Hellenic Gem

Photography: DAVID DE VLEESCHAUWER

The Peloponnese dangles like a giant leaf from the stem of the Corinthian Isthmus as if it could be blown away any second. Blown free of worldly problems, crises, and turbulent Athens, a mere 90-minute drive away. It's the mythical heart of Greece; a place of colossal mountains carpeted with wildflower meadows, where oak, olive and pine trees fill coastal valleys and loom above rocky shores and sandy beaches. A fine collection of Saronic Islands, including the jet-set magnet of Spetses and smaller, car-free Hydra, completes the idyllic picture.

And yet the Peloponnese is something of a forgotten region, far removed from the usual tourist trail. It's a place reserved for only the most serious connoisseurs of Greece, and for wealthy Athenians. High-speed boats connect the Greek capital with the tiny islands dotted along its south-east coast where many chic city folk own holiday villas.

But since September, a new crowd has flocked to this quiet corner of Greece. The drawcard is the latest property from Singapore-based Aman Resorts, Amanzo'e, set on a huge plot of land along the eastern coast of the Peloponnese.

Aman Resorts has a talent for placing less-trampled destinations on the map. Indeed, the 25-year-old brand, launched by Adrian Zecha in 1988 with Phuket's Amanpuri, likes to come first.

Amanzo'e (pronounced zoy-ee, as in the Greek word for "life") represents the 25th addition to the resort group, which clearly believes that the Mediterranean region is the next luxury frontier. Last year, Aman Sveti Stefan opened in a 14th-century fortified village in Montenegro. And the group has just begun welcoming guests at the Amanruya, on Turkey's history-rich and genetically beautiful Bodrum peninsula. More hotels are also planned for Portugal, Italy, and here in Greece.

Amanzo'e is a hop from the coastal town of Porto Heli and a boat-ride away from Spetses and Hydra.

It's easy to see why Zecha immediately declared the area an Aman-worthy site when he first ventured to the hilltop of Agios Panteleimonas in 2006.

But it then took Amanzo'e's investors several years to buy the 50-plus plots of land from different owners needed to make the resort possible. Not just the pieces of farmland on the hillside but also a parcel of land near the sea, in the bay of Korakia, which is now home to the Amanzo'e Beach Club.

The ambitious project, two years in the building, cost more than $125 million. Once again, Aman Resorts turned to Ed Tuttle, the renowned American architect responsible for the Park Hyatt Paris-Vendôme as well as Amans in Thailand, Indonesia, France and Morocco, for the design of Amanzo'e's 38 guest pavilions and 32 villas. (Founder of the Wally super-yacht brand, Luca Bassani Antivari, was reportedly quick to snap up a seven-bedroom villa, which should be perfect for when he's not drifting around the Med on his Wally Love 100-foot sloop. But more on Wally later.)

Tuttle studied the site for two years and came up with a strikingly dramatic concept: a resort with the looks of an ancient Greek village yet studded with temple-like touches, including high ceilings with giant pillars, colonnades and acres of marble and local stone. All this was interpreted in a contemporary, clean style - a smaller, 21st-century version of the Acropolis.

Despite all the architectural grandeur and the sheer scale of the project, Amanzo'e isn't easy to find. There are few signs along the roads. Eventually I spot a chain of white dots in a sea of green: it's Amanzo'e's freestanding pavilions, spreading out from two sides of the citadel-like main building with its views across the ocean.

I almost expect a team of Asian staff to welcome me in typical Aman style, but at Amanzo'e the welcome is fittingly Greek: "Yiasas, kalimera".

The tranquil beauty of the area has already drawn Amanzo'e its share of well-heeled guests: lots of Athenians checking in for the weekend, plus European fans of Aman's resort collection - the so-called "Aman junkies". The Dutch royal family even was rumoured to have visited while sailing through the area on their yacht.

Most guests keep to the privacy of their pavilions and when I see my villa, number 22, I understand the thinking. All the rooms have a courtyard entrance and a large living area opening onto a secluded private pool and a pergola-shaded terrace. Glass doors slide away into recesses to create the effect of seamless indoor-outdoor living. The contemporary furniture is custom-built and the woodwork of the interior ceilings is locally crafted. The six-metre pool is made of dark green marble and there's enough space on the terrace to throw a small garden party.

