Some images are so simple and strong they imprint themselves on your memory hard drive. One of mine is eating a spinach and feta filo pastry (a Greek pie really) in brilliant sunshine looking out onto an azure sea from the deck of a Greek ferry en route to the island of Naxos after the longest winter.
Why so special? Well, it was my first experience of the Mediterranean and it felt like someone had flicked the lights on and changed the colour setting from mute to technicolor. Plus… the pie was purchased by my first love who, unaccustomed to backbacking, had manfully coped with a night’s sleep on Piraeus harbour and looked every bit the rugged romantic hunter gatherer.
This was many moons ago. The first love moved on and up to luxury travel and his luggage now only ever has wheels. But after almost 20 years I am back in Greece with my same, enduring love.
We headed to Santorini famous for its volcanic black beaches and iconic sunsets. While we are not exactly in the first flush of our romance, it really does no harm once in a while to sprinkle around some love dust.
Never one to take the easy route we travelled from Turkey (Fethiye) by ferry via Rhodes. Greek ferries are not what they were. Today they are all sleek and modern without a goat or chicken insight.
We were told the sea is normally as smooth as a millpond. But on for our journey, however, even the locals were passing round the sick bags. Not the romantic beginnings I was hoping for but things could only get better. The more practical minded can skip the sea journey altogether – there are direct flights into Santorini from most UK and European airports!
The island of Santorini is part of the Cyclades group of islands. Its villages are built on the cliffs surrounding the large circular ‘caldera’ – a lagoon in the center of the volcano (now dormant) which erupted in 1628 BC and led to the creation of what you can see today.
We arrived in the dead of night and were whisked from the ferry by taxi to Hotel Galini. Clinging to the cliffs, Hotel Galini is the perfect, small, stylish but unpretentious and well-priced hotel. The rooms are compact and beautiful with views to melt the hardest heart.
Café Gallini serves breakfast on a terrace with vistas over the sea in every direction. If it’s a bit windy you can just move inside and enjoy the spectacle from behind glass. The café is also open from noon for light lunches including traditional salads, dishes and Greek desserts. In the evening it serves drinks, light bites and cocktails, and offers an opportunity to watch the fabled Santorini sunset. We scoured the island and struggled to find better.
The main hub of Santorini is the capital town of Thira. It has all the shops, bars and restaurants you would expect. However we were happy Hotel Galini was located in the quiet area of Firostefani but just a 20 minute walk along a stunning cliff top footpath into Thira.
The atmosphere across the whole island was very gay friendly. There are gay and lesbian tourists in most bars and clubs in Santorini but the bar 'Tropical' in Thira is considered the most famous for gay visitors.
The best way to get around the island is by taxi or bus. From the main terminal in Thira you can get buses across the island to a selection of beaches and into the stunning village of Oia.
This hamlet is probably Santorini at its most beautiful – architecturally pure and unaltered by tourism. When you see it you will instantly recognize the iconic postcard images we all associate with Santorini. The sunsets here are said to be the best on the island, possibly the world.
If you are feeling active and a bit romantic take the 235 steep steps down from Oia to the workaday harbor at Amoudi Bay for lunch or dinner at one of the waterfront tavernas carved into the rock.
I recommend Dimitri’s Taverna where we had the most amazing squid and red mullet washed down with locally brewed donkey ale whose strap line is ‘Hip Hoppy Kick Ass Ale’. If, after all that, you can’t face the climb back, there are plenty of donkeys for hire to help you home.
Most of the beaches are on the other side of the island and there is plenty of choice to suit every need. Agios Georgios is very hip, cool and comfortable. Seaside by Notos at the beginning of Agios Georgios is the place to eat, hangout and watch celebrities. You can get there by bus but we imagine the celebrities generally don’t!
If you like your beaches more au natural then the favorite nudist beaches are Koloumpos and Vlihada but you will need a car or motorbike to get to Koloumpos.
And if you thought that was the enough romance for one holiday you would be wrong. We heaved our rucksacks up to the highest point of Santorini – the small village of Imerovigli (translated as ‘peaceful vistas’). It is slightly off the beaten track but just a 35-minute awe-inspiring walk along the cliff top footpaths (all very safe) into the main town of Thira.
The best place to stay in Imerovigli is Above Blue Suites, a top notch cluster of 10 uber private and elegant suites scattered across a steep rocky slope. Each has a private terrace and Jacuzzi and if you ever tire of your view of the Aegean you can retire to your spacious rooms with glorious en suite bathrooms.
Every night you choose from an extensive breakfast menu, served on your private terrace at an agreed time. Wow! You can also order the romantic dinner of a lifetime by the pool looking out over the sea watching one of the world’s best sunsets. And when you fancy something a bit more low key and want to stay local, there is a very good traditional taverna – Anogi – just round the corner in the small village of Imerovigli.
In the past I have been a bit skeptical of ‘romantic holidays’. I tend to think you can’t buy or order romance and it usually happens in unlikely places. But as I get older I realize you have to make time together in a place that is simply beautiful and inspiring in itself. That could be a rainy day in the Yorkshire Dales but chances are it won’t be and it will take a bit more to get the love dust air bound.
Simon Forrester is co-founder of LGBT travel company Further Afield, offering the best hand-picked gay owned and gay friendly places to stay the world.