If only finding that perfect place also meant keeping it...

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MOST PEOPLE have been to the place. It doesn't feature in any guidebook, but the moment you see it you know it's the one. Maybe it's the sandy beach you love, or the rocky cove, or the lagoon. Maybe it's the ancient charm of the people, the men with their worry beads, the women in black. Maybe it's the view from the balcony of your room in the modest town hotel. Whatever the reason, you know you've found it at last, a location half-familiar from dreams or previous existences - Arcadia, Utopia, the perfect place.

You intend to stay an hour and stay a week. During the heat of the day, there's the shade of Carlos's bar, the long cocktails under the palm trees and eucalyptus. In the cool of the starlit night, there's Maria's harbourside restaurant with its simple yet ingenious dishes, cheaply priced. Marco takes you out in his fishing smack to see the caves, and shows you his olive grove where, one day, he says, he'll build a hotel. As if. Though it is high season, you have the place to yourself.

You tell friends about the place, but not too many, and go back the next year and the next. By now, a few Scandinavians and Americans have found it, too, but you get on with them (there's volley-ball, and the frisson of naked bathing at midnight) and the prices are still cheap, and the friendliness of the locals is undimmed. True, Carlos offers draught lager and has taken to playing loud music. Maria has a printed menu, and does fish and chips. Marco has dug the foundations for his hotel and has given up fishing to hire out beach umbrellas. But the people who come are still your kind of people - discerning travellers rather than tourists or trippers.

Going back after a break of five years, you are in for a shock. The package companies are here, at Marco's hotel. GB plates are in every street. A campsite has opened, too, and newly built villas cram the hillside. Maria's menu is a glossy plastic one, with colour photographs of innumerable fast-food options. Carlos's bar has expanded: there are computer games for kids, and the bass from the disco pounds late into the night. You remind yourself that you're a democrat and an egalitarian, that you don't own the place, that you don't want to come on like Beverly Nichols in the 1930s ("Ye Gods, the people! Drunken, debauched, heartless, of an incredible vulgarity - swooping, screaming, racketing"). No, the problem is not the crowd but what the crowd has done to the place. What made it special has gone.

Before you leave, cutting the holiday short, you have a drink with Carlos, away from the loudspeakers. His bar is doing so well he no longer has to pick olives in winter, he says. Three months of the year he travels abroad - last year Australia, this year Florida and the West Indies. You listen sullenly as he says how much tourism has done for the local people - given them a bit of money, broadened their horizons, put an end to the repressive customs, the tired old ways, the men with their worry beads, the women in black ...

I'm sorry. This isn't a piece about what happened on my holiday. My holiday was spent in a place I'd not been to before - the Peloponnese, down the coast from Kalamata - and what happened during a week of indolence wouldn't be enough to fill a postcard (my excuse for not having sent any). Still, I know that feeling of finding - and losing - the perfect place. I had it in childhood, on the Lleyn peninsula in North Wales. I had it later, on the Greek islands. And, on an almost perfect beach in the Peloponnese, it came back to me.

There's nothing more irritating than to hear someone say, "You should have been here a few years ago. It was so easy going and unspoilt". I've maddened my own children in this way, with stories of driving over the Atlas mountains when the road was little more than a dirt-track, of camping under the palm trees at Vai, on Crete, of being woken at night on a Spanish beach by two policemen who - instead of making an arrest - brought food and shared a bottle of brandy.

I was fortunate to hear no one say this in the Peloponnese, but I didn't entirely escape. Rashly, I bought Patrick Leigh Fermor's book about the region, The Mani, published in 1958 and drawing on an experience of Greece that goes back to before the war. It is a lost world now, but still fresh enough to provoke similar memories from more recent decades - the empty spaces, the mule rides, the shepherd girls, the men tippling retsina at breakfast, the superstitions, the endless offers to a passing stranger of food, wine and a bed for as long as he cares to stay. In the fierce heat and with forest fires blazing, I was particularly haunted by Leigh Fermor's story of how, one day in Kalamata, eating by the water's edge in burning weather, "on a sudden, silent decision we stepped down fully dressed into the sea carrying the iron table a few yards out and then our three chairs, on which, up to our waists in cool water, we sat round the neatly-laid table-top... The waiter, arriving a moment later, gazed with surprise at the empty space on the quay; then, observing us with a quickly masked flicker of pleasure, he stepped unhesitatingly into the sea, advanced waist-deep with a butler's gravity, and saying nothing more than `Dinner-time', placed our meal before us".

They did things differently then, with more aplomb. They always have done. The golden age of travel forever recedes. Though the world shrinks every year, making it easier to get about, each new generation is afflicted by the sense that things are getting worse - noisier, brasher, more crowded. Pliny the Younger records the case of a coastal resort in Tunisia "losing its character and peace and quiet" after crowds thronged to see a dolphin that gave rides to a boy. Other Roman travellers must have thought nostalgically of an age before there was graffiti on the Sphinx and Pyramids, or when guides to the Acropolis weren't interested only in tips.

But the change in our own time has been real enough. In the early 1970s, only 1 per cent of the world's population had flown in a plane, only 15 per cent of the British took a foreign holiday, and only 3 per cent of North Americans ventured beyond their continent. Meanwhile, in poorer European countries such as Spain and Portugal (as in the Third World today), the notion of a holiday, for the indigenous population, scarcely existed at all. No wonder empty beaches or coves were easier to find.

That more people can afford holidays, with the Grand Tour not the preserve of aristocrats but something students do in their gap year, is all to the good. It is good, too, when an impoverished community, dependent on a declining fishing industry, say, reaps the benefits of visitors. But the problem for that community is how to preserve what made it attractive to others in the first place. A perfect place can turn ugly and unfashionable unless run by the right people in the right way.

Affronted though you may feel by seeing a place go to pot, for you, just passing through, it's less of a problem. Remember Carlos telling you about that other place down the coast, awkward to get to and still, he said with contempt, "full of peasants". Paradisio, was it called? You can always try it next year.

Anne McElvoy is away.

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