IMEROVIGLI, Greece -- High up in Santorini, where the whitewashed buildings seem to grow out of the cliffs, the people in the little taverna were high on life.
First came the feast -- salad with cucumbers, feta cheese and the small, island-grown tomatoes that surely must be among the world's sweetest; freshly baked bread; tsatsiki and taramosalata spreads; marinated octopus; fried calamari; grilled barbouni fish; and strawberries and melon so rich with juice that the taste seemed to come from a fourth dimension. There was ouzo to drink, of course, but also the fine local wines.
Then came the music. Someone switched on the stereo, and the almost hypnotic sounds of Greek folk music with bouzouki accompaniment poured out. The dancing happened almost at once, as resident and visitor alike joined in, dancing as couples, dancing in groups or dancing alone; arms on each other's shoulders or arms high in the air; performing carefully choreographed steps or simply swaying with the sound. A couple of dancers even took to the tabletops. And even though I have stumbled through most of life with a minimum of two left feet, I found myself joining in. How could I not?
Go fling a plate
Then came the crashing of plates. Amid celebratory cries of "ohpa," the dishes were flung on the floor and against the wall. First a few plates and then many -- so many that the floor was swept of shards three times during the evening.
"This is Greece!" a resident told me. "This is Greece!"
And so it was. In true Greek fashion, that celebration at the Blue Note restaurant and bar wasn't planned; it just happened. It began, perhaps, because a man named Kostas Bekiaris was celebrating his name day -- the feast day of the saint for whom he was named. But it gained a momentum all its own and continued long into the night.
It was an unforgettable introduction to Greece, where the warmth isn't confined to the sunshine alone, and to Santorini, a volcanic island in the Cyclades group. Here, tourism exists in harmony with the natural beauty of the blue sea and red-black cliffs and the man-made beauty of the white and pastel stone-and-concrete homes, blue-domed churches and brightly painted fishing boats.
Could this be Atlantis?
It is an island where there is mystery in the history -- could this be the lost city of Atlantis? It is an island of contrasts, where old men with mustaches and caps ride donkeys sidesaddle while bareheaded young people chug by on mopeds, and where pushcart vendors call out their wares while tourist-shop owners hawk their souvenir T-shirts.
Before the beauty, though, there was the nightmare. Volcanic eruptions and earthquakes in about 1500 B.C. resulted in much of the island falling into the sea. The sea then poured in to form a large lagoon, or caldera. According to legend and to Plato, Santorini is the lost island of Atlantis. According to modern archaeologists, maybe it is and maybe it isn't.
Today, Santorini consists of about 50 square miles and 7,000 people -- a number that can swell to nearly 70,000 people during the height of the summer tourist season. Its main island is the horseshoe-shaped Thera, and two smaller ones are named Therasia and Aspronisi. In addition -- rising like volcanic cones from the center of the caldera -- are the tiny isles of Palea Kameni ("Old Burnt Island") and Nea Kameni ("New Burnt Island").
And what is there to do in those 50 square miles, beyond crashing the crockery, that is? Quite a bit.
Blue sea, black sand
There are, of course, the reasons many people visit Greece -- the sun and the sea. Among Santorini's beaches is Kamari, where the volcanic sand is black. There, too, is sightseeing of the island, with its cliffs, its twisting terraces, its bell towers and its so-called barrel-vault architecture. (Most of the structures were built after 1956, when a great earthquake struck.) It is said that Santorini has 365 churches -- one for every day of the year.
In addition to drinking in the beauty, there is the wine to drink. Santorini has perhaps two dozen wineries, all but a half-dozen or so small family affairs. At the Boutari winery, in addition to wine tasting, an ultramodern slide show illuminates not only the products of the vineyards but the faces of the people. And it is the people themselves who are the island's main asset. Seldom have I felt so welcome anywhere, with even busy merchants taking time out to chat. (One of them hummed "Welcome to the Hotel California" as he counted out my drachmas; you will not completely escape American pop culture here.)