Early last year in our pre-planning stages, when Isabel and I were still trying to convince both ourselves and each other that we were actually going to do this thing, I was mainly nervous about just one thing: telling my parents (and my brother). Quitting our jobs, traveling to countries they’d never heard of, with no set plan in place for once we return? I knew they would freak out and vehemently disapprove. Before Isabel and I started dating, I was looking for a change from my then-job and made the mistake of casually telling my parents on the phone that I went to an info session the other day for teaching English abroad, and that I was seriously considering going to Thailand for a year. Their response? “No! No, absolutely not! Mark, I forbid you!” (my mom’s actual words.) Fast forward a little over a year later, and Isabel already had her parental stamp of approval on our proposed 2019 plans, yet I still hadn’t even broached the subject with mine.
Finally it was time; I had put it off long enough. I actually typed out a script that I would read out loud to them, so as to present it carefully in just the right way. Corny as it sounds, I even took this script and massaged it into a power point presentation so I could send it to them after the phone call, so they could have something to read once the shock wore off. Sort of a leave behind for a business meeting. Finally, I was ready; no use putting it off any longer. After quickly skimming over “quit my job,” “use our savings,” and “we’ll figure it out,” I ended with the cherry on top: “Why don’t you meet up with us in Europe? Mom, you’ve been talking about wanting to go to Greece for years, now is the perfect opportunity!”
That last little bit (and my power point deck) is the only thing that kept them from yelling “No, NO, NO!” I’m certain I heard Mom say to Dad, “Oooh, now there’s an idea!” For years, Mom has talked about wanting to go to Greece. I went for a few days when I studied abroad a dozen years ago, my brother Matt went when he traveled around after college (and more recently as part of his honeymoon). We both brought back some kitschy little tchotchkes. My parents always have at least two Greek spots in their limited restaurant rotation at any given time. Somehow, they accepted the fact that we really were doing this, and they eventually followed through with making plans to meet us in Greece, and enjoy their first European vacation together (Thanks Matt and Julie)!
My parents were smart about it. If you’re going to embark on a trip of this magnitude, you don’t go for a short jump – you take two weeks off, and combine it with a second location. They spent four fabulous days in London before hopping a flight and meeting us at the airport in Athens, where we arrived from the South of France (sounds so bougie) around the same time. So by this point, they were well-adjusted to the time change and in full-on travel mode. Isabel and I grabbed our bags and went outside. I spotted them (by their large bright red suitcases) and walked over. My dad saw us first, and smiled. My mom turned around, saw our faces, and actually jumped up and down and shrieked with bona fide glee. It had been five months since I last saw them in person (video whatsapp calls only count so much). More importantly, it had been FIVE MONTHS since they last saw me.
We spent the half-hour taxi ride to our hotel catching up on their four days in London and how much fun they had. Mom had backpacked with a friend after college and did a Europe trip of her own, riding trains and staying at hostels (apparently Mom was a badass). But that was … a few years ago, and both these stops would be her first. Dad actually hadn’t been to Europe before, so everything was new for him. He has cousins in London that he hadn’t seen since their wedding 40 years ago, and everyone had an incredible time reconnecting. It was a massive trip for them, and they had a fabulous time.
We stayed at the aptly named Acropolis View Hotel, right next door to the ancient citadel. Our rooms had balconies with unreal views. Demitrius, the hotelier and our new best friend for the night, fixed us stiff drinks at the bar that we took up to the roof, to enjoy with our insane view. I had been to Greece a dozen years earlier and have already seen it … We’ve seen all sorts of stuff having been on the road nearly five months … But to see the Acropolis through my parents eyes, and hear their reactions, definitely grounded me: This is stunning, this is historic, and it is absolutely unreal that I am standing here right now. We are coming back to Athens for our last night, and will see you then.
We strolled the Plaka, the narrow cobblestone street lined with restaurants and shops, the heartbeat of the city (also all the other tourists). Matt came here as part of his honeymoon six months ago, and told us we must get drinks at this distillery, Brettos. We obliged, and the vibe was perfect. Right in the heart of the Plaka, colorful, lively, overflowing with options. When your parents are in vacation mode, the only thing that can take it up a notch is alcohol-induced vacation-mode.
We then moved on to a restaurant recommended by our new best friend Demetrius, a local institution with outdoor seating lining the steps of the street. With live music next door and dancers carving a route around the dinner tables, this could not have felt any more authentically Greek for my parents welcome evening (that, and the food was fabulous, a theme of what was to come on our trip). We meandered our way back to the hotel, window shopping along the Plaka. Dad and I enjoyed the rooftop acropolis views by night before going to sleep.
