This vision of Greece is no place for beach bums
A billion-euro development is being built on the shores of Messinia in the Peloponnese. The idea, and most of the cash, has come from one man
In the distance two small figures are removing their shoes.
They crouch down on the starting line. When they set off, though, they are in no apparent hurry, content to jog along rather than race down the 193m track in the searing afternoon heat. Visitors seem driven to do this after strolling through the stone arch leading to the stadium at Olympia – this is, after all, not any old running track but the proto track that has inspired all others ever since.
The stadium, carved from the landscape, once accommodated 45,000 spectators. Today, only I am watching – high up on the grassy stands, surrounded by whispering pine, eucalyptus and olive trees. The ancient Games, which date from 776BC, were held to honour the presiding deity, Zeus. We are in the lap of the gods.
They did not play golf at the original Games – but it seems golf will be the economic driving force of the future in parts of this region. In a fitting act of synchronicity, golf will also return to the Olympic fold at the Rio Games in 2016. (It was included in the Paris Games of 1900 and again in St Louis in 1904.)
There are, I am told, just six golf courses in Greece – but that number is set almost to double. About two hours' drive south from Olympia, four new state-of-the-art "designer" courses are in various stages of nascence in Messinia. They are the centrepieces of four independent resort complexes that will feature a number of hotels, scores of holiday villas, presidential suites, conference centres, spas and dozens of swimming pools.
The grand design (eat your heart out, Kevin McCloud) will consume a budget of €€1.2bn (excluding land value) – and uproot hundreds of acres of ancient olive groves and orchards to create a brave new playground fringed with fairways, bunkers and greens. Whoever came up with the scheme is not given to thinking small.
The vision, and most of the cash, remarkably, comes from one man – Vassilis Konstantakopoulos, universally referred to simply as Captain Vassilis. His story seems to spring from the pages of a Louis de Bernières novel. Born to a humble family in a small village called Diavolitsi (the Devil's Village), north of Kalamata, he left his beloved Messinia as a teenager to try his luck in the big smoke of Athens. Vassilis rose through the ranks in the merchant navy, eventually becoming a captain. Once married, however, he wanted to change his seafaring lifestyle. The Captain flirted with the idea of buying a grocery business, but his astute wife, Carmen, talked him out of that and he bought his first ship instead. In 1967, he started a container company called Costamares which grew swiftly. Somewhere along the way, the Captain had become a billionaire. As happens in all good stories. Then, sometime in the 1980s, the Captain had a dream and he began buying land in Messinia. A lot of land.
Captain Vassilis turned 75 this month and may well consider the opening of the 130ha Navarino Dunes resort (the first of the four planned) as a very happy birthday present to himself. The first hotel, the Romanos, opened about a month ago. The second, the Westin, is due to open in a couple of weeks. Both hotels arrive in the teeth of a national economic crisis. The owner's son is not fazed – Achilleas Konstantakopoulos, managing director of Temes (the development company), says: "We have a long-term view on this – we started buying (the land) 25 years ago. We're here for the long run. If there is a hiccup for a year or two, it doesn't really matter."
Achilleas explains that the scale of the overall project is dictated by his family's goals of developing the business and the economic transformation of the region. "This is a destination that is unknown," he says, "so we need a critical mass that will be enough to jump-start it." Big, clearly, is not just beautiful as far as the family is concerned, but a prerequisite of the plan. Size matters when you want to persuade airlines to put Kalamata (the local airport) on their route map and to build roads and other infrastructure. "But even when the development is finished," he adds, "we will still be 50 times less developed than tourism in the Cyclades, for example."
The first resort, which is operated by the American Starwood chain, is slick. Nine hundred staff, mainly local, will be employed here. A certain tier of luxury is a given – the neutral chic of the furnishings, the spacious bathrooms and the private infinity pools all work together to create a guest experience of an international standard. This is not the Greece of haphazard plumbing and mosquito bother that island-hoppers of not so long ago may or may not recall with nostalgia. Less to my taste is the scripted automaton greeting from the hotel's phone operators, which seems to go on for about 15 seconds before you can get a word in. It is the kind of corporate annoyance you have to put up with in Florida – but this is Greece.
