I've long had unfinished business with Greece. The last and only time I'd been before my recent trip was a university holiday to the island of Ios that made the first In-Betweeners movie look like a brass-rubbing coach tour of Norfolk churches (hedonistic as they no doubt are). We got not a whiff of culture and not a sniff of what makes Greece the cradle of western civilisation. So like I said, unfinished business, with maybe just a touch of unfinished pleasure in there for good measure, and what better excuse to make up for years of lost opportunities than on my 10th wedding anniversary.
And so it begins
Fast forward a few months and my wife and I arrived at Amanzoe, Amanresort's latest European venture in the beautiful Peloponnese, a wild, rugged peninsula region virtually cut off from mainland Greece except for a tiny sliver of land in Corinth. We arrived at night, winding through the hills until we could see a miniature, floodlit (and fully intact) Parthenon on a ridge ahead. The 'Parthenon' turned out to be reception at the hotel, where we were met by the charming staff and whisked to our room. Or more precisely, our pavilion.
I've always enjoyed arriving somewhere at night...
because the anticipation is only heightened, and after a restorative night's sleep in a ridiculously comfortable bed, we woke up to one of the great views, framed by olive trees, of the Argolic Gulf and the Epidaurus Limera prong of the Peloponnese peninsula beyond. As to the villas, sorry, pavilions, themselves. Wow. Properly elegant, and properly huge, with twin bathrooms, huge doors that retract so the eventual effect is more window than walls, and even decent size plunge pools. Sure, you'd get a headache if you took a literal plunge, but unlike in most bathtub-sized efforts you could at least do two or three strokes before reaching the far end.
Once we'd taken in the view, it was time to take in the breakfast, always a good window into another country's soul. At Amanzoe the Greek breakfast makes you fall instantly in love with the place. Thick and creamy local yoghurt with regional honey and comb, followed by kagianas, a Greek scrambled egg with fresh tomatoes, apika ham and mini baked potatoes that teetered on the sublime. All this was washed down with Turkish-style coffee (a legacy of centuries of Ottoman rule) thick enough to stand your teaspoon up in.
Getting into the swing of it
We soon enough settled into a nice little routine. Every day we biked the three miles down to the beach club, freewheeling virtually the entire way and breathing in the smell of the pine woods and thyme plants on either side of the road. (At the end of the day you take the minibus back up, natch.) On arrival at the beach there was invariably another charming member of staff proffering fresh orange and lemon juice with honey and thyme to refresh guests after their terribly exerting journey.
Then some power tanning (or in my case, redding), long rosé-fuelled lunches, swimming in gin clear waters, then another gin - Hendricks this time - with tonic and fresh cucumber, at the bar before making our way back up the hill for sundowners or a light spot of massaging at the immaculate spa. A tough life, really.
A dash of culture and history
We did mix it up a bit, though. Honest. The Peloponnese is one of the most culturally intense parts of Greece, a country Patrick Leigh Fermor (my all-time favourite travel writer) described as follows: 'There is hardly a rock or a stream without a battle or a myth, a miracle or a peasant anecdote or a superstition.' The difficulty is choosing what to see and do, so one morning we went on a very special guided walk a few miles away from the hotel. It was the ideal way to explore the local area, ascending through olive and pomegranate groves before heading into the shade of pine forests where the fallen needles softened every footstep. Damian and Thomas, the charming guides, found a fig tree that still had the most delicious fruit before we enjoyed a well-earned rest at a charming church by a freshwater spring. Then we ventured into the beautiful (if slightly spooky) Katafyki Gorge, with sheer sides hundreds of feet tall and home to another small chapel to ward off spirits. Damian, pointing out caves in the limestone cliffs, told the story of Hades's abduction of Persephone to the Underwold, acknowledging that there were several places across Greece identified as the entrance to hell. By this point, as far as I was concerned, Greece was more like the entrance to heaven.
So much to explore
On another day we organised a trip to the hilltop fortress city of Mycenae, one time home of Agamemnon and the first true civilisation in mainland Europe, and Nafplio, a coastal town that perfectly encapsulates the complicated history of the Peloponnese - Ancient Greek, Frankish crusader, Venetian and Ottoman influences and buildings combining to create one thoroughly satisfying whole.
Back at Amanzoe the sybaritic syllabus continued with a general appreciation of the food and wine on offer. As more than one of the staff pointed out, many Italian olive oils are made from Greek olives pressed in Italy because the 'Made in Italy' brand is so strong. No-one loves Italian food more than me but from now on I'll be buying Greek olive oil because it's downright delicious. As is the bread, the fresh fish, the wine (although this might fall into the 'best in situ' camp) and pretty much everything else we ate.
But my favourite thing about the whole place...
better than the breakfasts, the beach club, the Balinese massages - was the olive trees. Thick trunked and gnarled trees clearly hundreds of years old (one, according to the General Manager - Mark - as old as 800) were dotted around the pavilions and lining every walkway, lending what is a very recently built place a very real sense of belonging and permanence that is so rare in newly opened properties. It was a stroke of genius to build Amanzoe in an ancient olive grove so there were none of the scrawny little trees that take years to truly blossom; Amanzoe feels instantly and immediately at home.
So now for the reality check. This is the sort of place that may only work for honeymooners or tech entrepreneurs who've just sold their start-ups to Google for $3bn. Oh, and extremely spoilt tour operators given ridiculously generous rates for anniversaries (thank you!). That said, if ever there was an incentive to catch the eye of Messrs Brin and Page then this is it.
In Part 2: The island of Spetses