I THOUGHT IT WAS A BACKPACKERS' DESTINATION?
Not any more, although many people will have happy memories of backpacking around the Greek islands during their student days. The somewhat downmarket reputation of Greece wasn't exactly improved by the loutish behaviour of young British tourists, first in some of the resorts on Corfu's east coast and later in Faliraki, on the island of Rhodes. But according to Panos Argyros, the director of the Greek National Tourism Organisation in London, "slowly, Greece is changing". And so are the destinations he is now recommending. "Ask any foreigner where to go and they will recommend the islands," he says. "But for me the mainland is more important. There are more opportunities there for stylish holidays."
WHERE TO START?
In Athens, which on 23 June gets a new daily link on Flyglobespan (08705 561 522; www.flyglobespan.com) in addition to the existing services on easyJet (0905 821 0905; www.easyjet.com) from Gatwick and Luton, Olympic Airlines (0870 606 0460; www.olympicairlines.com) from Gatwick, Heathrow and Manchester, and British Airways (0870 850 9850; www.ba.com) from Gatwick and Heathrow.
The makeover that the capital underwent for the Olympic Games in 2004 resulted in a far more enjoyable experience for visitors. This is apparent from the minute you step off the plane into the brand new Eleftherios Venizelos International airport - often known as Spata, after the town where it is located, 20 miles west of the capital. There are still crowds outside jostling for buses and taxis, but avoid those by booking a limousine to pick you up. This can be done online before you set off (http://athens.shuttle-airport.com); the service costs €180 (£129) for up to three people to the city centre. The new metro system has also improved travel into the capital.
While most tourists concentrate their efforts on the atmospheric Plaka district, the smart Athenians head slightly north-west of Syntagma Square to Kolonaki, an area of stylish restaurants and classy shops, along streets like Anagnostopoulou and Voukourestiou. Several of the museums here are worth visiting, including the Benaki at 1 Koumbari Street (00 30 210 367 1000; www.benaki.gr), with its extensive collection of art works. It opens 9am-5pm Monday, Wednesday, Friday and Saturday; 9am-midnight on Thursday; and 9am-3pm on Sunday, admission €6 (£4.30). A stylish new offshoot of the Benaki is the Museum of Islamic Art, an impressive collection of art from the Muslim world from the 14th century to the present day, which is at 22 Agio Asomaton. It opens 9am-3pm Tuesday and Thursday-Sunday, 9am-9pm Wednesday, and admission is €5 (£3.60). A couple of blocks away from the main Benaki building is the Goulandris Museum of Cycladic Art at 4 Neofitou Douka (00 30 210 722 8321; www.cycladic-m.gr), which houses an important private collection of artefacts from the Cyclades islands. It opens 10am-4pm Monday and Wednesday-Friday, and 10am-3pm on Saturday, admission €5 (£3.60). From here it is a short walk to Kolonaki Square, whose pavement cafés are usually full of people sitting watching the world go by; Milioni, in a side-street just off the square, is one of the most popular.
GOOD ATHENIAN HOTELS?
Next to Ratka is a stylish new hotel that is ideal for inquisitive guests. Periscope at 22 Haritos Street (00 30 210 729 7200; www.periscope.gr) has installed its own "scope" on the roof so that guests can see what is going on in the city below.
The Andromeda Hotel claims to be the city's first boutique hotel. It is on the fringes of Kolonaki at 15 Timoleontos Vassou Street (00 30 210 643 7302; www.andromedahotels.gr). An alternative, if boutique is your style, is the Fresh Hotel at 26 Sofkleous Street (00 30 210 524 8511; www.freshhotel.gr). But the traditionally most stylish hotel in Athens is staging a comeback; the Grande Bretagne on Syntagma Square (00 30 210 333 0000; www.grandebretagne.gr) has recently, and belatedly, been smartened up.
DOES STYLE VANISH OUTSIDE THE CAPITAL?
That used to be the case, but the quality of the bed-stock all over Greece has improved in leaps and bounds in the last few years. Jo Brace of Filoxenia has worked in the country for 15 years, and is now the holiday company's bed-buyer. She picks out the chain of Tsimaras Art Hotels ( www.arthotel.gr) as lovely places to stay. They are leading a new trend in Greek accommodation, combining style with understated luxury. The company has attractive properties in Patras, Cephalonia and Ithaca, two of which are featured in their brochure (01653 617755; www.filoxenia.co.uk). These are the Emelisse Hotel in Fiskardo, Cephalonia, where a week's bed and breakfast based on two people sharing, with flights and transfers starts at £718 per person; and the Perantzada 1811 Hotel in Vathy, Ithaca, where the same deal starts at £687.
