Reef Encounter

Lizard Island Resort on the Great Barrier Reef offers holistic escape among nature’s wonders

Publisher: South China Morning Post

From 2,745 metres, the aquamarine lagoons and coral cays of the Great Barrier Reef, fringed by ribbons of silky white surf, stretch out as far as the eye can see. With its divine beauty, flying over the reef is an almost spiritual experience. I’m en route to Lizard Island Resort, one of Australia’s isolated luxury holiday destinations. The journey from the mainland takes 60 minutes, before the single-engine Cessna arcs gracefully to land on the island’s tiny airstrip.

Twenty-seven kilometres from the coast of Queensland and 250 kilometres northeast of Cairns, Lizard Island sits in a pristine area of the Great Barrier Reef. The resort’s symbiotic relationship with the reef is the core of its profound appeal.
Delivering understated luxury with a breathtaking reef encounter has consistently placed the resort in the Top 10 Hotels of the World list.

But despite the chic design of its 40 suites and villas, fine dining and exquisite creature comforts, Lizard Island Resort is not about matching its uber-luxury peers. It’s a life- and nature- altering experience instead. 
”There’s a lot of ‘bling’ out there for people who want that six-star experience,” says assistant general manager, Shaun Grant, as we stroll through the tropical bush. “We match that, but without the bling. For us it’s about balancing the in-room and out-room experience. We bring those together so you get that holistic escape.
“There are very few places in the world where you can remember who you are, and disconnect from the world. That’s what we focus on.”
With no cellphone reception, the resort has restricted wi-fi internet access to one lounge, a limitation I found liberating. Due to popular demand however, Wi-Fi will be rolled out to its rooms this year. I stayed in one of the 18 Anchor Bay Suites; 936 spacious and elegant square feet of timber floors and unfussy finishes. With captivating sea views through a curtain of coconut palms, each suite has a path that leads to the beach 20 metres from your verandah.

If you want total privacy, book the most isolated villa. Beloved of British royals, the Pavilion, where Bollinger is provided on arrival and canapés at sunset, is for regal pampering. 
Perched on a rocky promontory, with private pool and expansive deck, the Pavilion affords a spectacular panorama of the Coral Sea. This is seriously comfortable solitude.

You’re not going to go hungry on Lizard. At Ospreys Restaurant, executive chef Anthony Healy brings an inventive light touch to new Australian cuisine, serving the freshest seafood in the southern hemisphere. Friendly, obliging wait staff add an informal touch to meal times.

Over at the Beach Club, the resort’s marine activity centre, guides suggest the best outlying beaches for coral reef snorkeling, and provide a water-taxi service for your commute. The island’s northerly location means the club offers dive trips to parts of the reef most mainland operators can’t reach.

Exploring the island on foot reveals a rich narrative of the discovery and settlement of Australia. A derelict cottage where sea cucumbers were processed in 1880 by English settler Mary Watson and two Chinese assistants – Ah Sam and Ah Leung – still stands beside the beach that bears her name.

Set upon by aboriginal tribes for trespassing on their sites, Ah Sam was speared and killed but Watson and Ah Leung escaped, using a tin bath they cooked sea cucumbers in as their boat. They died after running out of drinking water.

Head up to Cook’s Look and follow in the footsteps of 18th-century explorer James Cook, who discovered Lizard Island in 1770, when his vessel Endeavour ran aground on coral. Cook named the island after encountering one of its many reptile species. Nature makes this resort so special. Surrounded by lush tropical jungle, guests share living space with geckos, skinks, green tree frogs, and a vocal community of bush birds.

A scientific research station on the western side of Lizard hosts around 60 research projects a year – surely the world’s most inviting laboratory. 
I spoke with marine biologist and station director Anne Hoggett, who in 22 years on the Island, has seen environmental threats to the reef increase. Monitoring the effect is a key part of the station’s work. “The reef is deteriorating at a small rate every year, but that rate is increasing,” says Hoggett.

“The best we can do is look after our carbon emissions; clean up our act globally. That’s not likely to happen in the near future is it?” But it’s not all doom and gloom.
“Locally there’s a lot we can do,” she says. “Keep the water quality in good condition and look after our fisheries. There is hope.”

Coincidentally, Trevor Yang, chairman of the World Wildlife Fund Hong Kong, was also a recent visitor to the station. Yang, who spent six days on the island with his wife and teenage sons, was “blown away” by the island’s management.

