Rhodes: woods, beaches and ancient culture

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In the first instalment of our four-part series on Greek Islands produced in association with Lonely Planet, Richard Waters visits the largest of the Dodecanese

You might imagine Rhodes as besmirched by fish and chips shops and hog-roasted Brits on all-inclusive holidays, but you'd be wrong. For while that can all be found in the Lego-style mega hotels of Faliraki, the rest of this, the largest island (50 miles long) in the Dodecanese, is quietly possessed with wild pine woods, rugged beaches and dripping in ancient culture.

Nowhere else in this group of 14 islands (despite dodeca meaning 12) are so many layers of architectural history piled upon one another like leaves of pastry in a slice of baklava, especially the citadel of Rhodes Old Town. Imagine taking a volta (stroll) starting in the classical era, continuing to the medieval, Byzantine and then moving on to the Ottoman and Italian periods. Indeed a wander down its hauntingly pretty cobbled streets, the air a-dance with falling orange blossom, is a deeply evocative experience; long-time residents looming from doorways, the scent of leather and bougainvillea, the elusive flash of an icon glittering in a back alley workshop – it's pure magic. If you're lucky enough to visit during Greek Easter (next year on 20 April), the backstreets are particularly atmospheric, with sombre processions.

A potted history: Rhodes was keenly fought over by the Persians in the 5th century BC, rescued by Alexander The Great, then presided over by the Roman (AD 70) and then Byzantine Empires, following which the Knights Hospitaller of Jerusalem, having been driven out of the Holy Land, made their base here (1309), erecting the fabulous castle, moat and fortifications. Suleiman the Magnificent of the Ottoman Empire took control of Rhodes in 1522 until Italy wrested possession in 1912, when later, Mussolini was so enraptured by the charm of the Old Town he restored it to its former glory. Thankfully, the footprints of the past still accost the present at every turn, from the austere Avenue of the Knights with its Inns of Court and Palace of the Grandmasters, to the beautiful mosques with their flute-like minarets.

And while there's the typical oeuvre of alabaster Greek Gods and T-shirts hawked on the touristy gauntlet of Sokratous Street – known for its loquacious restaurant touts and resplendent pink mosque on top of the hill – the essence of this citadel is discovered by challenging your inbuilt compass (even Theseus would get lost) in the maze-like warren of cobbled streets. Indulge any magpie tendencies as you wander past shops aglow with Moorish glass lanterns and glinting jewellery; and follow your nose to backstreet tavernas dishing up salty calamari and roast lamb. Wherever you find yourself, this World Heritage site is as spellbinding today as the 32m-high Colossus of Rhodes – which once bestrode the harbour – would have been to the ships that sailed beneath its legs.

Once you've stocked up on squid and sunned yourself on Town Beach, don't miss the permanent exhibition at the Palace of the Grand Masters (00 30 22413 65270; www.rhodes.gr; €6), with its 158 rooms of frescos, antique furniture and pebble mosaic floors; nor the evocative Archaeological Museum (00 30 22413 65256; www.rhodes.gr; €6) spilling with Hellenistic treasures and the 1st century marble statue recovered from the local seabed, Aphrodite Bathing. More currently, the Old Town Aquarium (00 30 22410 867 00; €5), has recently opened, displaying marine exotica.

Sumptuous sleeps

Nowhere else in the Dodecanese is there such a rich array of boutique accommodation. In the Old Town you'll find atmospheric digs once owned by pachas (Ottoman aristocracy), now lovingly restored as upscale hotels. Marco Polo Mansion (00 30 22410 255 62; marco polomansion.gr; B&B from €90) with its ochre walls and peaceful garden oasis is an enchanting former 15th-century Ottoman residence. Each room has a mélange of Italian, Byzantine and Greek influences with four-posters, heavy rugs and dark furniture, all soothingly washed by stained glass light. Its restaurant is celebrated by A-Listers and academics. Main courses around €15.

High on the hill in the Knights' quarter, sumptuous Nikos Takis Hotel, left (00 30 22410 707 73; www.nikostakishotel.com; B&B from €170) exudes an eclectic mix of Byzantine flavour, with traces of Rajasthan. Its eight suites are fit for a vizier with four posters, silk drapes and tangerine-hued walls. There's also a courtyard to take in the view of the Old Town.