ANY MORE CITY LIFE?
Greece's second city, Thessaloniki, is the capital of the Macedonia region. It is an attractive destination in northern Greece, on the Thermaic Gulf; on a clear day you can see as far as Mount Olympus.
You can reach Thessaloniki on British Airways or Olympic Airlines from Gatwick. Although it is a bustling city, its wide avenues and many green spaces make it a pleasant place to spend some time; and the propensity to earthquakes means that limits have been placed on high-rise building. There is plenty to see in the city, including the Archaeology Museum, and the Museum of Byzantine Culture. The city's most famous landmark is the White Tower, all that remains of the walls that once surrounded the city. The luxury, boutique-style Andromeda Hotel, at 5 Komnion Street (00 30 231 037 3700) is an excellent place to stay.
AND SOME METROPOLITAN CULTURE?
For this year at least, Patras is the place to go to if you want your cultural enjoyment of Greece to involve more than dancing on the table. Situated on the mainland, on the north-west coast of the Peloponnese, Greece's third-largest city is European Capital of Culture 2006. The Roman Odeon on Germanou Street (00 30 261 022 0829) has now been restored and turned into a venue for concerts and plays; and the Archaeological Museum at 42 Mezonos Street (00 30 261 022 0829; www.culture.gr) has been renovated. It opens 8.30am-3pm daily except Monday, and admission is free. The liveliest area in the city is around Plateia Yioriou, which is lined with busy cafés and plenty of shops. Details of the year's cultural events are available online at www.patras2006.gr/en.
Patras is in the middle of Greece's so-called "cultural triangle", the ancient sites of Delphi, Epidaurus and Olympia, which makes it an excellent base for some cultural tourism. All these destinations can be included in tailor-made trips offered by The Traveller (020-7436 9343; www.the-traveller.co.uk). The company is also running a 15-night guided trip departing on 30 September which will examine the worlds of the early Greek historians, Herodotus and Thucydides, and will visit a number of destinations in the Peloponnese, including Argos, Delphi and Olympia. The cost is £2,495, including flights, accommodation, most meals, and a guest lecturer.
I WANT TO FEEL LIKE ONASSIS
Aristotle Onassis bought the island of Skorpios, one of the Ionian group, during the 1960s; it is still privately owned, and the shipping billionaire and his son and daughter are buried there. Anyone - well, anyone with a few spare millions - can buy a Greek island. Vladi Private Islands ( www.vladi-private-islands.de), a company which sells islands all over the world, is currently offering tiny St Athanasios Island, in the Gulf of Corinth, for $1m (£550,000).
More realistic for most travellers might be a visit to an island that is really off the beaten track. Meganisi is the next island down from Skorpios and is the only one of the tiny islands off the coast of Levkas that is not privately owned; the lack of anything happening there is all part of its charm.
Kastellorizo is the smallest of the Dodecanese group, and the most far-flung of all the Greek islands, tucked away close to the Turkish coast. It has no beaches, although rocky grottos make it perfect for snorkelling, and it has a couple of hotels, each with lovely harbour views. And the island of Kythira, only 12 miles off the southern tip of the Peloponnese but somehow unaffected by mass tourism, is a wonderfully restful place. The Margarita Hotel, in the island's main village, Chora (00 30 273 603 1711; www.hotel-margarita.com), has 12 traditionally-furnished rooms, which start at €50 (£36) in low season, excluding breakfast.
I NEED MY OWN TRANSPORT
To travel in style, charter your own boat. According to Panos Argyros: "Hiring a yacht for four or five days for eight or 10 people, with a captain, crew and all your food will cost the same as it would to stay in a deluxe hotel in most European cities - and think of the flexibility." Many of the hire companies are based in Athens, and are listed by the Greek Yacht Brokers' Association (00 30 210 453 3134; www.hyba.gr) or the Greek Yacht Owners' Association (00 30 210 452 6335; www.hpyoa.gr).
WHAT ABOUT A CRUISE?
ITC Classics (01244 355550; www.itcclassics.co.uk) sells cruises to various islands and points on the mainland. It also offers staffed yacht holidays: each of the four ships are luxuriously equipped. The accommodation is in suites, all of which have a sea view. Sea Dream I will leave the Croatian port of Dubrovnik on 23 September and sail to Athens, where it will dock a week later, stopping on the way at Corfu, Katakolon, Zakynthos and Mykonos. Prices start at £3,645.