“It’s a great example of how commercial activity and environmental protection can work side by side. But it takes understanding on both sides, and a discerning clientele who respect the island for what it is,” says Yang. “In Hong Kong we claim to have more coral species than the Caribbean, but we don’t have fish in those corals because of over-fishing.” 
What did Yang and his family enjoy? “We loved the snorkeling and the boys were ecstatic about the diving.” He plans to return.

One experience I’ll treasure above all is the resort’s “signature” activity, heading off on a sun-kissed morning in a dinghy (what’s the hurry?), to an idyllic tropical beach, all to ourselves. The sumptuous picnic hamper can wait. Mask, snorkel and fins attached, I swim to the shimmering coral; above giant clams, electric-blue starfish and alongside scuttling green turtles. Lizard Island Resort is total immersion in natural beauty, a rare, priceless gift.


Cathay Pacific flies direct to Cairns from Hong Kong three times a week.

 

Advertisements

Cretan Journeys: Dispatches from the Amari

amari3

The Amari Valley in central Crete has a proud history and unique natural environment. Here a new generation of Amariots are intent on protecting this enchanting place and their precious heritage.

With the mighty Psiloritis mountain to the east and the Kedros range to the west, the Amari lies cradled 500 metres above sea level: a labyrinth of country lanes which connect tiny hamlets largely untouched by tourism. Between the villages – shaded by cypresses, plane trees, oaks and pines – lies a patchwork of fields of corn and cabbages, figs and apples, grapes and quinces, all nestling up to some of the oldest olive groves in Europe.

Set against the everchanging colours of the mountains, this shangri-la, just 45 minutes south-east of Rethymno, is Crete off the beaten track. I took the road to the Amari in November. Summer had long passed but it had left its mark: soil baked orange by the sun, oleanders in the hedgerows, splashing pink as the road snakes south.

Walnuts are in season, and the black-red cherries that arrived in summer’s blaze were now preserved for cooler days. Amid this glorious nature are some of Crete’s most precious Minoan and Byzantine churches, places of worship that convey the ancient spirituality of this place. Beside them, Amariots today eke out livelihoods in much the same way as their ancestors, with a reliance on agriculture – largely immune from the impact and economic benefits of tourism.

Like many isolated rural areas, depopulation and lack of infrastructure has seen the 30 or so villages that make up the Amari, struggle to maintain themselves and offer livelihoods to its younger generation. The valley’s population has been in decline for decades. Reversing the trend is the challenge for newly installed Amari mayor Adam Paradisanos.

“The valley’s population is about 6,000 today,” says Paradisanos in his office at the dimarxio in Agia Fotini, who has seen his own village Agios Ioannis shrink from 200 residents to just 50.

“Forty years ago it was very different. It was three or four times this number. The young have left and the people who stayed are old,” laments the former teacher.

But with the municipality’s resources limited, the valley’s future growth ultimately lies in the hands of Amariots with the imagination and courage to invest in their homeland.One such pioneer is Manolis Papadakis. Manolis opened Amari Villas four years ago – a loving restoration of his grandparents’ former home in the village of Amari, perched on the slopes of Samitos mountain.

manolis2
Manolis Papadakis

At Amari Villas, the 50-year-old entrepreneur has created the valley’s most stunning accommodation to date: two large and luxurious interconnecting villas with elegant traditional furnishings and views to die for. The villas may have a swimming pool with one of the most glorious vistas in Crete, but this is no soulless five-star experience. Rather, Papadakis’ project is something truly authentic: a reflection of the historic culture it sits within. Papadakis says that changing the Amari’s economic fortunes is about improving its most basic infrastructure.

“This is a poor area, and what we need is, for instance, help to clean and mark the paths between the churches, gorges, and historical sites,” says the electrical engineer, who accessed EU funds to help convert his property.

“We need government at all levels to get together, to improve things like refuse collection, sewerage, and water supply.”

The creation of the Amari Network, a long-awaited project that will see collaborations between the sectors that make up the Amari’s economy (farming, accommodation, restaurants, and handicrafts), says Papadakis, is key to moving forward.

“We don’t need huge projects that would distort Amari’s unique character. We must remain humble and at the same time, proud of our heritage, paying respect to the glorious environment and our history, that has been delivered to us, intact, by our ancestors”. Papadakis’ vision is not only about developing tourism in the valley, but encouraging its diaspora to return.

“We want people to come back to their homeland, to live and work here. We want Amari to flourish again and tourism could be the best way to move things forward”.

The Amari, with its stunning natural environment and historical sites, is an extraordinary place to visit – one of Crete’s most inspiring and enchanting landscapes and cultures. Just as the plough churns its rich soil in winter for next year’s crop, the valley prepares itself for a new season and regeneration. That’s the Amari way. For a glimpse of Crete at its richest, full of natural wonders and history, take the road to the Amari, a place that beckons like no other.

