- Sunsets like molten gold, stirring cliff-side vistas, and wines that taste of nectar from the gods - enchantments of the island of Santorini.

This fabled jewel of the Aegean's Cyclades island chain, origin of the Atlantis legend and uncounted romantic memories, may not always be recognizably Greek compared to the mainland, but few visitors are given to complain. It is, quite, simply, one of the most beautiful places on Earth.

Indeed, the fertile volcanic island's earliest name was Kalliste - "the most beautiful" - though for most of its 5,000-year history it was known as Thira. Venetian rulers renamed it for the island's patron saint, St. Irene, which has morphed over the years into "Santorini." Today, it remains a splendid fusion of ancient and new.

But timing is everything. The winter winds can be fierce, and the climate dour. From July to September the island looks brown, parched by the meltemi wind that howls off the Russian steppes. But after March, when the sirocco blows gently from the south, Santorini turns warm, still green from the winter rains. Spring and early summer are idyllic. The isle is a 40-minute flight from Athens, or a five-to-eight-hour ferry ride from the mainland port of Piraeus.

Whether one stays in an apartment or hotel on the cliffs overlooking the caldera, or spends a single day strolling the narrow, winding passages of Fira (the modern capital), Imerovigli, Firastefani and Oia, terraced towns perched high above the sea, it is an unforgettable experience.

The beach towns of Perissa and Kamari, as well as the beach at Vlichada combine black sand with good fish tavernas, but are far less picturesque than beaches that other Greek islands boast. Few come to Santorini for the surf. Apart from the Minoan ruins at Akrotiri, the island's excellent small museums, and the sunset cruises (www.santorinisailing.com), the reason to be here is the caldera. And the food. And the wine.

While hardly inexpensive, there are restaurants in Fira and Oia (the most photographed town in all of Greece) with magnificent caldera views, but there are also such wonderful options for good, simple Greek food as Nikolas, a block off the upper walkway in Fira. Be sure to sample the succulent tomato-keftedes (deep-fried patties of tomato, onion, flour and herbs), the fava (yellow split-peas), white eggplants and, above all, the intensely flavorful Santorini cherry tomatoes.

Local wine, some of the best in Europe, is the island's crowning glory, and has been produced here for more than 3,000 years. Among the 40 native varieties of grapes, Assyrtiko and Nykteri are the most popular varietals used in white wines, and Mantilaria in the reds. Higher up the price scale are the rich, decadent red wines made with Mavrotragano.

Enjoy them with a Fira sunset, accompanied by classical music, at Franco's Bar. And become one with time.