A reputation for booze-swilling, brawling tourists gave this island a bad press. But it's fighting back. Writer and broadcaster Sankha Guha asks whether the tourist board's campaign has turned its fortunes around

We have three maps - and they're all useless. One is German, the English one is a freebie from the hotel and the third is in Greek. The German map is potentially helpful if you are looking for an ostrich farm. But if you are exploring the interior of Rhodes in a four-wheel drive you may as well navigate by the stars, and in the blinding light of day even the stars are useless.

I had no idea that Rhodes could be so vast, so empty. So unmapped. And it is all the more astonishing because by reputation this is Party Central. Rhodes is the modern-day locus of old testament-scale debauchery; for Sodom read Faliraki, the all-boozing, all-brawling, all-shagging resort on the north-east coast. Three years ago, the island reeled as the party spun out of control - stories of rape and murder did not make for good PR.

And yet, a few years on and just a few kilometres away, my partner Julia and I are surveying an idyll. The tranquil island in front of us recalls John Fowles's fictional Phraxos: "Its hills were covered with pine trees, Mediterranean pines as light as greenfinch feathers. Nine-tenths of the island was uninhabited and uncultivated." The beguiling landscape of The Magus was inspired by the island of Spetses, but here it is again, of all places, in boozed-up, blitzed-out Rhodes. To find it, all you need is a four-wheel drive and a willingness to get lost.

We set off from the central village of Laerma enroute to Asklipio, not far on the map. Rhodes is the largest island of the Dodecanese. Nevertheless at 80km from tip to toe it should be hard to lose our bearings. But having pointed our Suzuki Jimny on to the dirt roads we are instantly beyond the neat certainties of tarmac.

Up on a ridge we pass two uniformed firemen sitting by their engine scouring the tinder-dry valleys for the first signs of a forest fire. In aviator shades and moustaches, bored but cool, they look like extras in a George Michael video. We wave at them and they wave back gaily. They seem bemused - we are probably the only people they have seen all day.

We take a left where the map seems to say we should. Before long we are scrabbling along a desiccated stream-bed with only the most vestigial hint of a track. At a junction amid pine and feral olive trees I turn off the engine and a deep silence envelopes us. We should have asked the cool firemen for directions but it is too late now. We are ambushed by tracks to the left, to the right and others at oblique angles. The map shows none of them. After a series of best-guess turns we come bumping round a corner and almost smack into a Toyota pickup. I wave it down and ask the way to Asklipio. The driver snorts in what sounds very like derision and shakes his head. Assuming he is very rustic I repeat A-s-k-l-i-p-i-o slowly. He replies in excellent English, directing us to the nearest asphalt road. A few minutes later we are congratulating ourselves on reaching our destination. Except we have not.

We are, in fact, back at Laerma, where we started, having spent 45 minutes rocking through the wilderness in a pattern that is most accurately described as a full circle. Hot, dusty and slightly chastened, we return to the hotel. "Hotel" seems an inadequate word to describe our accommodation just south of Lindos, the second city of Rhodes.

The one-year-old Lindian Village has the standard accoutrements of a luxury boutique hotel - clean, modern interior, DVD/CD/satellite TV, internet, air-con, 24-hour room service etc. The suites though, do pack a surprise. Living room, hallway, bathroom and bedroom may be a minimum requirement for the suite-dwelling classes, but the garden with its private swimming pool and Jacuzzi is still a blinder. And we are not talking about some gold-plated, fur-lined, top-of-the-heap,"royal" suite. There are 33 such suites in the "village" - a people's republic of private pools.

Strolling between the villas I can't shake off the feeling that we are in a Greek version of Portmeirion, the fantastical village built by Sir Clough Williams-Ellis in north Wales, which also served as the location for the bonkers 1960s series The Prisoner. Staff glide around the sprawling site in electric golf buggies, reminiscent of the Mini Moke taxis that featured in the TV show. The big difference is that Patrick "I am not a number" McGoohan would not be trying to escape here, but break in.

In our suite I find a copy of Premier Hotels and Resorts("the travel professional's exclusive guide to luxury hotels and resorts worldwide"). It is one of those aspirational directories that posh hotels like to leave lying around to remind guests how smug they should feel. The cover features the Lindian Village. The editorial by an oleaginous "Group Publisher" celebrates the poor minions who are born to serve; luxury, he opines, is "in the associate (sic) who serves your toast in the morning and intuitively refills your coffee cup just as you are setting it down...."

There are "associates" aplenty hovering at breakfast but to my chagrin I have to refill my own coffee cup. We notice that a large proportion of the clientele is made up of loved-up young couples, likely to be honeymooners. They seem to be Italian, Russian, German and Belgian. The English are under-represented and maybe that has something to do with the unfortunate image that Rhodes still has in the UK. Faliraki seems a long way from the hushed, discreet ambience of the village.