 

Heroism and sacrifice – WWII and the Amari

The Amari played a key role in resistance activity during the Nazi German occupation of Crete between 1941 and 1945.It was used by Allied secret agents like Tom Dunbabin, Patrick Leigh Fermor and Xan Fielding throughout the occupation (as a place to meet in relative safety, and as a route through which escaped Allied soldiers were taken to evacuation beaches on the south coast.

The Kedros villages on the Amari Valley’s western edge have been rebuilt virtually from scratch after their destruction in WWII. On 22 August 1944, German forces destroyed the villages that line the eastern slopes of the Kedros mountain after murdering 164 civilians, ostensibly as an act of reprisal for the abduction (by British secret agents) of the island’s garrison commander, General Heinrich Kreipe.

Most historians today concur that the massacre (carried out three months after the abduction and just weeks before the Germans withdrew their forces to Chania), was ordered to deter local partisans from attacking the occupation forces as they retreated, and to punish the communities who from the start of the occupation had consistently supported the resistance.

anomeros2

Today a line of memorials, one in each village along the road that runs south-east from Gerakari, tells the tale of that terrible day. Those killed included 49 people from Gerakari – nine from the Kokkonas family alone, more than 40 from the tiny hamlets of Vryses and Kardaki, and 40 from Ano Meros. The Ano Meros monument is the most remarkable: a larger than life sculpture of a Cretan woman, stout and strong in traditional costume, wielding a hammer and chisel, carving the names of the dead into the stone monolith she faces: Mother Crete forever marking her childrens’ sacrifice.

IMG_3409
The Last Supper: 14th century frescoe at the abandoned Church of Panagia, Smiles

Another memorial has fewer visitors. Tucked into the fields in the valley below is the abandoned village of Smiles (pronounced smee-les). Set ablaze by the Nazis that August day, it was never rebuilt, and what remains of its wrecked, overgrown dwellings stand in silent testament to that awful terror.Smiles is not to be found on any commercially available map, but ask the locals. They know.

Places to stay and eat in the Amari

IMG_3543

Amari Villas
The valley’s most luxurious accommodation on the eastern slopes of Samitos mountain comprises two interconnecting villas (with pool) that can sleep up to 16. Open all year round, the villas make the perfect summer or winter retreat.   Click here for bookings Tel. (+30) 283 1051003 and 697 3557081

Meronas Eco House
Manolis Moschonas has transformed his old family home in the village of Meronas into a cosy interpretation of a traditional Amari residence, and one with a jacuzzi. Click here for bookings  Tel. (+30) 6985 120285

Moschovolies Traditional Taverna, Meronas
One of the valley’s best kept secrets, this delightful taverna run by the Moschonas family offers the freshest local produce and some of the best food in the Amari. Moshovolies on Facebook  Tel. (+30) 283 3022526 and 6956 657882

.

Cretan Journeys: The Doma

doma01

The remarkable story of the Doma Hotel in Chania

There aren’t many hotels in the world like the Doma, the century-old establishment perched on the waterfront just east of Chania town centre. To ascend its curved steps and pass across its threshold is to enter a portal to the past, and if you are looking for a spot to reflect on Crete’s rich, turbulent history – or just a perfect place to unwind – look no further.

Decorated with exquisite antique furnishings – the walls adorned with fading framed photographs, documents and objets d’art – this former diplomatic consulate is the family home of its present owners – sisters Irini ‘Rena’ Valyraki and Ioanna Koutsoudaki, and their story is inextricably linked to this special place.

Built in the late 19th century as the consulate of the Austro-Hungarian empire, it was like all consulates in Chania, located in the affluent seaside suburb of Halepa. As WWI redrew the map of Europe and the old dynasties fell, by 1918 Crete had been unified with Greece, and the building went into private hands. In 1933 the consulate and its extensive grounds was purchased by Ioanna and Rena’s grandmother. Irini was born there the same year, but as war approached, the sisters’ time in their childhood home was to be shortlived.

In 1940, with Hitler’s armies on the march across Europe, the British Consul in Chania persuaded their father Kyriakos Koutsoudakis (a former employee of the company that operated the telegraph line from Crete to Alexandria connecting England with India) to lease the house to the British government.

For a year the family lived with the consul and his staff, before – on the eve of the invasion of Crete in May 1941 – they moved out, leaving their furniture and most of their precious heirlooms behind. Ioanna still remembers vividly the day the soldiers came from the sky.

