Adrian Zecha and Ed Tuttle have a lot to answer for. When the Indonesian entrepreneur and the American architect opened their very first Aman resort in Phuket back in 1988, they could never have predicted that, three decades later, their vision for a new type of ultra-luxe hotel would be responsible for one of the most envy-inducing Instagram handles ever.
A search for #Amanjunkie yields close to ten thousand posts of sunsets foregrounded by infinity pools, yoga poses performed in mountaintop pagodas and – this is social media, after all – feet on a beach. In these images, the sands are impossibly white, the waters, an obscenely vibrant shade of turquoise and the manicure, perfect. In short, the scenes appear – even by the standard of the average Insta-brag – extravagantly removed from most people’s everyday lives.
But then, that’s the Aman model. Right from that first property, the group has aimed at providing a kind of transcendent holiday experience that hinges on three key elements: relaxed, highly personal service, which means you have everything you need when you need it; obsessive attention to detail, meaning everything is perfect; and, crucially, so you feel like you’re in your own private paradise, a location that’s off the beaten track.
That seclusion is the reason I find myself driving towards the tip of Greece’s eastern Peloponnese peninsula. This craggy landscape is but a few hours from Athens, yet it’s a world away from the madding crowds of the capital – no wonder the Aman group chose to open its first Greek property here in 2014.
“When we started building in 2010, Greece was in the midst of its crisis and people thought it was a crazy project,” says Sven Van den Broeck, general manager of the Amanzoe hotel, who is on hand to greet us as we arrive. “The majority of tourists had no idea the Peloponnese even existed. But this is a region with amazing potential. It’s true, authentic Greece for me.”
To most visitors, Greece means one thing. Last year, of the 28 million people who came to Greece, only 6.4 million landed in Athens – and many of these joined the rest, heading straight to the islands. I, myself, am guilty of this, having been to Mykonos, Crete and Santorini many times – I even spent my honeymoon on Kefalonia – yet never the mainland. So when Lonely Planet last year identified the Peloponnese as its number one pick for 2016, it inspired me to explore.
I started in Athens and headed south-west. The first thing to be said is how different it looks to the islands: not only is it significantly greener, but also noticeably more epic in scale; hills, thick with pine, sprawl on the horizon, fertile plains give way to deep gorges.
From Amanzoe, you can see all of this. “Mr Zecha fell in love with the site as soon as he saw it,” says Van den Broeck. “The view is pretty unique, isn’t it?” He’s not wrong: from the hotel’s hilltop vantage point, the unspoilt countryside unrolls in all directions like a vast Mediterranean tapestry.
This eastern finger of the Peloponnese – known as the Argolis region – has the largest concentration of World Heritage sites in Greece
Gazing inwards has its own pleasures too. Ed Tuttle’s architectural vision is a modern riff on classical Greece, so there are soaring Doric columns and Acropolis-like structures dotted around the landscaped gardens, fragrant with oregano and lavender. Aman resorts are hard to leave – the food is first-class, the spa facilities superb and the rooms, or rather pavilions, each with their own plunge pool, impeccably decorated in natural stone and light pine. But the pleasure of a visit is, of course, to explore. Compared to Santorini, say, where some 10,000 visitors arrive daily on cruise ships in the summer, bringing roads to a standstill, the olive groves, farmsteads and goats nibbling on grass around Amanzoe are remarkably serene.
You don’t, however, have to look all that far for signs of civilised life. Porto Heli is a charming port town just a short drive away, and if anywhere is going to spearhead a visitor boom for the region, it’s here. The smart roadside tavernas, pretty bay with yachts bobbing in it and the presence of an upmarket Nikki Beach Resort further round the coast are already visible signs of affluence, and they will soon be joined by a new Chedi hotel with an 18-hole Jack Nicklaus-designed golf club and a 149-berth superyacht marina.
These multi-million dollar developments are part of a bigger plan for tourism in the region, according to Maya Tsoclis, a Greek travel journalist and TV presenter, whom I caught up with later on.
“The Peloponnese were always just a destination for Greeks,” she explains. “They had no brand name. But recently tourists have begun to arrive in greater numbers and now they’re rushing to build the infrastructure.” There’s been big investment, she says, in the road system, including a slick new motorway running from Athens, which has drastically reduced journey times down here (though you could just take the Aman’s helicopter) and a variety of projects are fomenting, including a new five-star hotel in Mistras to the west, and luxury residences in Ermoini, close to Porto Heli. A high-end property project in Corinth has been designed specifically to attract wealthy Chinese buyers, with the added inducement of a kind of resident’s visa.