Lindos, some 15km away, is the nearest example of industrial tourism. The crowning glory of the town is the Akropolis, still standing, after a fashion, despite successive generations of well-meaning archaeologists "restoring" it since the early 20th century. Unfortunately, their ham-fisted efforts now need to be repaired and the cranes, scaffolding and concrete reconstructions that clutter the monument have left very little of the original structure from the sixth century BC. The site is still breathtaking though; the heart of the complex, the temple of Athena Lindia, stands on top of a sheer cliff with its eastern wall, in effect, an extension of the rock face.

The rest of old Lindos has disappeared under a tide of rampant tourism. Beautiful village homes are now bars, restaurants, souvenir shops and car-rental kiosks. Bar competes with bar for the last of the summer's euros. The music from rival establishments spilling into the once charming alleyways is a form of warfare - REM assassinates Wham, Queen outguns Status Quo.

We step into the Socrates Bar where the music philosophy seems to have been decided by MC Clarkson (as in Jeremy). Dad Rock pumps from the speakers - "Cocaine" by Eric Clapton (not JJ Cale), Dire Straits and the inevitable Pink Floyd. Julia's Campari and orange is tolerable, but in a mad moment I forget where I am and ask the English barman for a Caipirinha. An insipid alcopop appears with some lemon rind floating in it. Serves me right.

Determined to "keep it real", or at least less tacky, we abandon the coastal strip and head inland once again. This involves taking the tarmacked road to Asklipio (it does exist), and off-road from there to the mountain village of Profilia. In Asklipio we manage to get lost before even leaving the village. The alleys just get narrower and narrower, like a funnel until we are trapped and are forced to wriggle the car backwards. Our onward journey takes in unscheduled visits to the cemetery, a lot of orchards and a river bed going in the direction of the sea before we do a 360 and finally roar towards the mountainous spine of the island and Profilia.

An hour later we emerge at another village, only 7km from our destination. We are elated because it represents a quantum improvement on going around in circles. In Profilia we seek out the taverna, luxuriating in the copious sunshine and panoramic views from the terrace. The owner, Pappasavvas, has a great moustache and the kind of effortless, louche charm that Tom Conti was probably aiming for when he played Costas in Shirley Valentine. In halting English he recommends the "Rooster in Red Wine" and some salad. Pappasavvas runs front of house while his wife Rita is the power in the kitchen.

He has a vision for his village. He points out the ugly mess of cables and satellite dishes and unfinished building works that clutter the roofline and says he wants to get rid of them and make rooms available to tourists. Profilia is beautifully situated but is not exactly picturesque. We ponder how it might look if it were tidied up. Would it still feel authentic? Or would it go the way of Lindos?

Pappasavvas brings the salad and asks: "Do you want the cock now, or later?" I splutter into my beer. There is no hint of mischief in his eyes. It is a straightforward question. However, for connoisseurs of the multiple entendre I must oblige - the cock, when it arrives, is delicious.

On our final day we consider taking the car on another off-road adventure. In the gathering heat of the day we get as far as the car park - the temperature is already in the high 30s. Suddenly, the siren call of the private pool is hard to ignore and minutes later we have retreated to the suite.

From the lounger I can hear the faint whirr of air-con plants and water pumps, and away in the depths of the Lindian Village someone is wielding a strimmer. All this indulgence is high maintenance - it doesn't just happen. A glass of chilled, local white wine is at finger length, the pool is also chilled.

I am perfectly chilled. All is well with the world. I glance at the copy of Premier Hotels and Resorts and consider the greasy wisdom of the "Group Publisher" who signs off his editorial by sincerely hoping to see me at "these fantastic venues designed to help you conduct your luxury travel needs".

Anyone can have luxury travel "wants", but it had never occurred to me that we might have luxury travel "needs". But right here, right now I am ready to concede the point.

Sankha Guha travelled as a guest of Thomson (0870 1900 737; thomsonfly.com) and the Lindian Village (00 30 22440 35900; lindianvillage.gr). Return flights to Rhodes from Gatwick start at £56 return. Double rooms at the Lindian Village start at €185 (£108) per night for bed and breakfast. For more information contact the Greek National Tourism Board (020-7495 9300; gnto.co.uk; rodosisland.gr)

My top drive

Do not attempt this in anything other than a 4x4. Start in the village of Arnitha in the southern third of Rhodes, point the vehicle vaguely south and cross your fingers. No signposts, no people, no traffic. Just a dirt track, scrub-covered ridges, olive groves, goats and the deafening thrum of crickets. To judge by the charred tree trunks, parts of the area suffered a bad forest fire not long ago. The track we took was meant to take us to Messanagros but led instead to the west coast between Apolakia and Kattavia. Don't plan too much, and let the tracks take you where they want.

My top restaurant

The Melenos Lindos (00 30 2244 0 32222; melenoslindos.com) is not just a restaurant but a delightful 12-room hotel as well. The rooftop terrace restaurant has views over the ancient, natural harbour. Honours are shared by Australian artist-designer Donald Green for his decor (lanterns, tents, mosaic floors and glass beads) and the chefs who take honest Greek cuisine to a higher plane - the lamb chops with rosemary and the sea bass with saffron were excellent.