Rhodes: Two sides to a Greek island
A new family resort on Rhodes has everything children want from a holiday. The challenge: convincing them to venture outside the gates
Saturday 10 July 2010
This is a tale of two holidays, set on an island with two very different shores. It's about reality and what you make of it. And it begins, with the deliberate ambiguity provided by inverted commas, in a "village" on Rhodes, out in the Aegean Sea.
There are plenty of no-mucking-around, caveat-free villages on Rhodes, which at 80km long and 38km wide is the largest island in Greece's Dodecanese group. Take Asklipio, for example, which lies south-west of the dramatic coastal town of Lindos. It has a spattering of flat-roofed whitewashed houses, a couple of tavernas (called Agapitos and Nikolas) in the main square, and a ruined medieval castle plonked on the hill up above.
The village is reputed to be the birthplace of Aesculapius, the Greek god of healing, but Asklipio is happy to mix its myths: a pretty Byzantine church contains 15th-century frescos that offer the Christian version of events. Locals potter about on scooters, and tourists occasionally roar up on quad bikes to admire the view out over the green valley, which is speckled with olive trees. It's hot here, but not bothered. And it feels pretty real, in a rural, Greek sort of way.
But our holiday started out in a rather different sort of village. The First Choice Holiday Village Rhodes opened for business at the beginning of May. It is the eighth such all-inclusive resort offered by the group (others can be found in Egypt, Cyprus, Turkey, the Costa del Sol, the Algarve, Lanzarote and Mallorca), and the first to be badged with First Choice's top-of-the-heap "five sun" rating. Reality is a little different here. The castle has flumes coming out of the top of it, for a start.
Now, the Greeks have been fretting about this sort of thing for a long time. Not castles with flumes – although they may well be cause for concern. No: reality. Plato goes big on it in The Republic, with the Allegory of the Cave. The premise is that a group of people are chained facing the wall of a cave for their entire lives looking at shadows, which from their point of view constitute reality. Then one of them breaks free and discovers that the shadows are in fact just that, and realises that reality is different from that which he'd thought it was. So the things we sense aren't really real, ideas are what count, and – yes – philosophers should get out more, possibly to somewhere with a nice taverna, or indeed a flume.
Let's be clear. I'm not saying that visiting the First Choice Holiday Village Rhodes is like being chained up in a cave. Quite the reverse: it provides an alternative holiday reality, separate from the version that I'd previously understood to exist. Because the key thing about Holiday Villages is they are aimed at families who want to go on holiday together, rather than parents who want to bore their children with Byzantine frescos. At eight and five years old respectively, Jamie and Pete had waited long enough for this moment, and their excitement was palpable.
The hotel is set in the resort town of Kolymbia, just south of Faliraki, which gained infamy in the 1990s for the mayhem imported by young, drunken Brits on cheap package holidays. These days things have quietened down. Families are drawn to Faliraki for a vast Water Park and a sweep of sandy beach. Kolymbia, meanwhile, is divided up by streets named after European capitals (Athens, Berlin, Helsinki, Lisbon) and has a more pebbly beach than Faliraki's, hemmed by cliffs. There are shops selling inflatable dolphins, and bars with crazy golf courses. But it's quite possible to visit Holiday Village Rhodes without paying attention to any of this stuff, because families will find almost everything they need for a holiday just beyond reception. The clue's in the name.
This is a village of three areas: Activity, Relax and Royal Deluxe. Largest by far is the Activity area, where the entertainment takes place. Here a covered stage dominates the site, with evening performances including child-friendly shows as well as bingo sessions, tribute bands and the like. The waterpark also provides a daytime focus for children; the castle and its flumes can be found here, as well as – for added incongruity – a pirate ship with smaller flumes, and a lazy river, which involves bobbing around on giant inflatable doughnuts.
The accommodation, with the exception of some standard rooms set above the main reception building, is in two-storey red-roofed blocks clustered around large curving pools; many of the rooms are "swim up", which means you can take to the waters from your own personal sun-lounger. The Relax and Royal Deluxe areas comprise their own section on an adjoining lot. Relaxers get a swim-up bar, while the Royal Deluxe area has its own restaurant and the adults-only Pearl Clubhouse Bar. (Local spirits are included in the all-inclusive package; I can recommend the house cocktail, but not in large quantities.)
