The nightmare of my long weekend in paradise

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The Independent Culture
A LONG weekend in Rhodes - idyllic or what? Both as it turned out. Being there was paradise, getting there and back was a nightmare. "But what do you expect," said a snooty friend from Berkshire. "It's all charter flights and package deals. Personally I wouldn't touch Rhodes with a barge pole."

It's true about the flights, you can only fly direct to Rhodes on a weekly charter which is no use to the long weekender like me. So I got a cheap schedule flight on Olympic which must be one of the few remaining airlines that still allows smoking on board.

Cigarettes are to Greeks what gum is to Americans. A friend who lives in Athens says that the legendary pollution which hangs over the city like a great, dirty grey Zeppelin is only half caused by petrol fumes. The other half is cigarette smoke.

My flight was cheap because I was travelling overnight - depart Heathrow 10.30pm, change at Athens, arrive Rhodes 6.30am. The advantage of flying Olympic and not British Airways was that I wouldn't have to change terminals. I've been caught out on that one before. Four years ago I flew to Crete to write a piece about a tour rep in Ag Nik as the lager-drinking set refer to Aghios Nikolaos, the Cretan equivalent of Benidorm, and had all of 20 minutes to change terminals.

At Heathrow I had hurriedly bought 200 quid's worth of drachmas, and, as my Greek taxi sped between terminals, I shoved a fistful of this newly- acquired currency at the driver to save time. "No good," he said shoving it back. "Why not," I said, confused, and then saw why. I hadn't bought drachmas, I'd bought Japanese yen.

The man beside me got through half a packet of Marlborough en route to Athens. If I'd been married to his wife, I would have done the same. "Did you phone Betty?" she demanded. "Yes," he said. "Did you tell Frank about the car?" she said. "Yes," he said. "Did you post those two letters on the hall table?" she said. Yes he had. "Did you put the key you-know- where?" "Yes." Was he going on holiday, I asked. "Yes," he said miserably.

They were celebrating their ruby wedding anniversary.

The friend I was staying with in Rhodes has a house there more by default than design. He did some deal with a Greek entrepreneur and instead of being paid cash his partner wondered if he'd settle for a four-bedroomed villa 10 miles north of Lindos, not far from Anthony Quinn Bay. They filmed The Guns of Navarone in Rhodes, and this was the star's favourite beach: you can only reach it by boat. Other peoples' idols - like other peoples' children and other peoples' holiday snaps - are deeply uninteresting so I shall not dwell on my three days in paradise save to say that we swam, lay on rocks, ate buckets of calamari and drunk gallons of retsina.

If I were Judith Chalmers I'd bind on about the narrow cobbled streets in the picturesque old town bustling with local traders selling their colourful wears. The last time I dealt with a colourful local trader in a narrow street was in Esfahan. He was trying to charge me an outrageous price for a not very antique Persian wall hanging. Listen, I told him, I could get that cheaper in London. "Not at Harvey Nichols," he said. He spoke perfect English. Did he know London then? Yes of course he did, he was educated at Harrow.

Now for the nightmare. Two of the other house guests who had been there for a week had come out on a charter from Gatwick. Their flight home was at 5am on Sunday, mine was at 7am, so we shared a taxi. The airport was seething. Between 4am and 5.45am there were six flights to Manchester, five to Gatwick, three to Sunderland, two to Birmingham and one to Glasgow.

There were leviathan queues at every check-in, most of whose male occupants were horizontal. Girls in lurex shorts and white stiletto sandals vainly implored them to get up off their bums and help shift the bleedin' suitcases but their partners remained supine, sullen and impressively abusive for such an early hour. These were some of the thousands of young singles who flock to Falaraki every summer which - together with Ag Nic in Crete, Kvos in Corfu and Kardamena in Kos - now attract more fun-loving Brits than all the Spanish Costas rolled into one. You couldn't blame them for being drunk. They'd had to check out of their hotels at noon, and what else was there to do until 5am.

It was the special queue for wheelchairs I felt sorry for. It was not going anywhere fast because most of the people pushing the wheelchairs were also lying senseless on the ground. "Save your sympathy," said my friend, "the people in the wheelchairs are as sozzled as their minders.

"Well, at least they can't plead discrimination."