Certainly, the omens are good, and if these developments are in need of a template as to how it should be done, they’d do well to glance out to sea. Just across the water – less than ten minutes in a taxi boat from Porto Heli – is the small island of Spetses. It may be largely unknown to most foreigners, but Spetses is a place of quiet, civilised beauty that can justifiably claim to have kickstarted modern tourism in Greece back in 1914, when the Poseidonion Grand Hotel opened. The Poseidonion was the country’s first-ever five-star establishment, welcoming the international jet set at a time when the likes of Mykonos and Santorini were still fishing hubs, and that glamour is still very much in evidence today.
“The architecture was based on the style of the Negresco in the French Riviera,” explains Maria Strati, the hotel’s equally glamorous general manager. “I think it is safe to say that the island just would not be the same without the Poseidonion. It’s not only a landmark, but a beacon of hospitality.”
The ritzy reputation extends beyond the hotel. Many of Greece’s richest people have holiday homes here and if there’s a better people-watching spot on the island than the hotel’s stately terrace, eating the excellent Greek-inflected cuisine, I didn’t find it. Every weekend, especially in the summertime, the island fills with Athenians who’ve hopped on a ferry (Hellenic Seaways is the best option, hellenicseaways.gr) to lounge in the cafes and bars of the picturesque port and luxuriate on the spotless beaches with their enticing blue waters. Just don’t compare it to Mykonos or Santorini, says Strati.
“Spetses is a destination that has managed to escape the trappings of high-profile tourism,” she says. “Nowadays many people want something other than the typical island hop. More and more people desire all the beauty of the islands but in a more cosmopolitan setting – and that is why Spetses stands out.”
Back on the mainland, it’s hard to ignore the history. Virtually every road sign you pass points towards an ancient ruin or historic attraction. There are six UNESCO World Heritage sites in these parts alone, several within day-tripping distance of Amanzoe. Indeed, this eastern finger of the Peloponnese – known as the Argolis region – has the largest concentration of World Heritage sites in Greece. Epidaurus, an hour away, is home to a 2,400-year-old amphitheatre, one of the best-preserved in Greece. It has amazing acoustics: standing on the top-most row of seats, you can hear the appreciative murmurs of American tourists at the bottom, some 60m away. Such marvels inevitably draw the crowds – 1.1 million visited these Argolic sites in 2016 – but in nothing like the numbers found at the Acropolis.
The Bronze Age ruins of Mycenae
are also here, with Olympia, famous for the games that still bear its name, a little way off. The excavated, city-state site of ancient Corinth, in the northern part of the peninsula, where we find ourselves later in the trip, is within a few hours’ too. It’s busy, but well worth braving the coachloads of sightseers to see the Temple of Apollo. And if you do make the journey, I’d highly recommend venturing to the nearby town of Loutraki.
Fragias, a family-run restaurant a few minutes from the seafront, is difficult to find (call them on +30 697747 01554), but well worth the detour, both for the delightful garden – a vision of wild flowers and Greek statues – and, more importantly, for Eftychea’s cooking. “My name means happiness,” says the chef and co-owner, before proceeding to deliver an object lesson in expertly executed home cooking.
It starts with a tray of locally caught seafood – langoustines, prawns and meaty sea bream – brought out for us to choose from as we sit on the shaded veranda, before being whisked back to the kitchen for cooking. Next, there’s fried thrapsalo, or cuttlefish – crispier and less oily than the usual calamari, or squid. Then there’s Greek salad with fresh herbs from the garden, a zingy aubergine salad and all manner of other delicacies before we finally get to the fish. By the time the walnut cake slides, moist with honey, onto the table, we have been spoilt rotten.
Greece is often described as an open-air museum and, to extend the metaphor further, its inhabitants are themselves extremely able curators. At least four times on this trip, I’m told in passing that Nafplio, a town some 60km south of Corinth, is the original capital of modern Greece. It means by the time we arrive, I feel like I know what to expect. But I’m still surprised. With its labyrinthine alleyways, overhead balconies and artisan craft shops, Nafplio feels like a mini-Venice, which is not surprising given the town was part of the Venetian Empire in the middle ages. And like the Floating City, the polished marble flagstones that pave Nafplio’s central Syntagma Square hint at a past grandeur, not quite relinquished.
