What's a fun way to see all the sights of Santorini on a budget and a tight time frame? The locals will tell you: by quad bike, of course.
Santorini is often hailed as the most relaxing island in Greece - if not the world, so there's nothing out of place about tourists cruising around on the back of bikes, clad only in swimsuits and thongs.
The island is small, so it's easy to cover all the sights in a day. And there are plenty of quad-bike hire companies, so prices are competitive.
It's quickly apparent that some places will accept business from anyone. The legitimate companies, however, require a driver's licence. We hit our first roadblock when I realise I haven't brought mine away with me - but after a quick call home and a fax to our hotel we are set.
Early the next morning we are winding along one of Santorini's cliff roads, savouring an extraordinary water view of the caldera beneath us. Inside the submerged caldera sit two small uninhabited islands - Nea Kameni and Palea Kameni - which were formed by volcanic activity. They pass in and out of view as we motor along at a leisurely pace.
We have chosen a bike that seats two people, meaning one of us is always free to take photos of the dramatic passing landscape. The prospect of being in charge of any sort of motor vehicle in a foreign country is daunting, so we like the idea of sharing the driving - especially as Santorini's laid-back attitude can be a double-edged sword. Locals and tourists zigzag haphazardly around the narrow roads, and we are among the few wearing helmets.
Once we safely reach Oia, the village at the northernmost tip of the island, we leave our bikes on the outskirts and hit the cobbled paths by foot. Oia, the most famous of Santorini's towns, is a charming confection of traditional white and blue domes perched dramatically on a cliff.
Tourists swarm into Oia from cruise ships to get a glimpse of quiet, everyday Greek living, and at times we find ourselves fighting the crowds. But the village rewards patience, with uninterrupted views of the Aegean Sea in one direction and of the neighbouring island of Thirassia in the other. It's possible to get a boat to Thirassia from Oia's small port but, keen to explore Santorini further, we get back on our bike.
Unfortunately, we soon discover the only downside of sightseeing by quad bike: rain. It pours for the rest of the day. Although the bike handles well in the wet, we journey back to Fira to grab a gyro (a traditional Greek kebab) for lunch and spend the afternoon strolling around the main town's shop-lined streets.
There's no hurry anyway: we've hired the quad bike for two days. After a good night's sleep we head for Santorini's highest spot, Profitis Ilias, which is between the inland villages of Pyrgos and Kamari.
The road snakes up the mountain, and as we travel higher the views just keep getting better until, finally, incredible panoramas of the whole island stretch out before our eyes. There's no lookout: we simply gaze from the side of the road.
The flat landscape of the island's eastern side is a stark contrast to the high walls over the caldera on the west. We can make out vineyards dotting the rocky fields, the airstrip and distant coastline.
Most of the beaches are on Santorini's east. Our next destinations are the black-sand beaches of Kamari and Perissa. The latter town is more famous, drawing tourists to its wide variety of taverns, beach bars and nightclubs.
We gladly join the pack, leaving our bike by the road as we seek out a lounge on a stretch of black sand and indulge in a spot of sunbaking. Red Beach is equally impressive, with its backdrop of stunning red lava cliffs, but we only pass through there on our way to our final destination.
Santorini's charming Akrotiri lighthouse is on the southern peninsula. We sit among the jagged boulders and watch a blood-red sun dip into the Aegean Sea.
For someone who has never ridden a quad bike before, mastering it has been surprisingly easy. Moreover, it has allowed us to explore Santorini by ourselves, guided only by a map and scribbled notes about must-see spots gleaned from conversations with locals.
Two days on a quad bike has proved an ideal introduction to this idyllic and mesmerising island. And as for the small surrounding islands that we didn't get to this trip? Well, that's for next time, of course.
GETTING THERE By air, Santorini is 40 minutes from Athens airport ( <a rel="nofollow" href="http://www.aegeanair.com/">www.aegeanair.com/ </a>). By ferry, it can be reached by boat from almost all the Cycladic islands in five to nine hours. High-speed boats in the summer can get you there in four to five hours.
PLAYING THERE Santorini Motorbikes ( <a rel="nofollow" href="http://www.santorini-bikes.com/">http://www.santorini-bikes.com/ </a>) rent out quad bikes for between 15 and 45 euros ($A19.40-$A58.20) per day, depending on engine size and time of year. The SYM ATV 200cc rented by the writer cost 22 euros a day (35 euros in August). Hotel pick-up is included after making a reservation. Hard lock-ups on the bikes provide a practical and safe solution for storage of personal items.
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