Ignore the business with the pirate ship; it's all done very tastefully. The public areas are light and spacious, with plenty of smart design accents, from lattice-work chairs to gauze-covered chandeliers. Our Royal Deluxe family room was a study in modern, muted décor, albeit designed to be robust, with lots of laminated wood in evidence. The double bed was separated from the boys' single beds by a wooden screen that slid aside to create one large room, and louvred wooden shutter doors gave us all some privacy from the main pool area. There were two flat-screen TVs to choose from as well, but they were never turned on, for the simple reason that there was just too much to do.
The facilities seem, at first glance, to be endless. To start with, there are courts for basketball, volleyball and tennis, and a small Astroturfed football pitch. There's also a high-ropes course (Jamie's favourite part of the resort) where the over-sixes tackle a series of tyre- and plank-based obstacles over a 40ft drop while being attached to life-preserving lanyards. For adults, there's a sleek underground spa, with a salt-water pool, Jacuzzis and a nine-hour "Sense of Body Shape" treatment available for €390, as well as less extreme forms of paid-for pampering. And for children and adults alike, there are free activities scheduled throughout the day, from learning to snorkel to short-mat boules, petanque and something called Aeroball, which resembles an improbable cross between trampolining and basketball.
There's plenty of all-inclusive food and drink on offer, too, with beer and wine on tap (literally – it's like having a never-ending wine-box to guzzle) in the main buffet restaurant. Buffets are, I discovered, a stupendously good way to feed children, as there's no tedious fiddling about with menus and waiting for waiters. What's more, the Greeks, once they'd sorted out all that business with reality and the cave, clearly concentrated on more important stuff, like dips. So there's lots of tzatziki and taramasalata, as well as rolled vine leaves, moussaka and Mediterranean favourites such as houmous and baba ganoush.
Inevitably for such a new resort, it didn't all work quite as planned. When we visited, the village had been open just three weeks, and was still struggling to get everything functioning smoothly. There were an awful lot of men with screwdrivers huddled over broken doorsV C or trying to fix water features. Much to Jamie's and Pete's delight, a couple of blokes in scuba gear arrived at one point to mend some tiles at the bottom of the swimming pool. "We're getting a lot of feedback from guests," said Tracey Gillett, First Choice's Holiday Experience Manager. "And we're trying to make changes as quickly as we can."
More fundamentally, though, the road that divides the two main zones necessitates a fiddly trip through a tunnel that runs underneath it, rather than a casual saunter across in swimwear. And the site itself sometimes feels too small for the number of people it contains: the kids' clubs were often full. But First Choice's staff are faultless – inspiring for the children, relaxed with parents – and there are more of them, I was assured by Tracey, in the peak season of July-August, when the 284 rooms are stuffed to capacity.
After a while, village life began to feel like normal life. Jamie and Pete made friends with the other children round the pool, and gradually began to accrue First Choice logos (sun hats and T-shirts from Kids' Club, swimming bags from Swimming Academy, where lessons cost €30 for five half-hour sessions). We ate too much moussaka and practised our Aeroball skills. But then Pete made a schoolboy error, possibly because he is a schoolboy. "Dad," he said. "When are we going to visit the landscape?"
According to Tracey, six out of 10 visitors to Holiday Village Rhodes will make an excursion around the island itself, and I was keen to make sure we fitted the majority demographic. First Choice offers guided tours, but hire cars are also available. Before Pete could change his mind, I'd ordered a family picnic from reception (supplied in a neat cooler bag) and we'd swapped one reality for another, via a Seat León.
The ancient quarter of Rhodes Town, at the northern tip of the island, is an astonishing sight, even for children who have spent the early part of their day being exhausted by two hours of Reebok Football Academy (€35 for two sessions). The impressive walls that wrap around the core of the city date back to the arrival of the Knights Hospitallers of St John in the 14th century. You enter the fortress through tiny gates that must once have acted like medieval airlocks – limiting the numbers of people who could enter, and sealing the city off in times of crisis. Greek philosophers are celebrated in the street names: Pithagora runs perpendicular to Platonas, and Aristotelous leads into Socratous, which is lined with shops and cafés.