It was the very Greekness of Messinia – relaxed, unspoilt, spontaneous – that first attracted me to the area 15 years ago. The astonishing beauty and pristine condition of Navarino Bay still draw your breath, especially at sunset. It is a natural harbour protected by the breakwater island of Sfaktiria – it was here during the Greek war of independence in 1827 that the allied navies, commanded by a British admiral, destroyed the sheltering Turkish fleet. It has been dubbed the Battle of Navarino, though it seems to have been more of a massacre, with 6,000 killed on the Turkish side.
Pylos (the renamed Navarino), strategically placed on the bay, is still a sleepy-ish fishing port. Though very picturesque and clearly an attractive destination for weekending Athenians, it still feels untouched by the demands of mass tourism. The tree-shaded main square seems much the same as 15 years ago – no fast food, no malls and just a few souvenir kiosks.
One of the best beaches in Greece, for my money, is just up the road where nature has contrived a perfect golden semicircle of sand shielded from the sea by two symmetrical headlands. On a map, Voidokilia looks like a mushroom or, more appropriately, the Greek letter Omega – and the sheltered water is both shallow and calm enough for timid swimmers like me.
A narrow spit of sand separates the beach from Gialova lagoon – where a series of ecosystems based on fresh and brackish water have created the best ornithological site in the Peloponnese. Some 271 species of bird have been spotted here, though my personal count (admittedly out of season – the best time is autumn) is four. Temes, the company behind the new resorts, is funding research here.
In fact, the company is desperately keen to parade its environmental credentials. I am told that 6,800 olive trees were, yes, uprooted to make way for the golf course, but were lovingly (and expensively) relocated with a 100 per cent success rate. The replanted mature olive trees along the edges of the fairways do look as though they've been there for ever, and go some way to bed the brand new course into the landscape. Dr Jorg Rambach from the government directorate of antiquities takes me to the 15th and 16th holes where, during the pre-construction phase, his team found the "most important finds from the early Helladic II period in Messinia". So significant, in fact, that the course, designed by former world No 1 Bernhard Langer, was remodelled to accommodate the archaeological sites which are now preserved under blue tarpaulins.
Water, though, is perhaps the most sensitive subject when it comes to creating golf courses in parched climes. The resort has an "environment and sustainability manager" on hand to demonstrate how seriously they take their responsibilities; Vassilis Karakousis tells me of the extensive research done before the first bulldozer moved in. He drives me up to a specially created reservoir where water is pumped from the "excess run-off" (some 2 per cent) of the local rivers during the winter. This, he assures me, means the local water table will remain unaffected by the demands of the golf courses, the landscaping and the swimming pools of the resorts. I find some scepticism about these claims in the local town of Gialova, where there is a sense of excitement tinged with anxiety.
The Costa Navarino developments will ripple outwards – that, after all, is the intention. But how will they impact on lovely little fishing towns such as Marathopolis, a few miles north of the Dunes resort? Here Nikos Thalassinos, a big hairy bear of a Greek from central casting, serves the best psarosoupa (fish soup made with lemon) at Argyris restaurant. Nikos has time to pull up a chair and chat, undeterred by my lack of Greek or his rubbish English. We knock back the beer, sitting on rickety wooden chairs on a rickety wooden terrace over the rocky shore, watching a white sun dodge the silhouette of the island of Proti and dip slowly into Homer's wine-dark sea.
Nikos was born, he tells me, in Chicago, but his family returned when he was three. After serving his apprenticeship, he took over the restaurant from his dad in 1995 and after enjoying his time as a single man (said with a conspiratorial twinkle worthy of Costas in Shirley Valentine), he is now settled with three kids. And here they are, a boy of seven, another of five and his daughter who is just six months old and cute as a button.
This is the Messinia I am sure the Captain loves and wants to do right by. I wish him luck.
How to get there
Costa Navarino (costanavarino.com) in Messinia opened in May. The Romanos, a Luxury Collection Resort (romanoscostanavarino.com), has deluxe rooms from £252 per room per night, including breakfast, during August. Aegean Airlines (aegeanair .com) flies from Heathrow to Athens from £69 each way. Aegean flies daily from Athens to Kalamata from €49 each way.
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