“As well as the Venetians, you can see the Ottomans were here,” says Dimitris Xanthoulis of the striking architecture. This local history buff is also a professional curator, arranging exhibitions at Fougaro, an excellent cultural space three kilometres out of town, so he knows his stuff. “There’s also a neo-classical influence here and a very important Byzantine church.”
The Palmidi fort, a baroque citadel built into the hillside overlooking Nafplio in around 1714, is another such landmark and – if you’re willing the climb the 913 steps up there – it provides a terrific view of the sprawl below. Nafplio is still a thriving port, welcoming each day visiting cruise ships that cross the Argolic Gulf, and from up here you can see the seafront Arvanitia Promenade, which snakes round the picturesque coastline. It’s a lovely little walk that starts on the waterfront: follow the path around for about a kilometre and you’ll reach a small but very pleasing shingle beach.
With its labyrinthine alleyways, overhead balconies and artisan craft shops, Nafplio feels like a mini-Venice
It’s here that you can find another indication of Nafplio’s sophistication. With its white cabanas, linen drapes and cool electro music, Blublanc projects the chi-chi air of a Mykonos beach bar. It’s just the place to while away an afternoon, craft beer in hand, in preparation for the evening, when Nafplio’s warren of streets transforms into lively hive of al fresco spots to dine and drink. As a regular visitor to Greece, I can attest that choosing somewhere to eat without foreknowledge can be a recipe for disappointment, but I’d been informed that Kakanarakis 1986 was the best in town. And so it proved.
The smart interior, part Art Deco, part island chic, feels quite unlike your average taverna and the cooking is equally as sophisticated: smart and precise, yet still imbued with love. The highlight is surely the melt-in-the-mouth slow-cooked beef stew, cinnamon running through it. It’s a fitting bookend to this chapter of the trip.
The most prevalent travel trend of recent years has been living like a local. Google the phrase and close to a million hits reveal how best to avoid the tourist crowds and become immersed in something more authentic. In many ways that’s been the core revelation of this trip – that there exists a version of Greece, hidden in plain sight from most visitors. Nowhere is this better exemplified than in Island Club, a cracking nightspot that has been the preferred summer hangout for smart Athenians since it opened 23 years ago.
Sitting on its terrace, looking out across the Saronic Gulf as sun sets on the bay, it’s difficult to believe we’re but a 20-minute drive from Europe’s second most densely populated city. The Athenian Riviera, just a few kilometres south of Athens’ centre, resembles a Mediterranean Malibu, a photogenic stretch of streets lined by angular Modernist condos, bustling seaside resorts and sandy beaches, all looking out on the water. Yet despite the proximity, most of those who have spent the day traipsing sweatily around the Acropolis, or exploring the villagey charms of the Plaka district, with its Byzantine churches and quaint stores, haven’t heard of it.
“Our clients are mostly – but not all – Greeks,” says Chrysanthos Panas, who opened Island Club along with his brother Spyros in 1994 and has welcomed a few well-known faces through his doors over the years. “I remember when Meryl Streep came in. She was filming Mamma Mia and invited the cast along with quite a few of her former schoolmates from New York and Boston for a party. That was a very special night.”
A look at Island Club’s website
suggests there have been quite a few special nights here – I’m told the party often goes well into the next morning during high season – and it’s not difficult to see why. The venue goes toe to toe with anything Mykonos or even Ibiza has to offer – an accolade not delivered lightly: candle-lit tables jostle under a rigging-like canopy that evokes the yachts bobbing in the bay; wooden gazebos and hanging bougainvillea add a rustic colour splash to counterpoint the prevailing whiteness, and the food riffs in supreme fashion on typical Riviera fare. It’s so much buzzy fun, I’d find it hard to stay away if I lived here. And the view, of course, is knockout.
“No other capital in the world has such an amazing Riviera,” says Panas, who’s rightly evangelical about this terrific part of his home city. And it’s a sentiment that very neatly sums up just what’s been so magical about this odyssey. “It is our wish that Athens Riviera takes the place it deserves in the world of tourism as the best in the world,” he says. “We want people to know that Athens – and the mainland – is not just a stopover to the islands.”
Thanks to Luxury Taxi Nafplio