Greece is the word

Sharp-witted hoteliers are cutting a swathe of luxury across the long-neglected Peloponnese peninsula. Its wild beauty now forms the backdrop to an unprecedented level of contemporary sophistication, says Julian Allason.

July 24 2011
Julian Allason

There’s an old joke in Athens – the one about how the vast Peloponnese peninsula somehow dropped off the map of Greece after the outbreak of the War of Independence there in 1821 – that’s a bit less in circulation these days. Granted, it’s based in truth; for decades nothing much had happened in this remote labyrinth of gorges and sandy bays.

But after the opening of not one but two luxury resorts amid the wild beauty of the Costa Navarino, Athenians are doing a lot less jesting and a lot more beating the path there – on a spanking new highway, one of several (primarily funded by EU development money) being carved into the Peloponnese, encouraging both the opening of attractive boutique hotels and the interest of some of the biggest players in the hospitality industry. And it’s hardly confined to the local population, as international travel operators scramble to add western Greece to their maps.

The extent of this Ionian sea change is not to be underestimated. When the late British writer/adventurer Patrick Leigh Fermor set out from Sparta to explore the Mani half a century ago, he had to struggle over passes too difficult for mules to traverse to reach villages still fortified with towers. But the revival began, quietly, seven years ago in the tiny fishing village of Gerolimenas in the Mani, about as far south as roads run in Europe.

Aris Kyrimai and his brother Alexandros inherited an old warehouse at the mouth of the harbour, and over a few years converted it into Hotel Kyrimai, a stylish 22-room retreat for adventurous travellers. With the help of Michelin-starred Athenian chef Yiannis Baxevanis, they established an innovative restaurant reinterpreting characteristic Maniot cooking to create dishes such as shrimp risotto sagnaki with feta cheese and fresh basil, and souvlaki of veal sweetbreads in spicy apricot mustard. In no time, Hotel Kyrimai and the carryings-on there were the subject of amused gossip in the capital, drawing back émigrés from the region and then “cool-atos” (hipsters) on long weekends.

Its Master’s Suite must be among the most atmospheric in Greece, the stone fireplace and antique furniture dappled with sunlight that reflects off the sea on three sides and enters through tall windows. Somehow a large tub – rare in these parts – has been shoehorned into the bathroom, and a four-poster raised onto a gallery above. Reclining around the pool below are tanned men who look to be on shore leave from the Argo, accompanied by sirens in improbably small bikinis.

If Greeks of Maniot origin could be induced to come back, then why not also those who had left the peninsula of Lakonia, the most eastern of the Peloponnese’s three southern promontories? So reasoned Antonis Sgardelis, who, in order to give recognition to his home region and create employment, purchased in 2004 a derelict 15th-century manor house surrounded by olive groves and overlooking Monemvasia, Greece’s version of the Rock of Gibraltar.

Six years of painstaking restoration have seen the gorgeous ruin transformed into Kinsterna, a charming boutique hotel that honours its Byzantine, Venetian and Ottoman origins. Everywhere are historic details and a sensuous interplay of texture; in the satisfyingly simple bedrooms, layers of paint have been applied to the walls over lace that was then removed to leave intricate patterns embossed on the surface. In contrast to this sumptuous rusticity are bathroom fittings and flatscreen TVs that would not be out of place in a Scandinavian design hotel.

Cooking here reaches for Olympus: lobster infused with garden-grown herbs; mountain lamb softened in saffron marinade to an unexpected tenderness. Little wonder that yefsignostes (foodies) and sophisticated honeymooners have beaten the four-hour path here from Athens since its opening last April. Gaze out of the windows of Kinsterna’s suites and another extraordinary sight sparkles in the Cretan Sea.

The hotel’s boat is circumnavigating the great rock fortress of Monemvasia. As it passes below the southern face, the kastro – a Venetian town with towering walls – comes into view. Cannons still point to a sea once infested with pirates intent upon plundering galleons bound for Venice and Constantinople. Today, the winding alleys of the lower town have been romantically restored, again occupied by spice and olive merchants; as yet, the ruins of the upper town, once the abode of officers and nobles, remain a scene of gorgeous abandon, wreathed in wild vines and the curious herb used locally to stun fish.

The growing number of flights, local and international, landing at Kalamata airport suggests gorgeous abandon will be short-lived in these parts. Less than one hour from here, and three from Athens on the new motorway, is the other major engine of regional change.

Costa Navarino in Messinia is the vision of modern folk hero Vassilis Constantakopoulos, who rose from humble origins to own a fleet of merchant ships. Until his death earlier this year, the Captain liked nothing better than to sit in the cafés on village squares playing backgammon and buying small plots of land as they became available, always paying over market price. After countless transactions traversing a quarter of a century, he had accumulated 1,000 hectares – enough to build his dream.