Fate decided that she and her family would be at the centre of the storm. “My father had arranged for us to be taken to a village near Maleme,” says Ioanna, as we sit in the Doma’s fourth-floor dining room, with its sweeping panorama looking out over the bay.

“I remember the first night of the invasion. I was very afraid, my father took me in his arms, and the next day he took us in his car to the village of Elos, south of Kissamos, in the mountains.”

When Chania fell on 27 May the victorious German paratroops took over the British Consulate to use as their command centre. Ioanna and Rena’s home would host the uninvited guests for four long years. “We came back soon after the invasion,” says Ioanna. “I remember saying ‘who are all these strange people?’ and my mother telling me ‘it’s not our house anymore’.”

For most of the occupation the Koutsoudakis family lived not far from their requisitioned home. Like so many displaced in a town that was decimated by war, they made the best of it. “There were ten of us in my aunt’s house. Once a German soldier gave me some chocolate, and my father told me ‘you must not take anything from those people because they are not our friends’.”

Athens saw the Germans leave in October 1944, but ‘Fortress Chania’ would remain under Nazi control until 9 May 1945. The German surrender of the town would be the final act of World War II in Europe, but not even Chania’s liberation meant the sisters could return to their home.

“The British came to my father and they said they wanted to operate the house again as their consulate,” says Ioanna. “They stayed for ten years and I hated this situation.”

It would be 1955 before the house was finally restored to its rightful owners. Ioanna went on to study in Rome’s Academy of Fine Arts. Fluent in French and Italian, in the 1960s she began travelling – first hitch-hiking her way across Europe and then venturing to Asia. It was a road less-travelled for a young Greek woman of the time.

She was married briefly – a life in the United States beckoned – but it wasn’t to be. Rena wed a dentist. Hers was a long and happy marriage lasting 45 years.

Then in the late 1960s, Ioanna, who by now was living in Athens and running a fabric design and dressmaking business in the fashionable suburb of Kolonaki, suggested they turn the old family home into a guesthouse. The idea sprang from her time in Italy when she had seen similar family homes open their doors to paying guests.

The Doma Hotel opened in December 1971, and within months word had spread of its unique charm. Soon artists, celebrities, politicians and poets were staying, drawn to the building’s story and its graceful hosts. Its reputation as one of the most elegant and distinguished hotels in Greece grew steadily.

Some guests would return each year. Many still do. One of Ioanna and Irene’s favourites was the celebrated Italian writer and poet Antonio Tabucchi, who became a lifelong friend. British military types with clipped English accents (who served in wartime Crete as secret agents) stayed too, along with their former adversaries.

Once in the 1980s, a German war veteran – a Herr Voutkas (with only one hand, remembers Rena) who had lived in the house during the occupation, returned. It was only while checking-out that he summoned the courage to admit the circumstances of his previous residence.

The Doma still carries the echoes of all its histories. This is a place where the presence of its former incarnations – and those who spent time here – is everywhere.

Beyond its powerful history, perhaps it’s the glorious dining room overlooking the bay that is the most memorable experience, its walls adorned with family portraits and fading framed documents; or precious time spent in the dappled light of the serene walled garden; perhaps it’s the peaceful lounge, decked in antique rugs beside the exotic headdresses Ioanna created inspired by her travels, that stays with you. It’s all these things and more.

Until the late 1980s the Doma was open all year round. Today it reveals its delights only between April and November. On my last visit to Chania a sturdy lock and chain were wrapped tightly around the hotel’s elegant wrought-iron gate.

Ioanna and Rena were preparing to travel to Athens, as they have done for forty years, to spend winter in their Kolonaki apartment. Like the swifts that return to their nests nearby each year, they will be back when the buds of spring arrive.

As the waves break on the pebbled shore below, the Doma will wait for its genteel owners to return, to bring back their gracious hospitality and the manners of a bygone era.

Michael Sweet traveled to Crete from Athens with the assistance of Aegean Airlines.

Je suis un fan

Photography: George Apostolidis.

 

Mandarin Oriental, Paris has just celebrated its first birthday. An oasis of contemporary luxury in the bustling heart of the fashionable Saint-Honoré district, to stay at this hotel is to savour modern Parisian style with a refined infusion of the Orient.

Paris Fashion Week was in full swing when our taxi plied its way slowly up the bustling narrow Rue Saint-Honoré to deposit us at the coolly understated entrance of Mandarin Oriental, Paris. Tucked between two grand old town houses, the approach to the lobby beneath a canopy of tiny glass lights – each sculpted as a butterfly – gives a first clue as to what’s in store. Inside the main lobby with its soaring grey marble columns and floor-to-ceiling windows, there’s a second; a sculpture of a human form in two circles suspended in space.

