Ferry from Hell: Athens to Santorini
Most people who visit Greece will find an opportunity to visit at least one of the Greek islands, most probably in the Cyclades. Flights can be rather expensive and can sell out quickly (especially during peak season), so venturing out by sea is generally the preferred choice. There are plenty of ferry companies competing for your services, so shop around and make an informed choice. The following is a true short story of sorts chronicling the nightmarish trip we took from Piraeus (the Athens port) to the beautiful island of Santorini by Superjet (of the Sea Jet company), supposedly the fastest way there by water.
Or so we thought…
Ferry from Athens (Piraeus) to Santorini (Thira)
Flights from Athens to Santorini only take 30-45 minutes, but each ticket costs around 115-120 Euros. On the other hand, the fastest ferry, Superjet, takes only 5 hours (whereas the slower ones can take as long as 8 or 9 hours) and less than half the price. Factor in the time for check-in at the airport and immigration and collecting luggage, we thought that a flight would not save that much time compared to a fast ferry, so we went with the cheaper option. We booked online and got the tickets mailed to us in advance.
[Note that Santorini is also known as Thira and the main town on the island is called Fira, so don't get confused!]
An ominous start
Our departure time was 7:15am, but its’s a good idea to get there around an hour earlier because there is very limited luggage space, and there’s also another very important reason which I explain below. So we departed our hotel by 6am by taxi. Things did not get off to a great start when the taxi driver got lost at the port of Piraeus, and directions requested from ground staff were not exactly accurate. Nevertheless we got there, still relatively early and towards the front of the queue that was already forming by the smallish, pink and white ferry.
We got on board and stashed our luggage by the back door and found our seats at the very first row, right in the centre. As it turned out, the Superjet was no luxury cruise for passengers to enjoy. It was simply a speedy mode of transportation. There were just rows and rows of seats and not much else. No tables, no common area to chill out, only one mini-bar on the ground floor. The upper deck was for smokers. No one would be allowed to go outside to catch some sea breeze or enjoy the views. It was going to be a long 5 hours.
Before long, crowds were flocking in and the seats soon filled up. It became clear that there was not enough space for people to put their luggage, as the bags and suitcases began flooding into the isles and every empty space passengers came across. Here’s a photo of the emergency exit, situated right in front of where we sat.
That wasn’t all.
Minutes before departure, a worried-looking, slim, curly-haired lady stood in front of us and told us that we were sitting in her seat. We told her she was wrong, but somehow she just kept standing there. When her friend arrived, she told us again, and we asked her to show us her ticket. Turns out she got the ticket number confused with the seat number (it was all in Greek, so it was pretty confusing), which we pointed out to her. Embarrassed, she moved on to the seats beside us, but oddly enough, they were also occupied.
Then some quiet bickering commenced, which started to turn heads when it got loud. The girls sped off with their luggage, and the remaining group told everyone that the girls had gotten on the wrong boat! However, the girls soon returned with an attendant. Actually, they were on the right boat, and those were their seats, but the seats had been double-booked. The ferry company screwed up. The girls had to be moved upstairs, among the smokers.
See what I meant when I said it was a good idea to get there early?
The Ferry from Hell
We were scheduled to arrive at Santorini at 12 noon. Even though the ferry left slightly late (around 7:30), I wasn’t concerned at all. Not yet anyway.
The first few hours passed quite smoothly, and by about 10am, we were already wondering what we were going to do for the afternoon in Santorini.
Then, the boat started to rock. A lot. So much so that I was starting to feel nauseous. My mother vomited into a bag beside me. So did dozens of people by the sound of things behind me. I didn’t dare look back as I was close to joining them myself. I was very proud actually, as I considered myself the King of Vomit (having once literally exhausted all the vomit bags on a long haul flight – this was before I discovered the miracle drug that is Xanax – now it’s all smooth flying).
It was awful. Think Lardass and the pie-eating contest from Stand By Me. The attendant lady was busy running around dishing out more vomit bags, almost tripping over the luggage piled up where they shouldn’t be.
My dad, who fancies himself as a bit of a pressure point master, started to tap his fingers on the top of my head, kind of like a massage. Surprisingly, it really helped with the nausea. Within a few minutes everyone on the boat was doing it!
It was around 11:30am (just 20 minutes from the scheduled arrival time) when a poor English speaker announced that we were going to arrive 20 minutes late at the island of Melos (or Milos). It wasn’t until after we arrived at Melos that we were told that we had to turn around because of poor weather, and we wouldn’t be leaving the dock for another hour and a half (ie 1:30pm). And as it turned out, Melos was another 2 hours from Santorini, so the earliest we would be getting there is 3:30pm. Seeing that there wasn’t much we could do, we decided to make the best of it and go grab a bite to eat near the pier.
The Waiting Game
After a hasty lunch with our eyes fixated on the boat in the distance, we hurried back and crowded around the attendant lady who announced (with a barely audible voice) that the weather was still no good and the boat would not be leaving until 3:30pm now. After much of the crowd dispersed, she spoke to the captain again and changed her tune, saying that 2:30pm was a possibility. But what about all those people that heard 3:30 and wouldn’t be back until then? I guess it would be bad luck if the boat took off without them.
