Greek chic

Jackie O brought the jet set to Mykonos in the Sixties. Now, as boutique hotels, designer shops and luxury villas spring up across the island, the beau monde is back
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The Independent Travel

When a beautiful blonde pulls up beside you and says, "Follow me to paradise", what can you do? We had stopped, confused at a tiny junction. Three girls in an open-topped Jeep. As we were wavering indecisively at a dusty fork in the road, a couple screeched up next to us on a moped. "Where are you going?" The blonde in her 50s, dressed in bum-skimming shorts, cocked her head as she put her hand through the window and stroked my hair. "Paradise? So are we."

When a beautiful blonde pulls up beside you and says, "Follow me to paradise", what can you do? We had stopped, confused at a tiny junction. Three girls in an open-topped Jeep. As we were wavering indecisively at a dusty fork in the road, a couple screeched up next to us on a moped. "Where are you going?" The blonde in her 50s, dressed in bum-skimming shorts, cocked her head as she put her hand through the window and stroked my hair. "Paradise? So are we."

Snaking down a near-vertical incline in the wake of a canary yellow scooter and its surprisingly firm-of-thigh riders, our goal was a beach called Paradise. "Actually, Paradise is over the hill. This is Super Paradise." Paradise - only better? Possibly. Also the most talked-about gay beach on Mykonos. Our guardian angel grabbed her towel and tripped off along the sand with her grey-ponytailed lover.

After years of last-minute package holidays to Greece - late-night flights to unnamed destinations and occasionally unbuilt apartments - this was supposed to be island life on the glitzy side of the tracks. Our villa, one of a cluster of new upmarket, designer properties, was not so much built as lovingly conceived - on an island where that other package holiday-escapee, Shirley Valentine, ditched her coach party. Mykonos, however, has long been famous for more than Tom Conti's bottom.

In the Sixties it was discovered by Europe's jet set. It shot to stardom after Aristotle and Jackie Onassis took a shine to the island and it soon became an Athenian status symbol to own a holiday home here. Prices - and the cost of real estate - soared. It's still notoriously expensive and peppered with designer boutiques, exclusive villas, luxury hotels and gourmet restaurants. One of the smallest (at 75sqkm - around the size of Guernsey) and most popular of the Cyclades islands, with a branch of celebrity Japanese chef Nobu Matsuhisa's restaurant Nobu flagged up at the Belvedere hotel in Mykonos Town, it seemed unlikely that stuffed peppers would be on the menu.

One thing it's not anymore, according to my guidebook, is the gay holiday destination of choice. The island has been usurped by Sitges near Barcelona and Ibiza, apparently. Mykonos first attracted Europe's "in-crowd" because of its impossibly picturesque harbour, sandy beaches and relaxed attitude, and soon became the Med's gay holiday playground for the same reasons. The bronzed, pressed and manicured passengers cramming their toned torsos onto the plane for the 20-minute hop from Athens suggested that it was still pulling in the pink pound, however.

Our villa, it turned out, was also gay. Our luxury sea-view property, available for a cool 7,000 euros a week. The framed photograph of a mud-encrusted penis by the front door was the first clue that this wasn't going to be your average holiday let. Around the corner a shot of a (very beautiful) nude man clutching a large ball - his balls clearly visible - seemed to confirm it. "The owner's art collection is worth a small fortune." Our Indian housekeeper was showing us around.

Following him through the gym (in case there had been any lingering doubts), we emerged in the underground bathroom with its huge rock basking tub and sauna. The three showers in a row in front of underwater windows into the outdoor pool - aquarium-style - had seemed the ultimate in stylish design in the brochure. Now, in view of the artwork scattered around, it morphed into a voyeuristically kinky arena. Not the most family-friendly of villas, then.

We weren't a family - but we were three friends expecting vases of fresh flowers and the odd John Grisham rather than the stacks of Wallpaper* magazine and Alan Hollinghurst novels.