We’ve arrived at a place of air and light – a location to free the body and soul.

The hotel’s design style takes its inspiration from the richness and modernity of the 1930s and Art Deco. The original building dates from 1928, and its 138 rooms and suites on eight floors are amongst the most spacious hotel rooms in Paris.

The welcome, like that experienced at all the group’s hotels was distinctive; warm and efficient. With all the fabulous creature comforts, it’s so often the staff, brought up in the unique Mandarin Oriental tradition, that makes staying at any of the group’s hotels a deeply satisfying and memorable experience.

We were graciously guided to room 514, a Suite Deluxe consisting of bedroom, bathroom, lounge and balcony overlooking the Rue Saint Honoré. With sliding doors separating its three areas and floor-to-ceiling windows, it’s a large fluid space impeccably stylish and exquisitely furnished. Chic oriental touches and bold contemporary art, exude a feeling of understated contemporary glamour and luxurious exclusivity. “Look dad, it comes with its own iPad!” squealed my eight-year-old son son in glee.

The cutting-edge technology to hand, is of course bespoke – Bang & Olufsen as well as Apple, and three discretely-positioned widescreen TVs – including one seamlessly part of the wall in the stunning bathroom – offer state-of-the-art entertainment technology. My only concern was how would I ever get my son to leave this cocoon of luxurious technically advanced comfort. The indoor pool was the answer, part of the deeply tranquil retreat that is the hotel’s spa where subtle animated projections of butterflies in flight create a dreamlike world. Extending over two floors, the 900 square metre spa is one of the city’s largest.

Within this subterranean sanctuary, therapies developed by specialists in traditional Chinese medicine promote complete mind-body harmony. Evocatively titled treatments include Hu-Tieh Quan (the Butterfly Spring): a bath of warming ginger, uplifting mandarin and sacred frankincense followed by a soothing body mask and massage.

If all that holistic pampering makes you hungry, the hotel has two restaurants under the watchful eye of one of France’s most celebrated chefs – Thierry Marx, MO Paris’ Executive Chef; the gourmet Michelin-starred Sur Mesure par Thierry Marx, and Camélia, an all-day restaurant offering French cuisine influenced by Marx’s love and knowledge of Japan.

Spilling into an elegant courtyard garden, Camélia is also the venue for the sumptuous buffet breakfast: just what’s needed if you have designs on some serious retail fashion therapy.

The Rue Saint-Honoré is the heart of Paris haute couture and home to the world’s most famous fashion brands – Versace, Hermes, Chanel and Yves Saint Lauren, as well as newer kids on the block like the edgy Colette ‘concept’ store. They are all on your doorstep at Mandarin Oriental, Paris.

Whether you’re buying or just indulging in ‘lèche-vitrines’ (window shopping in French – literally ‘window-licking’), a stroll on the Rue Saint-Honoré is an experience not to be missed. But then if you simply want to pamper yourself chez Mandarin Oriental, the hotel has a fabulous optional extra that adds a new dimension to Parisian retail therapy. Not only will the concierge find any item you’ve set your heart on, but will arrange free pick-up and delivery to your room.

An up, close and personal encounter with Parisian history in all its magnificence is something that can’t be delivered – but it’s wonderfully close. Sitting in the capital’s premier arrondissement, you’re a five-minute stroll from two landmark Parisian squares – Place de la Concorde and Place Vendome. My son was less-enamoured with high-fashion and history but rather with simpler local delights. We headed to the Tuileries – the seventeenth century gardens that make up the central-most park in Paris; they have a funfair that he adored almost as much as our beloved suite.

Eurostar had whisked us in to Paris from London. We were there 48 hours, just enough time to scale the Eiffel Tower [tip: avoid long queues by getting there by 9.30am and walk the first two stages], take a boat trip along the Seine and of course, indulge in a touch of that retail therapy unique to the French capital.

Mandarin Oriental, Paris exemplifies modern, rather than classic, luxury, and it does so breathtakingly. The butterfly, that delicate emblem of rebirth and fleeting freedom runs discreetly throughout this sublime hotel; it’s a symbol that could not be more fitting for this oasis of chic refinement.

While only the fortunate few might be able to make a Suite Deluxe at the Mandarin Oriental their regular pied de terre in the French capital, for any discerning traveller every space here is an oasis to savour – a place to rest for exquisite nourishment before spreading your wings again.

