourists that I like to avoid seeing. And it all has to do with photographs.
Striking Out Early
Sarah and Jonathan had a plan to get away from all the tourists. They decided to strike out super early the next morning to see if they could beat the crowds and see some sites in a less crowded environment. They came back an hour later pretty frustrated. Wedding photographers had replaced the multitudes of cruise ship tourists and staked out many of the scenic overlooks. They put photo equipment out and blocked off access and weren’t moving. It was worse than the mobs of tourists who at least would get tired of a scenic overlooks after a few selfies and eventually move on.
So we did two things that tourists off the cruise ships and many day-trippers couldn’t do. We planned a long hike across the caldera to another town the following morning. It took us several hours and was an incredibly relaxing and magical experience for us. (Oh, except for a pack of wild dogs that barked viciously at us.) However, one of the dogs turned out to be a really sweet animal guide that led us on most of the walk. It was a precious brown dog that seemed to have the soul of a Greek wanderer and he patiently stayed with us on a long portion of the walk even though we had no food to offer him.
The other wonderful thing we did was found a sweet little watering hole that took a lot of precarious walking to get there, also limiting its access to two-hour cruiseship tourists. These two experiences saved Santorini in my eyes, even though it is a truly beautiful destination. Because we found you could get away from all the craziness by just leaving early in the morning and hiking to places that were a little more remote and hard to get to. I guess that’s the moral of the story anywhere you visit that has been touted as an Instagram destination.
Other Destinations Made Unpleasant by Crowds
I remember Mike and I going to the picturesque Cinque Terre in Italy last May and hiking from one city to the next, and it being a totally maddening experience. The beautiful hike we had looked forward to turned into a single file line of tourists on a mountainside creeping along slowly on steep walkways. And certain tourists had worn strappy little sandals on a precarious rocky hike and were laughing at how silly they were as lines of hikers stood waiting for them to move on. We were totally blocked as there was no way to pass this inconsiderate hiker, who not only endangered herself as the cliffs were steep and there were no side rails but had inconvenienced many. Yes, I’m looking at you middle-aged American lady who decided that her strappy little sandals would make safe walking shoes for a mountain hike. It didn’t help that there was a German speaking tourist with his walking sticks behind us cursing her under his breath and trying to push us forward when there was nowhere for us to go.
Thanks, Instagram. Thanks, gigantic cruise ships that overcrowd places by day and leave them desolate at night. Thanks, tourists who don’t do research on the areas they are traveling to. The thought of this experience still saddens me, and I think of those cities now after the coronavirus has left them all empty and wonder if they will implement new rules for those traveling there promoting more sustainable and higher quality tourism at their beautiful locations. Only time will tell.
As we enter into the post Covid-19, I think these places are going to have to reevaluate how many tourists they allow into their magical cities both for health reasons and for ecological reasons. If they can survive this period without any tourists, surely they can survive with less tourists. I actually hope the virus has people reconsidering taking large cruise ships in the future (I’m not talking about the smaller river cruises) as they have been the bane of many beautiful destinations and obvious health hazards and vectors for disease-spreading. Dubrovnik, Venice, Santorini and Cinque Terre are just a few that come to mind. Even bigger cities like Prague and Florence have been overwhelmed by crowds, but at least in these places people are forced to stay overnight in a hotel or Airbnb and have dinner in the city providing the cities with more revenue to pay for their infrastructure. I don’t know how some places will limit tourists but certainly limiting large cruise ship crowds could be the answer for many places. As for limiting inconsiderate people, I don’t have an answer for that.
By the way, I truly LOVE, LOVE, LOVE Greece as you can see in my previous posts, so don’t let this one experience I talk about deter you from heading there. It’s actually my favorite vacation destination along with Croatia and Italy. (See these posts if you want to fall in love with Greece: Another Day Younger in Greece or It’s All Greek to Me!) There are many, many beautiful islands that are quiet and just as beautiful as Santorini without all the commotion. And Santorini is magical. It’s all about managing expectations and choosing sustainable options that don’t wreck the place you are visiting.
And that is the point of this story: reconsider vacationing on large cruise ships, strike out to lesser known places and try to be a considerate traveler.