For guests looking for beach time, the Amanzo'e Beach Club is a 10-minute drive away in one of the resort's courtesy cars. "Guests like the fact that the hotel is kind of split in two," explains Henry Gray, who manages the resort with his wife, Char Gray. "You can be here, and whenever you feel like it, decide to go to the Beach Club, which is like another property down by the sea."

I head for Korakia Bay with my driver, Nikos, who worked as a long-distance truck driver until his Greek employer went bankrupt. Now at Amanzo'e, he's happy with the opportunity. "I used to live in Australia and I would love to go back and be a truck driver there but my wife doesn't want to go," Nikos tells me. "I loved it there but, hey, that's life. I'm sure we will manage and things will turn out for the better again."

In the slick bar of the Beach Club, sunny young bartender Panagiota Galanakopoulou mixes cocktails for the guests who disembark from the yachts anchored in the bay to have lunch at the resort. The Grays had explained that Aman employs staff based on their drive and personality, not necessarily their diplomas. Galanakopoulou is a prime case in point.

"Do you want to try my newly invented lemonade?" she grins. "All the other bartenders want to know my secret, but for now I'm keeping it to myself." Galanakopoulou used to work in a bar in Athens, but decided that, despite its relative isolation, Amanzo'e was a better career move. "Maybe I can start travelling while learning and growing in my job. Also, I think it's time that resorts start treating the art of cocktail-making a bit more seriously. Beach resorts should hire more mixologists like you see in cities and larger hotels. That's my ambition here."

Another two key personalities in the Amanzo'e mix are executive chef Rick Gonzalez and his Greek sous-chef Ilias Doulamis. They have adopted a strict local-produce policy at Amanzo'e, not only to ensure quality but also to guarantee the local small businesses and producers an extra income.

"A lot of Aman junkies tell us that we are the pioneers of this concept within the company," says Gonzalez. "In the beginning it wasn't easy to find local producers. We had to scout for months and months and ask around. Where can we find fantastic meat? Who produces the best vegetables? Who is interested in selling us great fish every day?"

What they found were farmers such as Pascale, in the hamlet of Arki. Pascale's 400 hens supply Amanzo'e with its organic eggs and graze on grass grown from seed he imports from New Zealand.

The chefs also discovered a first-rate fish supplier in the picturesque and tranquil town of Kilada. "When our guests at the Beach Club want freshly grilled local fish, they get freshly grilled local fish," says Doulamis, "thanks to our suppliers."

"Feedback from the local community has been very positive. In the beginning we had to gain their trust, but now they are 100 per cent on our side and very excited to be part of our vision," he says.

Both chefs are looking forward to low season when they'll have more time to search for new and interesting artisanal producers. "During the winter we plan to feature regional game such as wild boar and game birds. One of our future plans within Amanzo'e is to open up a farmhouse taverna concept in an old house located inside the property, with a daily chef's farm-to-table menu, also supplied from our own organic kitchen garden," says Gonzalez.

At their urging I try the roasted, locally caught dorade and grilled Kilada red prawns. "They are so fresh, I can even serve them raw," beams Gonzalez. "Do you want to try? You'll know immediately what I mean: fresher than this is impossible."

Lunching in the horseshoe-shaped Korakia Bay, overlooking the deep blue waters of the Med, is a true treat. In the summer months you can even spot dolphins playing, says Katerina Katopis, who works for the aptly named Dolphin Capital Investors, the investment partner of Aman Resorts. "All summer, I've been dreaming of swimming or jet-skiing in the bay," she says. "But it's been so busy with the opening of the hotel and all the attention it is receiving that I'll have to wait."

"Have you seen our Wally One powerboat?" Katopis asks. "We can take you for a ride." Guests can charter the 13-metre luxury motor yacht for the day and explore the bays and secluded beaches along the coast, take a romantic sunset cruise, or make boat trips to Spetses and Hydra.

Spetses and Hydra make wonderful daytrips from Amanzo'e, although it's worth dedicating a few days to immersing yourself in the vibe of each of these islands.

The pine-forested island of Spetses is famous for, well, its famous visitors: Jackie Onassis loved the island and Greek socialites own houses here. Mega-yachts often glide into the old port to anchor alongside each other, giving the promenade the look of St-Tropez.

But that's where the similarities end. Here, the people drink ouzo, not pastis, and are more friendly than flashy. Travel is by horse and carriage instead of luxury car (cars are forbidden for non-residents - even the filthy rich).

Dapia, the main port town of Spetses, is busy from May until September, so rent a scooter and explore the island's hidden beaches and coves. It won't take you more than an hour to completely circumnavigate the island, depending on how many seaside taverns you chose to stop at (the one on Xilokeriza Beach is particularly charming).

