An unforgettable sight - sailing into Santorini at dawn

The first few moments on a Greek island are critical. As the boat slips into port, everything should seem suddenly familiar - even if you've never been there - as if you've seen it before in your dreams.

More than any other island, Santorini has had an effect on Greece's own poets , of whom Odysseus Elytis, the 1979 Nobel laureate, was just one. In 1940, when Elytis wrote ''Ode to Santorini,'' the island's volcanic past may have recalled for him Greece's rebirth out of Ottoman bondage, as well as presaging a decade of world war and civil war the country was on the brink of enduring.

Today's traveler will be stirred by visions no less lofty than Elytis's: the gaunt, bonelike shapes of black volcanic rock are capped by clusters of white-domed houses that resemble a layer of fresh snow from a distance. At dusk, the mountains appear to be floating in space as sea and sky are welded together into the same pigment.

Santorini boasts archaeological sites, monasteries, museums, castles, not to mention active volcanoes. Yet none of these provide a clue to the island's magic. For me, that was provided by a single, white-washed roof, tinged purple by the late afternoon sun: a place where I could read a novel by John Updike while gazing down at the sea several hundred feet below.

It was a noisy roof; all around were the sounds of donkey bells, church bells , and the clicking camera shutters of other tourists. Yet the sounds of cars and motorcycles were absent.

We paid the equivalent of $11 for a very small and very clean double room that had a humble balcony with a not-so-humble view of the Aegean Sea. One could do a lot better for $20, or a little worse for $9. (The most expensive hotel here is the Atlantis, where doubles are $40 and singles $27.)

There may be a lot wrong with the age of mass tourism. But one thing wonderful about it is that a middle-class couple has the means to enjoy what used to be the exclusive property of either millionaires or adventurers. True, it's less romantic, but on the other hand, it's more egalitarian.

Many Aegean islands have a history connected with one myth or another. Santorini's history really is spectacular. To begin with, the more appropriate, albeit less-used, name of the island is Thira, after a Spartan warrior who founded the first Dorian colony here in the classical age. Santorini was the name given to the place by Venetian invaders in the Middle Ages, as a tribute to Saint Irene of Salonika, who died here in exile in AD 304.

Santorini is now made up of five rock-scarred islands that used to be a single green, wooded island. In 1500 BC (the date is uncertain), a volcano erupted here with the same force as the 19th-century eruption at Krakatoa in Indonesia, splitting Santorini into several pieces separated by 200-fathom-deep lagoons and creating a 100-meter-high tidal wave that reached Crete - 70 miles away - in 20 minutes.

The eruption and tidal wave destroyed Minoan civilization in Crete and Santorini. Experts have linked Minoan culture here with the ''lost continent'' of Atlantis mentioned in the works of Plato. The Minoan settlement at Akrotiri, in the southwest part of the island, was excavated by Spiros Marinatos from 1967 until his death at the site in 1974 (he is buried in one of the Minoan houses he excavated).

The multilevel labyrinth of Minoan houses is visually unique, because the entire site is enclosed within an erector-set-like protective shed, making it perhaps the largest indoor Sea-woken, defiant, you thrust up a breast of rock scored with the south wind's inspiration . . . . . . with fire, lava, smoke with words that convert the infinite you gave birth to the voice of day. . . . - Odysseus Elytis, ''Ode to Santorini''

archeological site in the world. The quantity and complexity of the ruins evoke the Minoan age in the way that Pompeii and Herculaneum evoke ancient Rome.

Akrotiri is best visited as part of a six-hour tour costing $6.65 a person and offered by either the Pelican or Domigos travel agencies located in the main square of Fira, the island's principle town. The tour also includes a stop at a beach resort for a lunch and swim, as well as a visit to the monastery of St. Elias at the highest point on the island.

Part of the monastery has been turned into a museum of monastic life - one of my favorite small museums in the world. It consists of a maze of tiny rooms connected by narrow, winding passageways. One room has old icons, another has carpets, another tapestries, and so forth. There are also dioramas recreating Greek village life under the Turkish occupation.

The other tour offered is a seven-hour odyssey that includes a visit to the burnt islands in the middle of the lagoon (possessing several smoking volcanoes) , a swim in the nearby sulphur baths, and stops at the islet of Thirasia and the town of Oia in the extreme north of the main island of Santorini. The price is $ 5.40 a person.

Oia is what Mykonos once was before the tourist invasion - a silent maze of white cubistic shapes, possessing a Euclidean perfection. The town rests on the edge of a cliff and the only sound along its streets is that of the wind churning through eucalyptus branches - like the sound inside a seashell. Any local travel agency can arrange the rental of houses in Oia, which cost $20 to $ 30 a day.

The other options are to stay in Fira or in one of the towns on the island's east coast, where there is a long strip of black, volcanic sand beaches. Most tourists stay in Fira, a town similar in architectural delight to Oia. Fira is packed with boutiques, small ''hotels'' that are more like pensions, and all sorts of restaurants.

Aside from the Atlantis, the only other ''real'' hotels in Fira are the Panorama, where doubles cost $20 a day, and the Theoxenia, which is slightly cheaper.

The other ''hotels'' are really pensions, often without names. Though they offer only slightly less than a Class C hotel like the Panorama, their prices are often much cheaper. Reservations are impossible to make at these places. One should just arrive early in the day and hunt around. The local tourist police should be helpful, too. Proprietors often meet the incoming boats in order to find occupants, but should you not like the resultant accommodations, be firm.

There seems to be a restaurant every few feet in Fira. Many possess splendid views of the sea and the burnt islands across the lagoon. All offer the Greek island staples of khoriatiki (Greek salad), kalamarika (fried squid), moussaka (stuffed eggplant), dolmades (stuffed vine leaves), octopus, and so on. A dinner for two at most restaurants here should cost about $10.

Though Olympic Airways has daily flights between Athens and Santorini ($53 round trip), I'm a purist and believe it is vital to arrive on a Greek island - especially Santorini - in a ship. The voyage from Piraeus, however, is long - nine to 14 hours depending on the number of stops. Deck-class passage costs $11 a person. Cabins run about 50 percent more.

The ships anchor off the rocks below Fira, and travelers are ferried to shore on small boats. Then you must ascend the cliff. The choice is between the cable car and the donkeys (the price is the same, $2.25). Again, being the purist, I suggest the donkeys. For me, arriving by ship at dawn, then riding a donkey up the cliff, is the only sure way of learning what the phrase ''lost continent'' really means.

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