Sensuous luxury – that doesn’t cost the earth

At Mandarin Oriental, Paris, providing luxury and fastidious customer service with environmentally sustainable practices is a seamless process

The hotel has committed itself to obtaining La Haute Qualité Environnementale or HQE (High Quality Environmental certification) – the highest standard for green buildings in France. As the first hotel in France to recognised for such a commitment to the environment, its eco-responsible policy approach saves between 20 and 30 per cent of its energy usage in comparison with a non-HQE building.

Child’s play

For families, Mandarin Oriental, Paris has created an experience to showcase the best of what Paris has to offer younger visitors.

Ideal for parents wanting to introduce their children to the city’s beauty and culture, J’aime Paris en famille allows families to improve their understanding of France and the French language in one fun-filled day.

Comprising an enchanting tour of the city’s most famous and child-friendly delights, the tour is guided by an expert not just in Parisian culture and history, but how to make it come alive for children new to the city.

After the day’s explorations, families can enjoy un goûter, a snack that French children traditionally enjoy at 4pm, which at Mandarin Oriental, Paris, is best enjoyed at the Cake Shop. Pastries and macarons will tempt the young, while a well-deserved glass of Bollinger awaits for parents at play.

Perfect Paxos

.

Surrounded by sparkling blue waters, elegant harbours and tranquil bays, Paxos is rated as one of the world’s Top Twenty Great Escapes. But then it’s always been a place for a good escape: legend has it that Poseidon created Paxos by bashing Corfu with his trident to create a peaceful getaway for himself and his partner Amphitrite. Perhaps his actions were partly a premonition of the port of Corfu in the 21st Century – disgorging thousands of camera-clad tourists, or pale holidaymakers from northern Europe, descending in their droves in the charter jets that arrive continually from dawn until midnight at Corfu airport.

It’s enough to make anyone fling his trident, and it’s just as well he did, because Paxos, and its tiny sister island Antipaxos, are sparkling gems set in this part of the Ionian, and if you know where to go, there is much that is serene and magical in these islands off the beaten track.

The pioneers of tourism in Paxos were two Brits, Eliot Watrous and Patrick May, who first visited the island as servicemen in WWII. After the war, Watrous went on to create the Greek Island Club, one of the first travel companies that began to open Greece up to the British and European tourist market.

By the 1980s tourism had replaced olive oil production as the mainstay of Paxos’ economy. Today the permanent resident population of Paxos is around 2500. In summer it rises to 10,000 and the sleepy port of Gaios is transformed as tourists arrive in droves on day trips from Corfu and the Greek mainland. On the waterfront is the office of Yannis Avranitakis, born in Paxos in 1953, Avranitakis has established Gaios Travel as one of the island’s most successful small businesses, offering quality accommodation, car and boat hire – all with a sensitive personal touch.

Yannis’ insights into tourism on Paxos are enlightening. “We don’t need more tourists,” says Yannis. “We need a different kind of tourist.” And what he means by that, is tourists who want more than the packages offered by the big tour operators – visitors who want to explore aspects of Paxos’ rich culture and environment so often ignored.

I soon got a glimpse of what Yannis means: a stroll along the port brings you to the Paxos Municipal Museum and Gallery, an elegant neo-classical building that houses an extraordinary collection. The exhibits include the traditional Paxiot dowry gift of ‘leg-stirrups’ for the bride, to attach to the marital bedposts for that extra something to help the baby-making process. Now you can’t find those at Ikea!

Some of the most interesting items in the small museum are the remarkable paintings by the Paxiot artist and priest Christodoulos Aronis (1884 -1973). A 1908 graduate of the Athens School of Fine Arts, Aronis specialised in portraiture and landscapes as well as religious paintings. Many of his commissions adorn in churches in Corfu and Paxos, and in some of the major Orthodox cathedrals in the UK where he spent the latter part of his life. The paintings at the Paxos museum are the single largest collection of his work in one location and show his most personal figurative and landscape work.

Less than six kilometres to the south of Gaios is the tiny island of Antipaxos. In peak season many flock to this tiny pristine isle (with an area of just 5 square km) on day trips from Corfu – heading out on packed sightseeing boats to swim in the crystal clear waters for which the island has become famous.

My advice is to steer clear of its most famous beaches like Vrika and Voutoumi where every day in the high-season you’re likely to find yourself too close for comfort with others wanting to experience the Ionian’s most perfect beaches. Go for a walk; you’ve got every chance of getting a beach to yourself.

I was lucky enough to stay the night and savour Antipaxos’ delights without the daytime invaders. With very few properties on and a resident population of not many more than 30 owners and their families, this is the ultimate getaway location.