So we went back out, sitting by the water, grabbing an ice cream and waiting for the time to tick by. By now we just wanted to get to Santorini before dinner. We could still catch the sunset!
At 2:30pm, we went back, and fair enough, the wait was now until 3:30. At 3:30, we went back and were told that it would now be 5:30. And if at 5:30 it wasn’t ready to go then the boat would head back to Athens. Frustrated, we headed back to the boat. Given how unpredictable things were, we decided to stick close to base. A nap, some light reading and sudoku passed the time.
Just when we thought things could not get much worse, at about 5pm we heard a commotion at the back of the boat.
My wife and I raced there to see an attendant surrounded by people (by now more like an angry mob). We were fortunate to squeeze into a space beside her, and heard her say that the boat was about to head back to Athens! There was another big boat departing Melos at 9:30pm tonight to Santorini, and another at midnight – these would not be affected by the waves like our small Superjet. Otherwise we’d have to wait and catch the 10:20am Superjet the next morning. There were mixed messages and rumours floating around about whether the company was going to pay for the night of accommodation. We’d have to sort everything out ourselves at the ticket office in Melos. Truthfully, we were just glad that unlike 60-70% of the rest of the boat, we heard what we did.
We split up. My wife would grab my parents and I would race to the ticket office near the pier to arrange new tickets. Upon exiting the back door, I was caught up in a frenzied crowd. Dozens of people who didn’t want to go back to Athens were trying to get on the boat, while those who didn’t were trying to get off, creating a massive logjam at the bridge connecting the boat with land. The boat’s captain was stuck in the middle, trying to explain to dozens of others (without the aid of a loud speaker) what was happening.
It was one of the most chaotic scenes I had ever witnessed in my life.
Quick thinking ensued and I literally jumped off the boat. It was the only way I could avoid being crushed by the crowd swarming in from both ends, neither side willing to budge. I raced up to the ticket office, and fortunately, I was only third in line, and there were two people helping at the counter.
About 10 minutes later, I was still third in line, and the line behind me had now extended far into the streets. There was a lot of confusion, and the ticket office really didn’t have a clue, the staff arguing amongst themselves over whether a refund would be granted, whether they would issue tickets on the spot or they’d get the tickets from somewhere else, and whether they’d gather everyone’s tickets in one go or do it individually.
Furthermore, there was no ferry at 9:30pm. It was either the slow midnight ferry which would arrive at Santorini by 6am, or the 10:20am fast ferry the next morning, which would arrive by noon.
Needless to say, some people were now hanging by a thread, emotionally speaking. People behind us complained that they had booked expensive, non-refundable tours in Santorini for that day or early next morning. Some girls said they had to get to Santorini that night to attend a wedding. One guy said he had been trying to get home for 3 days. Another little dude pushed to the front and began slapping the counter with one hand while holding his tickets in the other. His voice was breaking and it seemed like he would burst into tears any second. He may have been the groom. Us losing a night of accommodation in Santorini didn’t seem so bad in comparison.
Anyway, after another 20 minutes, it was finally my turn. We opted for the midnight snail ferry that would take 6 hours. We had no choice, considering that would be our only day in Santorini and we didn’t want to waste any more time. As I grabbed my replacement tickets and headed out the door of the travel agency, the line had gotten even longer. At this rate there was no guarantee people at the back would even make it to the front of the counter by midnight! Naturally, I was swarmed by people wanting to know what the deal was.
Oh, and by the way, according to the travel agency, there was apparently another big ferry which docked next to us at around 4pm that could have taken us to Santorini by that day (though this was refuted by some). Unfortunately the staff on our Superjet boat forgot to mention it.
With another 6 hours on our hands, we decided it was time to tour the island of Melos. The tourism office was open and the lady there was very friendly and helpful. We took a cab up to the village of Plaka, with its traditional narrow pathways and pretty white and blue buildings. It only took about 30 minutes but it was well worth it. We followed that up with a hearty dinner, some more icecream and then a leisurely stroll along the banks. Melos wasn’t anything special but at least we got to experience another island.
Given everything that had happened, we weren’t going to relax until we got on that boat. And it did come, eventually, after several false alarms, at just after midnight. We were crammed into the lower deck, with rows of wide seats that were slightly more comfortable than what you would get on a Business Class flight. Good enough for us. We were exhausted and we needed to get some sleep. After all, we needed to cram a day and a half of activities in Santorini into one.
We finally arrived at Santorini at around 6:30am, roughly 23 hours after departing Athens and 18.5 hours after the scheduled arrival.
If you’ve read this far, then I don’t really need to say it, but I will, just in case. Avoid taking small boats when island hopping in Greece. Chances are, you won’t be as unlucky as we were, but apparently our experience was not uncommon. Play it safe. The larger ferries may be slower, but at least you’re more or less guaranteed to get there on time. And they’re cheaper too.