Goodbye moussaka and chips

Does Greece mean smoggy Athens, crowded Crete and too much feta salad and Metaxa? Well, open your eyes, urges Jill Crawshaw. You can make friends with goats, go hiking, mountain biking, take up yoga and even join some trainspotters. It's there for the taking

A night in the cells

A number of old houses, towers, even an old fort have been restored and converted with Greek government funds to provide unusual and reasonably priced accommodation and employment in off the beaten track villages and islands.

They include Kellia, (it means cells) a building in a Venetian fort perched high on a rock overlooking the sea at Monemvasia and a typically Maniot Tower dating from 1865 on the outskirts of Areopolis. On the island of Psara 18 miles west of Chios, with only 500 inhabitants, two 17th-century former shipowners' mansions, and an old parliament building have been converted into guest houses and the old naval quarantine station is now a restaurant seating 70.

Standards of accommodation vary, with costs between pounds 22 - pounds 42 per night per double room with bathroom. The leaflet Traditional Settlements is available from the Greek National Tourist Office.

Goat Aid

What may be the original ancestor of the world's goat population, the wild Cretan agrimi, which lives in the gorges and on precipitous crags, could be in danger of extinction. It seems their genes are being diluted by breeding with their domestic cousins.

Enter Earthwatch, the international environmental charity which sponsors research by sending parties of volunteers to help scientists on their rescue missions. The charity's Cretan project this year is to protect the last of these goats by sending groups to help conduct genetic and behavioural studies. In practical terms this means hiking overland in search of the skeletal remains, capturing goats in fenced traps by waiting in shifts, day and night, and subsequently marking, sexing, weighing, measuring and taking blood samples from the animals before they are released back to their rocky pastures.

"You'll see a very different face of Greece" remarks Ed Wilson of Earthwatch, "and you'll certainly feel you've contributed to the preservation of a species that was honoured by ancient Minoans in their frescos at the Palace of Knossos."

Volunteers are expected to pay pounds 900 for their contribution for 14 days (flights are extra), and Earthwatch warns that living conditions are as rugged as the landscape, with tents, pit toilets and butane stoves for cooking, shared with other volunteers.

After Durrell

Corfu has some pleasant surprises in store for those who believe the whole island is covered in a rash of concrete and chips; the north eastern bulge, dominated by Mount Pantokrator with slopes running right down to the sea is a 15-mile stretch of unspoilt coastline that can rank alongside anywhere in the Mediterranean. It has changed little since Lawrence Durrell lived there in 1939 and wrote his evocative descriptions of his house and the views over Albania in Prospero's Cell; The White House at the water's edge in Kalami where he lived has changed little too; the top floor flat which can be rented by holidaymakers still contains his original desk and dining table. The owners run their typically Greek taverna below, and let out boats to visitors.

Eight people can share the flat for pounds 260 a week each, including flights from CV Travel which also offers other unusual and traditional properties in Corfu and Paxos.

Alternative hols

A galaxy of star names from the theatrical and literary world will be on hand this year to lead courses at the Skyros Centre, the 19-year-old organisation that runs personal development and holistic holidays and aims to deliver a "life enhancing experience which can be incorporated into everyday reality".

Two hundred courses are on offer. Sue Townsend, creator of Adrian Mole, Pulitzer Prize winner Alison Lurie and poet Hugo Williams will be there, while Toyah Wilcox will give advice on improvisation. Two weeks cost pounds 445 - pounds 775 exclusive of fares.

On Crete, the Practice Place, based at Ayios Pavlos offers courses to help combat stress, all run in a holiday atmosphere; on offer is Vinyasa yoga and Shiatsu, Thai massage, African dance, pottery and Tai Chi. Menus are vegetarian, but tavernas cater for meat and fish eaters. Costs from approx pounds 460 full board, excluding flights.

Canyons of your minds

Greek specialists Sunvil Holidays pioneered remote destinations years before the big package tour boys got there. It has teamed up with Trekking Hellas, the first Greek agency to specialise in adventure tourism, to provide a variety of activity holidays in off-the-beaten track Greece.

A week's mountain biking in the Mani staying in traditional tower settlements and fishing villages en route, with 21 speed bikes, helmets and luggage transfers provided, costs pounds 680, half board and flights. A river trekking week (pounds 680) in the southern Pindos, which includes walking, swimming and canyoning, (abseiling past waterfalls) costs pounds 680. A seven-day Zodiac Adventure (pounds 675) explores Ithaca, Meganisi and Kalamos in rubber dinghies, with three nights spent camping on remote beaches.

