I paused at the top of the stairway, eyes straining against the white stone, lungs heaving and heart pounding.

“I am so — out of shape,” puffed the friend beside me.

She looked at her watch. “Only. . . three more hours!” I wheezed out a laugh and glanced at the rickety white skyline above and behind us.

For years I’d dreamt of travelling to the Greek island of Santorini, known for its brilliant blue waterline, and the whitewashed towns stacked into the volcanic coastline like rugged dollhouses. We had arrived in the capital of Fira only the evening before, and I’d been buzzing with excitement ever since — I couldn’t wait to explore the place I had always so longed to see. Our group decided, for our first island adventure, to hike the three-to-four hours from Fira to the northern town of Oia, arriving (we hoped) in time for its legendary sunset.

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Paola-Bennet-A-Modern-Odyessy

Now, the six of us unevenly spread across the trail but panting all the same, I realized our ambition might have gotten the best of our common sense. The task of getting to Oia, which had felt like a brave one before, now seemed practically Herculean. My lungs strained against the constant climb, my throat dry with island dust. I could already feel the sun’s tingle, soon to be a burn, spread across my fair shoulders.

The most frustrating thing was the sluggishness of our progress. Not, despite my friend’s complaint, by any physical fault of our own, but just by the facts of geography. We could see Fira shrinking behind us, and could look across the water to Oia, but between the two we seemed to be getting nowhere. Still, we trekked on. And then, slowly, I began to see the landscape change.

Paola-Bennet-A-Modern-Odyessy

The white towns and villages began to fall back behind us, giving way to the rough simplicity of the coastline. Ridges of green shrub fought grey cliff, all the way down to the intense blue of the water. We started to see bushes of yellow blooms pushing between the rocks, like bursts of sunshine in the earth. I was more than a little taken aback. The terrain we were making our way through was nothing like the blue-and-white Santorini I’d imagined for so long. In fact, it was nothing like I’d ever seen, anywhere.

A little past the halfway point, one of our number turned and said breathlessly, “Wait. Look.” The remaining five of us turned to look, and let out a broken chorus of “Wow”s and gasps. The curve of the caldera had taken a dive, allowing us a south-side view for the first time. There below us, a field of daisies stretched practically to the other coast, like butter spread across a slice of island. It was a strong but gorgeous contrast to the roughness we’d seen thus far.

Only minutes afterward, another of our group paused. “Everything’s so quiet right here,” she murmured. Sure enough, she was right: aside from the waterside wind, there was no sound of traffic, no conversation echoing off the stone. We stopped, then and there, to rest against an outcropping and try to grasp it all. We must have stayed at least a quarter of an hour in the same spot, catching our breath, only for the view to take it away again. I took in the island’s arc, the scrub and stone, and my heart swelled in my chest. I couldn’t believe that only hours earlier, I had been in the middle of a bustling city. This was raw, this was wilderness, the island’s barest essence.

And I loved it.

From that point, the hike finally began to feel less like a chore and more like the adventure we’d intended. Every few hundred yards there would be a new perspective of the island, something new for one of us to shout and point out to the others. On a particularly tough stretch of slippery red gravel, we rallied with enthusiasm, hollering the words to I’ll Make a Man Out of You from Disney’s Mulan all the way up the slope. We settled into a rhythm, a cheerful struggle — contradictory as that sounds. Every time I felt the urge to complain, we would come up on another magnificent curve, and the protest would die in my throat. This was the closest to untouched land I had ever been, and would probably ever be for years. Santorini’s raw beauty was more than worth some sore limbs and a little sunburn.

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We arrived in Oia aching and dusty, clocking in at three and a half hours exactly, and with dinner as our first priority. After such a drawn-out exertion, with only water and our wits to sustain us, we were famished. But once settled at a table on a coast-side terrace, we couldn’t help but talk about what we had just done. Sure, it was a considerable physical achievement — we were pizza-gobbling college students, we joked, and most people who started from Fira often turned back when they realized the effort involved. But more importantly, we had chosen to do something the average traveller might have shied away from. We had taken the off-beaten path right to the end, without once thinking of turning around. And, we said, looking off the terrace at the coast we had just conquered, what a reward we got for it.

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It wasn’t long before our conversation subsided, and we happily dug into Greek salads and souvlaki. Not long after that, we joined hordes of tourists on the westernmost steps of Oia to catch the sunset we’d come for. It was as incredible as we’d hoped to watch the sun sink into the sea, throwing shades of peach and tangerine over Oia’s whitewashed houses. But on the bus back across the island in the dark, I was thinking not of the sunset, but the trek we had taken that day.

Because despite the fact our original goal was in Oia, in a way, we were fulfilled long before we got there.

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Paola Bennet
Paola Bennet is a nomad born in New England, blooded in the south of France, and taken under Manhattan’s wing. Her creativity has similarly meandered over the years, through music, writing, photography, and more. She has recently put down roots at paolafrancesca.com, where you can follow her wanderings, lifestyle, & creative endeavours. You can also follow her on Twitter at @paolabennet.