Despite current woes, Greece retains the glamour and grandeur that has lured aristocrats and tycoons for decades. Robin Gauldie charts a realm of serene sea views, opulent mansions, quirky villas, privacy, good food and fine wine.
BY ROBIN GAULDIE
We may think of Greece as cheap, cheerful and, in recent months, broke, but it’s easy to forget that, until mass tourism really took off in the early 1990s, it was as much a rich man’s paradise as a hippie haven. In the 1960s, opulent enclaves such as Rhodes and Mykonos attracted visiting royalty, wealthy socialites and glitterati from the worlds of film, music, art and fashion, from Pablo Picasso, John Lennon and Henry Miller to Jackie Onassis and Brigitte Bardot.
There is still plenty of money around. The canny owners of the world’s biggest merchant fleet aren’t on the breadline yet – in fact, some have been quietly buying up tracts of Mayfair and Knightsbridge, and can still afford to send their offspring to English public schools. Some spend their summers in discreet comfort on Chios; at the other end of the scale, tiny Kastellorizo is a well-kept secret among wealthy Greeks, to whom luxury means simplicity.
Meanwhile, the new breed of post-Soviet plutocrat is drawn to the more upmarket Greek islands, with their staffed villas, crewed yachts and high-end hotels with pool suites, sybaritic spas, cigar bars and well-stocked wine cellars. Another option is the “hotel within a hotel”, as exemplified by the Amathus Elite Suites on Rhodes, where guests can enjoy privacy combined with five-star-hotel services. Irrespective of recent Greek troubles, boutique hotels continue to expand. Old mansions and village houses have been converted, creating a new generation of smaller, more colourful design hotels where luxury is still of the essence.
Food and drink have gone upmarket, too. In the best hotel restaurants, traditional cooking is given a lighter modern touch, and a brigade of internationally acclaimed chefs has found new ways to work with locally sourced ingredients. Visit Nobu, at the Hotel Belvedere on Mykonos, to see what happens when Japanese skills are applied to the fruits of the Aegean. Greek wines, too, are beginning to be taken seriously by connoisseurs.
Best of all, there is still an egalitarian friendliness that is hard to find elsewhere in Europe – though be prepared for your driver or waiter to unburden his (or her) resentment at the way Greece has been treated by its wealthier EU neighbours. This year, for reasons not unrelated, Greece is favourably priced. At Katikies, a whitewashed enclave on Santorini, a week in a junior suite costs £3,200, compared with £5,700 for a similar stay at the Capri Palace on the Italian isle of Capri.