Island Cruises (0870 850 3927; www.islandcruises.com) has an Ancient Odyssey cruise, departing from Mallorca. The Greek stops on the cruise are Katakolon, for a trip to the site of the first Olympic Games, Athens, Santorini, and Heraklion. P&O Cruises (0845 678 0014; www.pocruises.co.uk) also offers trips which stop at several main Greek ports.
STYLISH INLAND DESTINATIONS?
A lovely area to explore is the Zagori region, in the mountains just to the north of Ioannina, in western Greece, close to the Albanian border. Part of a national park, the area is covered with snow for about four months of the year, and as a result is often overlooked by visitors. Places like Monodendri and Papingo, close to the spectacular Vikos Gorge, are among nearly 50 stone villages that look as if they have changed little in hundreds of years. There are guest-houses in some of the villages, but the attractive lakeside town of Ioannina has more to offer in terms of accommodation. Among the choices is the Hotel Palladion at 1 Noti Botsari Street (00 30 2651 025856), or the smaller and more atmospheric Hotel Kastro at 57 Andronikou Paleologou Street (00 30 26510 22866).
ANY STYLISH GUIDEBOOKS?
Athens is one of a number of cities included in the Louis Vuitton 2006 City Guide, a collection of elegantly produced books in a boxed set. The destinations are grouped together by geographical region, and the contents cover top-class restaurants, designer boutiques and attractions which are both stylish and off the beaten track. The box set costs £45 and is available from Louis Vuitton shops ( www.louisvuitton.com). During the coming year, the islands of Mykonos and Santorini will be featured by Nota Bene, a series of exclusive guides to fashionable destinations. It is published 10 times a year, and is available through an annual subscription of £275 a year for UK residents (0870 240 4089; www.nbreview.com). A good guide to high-quality accommodation all over Greece is Special Places to Stay: Greece by Alastair Sawday (£11.99). For other information, contact the Greek National Tourist Organisation, 4 Conduit Street, London W1 (020-7495 9300; www.gnto.co.uk).
THE PICK OF THE BUNCH
If I have to pick just one island?
Choose Crete. This week the southernmost major Greek island got its first scheduled link from the UK. GB Airways now flies from Gatwick to Heraklion on behalf of British Airways (0870 850 9 850; www.ba.com) - from which the magical Minoan palace of Knossos is a 10-minute cab ride away. Open 8.30am-3pm daily, admission €6 (£4.30).
In terms of accommodation, Crete is a particularly well-rounded destination, says Jo Brace of travel firm Filoxenia. "They have a good understanding not just of plush furnishings, but of atmosphere and service, too."
The resort of Elounda, on the island's north-east coast, has more than its fair share of upmarket places to stay, including the Elounda Gulf Villas (0871 990 3010; www.eloundavillas.com), pictured right. Each villa has its own swimming pool overlooking the Gulf of Mirabella. There is still some availability in August, when a superior spa villa, which can accommodate two people, will cost €915 (£654) per night, €6,405 (£4,575) for a week. Less stylish in material terms, but equally luxurious, are the Elounda Island Villas (00 30 28410 41274; www.eloundaisland.gr), which are on their own island. A villa for two in August will cost €455 (£325) for a week.
Some accommodation-only providers specialise in upmarket properties. House of Wonders (00 39 051 234 974; www.houseofwonders.com) offers a collection of beautiful houses, many of them of historical interest and in spectacular settings. These include the Olive Grove (sleeping eight), not far from Fiskardo on Cephalonia. It has its own pool and several shady terraces, and is a 10-minute walk from the beach.
What about spa therapy?
The Thermae Sylla Spa Wellness Hotel, in the spa town of Edopsos (00 30 22260 60100; www.thermaesylla.gr) is only a couple of hours' drive from Athens, although this complex is a thoroughly modern one with all the latest facilities. The natural hot springs are used in several of the therapies offered at the Thermae Sylla, including the Thalasso programme which combines spring and sea water, and the Fangocure, using a mud treatment that was known to the Romans.
Newest and most indulgent of the spas in Elounda, on the island of Crete, is the Six Senses Spa at the Peninsula All-Suite Hotel (00 30 28 410 68250; www.eloundapeninsula.com). The focus of the spa is its Turkish hammam, and there are treatments to suit every requirement, from reflexology to detoxing wraps.Reuse content