The villa's name, Lemonitra, conjured up a citrus-scented Greek Goddess and it was a bit of a beauty, designed and owned by a wealthy Athenian architect. In the Cycladic style, whitewashed cubes with wooden shutters were bedded into the mountainside across three levels, like a scattering of marshmallows roasting in the sun. Inside a warren of interconnecting passageways linked* *the rooms, immaculate in a white-walls-bare-concrete-floors kind of way. It was fresh and bright, the traditional style reinvented and complemented by contemporary interiors; natural materials such as chunky wood and stone offset by chrome and steel, but felt more like a showpiece than a home. Or a gay party villa.

Our favourite spot was the breakfast terrace off the kitchen with its rustic chairs around a huge stone table beneath a bamboo lean-to. Next to it was an old trough and lime tree in a stone pot. The terraced mountainside rising sharply behind was a blanket of wildflowers - poppies and daisies sprouting among the rocks. The view in the other direction was out over the broad blue sweep of Panormos Bay. Through a wooden door in the wall a herb garden was stocked with dreamily scented rosemary, thyme, mint and lavender.

The first morning as we were enjoying the views, the fragrant air mingling with freshly brewed coffee, and the peace, broken only by the bleating of a stray goat and twittering of little finches flitting around the olive trees, Balbil the housekeeper flicked a switch. Our blindingly white party pad also had disco surround-sound. Music pumped through the villa and we were transported straight to Café del Mar. "I won't come up unless you call, so you can all get naked by the pool." Time to hit the beach.

Panormos Bay is on the north side of the island. The windy side. The meltemi batter the north coast during the summer (think howling gales and banging shutters), and so the strips of sand along the south coast are the tourist hot spots; Agrari, Psarou, Elia, Paradise and Super Paradise.

The villa was up an intestinally contorted pot-holed track from the little village of Ano Mera. What passed for a road was lined with crumbling dry stone walls, wildflowers poking through the cracks. When there was a wall. For most of the way on one side of the road there was a precipice. We had traded in our battered old saloon for a sturdy Jeep after the first gear-screeching ascent. Mykonos might have a reputation as a party island, but this was rural idyll territory. The island is also frequently lambasted as barren and desolate, but in May this craggy, mountainous land was blanketed in flowers and free from the crowds that surge here in high summer.

Leaving the villa behind, roof down, breasts perky and hair blowing in the breeze, we bumped cross-country towards the south coast.

Super Paradise was practically deserted, apart from our new friends, a couple of families under the palm umbrellas at one end and a handful of nudists on towels at the other. The photos behind the bar told a different story. In July and August not a speck of sand could be seen - it was half-beach party, half-mob scene.

Agrari was also a smallish beach and pretty, backed by steep bleached hills. Psarou, a line of wooden loungers covering the sand, was more a place to be seen than to see, although dinner at N'Ammos, the glamorous beachfront restaurant, was a gourmet find. Elia, another that tempted us, was supposedly long and deserted. However, the beaches of Mykonos are not its real selling point. The Shirley Valentine location, where she sits with her wine and watches the sun set, is a tiny patch of gritty shale at Ayios Ioannis.

No, Mykonos's USP is that it's a great "package". It caters for a cosmpolitan crowd but is also on the island-hoppers' route and charter holiday map. The tourist infrastructure - hotels, restaurants, bars and shops - has been contained, however, within its unspoilt, picture-postcard "Greekness". The island is sprinkled with white sugar cube buildings, one or two storeys high - both rustic and designer properties. It has managed to escape the scourge of the high-rise resorts because of strict zoning laws.

The only settlement of any real size on the island is Mykonos Town or Hora. The ubiquitous whitewashed buildings with turquoise and sapphire woodwork are pristine; even the paintwork around the huge cobbles is a sparkling white. The crescent-shaped harbour is lined with tavernas and souvenir shops while the much-photographed windmills stand like sentinels on the headland.

Little Venice, on the waterfront with its wooden balconies hanging over the sea, is the perfect people-watching spot. We gravitated towards here for lunch most days, inhaling the salty tang of the air, sitting at a table on the water's edge, and watching shoals of fish in the shallow water attack the bread thrown to them by idle lunchers.

Feeling very Shirley Valentine one afternoon, we barely moved. After a long, lazy lunch we meandered over to a bar called Zorba's and a perfectly positioned sofa on the waterfront for a bottle of chilled white wine. As the sun started to sink we strolled a little further to the famously chi-chi Sea Satin Market at the end of the row for a dinner of freshly grilled squid. With wild flowers in the ice bucket and waves crashing against the glass as the ferries pulled in to dock it was the perfect place to watch the sunset.

