Travel black book: The draw of Santorini

Who: Singaporean Tam Kwan Yuen, 28, is a watercolour artist. The bachelor is having a solo exhibition of the work inspired by his travels from March 7 to 15 at Artcommune Gallery, 02-43 Bras Basah Complex. For more information, go to www.kytam.com.

Favourite destination: Santorini, Greece

Why: The relaxed atmosphere and laid-back culture of the Mediterranean, the unique white-washed and blue-roofed architecture, the history of the area and the majestic islands set in the deep blue Aegean Sea are the main attractions. The lifestyle there is amazingly suited for artists and people who love a slow, relaxed pace of life. It is also the most ideal subject matter for my paintings.

I visited Santorini in September last year with a fellow artist, Jayson Yeoh, 52, from Malaysia. We were in Greece to attend Watercolor International II, an international watercolour exhibition where our works were displayed.

After the exhibition, we went sightseeing around the country, sketching and painting. Sitting in a cafe in the afternoon, sipping orange juice and sketching the hotels and rugged landscapes of Santorini were simple yet great pleasures for me.

Favourite hotel

Anemomilos Suites (Fira, Santorini; tel: +30-22- 8602-2623; www.villa-anemomilos.gr) is conveniently located near the heart of Fira, the island's main town, making it an easy launch point for sightseeing. The hotel has a swimming pool and its spacious rooms offer fantastic rooftop views of the town.

The owner of the hotel, a bearded, friendly old man, made us feel at home with his gentle, fatherly demeanour.

We had a pleasant chat over a bottle of wine, which he offered us when we came back to the hotel from a night out, and drove us to the airport for free, even though we had stayed only one night.

Service and amenities are good. The price is also very reasonable - less than $80 for two people a night.

Favourite place to eat

The sun was setting after a day sketching around Oia, a town in the north-west of Santorini, and we decided to walk to the western end of town to have our first dinner on the island at Ochre Wine Bistro (Oia, Cyclades 84702; tel: +30-22-8607-1808; www.ochre-bistro.com).

The long walk was worth it for the magnificent views from the restaurant. With the sea breeze, quiet ambience and good service by a beautiful Greek woman, it was a relaxing and satisfying meal.

I recommend the grilled salmon or sea bass and the moussaka, an eggplant and mince meat casserole, and the lobster pasta for two, if you are willing to splurge. It is great, but costs €60 (S$91).

A meal here typically costs €20 to €30 a person, which may seem expensive, but the quality of the food and the relatively large portions make up for it.

Favourite local dish

Gemista (pronounced ye-mis-ta), which is tomatoes and green peppers stuffed with rice and herbs. The fragrance of the herbs and rice go really well with the tomatoes and it was a unique experience to be served tomatoes big enough to be stuffed with rice. It tasted very special and authentically Mediterranean.

Other dishes to try are souvlaki, grilled meat skewers, and grilled fresh fish.

Best place to watch the sunset

On the north-western tip of Santorini lies a small town called Oia (pronounced Yi-a).

Here, you will get the best feeling while watching the sun set over the white-washed houses and behind the caldera as you sip tea at a seaside cafe, with the sea breeze gently stroking your face. Bliss.

Best hidden find

The beaches at Ammoudi, near Oia, are lined with cafes and restaurants and visitors can enjoy a nice swim. But I preferred Gialos Beach in the south.

We took a rather unplanned trip to Black Beach, near Akrotiri, after we met a group of youngsters while we were sketching near Fira.

We started chatting as they admired our sketches and mentioned they were heading to the southern part of the island by car and asked if we wanted to go.

We said, "Why not?", and hopped in.

They took us to the beach, which was picturesque and had black volcanic sand.

We arrived when the beach was quite empty, just before sunset. It was a peaceful place, away from the crowds and bars and other towns.

We would not have dreamed of going there if we had not met those people and I'm glad we did.

Favourite historic site

The Orthodox Metropolitan Church of Santorini, Cyclades is a majestic white church near the cliff at Fira. It was built in 1827 and rebuilt in 1956 after it was destroyed by an earthquake.

We sketched this historical site, then leaned against its base on the cliff to sketch the panoramic view of the town of Firostefani across the bay while buskers played Greek music nearby.

Its unique architecture and location are fantastic.

Best day trip

One of the best ways to visit the island is to take a tour. We booked with Kamari tours (www.kamaritours.gr; tel: +30-22-8603-1390; e-mail: info@kamaritours.gr) through the company's booth in Fira.

Our itinerary took us to the dormant volcano caldera, then for a dip in the nearby hot spring, across the bay to visit the island of Thirasia and finally to witness the sunset off the coast of Oia.

It took us an hour under the hot sun to reach the top of the volcanic caldera on foot, but the difficult hike was worth it as we had a panoramic view of the whole of Santorini from there.

You can cool off later on the way to Thirasia, when the boat stops near the shore so you can jump in and swim.

Once on the island, you can hike its trails or relax and enjoy an ice cream by the shore for 30 minutes before continuing to tour the islands by boat while listening to Greek music and taking pictures of the sunset.

The only pity is that food is not served on the boat, though you can buy drinks on board. It costs about €24 to €48 a person for a three- to five-hour tour aboard a double-decker boat with space for 20 people.

Advice for travellers

Santorini requires at least four days for visitors to truly enjoy its beauty and soak in the atmosphere of Oia and Fira. Although it is a relatively small island, moving around can be challenging if you do not have a car and you will need to take either a taxi or bus.

You can rent a car or bike in the main towns, but the road conditions are poor and undeveloped in some areas.

vlydia@sph.com.sg


This article was first published on Mar 1, 2015.
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