Yannis invited me to stay at the stone and timber house he recently finished building on his family’s land – an elegant property on high ground that took eight years to construct. After a 20 minute boat ride we tied up at the tiny harbour of Agrapidia in the early evening, and soon Yannis was introducing me to his neighbours, all of whom are winemakers. The island is famous for the quality of its wine, with the oldest and largest commercial producer being a local priest Papa Vangelis. Plots of land passed down through the generations are separated by rolling hills of vineyards and joined by a few meandering lanes.

We headed off into the warm evening to toast the sunset on the rooftop terrace of Vasilis Vlachopoulos, a former merchant ship captain, who having sailed the seven seas, now prefers to tend his vines on this idyllic isle. And who can blame him. Perched on a hill with sweeping views to the south we sat on his rooftop verandah as the sun set.

To the west, a vast expanse of the Ionian sea and hidden beyond, is Italy. If ‘sublime’ was a word invented to describe one experience, one place, one time; then it would be sitting in good company on that simple terrace that late summer evening, and as the light began to fade, sharing the sweet fruit of the vines which surround us.

Though rooms and villas are available to rent on Antipaxos, they are in short supply, so best to book early. Contact Gaios Travel or Lychnaria Paxos Accommodation for details. The author is grateful for the assistance of the Municipality of Paxos, Spyros Bogdanos, Yannis Avrantakis of Gaios Travel and Faye Lychnou of Lychnaria in the research for this article.

Bathing with Herodotus

Faded elegance: the 1920s Aigli hotel at Edipsos, Evia, Greece.

Mike Sweet takes the waters in northern Evia, Greece.

The healing powers of Edipsos’ thermal springs in the north of Evia have attracted politicians and artists for centuries; millennia even. Less than two hours drive from Athens, the luxurious Thermae Sylla Spa Wellness Hotel beckons at Edipsos. Built in 1890 and lavishly restored recently, the hotel has direct access to the famous ‘Sylla’ thermal spring, which flows up through the nearby rocks.

The name ‘Sylla’ dates back to ancient times when the spring was a favoured haunt of Roman general Cornelius Sylla, who (on his days off from destroying the port of Pireaus in 86 BC) did his r’n’r in these parts. Emperors Hadrian and Marcus Aurelius also de-toga-ed here, but the town and its thermal springs go back even further.

Herodotus, the truly ancient Greek historian who lived in the 5th century BC, reckoned twenty-one days of bathing in the waters was the recommended dose, but then he didn’t have to put it on his Visa card!

The therapeutic properties of the springs are apparently a result of the metallic salts and trace elements that occur naturally in the water, particularly iron, calcium and magnesium. Heated some three kilometres below ground, the water reaches the surface at a temperature of between 70 and 85 degrees centigrade. Handy for boiling eggs, though I didn’t try.

Some of the more modest accommodation available in Edipsos gives a fascinating glimpse into early 20th century history, and the Belle Epoque of this loutropolis when the likes of Winston Churchill, Eleftherios Venizelos, Maria Callas, and Greta Garbo took the waters here.

The faded elegance of the Aigli Hotel, two hundred metres from the harbour, with its chic art-deco design, stands out proudly amongst the drab sprawl of the contemporary waterfront. Its modernist features are a must see for anyone even vaguely interested in architectural history. A modest renovation, retaining its precious design features would be an idea for this dusty jewel of a building.

Back at the Thermae Sylla Spa, the service, rooms and amenities are top-class. Fresh organic produce from the hotel’s own farm supply the kitchens. Refreshingly, particularly for Greece, there is a total ban on guests smoking in public areas.

A great gym and spa centre offering body wraps with algae and fruit, aromatherapy and shiatsu, sits above interior and exterior pools that combine thermal and sea water at a constant 28-30 C. A package booking at the hotel includes a free consultation with the spa’s resident doctor.

According to legend, Hercules would bathe in the waters of Edipsos before each of his ‘labours’ in order to relax and regain his strength. I know the feeling. I drove back with the E75 national road packed with fellow travelers returning after the weekend break. By the time we pulled off the highway with a sigh of relief towards our home in Kifisia, I could have done with another long soak in those ancient rejuvenating waters.

http://www.thermaesyllaspa-hotel.com

Cretan Journeys: Return to the village

Mike Sweet reports from Vamos in western Crete, where a community has been revitalised by the vision of a generation who turned their grandparents’ homes into delightful refuges for discerning visitors.

Nestled between the coast and the national highway connecting Chania with Rethymno, the Apokoronas is a region often overlooked by the scores of tourist buses and hire cars running the gauntlet of the E75 national road, the frantic highway connecting west and eastern Crete. Apokoronas is a wide fertile plain extending from the foothills of the Lefka Ori, north to the coast,  with rolling hills where Cypress trees, olive groves, vineyards and orchards thrive. This is the Crete of a simpler age. A place where Arab pirates dwelt, where the Venetians ruled for more than three hundred years, where Ottoman forts still survey a land fought over for centuries.