In remote Zagoria

Sherpa Expeditions has been running escorted tours in Zagoria in north western Greece for many years and has now introduced a self-guided independent tour with marked routes and maps provided by the Greek Alpine Club. Suitable for those with some experience of hill walking and route finding, the tour includes a traverse of the Vikos Gorge, with several nights in comfortable pensions in the 18th-century stone-built Zagoria villages of Vitsa, Papinga and Tsepolo, now all within a conservation area. One night is spent in the Astraka mountain refuge on a 6,200ft col.

A further week's tour to the Meteora and Mount Olympos can be added, with visits to the clutch of 15th-century Byzantine monasteries perched on once inaccessible pinnacles. Olympus itself is a stiff climb, but no rock scrambling ability or special equipment are needed.

The self-guided eight-day Zagoria walk costs pounds 635, the escorted tour pounds 675. For the extra Meteora week, add approximately pounds 450. Prices include flights, most meals, routes and transfer of luggage between overnight stops.

Some talk of Alexander

Yoga, learning Greek, painting, the Alexander Technique and nature walks with Friends of Ionian are among the specialist holidays from the somewhat misleadingly named Corfu a la Carte - the firms offers Paros, Skiathos, Symi and Skopelos as well as Corfu.

The week's Greek course for beginners and intermediates on the island of Skopelos costs pounds 449, combining lessons by native teachers with practice of the spoken language. The Alexander Technique is "a way of improving posture, movement and balance in every day life", taught by a qualified instructor which takes place in Corfu and costs pounds 339. An experienced wildlife guide leads the free nature walks in Paxos in late May, when the tiny island is carpeted with orchids, cyclamen and myrtle (from pounds 289 per week). A two-week painting holiday in September, with instruction from watercolourist Ann Whalley, based at the charming waterfront Aliki Hotel on the island of Symi, which has arguably the most picturesque harbour in the Aegean, costs pounds 699.

By rail

Railway buffs who rave about the 497-mile long Peloponnesian railway, the longest metre gauge railway in Europe, can go the distance on a week's tour with Filoxenia Travel, costing from pounds 699 b&b, with overnight stops in hotels en route, and flights included.

After an overnight stay in Athens, enthusiasts board the train, which for the first five miles runs parallel with the main standard gauge railway. In the following days there are miles where the line seems to hang on to the cliffsides several hundred feet above the sea, while at Diakofto you catch the rack line to Kalavrita, and can see the monument to the young men aged 14 and over who were slaughtered during the last war. The church has two towers; a modern one with the correct time, and one which was stopped in 1943 at 2.34, the hour of the massacre.

There is also an opportunity to enjoy the spectacular mountain railway on the descent through the gorge after leaving Kalavrita; an amazing thing built by Italians engineers between 1885-1895, a mixture of rack, and pinion and adhesion, switching from one side of the gorge to another. At Olympia on an overnight stop there is time to see the stadium where the first Olympic games were held.

The trip ends on at Tolo with a two-night stay, before the flight back to Gatwick.

Go Byzantine

Several specialists are basing tours this year round Macedonia's capital Thessaloniki, birthplace of Alexander the Great's father, Philip II, later the second city in the Byzantine Empire, and now the 1997 European Capital of Culture.

Among a varied programme this summer the highlight must be the exhibition of the treasures of Mount Athos in the new Byzantine Museum. It is the first time in 1,000 years that this priceless collection of manuscripts and icons has left the monasteries of Mount Athos. And probably the only time women, not allowed on the Holy Mountain, will ever set eyes on them.

Martin Randall Travel offers a sixday Thessaloniki tour led by expert Dr Lyn Rodley for pounds 880 fully inclusive. Prospect Music and Art Tours include Pella, Dion, Phillippi and a boat tour round Mount Athos, as well as Thessaloniki on their week's Northern Greece "Macedonia and Philip II" tour, lead by Maggie Barnes and costing pounds 1,295 inclusive.

Page & Moy's nine-night Ancient Byzantine Macedonia tours, also led by experts, cost pounds 1,090. Long weekends in Thessaloniki cost pounds 735 half board, including flights.

Discovering Evia

Although the second largest island in the Aegean, and connected to the mainland by a bridge, Evia, popular with Greece's own holidaymakers, is only gradually being discovered by British tour operators and tourists.