Inland from the water's edge, the alleyways are narrow and winding - the town was built like a maze to confuse pirate raiders a couple of centuries ago and still manages to do the same to tourists. Although the streets are lined with art galleries, boutiques, stylish bars and restaurants, Mykonos Town has not totally lost its identity. Locals mingle with the tourists and you're as likely to stumble into a tiny square pegged out with washing as ringed with tables. In a tiny grocery store sandwiched between two designer shops an old woman dressed in black with no teeth shrugged "cash only" at us. By the little chapel on the harbour next to the open-air fish market, a line of old men lolled in the shade. At a nearby taverna, a large family celebration was in full swing - the father dancing to traditional Greek music as the family clapped.

There are a handful of boutique hotels in Mykonos Town itself, catering to a flashier crowd. The Belvedere, home to a branch of Nobu during the summer, is contemporary Cyclades in style. The Theoxenia is brighter and brasher. It has recently been restored to its original Sixties decor and is now one of only a handful of Greek hotels under the Design Hotels umbrella. It was designed in the Sixties by Aris Kostantinides, one of the most renowned Greek architects and has just renovated by interior designer, Angelos Angelopoulos.

Having explored the beaches along the south coast, our gaze eventually fell closer to home. From our villa we could see a curve of sand across the sea - a beach called simply, Panormos Bay. Deciding to take a closer look, despite having read that the wind on this side of the island makes sunbathing more of a sand-blasting, we skirted the coast, passing fields of horses and scraggy cattle. What we found was a perfect crescent of soft white sand backed by dunes and long grasses, clear blue water - and no lines of sun loungers. This was closer to my idea of beach perfection. Lying on our towels in the sun, we noticed a girl from the beach bar at one end walking with a silver tray to a couple a bit further down. On the tray were perched two tall, deep-pink strawberry daquiris.

The beach bar was the ultimate in hippy chic. Under a netting lean-to were giant leather beanbags in sorbet pink, orange and white, huge hammocks and vibrant sofas. Potted geraniums were scattered around. It was eclectic and welcoming with ambient music and mouth-watering food - cool without trying too hard.

Back on the beach, families were romping in the sand, dogs barking. One group of friends - half in swimming costumes, half nude - were trying to teach their dogs to swim. A naked man with pot-belly and tattoos lifted a red setter in his arms and half-dragged, half-carried it into the water. Then a big black poodle. The white poodle with a pink bow in her hair and the chihuahua raced around the sand yelping with excitement. Nudists and dogs running in and out of the sea in the sun.

So nudity, now there's the thing, I mused, laughing at the spectacle, two daquiris down. What the hell. Whipping off my bikini, I reflected on names. This, I decided, was the beach that should have been called Paradise.

Give me the facts

Getting There

Lucy Gillmore travelled with Olympic Airlines (0870 60 60 460; www.olympicairlines.com), which offers return flights from Heathrow to Mykonos via Athens from £209. During the summer, charter flights also serve the island. She hired a car from Carrentals.co.uk (0845 225 0845; www.carrentals.co.uk), which offers discounted prices from companies such as Hertz and Europcar. Prices for a week's rental in Mykonos start from £163. For a 4x4 prices start from £297 per week.

Staying There

Wimco (0870 850 1144; www.wimco.co.uk) offers a selection of villas throughout the Greek Islands starting from £2,735 per week. Villa Lemonitra has three bedrooms and sleeps six. It is available from £4,464 per week, including seven-nights' accommodation and daily maid service.

Hotel Belvedere (00 30 22 890 25 122; www.belvederehotel.com) has doubles from €230 (£164) during the high season (3 June - 17 September), including breakfast.

Mykonos Theoxenia (00 30 22 890 22 230; www.mykonostheoxenia.com) has doubles from €140 (£100), including breakfast.

Eating There

N'Ammos, Psarou Beach (00 30 22 890 22 440).

Sea Satin Market, Mykonos Town (00 30 22 890 24 676).

Further Information

Greek National Tourism Organisation (020-7495 9300; www.gnto.co.uk).

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