We took a five hour ferry down to Santorini. It left real early in the morning, but that didn’t stop the Athens pier from being an absolute madhouse. Though we had reservations for the ferry, we still needed to wait in a long line to get physical tickets. It was chaotic and confusing, I’m still so happy we made it on the right boat! It shouldn’t have been surprising that pulling in to Santorini around noon would be even crazier. To start, you offboard with hundreds of other people. But you can’t dillydally your way off because right behind the last human is a stream of cars and motorbikes getting off the boat as well. Walking down to the pier you’re immediately bombarded with an insane amount of visual and audible anarchy – “taxis! rent a car! rent a bike! taxis! Gate1 bus over here! See Santorini bus over here!” Whistles are blowing, buses are honking, bikes are zooming by, luggage keeps hitting your ankles and bumping into your back … it was crazy!
Luckily, Dad booked our taxis ahead of time so we never had to scramble when we got to a new destination (Thanks Dad!). We survived the switchbacks climbing up the cliffside, and crossed to the East side of the island over to Kamari. At first I wanted to stay in Thera, the capital of Santorini. Matt highly suggested we stay in Kamari, a much flatter and quieter but no less beautiful part of the island. He was absolutely right.
We stayed at Hotel Anassa for three nights. It really ended up being the perfect place for us all. My parents made new best friends with the staff, there was a pool, breakfast options were plentiful, and the location was great; one block from the bus stop and two blocks away from the boardwalk and black sand beach. Basically, it was fabulous. Oh, and the rooms happened to massive. With balconies. It seemed as though Isabel and I had been staying in increasingly smaller and smaller rooms through most of Europe. Stubbed toes on the bed frame, bathroom doors that can’t fully open because the bed is in the way, climbing over each other to get from one side of the room to the other. Whether it was the high ceilings or the open french doors by the balcony, finally, we could breathe again.
With the boardwalk so close by, we enjoyed a few meals there. Views of the beach and the cool blue water, whether by day or at night, never gets old. We ate a lot of Greek food this week, something that Isabel was slightly hesitant about coming in. Would she survive eating Greek for so long? Luckily for her, half their menus seem to incorporate Italian, their neighbor (makes sense). It also didn’t hurt that nearly every meal was really, really good. And the views just got better and better (except for the particularly handsy beachside full body massage we were forced to watch during our first lunch outing; too much skin, questionable positions, both masseur and recipient clearly got what they came for, but it would have been in everyone’s best interest had they just gotten a room).
We enjoyed way more than our fair share of Greek salads, gyro platters and tzatziki. On this trip, I discovered the wonder that is moussaka; from bottom to top – potato, eggplant, minced meat, béchamel and cheese … basically a Greek lasagna (not to be confused with pastitsio, which is largely the same thing, but replace the eggplant and potato with pasta). Moussaka and I became close friends by the end of the trip.
The bus system on Santorini is super convenient. Buses come every 20 minutes and connect from all destinations to Thera, the centrally-located capital and busiest part of the island. So anywhere else you want to go is just a two-leg journey through the central station in Thera, and each trip is €1.80. The bus arrives, a man exits loudly yelling “Thera! Thera!” in a heavy Greek accent, and we board. Simple.
After breakfast our first morning, we headed over to Thera to see what all the buzz is about. Kamari is flat and on the beach, level with the water. Thera, as is much of the Caldera-facing West side of the island, is high up, with cliffs that drop straight down into the Aegean Sea. There is a beautiful meandering cobblestone path along the cliffside, from downtown Thera uphill towards Imerovigli. Everywhere you look are iconic white buildings (shops, homes, restaurants and hotels), stunning blue water, and endless cliffside views straight out of a painting. I could tell, this is the visual that Mom had envisioned, and now we were here. We were really, truly here.
We spent a couple hours popping into different shops, turning corners and walking up and down steps that revealed new wonders and vistas. 2 o’clock on the first Saturday of tourist season isn’t the most convenient time to look for a meal with a view, yet we landed the perfect spot. It was quiet, we had our own space right on the edge of the cliff, music was playing just loud enough to set the vacation vibes, but quiet enough that we could enjoy our own thoughts and conversation. We enjoyed a light lunch and some cold drinks, gobsmacked by the spectacular panorama in front of us. Fabulous.
