Enjoy a life of ease in the Peloponnese
Luxury retreats are blazing a trail for a new style of rural tourism in Greece, says Mark Jones
Mark Jones started writing about travel for The Evening Standard in the 1990s and has been a regular contributor to the travel pages of The Independent since 2011. He edited the British Airways magazine High Life and now divides his time between that publication, the Best Western Magazine Do Not Disturb and writing. He is a past Travelex Magazine Writer of the Year (for Krakow) and in 2013 won the AITO Travel Writer of the Year award for a piece on the Galapagos. He divides his time between the Chiltern hills and the Andalucian mountains. Geographically, he specialises in – everywhere and nowhere.
Saturday 05 April 2014
This was my first encounter with an Aquatic Bodywork Specialist. An ABS practises a form of underwater pilates, where the instructor (in this case a German guy called Steve) straps flotation bands around you, manoeuvres your limbs and guides you deftly around a swimming pool.
It's also the first time I've felt like a metaphor for the Greek economy: spinning around in the water lying helplessly on my back with only a German for support.
Not that you'll see too many actual Greeks having their bodywork aquatically attended to here, much less indulging in the ancient rhetorical practice of metaforá. You'll see British, Russian, Swiss, even French and indeed German guests at the Amanzo'e resort in the Peloponnese. But of late, rich Greeks have discovered the rather more modern practice of stealth wealth. Being seen in the most prestigious, luxurious and pricey resort to open in Greece in a decade is akin to walking around Athens with a T-shirt saying "Don't blame Angela Merkel – she's only doing her job". Ill-advised, in short.
Traditionally, people talk about the "legs" of the Peloponnese, the landmass south-west of Athens and the ancient heartland of the Athenians' rivals, Sparta. But, as we are in the land of grilled seafood, I'm going to compare it to a calamari instead. Amanzo'e is in the first of four tentacles – the short, fat, stumpy one, close to Athens and closer still to the islands of Spetses and Hydra.
Both the islands and this stumpy part of the Peloponnese have always attracted wealthy second-homeowners from Greece and rest of Europe. It's an easy two-hour drive from the capital, or an even easier 20 minutes by helicopter. I didn't do that, but the owners of Amanzo'e are expecting quite a lot of chopper action. If you are paying €1,100-plus a night for a suite in high season, then what's a further €2,150 for the ride?
The suites and the agora-style main buildings exude classical simplicity and elegance: all columns, pale limestone, channels of waters and the timeless view of the islands to the west and the Taygetus mountains to the south and east on Tentacle No 2. Even the beach bar is distinguished: a couple of miles away down a dusty path, it looks like a beach bar designed for a meeting of the G8 (or, these days, G7).
Amanzo'e is doing a fine job re-acquainting well-heeled tourists with the mainland. But Greece has another task ahead of it: attracting the slightly less well-heeled, middle-class clientele who love their food, their views and their quiet life.
It's a problem they share with the other southern European destinations with unenviable finances. Like Portugal and Spain, Greece has a rich and historic hinterland, beautifully restored small hotels and a growing passion for producing and celebrating local food and wine. Yet like Portugal and Spain, their tourism image is beach, beach, beach (with the odd ruin and fry-up thrown in).
Here's a sliver of a silver lining: in Greece, the crisis led to a new wave of young entrepreneurs who want to pioneer a new style of rural tourism. They are being encouraged by tax incentives from the government and European Union. One of their best role models is the Kinsterna Hotel in Tentacle 2. I left Amanzo'e, drove a long way north on sweeping EU-maintained highways, then back south down the east coast of the next tentacle, which we should now give its proper name: Laconia.
So this is the land that gave its name to a particular kind of dry, clipped, pointed manner of speech handed down from the militaristic Spartans who disdained the rhetorical flourishes of the Athenian townies. I asked the Athenian general manager of Kinsterna if the Laconians were indeed laconic. He thought about it for a second.
"Well, they don't say much. And when they say something, you're never quite sure if they're joking or not." That's a pretty good definition. Laconia, twinned with most of Australia.
The main draw of Laconia is the medieval (which in Greece means Byzantine-Frankish-Venetian) promontory hill town of Monemvasia. Monemvasia is a fine place for a slightly surreal couple of days. It's a big, populated rock, but aesthetically twinned with Mont St-Michel in Normandy rather than Gibraltar. The shops, restaurants and churches jostle together up the hill while the Aegean bashes the rocks below.
Kinsterna sits above a hillside hamlet a short drive along the coast to the west of the rock-town. The 27-room hotel was rebuilt from the ruins of a five-century-old house, probably owned by an Ottoman governor, just over five years ago.
If there is a spectrum of converted old mansions, this one is at the highly respectful, lovingly preserved end. The owner, a civil engineer, has kept the characteristic Ottoman walls with their tile inlays studded in the stone and the original cistern that gave the house its name. Yet it's got all the attributes of the modern rural boutique hideaway for the fashionable stealthy-wealthy: an underground spa, an outside terrace with modular cube furniture and an uplit swimming pool.
The majority of the guests here are Greek. Think of it as the Cowley Manor or Babington House for the Athenian Notting Hill set. You get to escape from the capital to ride horses, romp around the hills and breathe the country air of your ancestors. But the Wi-Fi signal is excellent and you can have whatever kind of coffee you like.
The last thing I want to do is imply there's anything ersatz or calculating about Kinsterna. This is proudly, locally Greek. The food is very fresh and obsessively local. Every guest received a little iron trug full of local olive oil and marmalade. In the morning you can wander down to the outdoor gardens where they bake the bread and tend the vines – the Kinsterna pinot noir will banish lingering impressions of retsina on your palate for good. There is passion, provenance and patriotism in equal measure here. Greece – and Portugal and Spain – have more of those qualities in their rural areas than they're ever given credit for. The country just needs more Kinsterna.
There is one last surprise: the beach. In fact, the best beach in Greece, according to some people, is in this corner of the Peloponnese. It's not the mundane stretch of grit and sand down the hill from Kinsterna. Instead, you go up the hill – a big hill, 45 minutes of vertiginous and verdant mountain driving, to the west coast of the tentacle. You take a ferry to the island of Elafonisos, turn left as you enter the port, drive for a couple of miles and park in the campsite. Beyond is a secret bay of tufty dunes, turquoise waters and warm waves lapping in from Africa. That's the trouble with Greece. The islands always get you sooner or later.
Mark Jones travelled with British Airways (0844 493 0758; ba.com), which offers a week's fly-drive to Athens from £289pp, based on travel from Heathrow in August or September and Avis car rental.
Amanzo'e (00 800 2255 2626; amanresorts.com) offers a double pool pavilion from €950, room only.
Kinsterna (00 30 27320 66300; www.kinsternahotel.gr) has doubles from €180, including breakfast.
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