Yes, the European auditors are there going over the figures, groups occasionally take to the streets in the capital and everyone is discussing the crisis, using that word, nothing less dire. But outside of the main cities on the mainland , Greece is still open for tourism and as beautiful, serene and worth visiting as always. Plus, it’s always better to go in the fall. The crowds, which were out in force this summer despite the talk of economic doom, are thinner, the weather is less scorching, and in the Cyclades, still the most famous and most visited island group, the meltemi winds have stopped whipping, making flying, sailing, and having breakfast on your terrace easier.
Santorini remains uniquely stunning with its dramatic cliff top caldera and Aegean views, the views that draw honeymooners year after year. And even though hoteliers complain that business is down and whisper about some hotels being on the block, when I was there in July, most in the top tier were sold out. There are more vacancies in the fall and the usually lofty prices recede.
A relative newcomer to the island, the Grace Santorini brings an edgy urban vibe (think “W” Hotel perched on a cliff) to the northern village of Imerovigli with its contemporary furniture, white on white accented with pewter interiors and moody purple and blue lights in the bar. For maximum privacy, a two bedroom 4305 square foot villa opened this year. But all rooms have the jaw dropping view of jagged Skaros rock straight ahead and due to the curve of the island, of the famous sunset, which guests can see without leaving their decks.
Cave house exteriors on the Caldera
North of Imerovigli, Oia, the highest village on the island is the most romantic and the busiest with its cluster of restaurants and shops. Just outside of the entrance to the village and linked by a caldera hugging footpath, Perivolas is a longtime favorite, featuring peaceful (no TVs), gleaming white rounded stone cave houses terraced down the caldera, a much photographed infinity pool and guests who look like cover models. And for those who need more privacy, the hotel has recently opened a four bedroom villa, the Hideaway, a five minute private launch ride away on the island of Therasia, with the same cool, white stone interiors punctuated by lavender woven fabrics as the cave houses up above along with a dedicated staff. Perivolas, the Hideaway, contact Ileana Von Hirsch at Five Star Greece. While there, do a sail on one of Ted Stathis’ catamarans and have dinner in the most romantic caldera edge restaurant Ambrosia.
The exterior of the Poseidonion Grand Hotel, Spetses
Spetses. On the other end of the fame scale from Santorini, the island of Spetses, an island in the Saronic Gulf, is known mostly as a haven to ship owners who have houses here and less to the general public who flock to neighboring Hydra instead. That lack of mass tourism only adds to the beauty of the place: an island where horse drawn carriages still take visitors past neoclassical houses edged with bougainvillea, harbors with fishing boats, deserted beaches and cobbled streets. The harbor is dominated by the patrician Poseidonion Grand Hotel, built in 1914, modeled on the hotel palaces The Carlton and Negresco of the Cote d’Azur, and brought back to elegant life with a painstaking five year renovation by shipping executive/local part time resident Emmanuel Vordonis. It once again feels like the gathering place it has been for royalty, world leaders and business titans. But it also feels current, with the addition of an Asian spa, a restaurant featuring the clever fusion of cuisines devised by star chef Christoforos Peskias of P-Box restaurant and events such as the annual yacht race in June and channel swimming/mini-marathon due to be held on October 12-14.
Windsurfing in Naxos
Naxos/Schinousa Greek food isn’t generally thought of as one of the world’s great cuisines but you might change your mind while eating your way around Naxos. This island, the largest in the Cyclades, has a varied landscape—the long sandy beaches contrasted with inland mountains—is known for good cooks and each village within it specializes in a different dish.
A typical lunch by the beach in Naxos
Up in the mountains, in the northeast section of the island, an essential stop is the village of Koronos for Taverna Platsa more commonly known as Matina, after the maternal owner who brings dish after dish to your table—lamb and tomatoes, zucchini pie, greens from her husband’s garden, , fried zucchini flowers—and then, after you think you’re done, more that she thinks you should try. You’ll be surrounded by locals, not tourists and feel like you’re out for lunch with the family, a feeling you’ll get all around Naxos, a more down to earth, real life island than its more glamorous Cyclades neighbors. The best place to stay is the Naxian Collection, a selection of white villas with private pools owned by Ioannis Margaritis and his wife Maria, a cooking teacher, who’ll point you in the direction of the best food on the island or take you there themselves, teach you how to prepare the island’s dishes and present delectable examples of Greek classics such as spinach pie for breakfast.
From Naxos, it’s a short ferry or chartered motorboat ride to a very different type of island, Schinousa, a tiny island of 100 residents that is totally untouched by tourism with the exception of a few small guesthouses and restaurants. What you notice first are the superyachts docked in the main marina, most belonging to tycoons who own estates on the island. What you notice next are the secluded beaches with no one on them…and the total laissez faire attitude, extending to the total lack of police: none of the island’s residents will rent land for a police station. But since everyone knows everyone, there is no crime. (To stay on the island: the simple, beachfrontLivadi.)
The bays of the island of Ithaca
Ithaca Getting to this island in the western Ionian group isn’t as complicated as it was for Odysseus but it isn’t the easiest which partly accounts for being somewhat off the main tourist track. That means that the villages retain their local character and there are few others sharing the turquoise water in its secluded bays, among the most beautiful in Greece. Hilly and dotted with cypress and olive trees, it’s an absolute beauty, worth the long ferry ride from Patras on the mainland, or the flight to Cephalonia and then ferry over to the island. The main town of Vathy is lively but not touristy and has a sharp, contemporary hotel Perantzada with harbor views.
American Diner at Costa Navarino
Costa Navarino After spending time on secluded islands, I wondered how much I’d like this resort, a large development with multi restaurants, golf courses, pools, etc. in the southwest Peloponnese. Looking out on the golf course from my room (a breezily handsome one, admittedly) at Romanos, aLuxury Collection Resort in the first development, Navarino Dunes, I thought that I could just as easily have been in Scottsdale. But over the course of three days, it really grew on me. The beach is gorgeous and fronts the same enticing Ionian Sea that is such a draw in Ithaca. The restaurants span the globe, apart from Greek—Italian, an American steakhouse and diner among them—and they were all top quality. Families flock here because there are so many dedicated activities for kids and so many for adults as well including snorkeling trips and sightseeing the ruins in the area, such as the city of ancient Messene and the 13th century B.C. Palace of Nestor. Scottsdale has nothing like that.
One caveat: travel arrangements in Greece can sometimes be a little, to put it charitably, chaotic. It’s best to have someone firmly in control handle it. The organizers at Magna Travel in Athens are sensational.