The following day, our last on this island, we took a late afternoon/early evening jaunt by bus, this time headed for Oia in the northwest. Everything I read about Santorini beforehand said not to stay in Oia, as it can be crowded and expensive, but by all means it must be seen. It’s known for hosting the perfect sunsets. We got there and found the cobblestone pathways even more narrow than in Thera, yet no less crowded. Photo ops were in abundance and people were taking advantage. Mom took a photo for two sisters, who then proceeded to rearrange someone else’s front porch furniture to their liking, so they could continue their little photoshoot. Ah, the youth of today…
The shops were a notch more upscale here, and we found our own little pockets of peace. We made our way to the waterfront, and saw a couple hundred people staking out their spots so as to snap the perfect sunset photo … more than an hour early. We had zero interest in standing around for that long. Also we had dinner reservations down in Imerovigli, and we’d catch the sunset from there. Oia was insanely picturesque and I’m really glad we ventured there (the bus took some sharp turns on the edge of the cliff, looking out the window showed nothing but water, deep deep down below), especially as it further confirmed that we stayed in the perfect part of the island, for us.
We took another bus down to Imerovigli and walked along the edge of the world. It was so insanely quiet here, so peaceful. We walked past families quietly enjoying dinner and drinks, and couples in hotel pools looking out as the sun dipped into the water. We arrived at Onar, a restaurant recommended by our excellent hotel staff. The setting was insane. We sat at a table overlooking the cliff and watched as day faded to night. I probably ordered moussaka for the umpteenth time, everyone enjoyed a drink or two, it was a really lovely dinner and a fabulous way to cap off our time in Santorini.
Reason #762 why being in Greece is better than anywhere else: Once you have finished your meal (which you’ve thoroughly enjoyed) and ask for the check, first, they bring you a complimentary dessert. Or a digestif. This happens each and every time, without fail. And each and every time, we were genuinely surprised by it. Chocolate cakes or spongecakes dipped in honey with orange marmalade and a scoop of vanilla ice cream on the side … a shot of something sweet or a shot of something minty. You know that feeling after dinner, when you’re full, like genuinely full, but your stomach is telling your brain that a little ice cream will make everything feel better? Like honestly, just a taste is all you need? (No? Just me?) Eating out in Greece takes care of that for you, and it’s a delightful treat every time.
With the amount of time that we had in Greece (eight days in total) we knew we wanted to visit another island. Mykonos was too similar to Santorini and geared more towards the party crowd (Sorry Isabel, we’ll just have to visit Lindsay Lohan’s beach club some other time). I kept reading about Naxos and Paros; two islands right next to each other, that bring similar resumés to the table. Though the subhead was consistently Naxos has slightly better beaches, Paros has slightly better nightlife. Simple, Naxos it is!
Naxos was about an hour boat ride from Santorini, headed in the direction back towards Athens (wow, it’s like someone planned all this perfectly!). The pier was much smaller and quieter from that of Santorini, a preview of what life on Naxos was going to be. A seven-minute cab ride brought us to our hotel, just a 30-second walk from the beach. We were also a mere five-minute walk from Naxos Town, the main hub of restaurants and shops on the island. If Santorini gave us the views and images that paintings and movies promised, then Naxos was the chance to hear yourself think and delivered a truly authentic Greek island lifestyle.
We traded up from black sand beaches to white, and our welcome to Naxos was lunch with our toes in the sand. More moussaka for me, more Greek salad for the table, more gyros for everyone else. Everyone wins! Afterward, Mom and Dad were all too happy to
nap sit by the pool and really, what more could you want from a vacation?
The next day during breakfast, Mom asked me, So what is there to do in Naxos? I knew there were a couple of ancient relics within walking distance, so we’d set out to do some exploring. For dinner the night before we ate at this fabulous spot in town, right in the main square. Quickly, the walk into “Naxos Town,” or Chora, would become familiar. This time we walked past Chora and explored the boardwalk leading up to the pier that we came in at. Beyond the pier is a small pathway leading uphill to the landmark of Naxos, the Portara.
In the 500s BC, a ruler of Naxos wanted to build a great big temple for Apollo, larger than those in Athens. Construction came to a halt when this ruler was ousted before it could be completed. Over the ensuing centuries, the materials from this temple were used to construct other buildings on the island. The only thing that remains is the doorframe. A doorframe fit for this god apparently stands 20 feet tall and 12 feet wide, weighing in at an astonishing 20 tons! It was too large and heavy to move, so it remains. Today it’s a tourist attraction for photo opportunities (sunrise and sunset are when it’s most crowded).