It's not for those who want wall-to-wall karaoke bars and watersports galore, but there are some interesting new holiday ideas on offer this year. If you really want to get to grips with Evia's fishing ports, its rugged coastline and even some of its rural villages often bang in the middle of ancient sites, adventure firm Explore has chartered its own traditional caique for eight- day sea tripsaround the island. Itineraries are flexible with snorkelling and swimming in deserted coves in between exploring Venetian forts, climbing Mount Ochi, visiting the medieval monastery of St Nikolaos and stopping off at Eretria, one of the most powerful city states of ancient Greece, with an Acropolis, theatre, gymnasium and Temple of Apollo dating back to 4 BC. The cost of the cruise is pounds 525 including flights.

Staying ashore, an even more unusual offering from Candili Travel is called a "creative family holiday". It could prevent the perennial family holiday question: "What shall we do next?". On a 10,000-acre estate, children can comb the shoreline for driftwood, and in their own workshop, under the guidance of sculptor Derek Nice, create and build their own Noah's Ark. Adults too can learn "creative sculpture" using basic materials, but work separately from the children. Pottery lessons and batik are also included among the activities for children and adults.

Families stay in apartments around a courtyard on the estate, with a 15-minute drive to the beach. Children's picnics, excursions and boat trips help to burn off excess energy. The price of pounds 1,900 per week (reduced by pounds 200 if booked before the end of April) for a family of two adults and two children covers all activities and meals (with Greek cooking) but not flights, which cost about pounds 170 return.

Those with a more literary bent might prefer to follow in Lord Byron's footsteps on Evia. He stayed on the island in 1832 at Konaki, a stately home which has seen Greek royals, British politicians, authors and poets through its doors, before being acquired by Nobel Peace Prize winner Philip Noel-Baker; his son, former Labour MP Francis Noel-Baker is the present owner.

It can be rented during July and August from Elysian Holidays by up to 11 people prepared to share the cost of pounds 3,000 per week to live in some style - the large gardens include a swimming pool, and meals are prepared by a resident cook. The price does not include fares, but these can be arranged for around pounds 170.

With the Hamiltons

There's a fascinating range of country houses, villas, studios and village hideaways to be unearthed from small specialist operators' brochures.

The houses of character included in Simply Crete's programme are in unspoilt surroundings and promise an unusual degree of privacy and seclusion.

Typical examples: the old stone white river cottages in the hidden valley of the Aspros Potamos, which belong to the inhabitants of the village of Pefki, and have been traditionally restored largely by local craftsmen. These cottages sleep from two to four, cost pounds 489 per person for a week, pounds 636 for two weeks, the price includes flights and car hire.

Cretan specialist, Pure Crete, also offers locally owned village houses to those who want to avoid mainstream tourism. Its prices are from pounds 350 a week and include flights.

If you stay in one of the village houses in Skopelos Old Town on a Laskarina Holiday, your luggage will probably be transported from the ferry by mule - the only way to negotiate the Old Town's maze of cobbled streets, steps and 125 churches. Here life goes on as it has for centuries, the locals carrying trays of food to be cooked in the bakery's wood fired ovens, the women engaged seemingly eternally in embroidery or crochet.

To sample a taste of village life for a fortnight costs holidaymakers from pounds 359 for flights, ferries (and donkey transport) included.

The Greek Island Club offers 250 properties on six Ionian three Aegean islands, varying from simple studio to a private collection of flamboyant and sumptuous mansions and villas. In the medium price range, an apartment in Hamilton House, built on the waterfront at Kioni on Ithaca in 1892 for Elisabeth Hamilton, niece of Lord Nelson's mistress, cost pounds 445 a week, pounds 480 for two weeks for each of four people, flights included.

FACT FILE

tGreek National Tourist Office: 0171 734 5997

CV Travel: 0171 581 0851

tSkyros: 0171 267 4424

The Practice Place: 01273 276175

Sunvil Holidays: 0181 568 4499

Sherpa Expeditions: 0181 577 2717

Corfu a la carte: 01635 201140

Filoxenia: 01422 375999

Martin Randall Travel: 0181 742 3355

Prospect Tours: 0181 995 2151

Page and Moy: 0116 250 7747

Explore: 01252 344 161

Candili Travel: 01580 766595

Elysian Holidays: 01580 766595

Simply Crete: 0181 994 4462

Pure Crete: 0181 760 0879

Laskarina Holidays: 01629 822203

Greek Island Club: 01392 220477

Earthwatch can be contacted on 01865 311600. Membership costs pounds 25. The Earthwatch Catalogue is available from 57, Woodstock Road, Oxford OX2 6HJ; pounds 3.50 for non-members.

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