For most travellers heading to Santorini, the most sought-after part of the island is the northwestern tip: The village of Oia and its cliffside clusters of whitewashed buildings overlooking the Aegean has become the poster child for a vacation on Santorini. Plus, it’s home to some of the most luxurious hotels in all of Greece. But the fabulous resorts and the stunning views of the iconic caldera also bring noisy crowds and congested streets. You can still visit Oia for the sunset views and meals inside those gorgeous hotels, but if you base yourself on the other side of the island, you can enjoy a more tranquil stay. By Chadner Navarro
Megalochori, a compact village on the southwestern side of Santorini, was once a thriving winemaking hamlet, where mansions weren’t just family homes, they were used for wine production, too. While the village was abandoned in the 1950s, the last couple of decades have seen the slow but steady restoration of Megalochori, with special attention paid to retaining its age-old ambience.
Records show that Megalochori has been settled since the 17th century, and as you walk through its meandering, car-free alleyways paved in cobblestones, it’s easy to feel transported. Historic homes (now villas, shops, restaurants, and bars) come with high walls that were originally built to keep marauding pirates out. That Megalochori doesn’t have sea views or world-famous resorts means it receives but a tiny fraction of the tourist traffic that Oia, Fira, and Imerovigli enjoy. But the village’s easy, breezy atmosphere defines the allure of staying in Megalochori. And traveller interest is slowly beginning to pick up. There are even tours on horseback in Megalochori these days. Before more of them trot over, we’ve curated a short guide to this under-the-radar Santorini village.
Where to stay
Vedema, a Luxury Collection Resort, Santorini quietly put Megalochori on the map when it transformed a 400-year-old winery into a 59-suite property in 1993. Back then, Vedema was truly the only thing that a traveller might come to the village for. And in fact, Angelina Jolie stayed at the hotel when she was filming Tomb Raider on the island. (She likely even used the helipad to get here.) Now Vedema is as classic as a luxury stay can get in Santorini. In addition to dome-topped, whitewashed suites that orbit around a crystal-clear pool, the hotel also has Alati, an atmospheric Mediterranean restaurant beautifully located in one of the old-world caves of the winery.
If you’d rather have a more intimate stay, check out Ducato Wine Hotel & Villas. It’s less a traditional hotel and more a collection of historic mansions and buildings that have been lovingly transformed into bookable villas. They vary in size and are scattered all over the village.
Like Vedema, some were once wineries and still have their original ageing cellars; while others were private homes and local businesses. Villa Jasmine, for instance, was once the village bakery and still has the old oven in the middle of the villa’s courtyard. All come with private pools (one has a fun waterfall feature) and some have rooftops that look over Megalochori’s modern-day vineyards.
Where to eat
Booking one of Ducato’s villas affords travellers a truly local stay. Breakfast, for example, is served at Raki, a restaurant in Megalochori’s main square. Before the village wakes up, fuel up on iced coffee along with Greek yoghurt loaded with granola and other superfoods, and “peinirli,” a boat-shaped open-face calzone topped with fried eggs. For lunch and dinner, there’s a livelier atmosphere here, and you can join visitors in indulging in chunky pieces of perfectly grilled lamb souvlaki and fresh salads tossed with feta.
From the rooftop seats at Alisachni Art & Wine Gallery, catch fabulous sunset views while learning about local winemaking in a cellar boasting 500 different labels of wine. Many of the bottles are from Greece, and specifically from Santorini, including rosé, organic skin-contact wines, and, of course, plenty of mineral-forward white wines to complement the warm weather and the freshly prepared fish and seafood coming from the kitchen.
Farther up this street is Traditional Kafeneio Megalochori, a cosy cafe serving a modest selection of local fare, from simple salads of fresh veggies and marinated octopus to grilled sardines. Its outdoor patio is a great spot to take an afternoon freddo espresso (that’s what they call iced coffee in Greece) while you people watch and stare at the towering belfry that has become an iconic symbol for the village.
What to do in Megalochori
The historic winemaking legacy of Megalochori is being carried on by three local wineries. Among the best on the island is Gavalas, which has been in the same family for five generations. As one of Santorini’s oldest wineries, Gavalas is the only one on the island that makes wine from Katsano, an indigenous white grape that is partially harvested from old-vine vineyards in the village. But take the assyrtiko tasting. Assyrtiko is Santorini’s famous white grape and one of the most expensive in the world. Gavalas produces a handful of assyrtiko wines, including blends. And this tasting will showcase the unique profile of the grape, from its salinity to its high alcohol content.
Check out what’s going on at Symposium, a cultural centre celebrating the confluence of music and mythology. The building it’s in was, surprise, another one of Megalochori’s old wineries, but the same caves that used to ferment and age grapes are now used for art presentations and musical performances. During the season, there’s a rotating calendar of concerts that pay homage to Greek history, which in the past has included traditional songs from the island of Crete—sung and accompanied by a bulgari, a string instrument from the 18th century—as well as vocalists singing the works of renowned poet Odysseas Elytis.
Later this summer Ducato Wine will open a spa, offering Greek-inspired deep-tissue rubdowns and hydrating facials that feature products loaded with ingredients (olive oil, raki, orange extract, avocado, and various herbs) sourced all over the country. Elsewhere in the village, make pottery with award-winning ceramicist Andreas Makaris. His workshop and gallery Earth & Water Studio is located just at the entrance of Megalochori. You can then pop into Transit Mask, where owner Stelios Drosos calls on his 30-year experience to hand-make all sorts of leather items: simple strappy sandals and bags of all shapes and sizes, from crossbody satchels to trendy wristlet pouches, the perfect accessory for when you finally strike out to take on Oia’s nightlife.
This story first appeared on www.travelandleisure.com
(Main and Feature Image Credit: Mary Baratto/Getty Images)