After spending a few hours lounging by the pool, hard at work on our tans, it was time to eat again (Again? Yes, Again!). Oddly enough we were all in the mood for a gyro, and as luck would have it we found a restaurant that served them! What a coincidence! Elizabeth’s Garden is a fabulous little restaurant run by a cute older couple. The wife cooks and the husband takes care of the tables. The pita was soft and doughy, they seasoned their meat, and they put the perfect amount of french fries inside the sandwich.
We ate a late lunch and weren’t really feeling dinner that night, so we settled for drinks and dessert instead (when traveling, one needs to make sacrifices). The island of Naxos is the sole proprietor of Kitron, a lemon-flavored liqueur made from the leaves of citron (lemon-like fruits found almost exclusively in Naxos). Finally, a little history! They have a bar/restaurant situated along the boardwalk, so we sat looking at the boats in the water as the night sky turned different colors. We each ordered a different drink, all with this limoncello-like base. Now that we had a minor case of the drunchies, we settled for belgian waffles and ice cream, which turned out to be fabulous.
With one full day left in Naxos, we felt like we had seen all we could by foot. It’s a big island, but we had covered all the major tourist and walkable areas. So we did what any group would do: rent a 4-person off-road buggy with a badass name like the Falcon! We drove around winding roads and saw great big marble quarries. We stopped off at the top of a big hill in Halki (the original capital of Naxos, and a lookout in the days of pirate raids), to visit the Kitron distillery. It was a charmingly small operation and they even had some of their original equipment. They also had some awesome vintage posters, bottles and labels, too. We found a perfect tree-covered outdoor restaurant around the corner for some more moussaka and Greek salads (really, I wasn’t kidding). We hopped back in our Falcon and road around the island some more until we came to Agios Prokopios, one of Naxos’ best beaches.
For our last dinner in Naxos, we decided to switch it up a little bit and sought out Italian (you’re welcome, Isabel), on the water overlooking the sunset again, of course.
Reason #763 why being in Greece is better than anywhere else: Everyone is super friendly. Not the ostentatious “let’s welcome the tourists and be sure to get a good tip” sort of way; it’s genuine. Everyone smiles and says hello, even just passing in the street. We walked by an older woman standing in her doorframe who smiled and asked how we we were enjoying Naxos. She then wished us well and hoped that we enjoy the rest of our vacation. Everywhere we went, everyone we met, was just super super kind, and it was fabulous.
I booked us a 9:30am ferry that would arrive in Athens a little after noon, so that we could go at our own pace and still have ample time to climb up to the Acropolis. I got an email a few days earlier that our scheduled ferry was cancelled, but not to worry because we’d been moved to one leaving at 11:10am, getting in around 2:45pm. A little later than I had hoped but no problem, still enough time. We arrive at the near-empty pier, get out of the taxi, and see a paper sign taped to a signpost for our ferry “SUPERSPEED CANCELED.” What!? Panic set in as my blood began to boil. Luckily there was an officer nearby who casually answered our question with a shrug and told us “we only found out twenty minutes ago. Go to the ticket agency down the road, and get a new ticket.” Which we did, and after waiting a bit longer, we finally boarded a ferry around 1:30pm. Which got in to port at 5pm. Dad did a great job scrambling and adjusted our pickup reservation from its original time (and Eastside pier) to the new time (and Westside pier) and we finally checked in to the hotel a quarter after 6pm.
The Acropolis is basically open until sundown, but they cut off the last entrance prior to 7:30. We dropped off our bags, washed our faces, and headed out with nary an hour to spare. We purchased our tickets (thanks again Dad! And for basically everything else we ate and did over the last week!) and began the ascent to this UNESCO World Heritage Site (obviously this is on the list). At the summit was our great reward. It’s difficult to find the words to capture the feeling these sights inspire. Jaws drop, necks crane, photos are taken. To have this moment on our last night of the trip felt especially poignant. For my parents it nailed home that this trip was otherworldly. For Isabel and me it reinforced that after nearly five months of travel and all the remarkable and vastly different places we’ve been, we can still be wowed. Our world is a beautiful place, and there’s so much worth seeing.
One last dinner off the main stretch of the Plaka (admittedly, not the best Moussaka of the trip) and a little souvenir shopping, it was time to say goodnight. We had a very early morning flight to Italy, and they had a long journey home via Paris ahead of them. Mom doesn’t like long goodbyes, so we tried our best to keep it short.
Mom, Dad, I’m so incredibly happy you actually did it. You’ve been talking about this as a bucket list dream for some time now, and all it took was your son and his girlfriend quitting their jobs, moving out of their apartments, and threatening to stay in Thailand to get you here! I know you did, but I hope you had a fabulous trip. See you in less than a month!