The Phoenicians knew it as Kalliste – “the beautiful” – even without the pretty whitewashed villages that now dot the island's dark volcanic cliffs, adding to its picturesque charm.
The crescent-shaped island officially known as Thira or Thera, is the largest of the Santorini archipelago and extends its embrace halfway round a sea-flooded volcanic caldera. Some three thousand years ago, a huge volcanic eruption destroyed the civilisation of ancient Thera, giving rise to the myth of Atlantis, the legendary culture whose splendour was swallowed up by the sea in an apocalyptic cataclysm. However far-fetched the ancient accounts, there is little doubt that around 1500 BC Santorini was in fact half sunk in the sea, and that the present day morphology of the cluster of islands is a result.
There's only one downside to Santorini, the finest gem in the scattered treasure trove of the Cyclades group of islands, which dot the Aegean Sea off mainland Greece: its popularity. In summer; planes, ferries and cruise-ships disgorge hordes of tourists who head for the cable car, donkey taxi or – the bravest – on foot from the port to the centre of Fira, the capital, in search of the most photogenic spots, hoping to capture and carry away on film a fragment of the island's beauty.
And photo opportunities abound: the town is a picture postcard cluster of square, whitewashed houses perched on the edge of the abyss, blue-domed roofs and windmills, as well as pretty inns and taverns that the locals cede to the invading tourists in the high season.
Santorini is home to Oia, one of the prettiest villages in the whole Mediterranean, famed for its stunning sunsets. And if you have the good luck to spend a few days on the island, don't forget to visit the tiny medieval village of Pyrgos, with its steep labyrinthine streets, and the hidden fishermen's taverns of the little port of Armeni, the Black Beach at Perivolos – named for the colour of the pebbles that lie on the shore – or the pretty Red Beach near the archaeological site at Akrotiri, where the remains of a Minoan settlement destroyed by the volcano were discovered buried by lava.
There's also that incredible, breath-taking view over the volcanic caldera visible from the village of Imerovigli. From here, you can follow a beautiful two-hour walk to Oia, set right on the edge of the cliff. And this is the setting and scenery where the A-listers escape the hordes of summer: from Versace, Gaultier and Moschino to Harvey Keitel and Hugh Jackman, the fashionable and the famous have added the glamour of their presence to the legendary suites of the Tsitouras Collection on this ancient and mythical island.
During the summer, a number of airlines run charter flights to the island, including EasyJet, who fly direct to Santorini Thira Airport from London Gatwick. Alternatively, fly to Athens, and from there on to Santorini with Olympic Airways or Aegean Airlines or connect from one of the other islands such as Mykonos or Rhodes. Many of the islands are also connected by ferry or by boat.
There are public buses and metered taxis (sometimes shared) available on the island, or you can rent a car.
From April to November the island is at its best, but try and avoid the summer peak season as some of the magic is inevitably lost in the crowds of visitors.
Where to sleep
Set around a mansion dating from 1780, the five suites of the Tsitouras Collection are perched atop a thousand-foot cliff and have welcomed many famous names. The Mystique, too, with just 22 suites and villas and a breath-taking infinity swimming-pool looks out over the Aegean from the cliffs of Oia. The recently redesigned Chromata Hotel offers a glamorous contemporary ambience, while the ultimately romantic Grace Santorini Hotel, in Imerovigli in the northwest of the island is a perfect location from which to view those magnificent sunsets. The modern resort facilities of Vedema are backed by the reputation of Starwood Hotels, while the stylish Kirini, is a member of Relais & Châteaux.
Where to eat
Among the best restaurants on the island is Papagalos, in Oia, serving Greek cuisine with an innovative touch. Also in Oia, the award-winning 1800, located in a neoclassical mansion, and in Pyrgos, recently relocated to new premises, Selene.
The boat trip around the islets that dot the flooded caldera of the still-active volcano: you can bathe in the warm waters and round of the excursion with a tasty meal of fresh seafood or fish on the charming neighbouring isle of Thirassia.