Everywhere there's a sense of the civilisations that have come and gone on the island. The Turkish influence is clear – the Mustafa Pasha Baths is a working hammam and the remains of Byzantine churches vie with more ancient relics: classical columns are scattered throughout the city. (The Colossus, I was told, probably had one foot where the post office can now be found, in the new town.)
The reality of a visit here is that you will get lost among the maze of tiny alleys, buttressed buildings and crumbling monuments, but you can always use the Italianate Palace of the Grand Masters and the huge Suleyman Mosque as points of reference. The Street of the Knights is the most impressive thoroughfare: straight and grand when the rest of the Old Town is twisted and pokey.
On later excursions, the island revealed itself in dramatic stages. Over a million visitors come to Rhodes each year, and the east coast down to Lindos is heavily developed and often ugly – but there are scattered points of brilliance. Tsambiki Beach is an epic swathe of sand, marked by beach umbrellas and cafés, but with no substantial buildings. The water here is shallow and warm – the perfect place to spend the latter part of the day. Above it, a tiny speck visible from the beach, is the Tsambika Monastery, reached by 309 steps, and well worth the climb for the stunning views out to the south of the island.
And then there's Lindos, a white-washed crush of houses (most now converted into bars, shops and restaurants), with the remains of an acropolis rising above, held within the walls of a medieval fortress. The reconstruction inside seems to beg more questions than it answers, but the donkey ride back down from the summit was a highlight for Jamie and Pete, just as the Exedra of Lindos (an ancient carving of the stern of a boat) was for their parents. Later that day, we swam in the sheltered St Paul's Bay, then ate dinner at one of Lindos's plentiful rooftop restaurants, as we watched the lights come up over the town.
At the very southern tip of the island is Cape Prasonisi, where the Aegean meets the Med. The cape is linked to Rhodes by a sandy spit of land: depending on the prevailing wind, windsurfers take to the choppy waters on one side, while paddlers take the other. And from Prasonisi, all roads lead to Rhodes Town. Take the west-coast route and you'll discover the other, less-developed side of Rhodes, from the almost Alpine scenery around Mount Ataviros, to the stunning hilltop fortress of Monolithos and the ancient city of Kamiros, perched on a hilltop overlooking the Aegean.
Closer escapes are plentiful. Our walk though the so-called "Valley of the Butterflies" that lies inland from Faliraki was flawed by a couple of technicalities: the lepidoptera appear only from July to September, and even when they do manifest themselves it turns out that they are, in fact, moths. Without them, the valley was just a valley, albeit one with a boardwalk running through it and another monastery to visit. But Epta Piges, or the "seven springs", which lies close to Kolymbia, is beautiful: a short, wooded trail to a tiny lake. In the evening light a chorus of frogs started up as we arrived, and mountain goats scampered past us on the way back to the main road.
In the end, it was hard to know which reality worked best. My curmudgeonly desire to look at things and go for walks was happily accepted by the boys, provided we were back at the Holiday Village in time for the iFivelive stage show and performances by resident puppets the Widgets (called Gizmo, Doobley and Whatsit, since you ask). Equally, they were enjoying themselves so much having swimming lessons, eating unlimited ice-cream, honing their circus skills and generally being children, that it was easy to relax into the daily rhythm of the hotel and forget about what lay beyond the gates.
And if you really must look at churches on your holiday? Well, from next year the resort will have its own fully consecrated (if non-Byzantine) wedding chapel. Just what every good village needs.
Travel essentials: Rhodes
*First Choice (0871 200 4455; firstchoice.co.uk ) offers seven nights at Holiday Village Rhodes from £925 per adult, and from £269 for the first child and £409 for the second child. The price is based on two adults and two children sharing on an all-inclusive basis in August, with flights from 13 UK airports and transfers.
*Hertz ( hertz.co.uk ) offers car hire from €61 per day.
*Greek National Tourist Office (020-7495 9300; gnto.co.uk ).
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