The ancient indigenous economy of Crete, based on agriculture, only began to change significantly as recently as the 1970s. Mass tourism, like an irreversible chemical reaction, transformed the island physically and culturally forever. Today around fifteen per cent of all arrivals in Greece come through Heraklion and more than two million tourists visit Crete annually. But despite the adverse effects of this invasion, those who seek a quieter and more authentic experience in Crete can still find it, in a place like Apokoronas.

At the heart of the Apokoronas district is the village of Vamos. With a history reaching back into pre-history, it would be the mid 20th Century that saw Vamos, like so many villages in Greece, face a challenge for its very survival. Decimated by the exodus of a generation, which began in the 1950s, Vamos was in total neglect by the seventies. Many of its houses had become ruins and half the resident population, which had dwindled to 650, were elderly.

Vamos’ saving grace was that it was the administrative heart of the region, and its public services kept it from extinction. As the age of Cretan mass tourism dawned, Vamos went into a kind of quiet hibernation, waiting for a new age; a time when it’s simple, traditional ways would be sustainable once more. The catalyst for the butterfly to emerge would be artistic expression and particularly music.
Between 1982 and 1988, the children of the generation who had left Vamos returned, creating a series of summer music festivals that brought Greece’s most prominent contemporary musical performers to the village. George Dalaras came to Vamos, along with Maria Farandouri, Yannis Markopoulos, Haris Alexiou, Dimos Moutsis and a host of other leading Greek artists; it was a commercial venture but also a celebration of the village’s culture and very being.

Later, it would be a group of like-minded friends who had been involved in organising the festivals, who would go on in the 1990s to practice a kind of alchemy that reversed the downturn in the village’s fortunes, turning ruins back into simple, authentic Cretan residences for travellers who share a concept of ‘soft’ tourism.

George Hadjidakis was one of those friends, and a founding member of Vamos Traditional Village established as a co-operative in 1995. Brought up in Athens, George recollects childhood holidays at his grandparents’ home. “We were here every summer and what I remember most is the feeling of freedom I had, and the chance to explore nature.” Hadjidakis went on to study mathematics in the University of Athens, but the pull of Vamos was always there. “We thought the cultural events held in the summertime were not enough. We wanted to do something to expand the whole thing, to give a financial perspective to the area the whole year round.” The co-operative began by renovating the ancient homes of their grandparents; buildings originally constructed between the 18th and early 20th century were turned into guesthouses; an art café, performance space, a crafts shop and a taverna.

Today Vamos Traditional Village comprises twenty-five cottages and another ten in outlying villages. Some of the more luxurious villas sleep up to eight people and come with outdoor pools. All have been re-built in traditional Cretan style using local materials. Accommodation can be booked by the night, though most visitors book weekly blocks.

Part of the co-operative’s vision was to help revitalise the village’s economy by creating other businesses beside the accommodation. The traditional taverna I Sterna tou Bloumosifis run by Spiros Frantzeskatis serves some of the best value cuisine in western Crete using local ingredients. Their mouthwatering menu features mezedes like stuffed zuchinni flowers, freshly made taramosalata, and creamy fava. From the wood-fired oven, treat yourself to lamb with artichokes, slow roasted pork, or rooster with red wine and pasta. Topped off with a drop of Tsikoudia (the fiery Cretan Raki) on the house, every meal here is one to remember.

To Liakoto, the art café nearby puts on regular exhibitions and live music featuring an eclectic mix of contemporary styles from Rembetika to modern jazz. Beyond the enterprises set up by the co-operative itself, the village’s other businesses have benefited greatly from increased visitors; the grocer, the baker, the single supermarket, and the traditional cafés in the sleepy main square. It’s that sense of a real, living, breathing community, which you become part of when staying in Vamos that lies at the heart of this venture’s success.

The co-operative’s plans for the future are modest; an organic market garden to supply the guests and a hostel-style villa suited for the budgets of young people. The early summer of 2011 sees Vamos Traditional Village host hands-on classes on cooking Cretan cuisine, and in a return to its roots, a series of week long celebrations of drama, poetry and visual arts.

Although George Hadjidakis wouldn’t say no to more properties, the co-founder of this Cretan experiment in soft tourism is happy to keep things on a modest scale, avoiding over-commercialisation of the concept. “I don’t want to make it that big. There’s a danger in that. We don’t want to be Coca Cola!”