A lovely island with a fiery history

There's archaeological evidence that Santorini may be 'Atlantis'

The ship seems to sail perilously close to the tiny Mediterranean island of Stromboli, an island volcano that continuously spews steamy smoke high into the azure sky.

But the captain's voice booms through the ship's speakers. Not to worry, he explains. He just wants us to see up close the way nature continuously reshapes the landscape in this part of the world. We're closing in on the Cyclades, which today - through a series of earthquakes and volcanoes over the past 80,000 years - maybe more - comprise four islands that ring the Caldera Sea.

The ship, Brilliance of the Seas, is one of the newest and sunniest of the Royal Caribbean cruise line. It sailed from Barcelona, Spain, five days earlier with some 2,500 passengers, setting out on a series of cruise-by visits to several hot spots in the temperate Mediterranean, including the French Riviera, Florence and Rome in Italy, and now these impressive islands. Mykonos is our first stop. For those ferreting out archeological relics, there's a ferry to Delos, considered the mythological birthplace of Apollo and Artemis.

But Santorini, the southernmost island of the Cyclades, is the most spectacular and intriguing. One side of the crescent-shaped island is banked by sheer cliffs; the other by beautiful beaches. It's known for its local artisans and charming, quiet hotels and cafes with unbeatable vistas of the sea.

At one tip of the island is an archeological dig that has uncovered one of the oldest known civilizations. Archaeologists are constantly trying to determine if it might be the legendary Atlantis, the island that once supported a thriving civilization but somehow sank into the ocean. And it's inthe outer fringes of one of the oldest histories of war - Thucydides' "History of the Peloponnesian War."

We're going to spend a full day here, and for me this is one of the two high points of the trip (a walk through renaissance Rome was the other).

As the ship enters the Caldera Sea (think caldron of constantly bubbling, agitated water), black and red lava rock juts some 1,000 feet straight up from the churning, cerulean water. Sparkling, classic white Mediterranean homes and blue-roofed churches are perched atop these cliffs, like a jeweled crown bedecking a woman with long, black hair.

Local launches wait to ferry passengers from the ship, which anchors in the choppy bay, to the shore. Royal Caribbean offers at least three shore tours here, as it does at most ports. I take one that combines several attractions: two villages, lunch at a seaside taverna, and time on my own to visit Akrotiri - the archeological dig - and also to shop.

There are several ways to get to the top of the 1,000-foot cliffs - on foot or on donkey's back up a zig-zagging cobblestone path, by taxi, or by tour bus. I choose a tour bus, which traverses such narrow hairpin curves going up the side of the cliff that only one vehicle can slide through at a time. We have a lovely local tour guide, Kali Alevizou, who grew up on the island and has considerable knowledge of the region's history and culture.

The two villages - Fira, mid-island, and Oia (EE-ah) at the far end - are both charming and well worth seeing. There are no cars in Fira, so it's easy to wander among the winding cobblestone streets lined with boutiques, cafes, galleries, houses, churches, and museums. Postcard-perfect scenes are ubiquitous, especially the courtyards, which are brimming with bougainvillea, jasmine, and other beautiful flowers.

Fira is also the home of the archaeological museum. It houses an exquisite display of artifacts from the most famous archeological dig on the island - Akrotiri. The museum holds figurines from the 3rd century BC, reliefs and statues from the Hellenistic and Roman periods, archaic vessels, as well as several other priceless finds from the Akrotiri dig.

Akrotiri is only seven miles southwest of Fira, at the southern tip of the island (the entire island is only 11 miles long and betweenone and 13 miles wide.) The drive there takes you across the barren top of the island (you see why one of its main exports is pumice).

Grapevines grow along the roadsides- but in a much different way from in other parts of the world. They're trained to form circular clusters low to the ground because of the winds that constantly sweep over the island. That way, the grapes form beneath the vine and are protected until they mature.

Akrotiri is where you learn the amazing history of this volcanic island. Excavations began in 1967, and they continue to this day.One site, which was buried beneath a mountain of ash, is an entire Minoan town with two- and three-story houses decorated with colorful murals like those associated with the prehistoric Minoan culture that thrived in Crete from about 2800 to 1100 BC. So far, a long narrow section of the town running north to south has been uncovered.

It's hard to imagine that these houses were constructed 3,500 years ago. Besides having two or three levels - some exquisite staircases remain - the houses have doors, windows, balconies, toilets, kitchens, and workshops.

There are town squares, and in one is a centrally located mill for grinding wheat. There are scores of jars and vessels - the guide says that remnants of flour, barley, and other kinds of food were found in some. And there are spectacular wall murals - although many have been taken to the museum in Fira and another in Athens. They depict life as people lived it then - men carrying huge catches of fish, ships at sea, and women picking wildflowers.

According to our guide, archaeologists, have been able to draw several conclusions from the items excavated:

• Because several earthquakes preceded the major volcanic eruption, the island's residents had time to pack up and leave before their living quarters were buried. (No human or animal bones were found, and the inhabitants left no objects of great value.)

• There were possibly extended periods of calm between earthquakes that allowed people to return and try to repair their dwellings - tools have been found in a way that indicatesthey were abruptly dropped.

• Each house contained a special place of worship; nature and fertility are believed to be the objects of devotion.

• No written records were found, but archaeologists say there are indications that tie this island with the lost civilization of Atlantis.

Archaeologists believe a volcano appeared here about 80,000 years ago. They say the eruption was so terrific that the ash found on the seabed indicates it fell over the area that stretches from Italy to North Africa to Cyprus. In addition to the ash, the crater spewed other semi-liquid materialthat formed a huge cone of an island that grew to a diameter of nearly 10 miles. About 2000 BC the island was most likely inhabited by Minoans, who called the island Strongyle (round).

A second catastrophic eruption occurred around 1450 BC, which is believed to have wiped out all life on the island. Archaeologists thinkthat the lava flow directly beneath the center of Strongyle created a hollow dome that eventually caved in, forming a giant basin known today as the Caldera Sea. It is ringed by what is left of the outer rim of islands - now separated - which include Santorini.

The excavation is only partially finished, and much of it is under cover. Still, it's well worth exploring - learning how a civilization thrived here thousands of years ago, the kinds of things people did.

But on this, as with all our visits, we have to keep moving. We zip to the northern tip of the island to Oia. It is a little different from the village of Fira. Its mostly two-story houses are built into the lava rock, and the exteriors are painted ochre, while the door and window frames are red limestone.

There are two paths down to the seaside beaches and tavernas that feature fresh fish, local produce, and Greek delicacies.

The fish is already slowly cooking on a grate in an open oven carved into the side of the cliff. The local man who delivers it to the table (OK, he really does look like Kostas from the movie "Shirley Valentine") tells us we're about to eat "Grrrrrreek grrrrrrouper." It's probably the best fish I've ever eaten - it melted in my mouth.

That was the perfect way to end this short visit. I saw enough that I'd love to go back. Today, I fondly remember the sweet taste of the fish - and the island. But when I think about these memories, I can easily see myself slipping into the role of Shirley.

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