After Rocco Forte’s Verdura Resort on the Sicilian coast, Costa Navarino is the largest integrated-resort project in the Mediterranean of the past many years. (It may also be the last; where else are miles of golden sand accessible and available?) Today, it consists of 6,500 olive trees (with another 9,500 to come) and two very newsworthy hotels: The Romanos and The Westin Resort, Costa Navarino – the latter elevating the Westin brand well above its usual positioning. The first Banyan Tree in Europe is soon to follow.

Design and standards of accommodation have been pushed to levels not hitherto seen on mainland Greece. My bed in The Romanos looks out onto a bath filled by water cascading from the ceiling; outside the glass wall is a private infinity pool set in sand; beyond that, the beach and the electric blue of the Ionian Sea. “Barefaced very chic” is how my son describes the design.

The architecture may be contemporary, but it is informed by what Greeks do best: white walls, bold splashes of colour, human scale. Only the lobby ascends a dizzy four stories; all else is low-rise and discreet, with accommodation in villa buildings instead of the large blocks that so disfigure Greek leisure developments of the 1980s.

Of 321 luxurious rooms and suites at The Romanos, no fewer than 121 have private infinity pools long enough to swim in. The hotel’s spiral layout is confusing, until one realises that it uncoils from the Agora (traditional market and assembly place), with its open-air cinema and amphitheatre, taverna and shops selling local produce, among them lemongrass and orange liqueur ice cream. Several of the country’s fashion brands are represented and there is a handsome art booksellers.

Close by is the most spacious spa I have yet got lost in. Emerging from an oleotherapy treatment (based on instructions on ancient clay tablets unearthed at the nearby Palace of Nestor), my sunburn has miraculously disappeared.

These are early days, the hotel having been open for just a few months. However, service is friendly, multilingual and speedy. “We wanted to employ as many local people as possible,” explains the Captain’s son, Achilles Constantakopoulos. “So we hired on personality and invested in intensive training.” (It is an approach one feels might usefully be adopted on the French Riviera.) Next on his action list: a seaplane service to Costa Navarino from Piraeus, port of Athens.

If the aim of The Romanos is romance amid low-key luxury, then the purpose of its neighbour, The Westin, is to bring contemporary sophistication to the family hotel. It is not remotely what the brand image might conjure up. Indeed, remote is the word, with nothing urban about the resort, and a characteristically Greek carefreeness in place of the corporate.

It’s smart and comfortable, but caters equally to parents, teenagers and the very young (who benefit from an imaginatively designed children’s club). For teens, there’s a full-scale water park, an American diner, a bowling alley and an airy sports hall set up for basketball. For adults, there is an 18-hole seafront golf course, designed by German champion Bernhard Langer, at nearby Navarino Dunes.

The Westin’s architecture is more rustic than that of The Romanos, but no less ingenious, broken up to space out the 445 guest rooms, more than 100 of which have private pools. What is welcome (especially for those concerned about pervasive American-ness) are numerous design references to the vernacular architecture, and the encouragement to get out and explore the scenic surrounding area.

The resort is a stroll from the unspoiled bay of Voidokoila, with one of the most beautiful beaches in Europe, and a lagoon seasonally populated by turtles and flamingos. In the small port of Pylos, just to the south, work will soon begin on a marina capable of serving a couple of dozen superyachts cruising down from Corfu and Kefalonia.

The entrance to the magnificent Bay of Navarino is guarded by Sfaktiria island, where the ancient Athenians defeated the Spartans during the Peloponnesian War. Commanding the approach is the 13th-century fortress of Methoni, known then as the “right eye of Venice” for its role in securing the southern sea route. In the opposite direction from the resort is Olympia, original site of the Olympic Games almost 2,800 years ago. History presses gently but insistently here.

Appreciation of the possibilities of the region has spread to other hoteliers, with several of the top names understood to be in negotiation with developers. Amanresorts and GHM are creating residences in the new marina development of Porto Heli, on the Argolic peninsula of the Peloponnese, with hotels to follow. It’s just 25 minutes to Athens by helicopter, two hours by high-speed catamaran.

In summer, the bay fills up with the yachts of the Athenian élite, some of whom are buying glamorous new villas – and some of those, in turn, are available to rent through Five Star Greece. Individuals are also building striking houses in the remotest parts of the region. In the Mani, an austerely beautiful wood, stone and glass house in a cypress grove above a deserted beach is offered by the same agency.

The potential has not escaped the travel industry, which notes a double-digit increase in bookings to the region this year. “We used only to plan bespoke adventure and archaeological itineraries to the Peloponnese,” observes Sara Hughes, European regional manager of top-end travel operator Abercrombie & Kent. “Now there’s growing interest in romantic escapes for grand tourers, and five-star family luxury.”

Olympia, Sparta, Corinth and the entrance to Hades have always vied for the title of the Peloponnese’s most legendary site; it’s gratifying to see some exciting new contenders joining them on the map of this timeless and pristine part of Greece.

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