Gourmet treasures

Close to a cypress-shaded park and the ruins of a 14th-century church in the Old Town, chandeliered Hatzikelis (00 30 22410 272 15) is the island's original seafood restaurant and still its most venerated, with a pedigree of patrons that includes Tom Hanks and prime ministers. Feast on swordfish, lobster and fresh red snapper, above, caught by free-divers and filleted in front of you, between sampling the wine cellar (main courses around €20).

Close to the entrance of Mandraki harbour in the New Town, To Meltemi (00 30 22410 30480) has widescreen views of the sea and is a quintessential Greek taverna dishing up moussaka and saganaki (shrimps stuffed with tomato and feta); as well as staples such as octopus and calamari. Main courses around €10.

Ancient Lindos

Imagine an acropolis on a cypress-clad hill, flanked by a cascade of whitewashed houses tumbling into a turquoise bay.

Best visited late spring or late summer/early autumn, Lindos is a town of gas-blue waters and a labyrinth of streets vivid with tavernas, boutiques and 17th-century sea captains' houses, with carved-relief façades, painted wooden ceilings and raised wooden beds.

Take it easy on Pallas Beach in the morning, with breakfast at Mare Mare Café (00 30 22 4403 1651), before persuading your calves to carry you up the 116-metre-high rock on which perches the fabulous Acropolis of Lindos, left (00 30 22 440 31258; closed Monday; €6). It's an alluring mix of Byzantine architecture on the outside insulating 2nd-century Doric remains within – children will love it.

Rhodes deluxe

Those intent on proposing, scoring Brownie points with the other half or just plain luxuriating, should spend a night at the exquisite Melenos Hotel, above, in Lindos (00 30 22440 322 22; melenoslindos.com; B&B from €261).

With swoon-inducing views of Lindos bay, the hotel is a heady concoction of forests of glass bauble lights, traditional pebble mosaic floors, bougainvillea-laced walkways, raised platform beds and heavy Ottoman furniture.

The food on its breezy terrace – grilled beef fillet with spicy quince sauce and caramelised onions – is equally magnificent (main courses around €24).

Active Rhodes

Given Rhodes' rich nautical history, it's not surprising there are myriad wrecks to dive. To plunder the best of Poseidon's treasures, wander down to Rhodes Town's Mandraki harbour to find Waterhoppers (00 30 6972 500 971; waterhoppers.com), which offers night and cavern dives and also has an office in Lindos. A three-day Padi Open Water course costs €390.

Kitesurfers and windsurfers should head to remote Cape Prasonisi on the island's extreme southern tip. In the summer it's joined to Rhodes by an isthmus of sand, while come winter it's completely isolated. Adrenalin junkies operate out of Pro Center Kristof Kirschner (00 30 22 400 91045; www.prasonisi.com); rent equipment from €25 per hour.

For gentler activity, venture to the Valley of Butterflies in Petaloudes (€3), to follow paths past streams, pools and dancing butterflies.

Travel Essentials

Rhodes is served from the UK by easyJet (0843 104 5000; easyjet.com), Ryanair (0871 246 0000; ryanair.com) and Jet2 (0871 226 1737; jet2.com).

Package holidays are available from Thomas Cook (0844 412 5959; thomascook.com) and Thomson (0871 231 4691; thomson.co.uk) plus its all-inclusive brand First Choice (0844 871 1604; firstchoice.co.uk) which has a week's all-inclusive at the Rhodes Holiday Village for £1,100pp departing Gatwick during the summer holidays.

Specialist operators include Hidden Greece (020-8758 4707; hidden-greece.co.uk) and James Villa Holidays (0800 074 0122; jamesvillas.co.uk).

Lindos is 90 minutes from Rhodes New Town; taxis cost €55 for the one-way trip; buses from the Western Bus Station cost €5 .

Dodekanisos Seaways (00 30 224 107 0590; 12ne.gr) and Blue Star Ferries (00 30 210 891 9800; www.bluestarferries.gr) connect nearby islands.

More information:rodosisland.gr.

Richard Waters is a Lonely Planet author. Lonely Planet's Greece guide is available from lonelyplanet.com, priced £16.99

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