Hydra, with fewer than 3000 inhabitants, has also captivated its share of famous names. The author Henry Miller and musician Leonard Cohen both fell for the place. "So did Sir Richard Branson," says Katerina Nikolaidou, manager of the Hydra Hotel, which was once owned by the entrepreneur. "He not only fell in love with a Greek lady but he also bought a couple of houses on the island to woo her."

No cars, scooters or any other type of wheeled vehicles are allowed on this rocky island, which has no real roads to speak of. You can walk, or use the local taxi service: donkeys.

Hydra town is a maze of small streets and whitewashed houses where elderly ladies sit in their small gardens, cats sleep in the shade, and the blooming bougainvillea contrasts beautifully with the brilliant blue sky.

A short distance from the busy port is a road leading to houses built up the mountainside. Halfway up is Taverna Leonidas, a tiny restaurant named after its owner who lived for many years in New York before coming home to Greece. "People come from all over the world to eat my home cooking," says Leonidas Spinthakis. "They call me from California or London or Paris and say 'Hello, Leo. Can I book a table?'," he laughs.

We are sitting in Spinthakis's simple but delightful dining room, which looks more like a living room. He offers me some tsipouro, a strong Greek spirit. It's 11am. He grins.

Next door in a tiny kitchen, Spinthakis cooks alone. Each day he creates a new, locally driven and inexpensive menu for his guests. "It's very busy during the summer; I start early in the morning," says Spinthakis, noting that he stays open throughout the winter months.

I ask Spinthakis if he knows about the glamorous new project on the mainland. He's heard something about it, he says. "But hey, it's doesn't really matter in Greece, especially here, if you're famous, rich or just a normal traveller enjoying life. We all eat the same food and drink the same wine and sit under the same Greek sun." I'll drink to that.





THE FINE PRINT

GETTING THERE
Etihad Airways flies daily from Sydney to Athens via Abu Dhabi with codeshare partner Virgin Australia.

From Athens, it's a 2.5-hour drive to Amanzo'e. Sunny Cars offers week-long car rentals from $200 per week.

STAY
Amanzo'e is open until January and reopens in April 2013. The best periods to visit are in the northern spring and autumn when the Saronic Islands are quieter. Amanzo'e pavilions start at $1100 per couple. Agios Panteleimonas, Kranidi, Argolida, +30 27547 72888

SPETSES
Reach Spetses by driving to the small port of Kosta in the Peloponnese, where you can park your car in a secure car park. The 10-minute Katarina Star ferry trip to the island costs $4 one way. Otherwise, you can take a smaller caique boat (you'll have to wait until it fills up) for a couple of dollars more. Cars are generally not allowed on the island and the best way to get around is to rent a scooter.

STAY
Orloff Resort is surely the most stylish hotel in Spetses. Stay in a standard double room with a good breakfast from $120, or rent a house on the dreamy Orloff Resort premises. +30 22980 75444

EAT
Pahni is a traditional taverna away from the waterfront with an excellent barbecue menu and royal portions. +30 22980 75299

Orloff Restaurant offers Greek cuisine and a warm atmosphere on a captivating terrace with a great view over the Old Harbour. Perfect for watching the mega-yachts sail into port. +30 22980 75255

On the Verandah at the Poseidonion Grand Hotel in Dapia features contemporary cuisine by chef Christoforos Peskias and its own kitchen garden. Pull up a chair to see the Athenian jet set at play. +30 22980 74553

HYDRA
The village port of Metoxi in the Peloponnese is directly opposite the island of Hydra. Park your car and cross to the island in 12 minutes aboard Freedom I & II, which cost $8 one way, or by water taxi. No cars, scooters or motorcycles are allowed on Hydra. Everything is done by foot or on donkey.

STAY
Bratsera Hotel is just two minutes from the port in a former sponge factory dating from 1860. It's been carefully restored as a 26-room hotel with a restaurant (serving a good breakfast) and a small swimming pool, both set in a secluded courtyard. Doubles from $170. +30 22980 53971

Hydra Hotel is an intimate hotel above the harbour. The warm welcome of Katerina Nikolaidou compensates for the basic breakfast. Doubles from $125. +30 22980 53420

EAT
Taverna Leonidas has a daily-changing fixed menu, tasty home-cooked food and a personable chef. +30 22980 53097

Ke Kremmidi is the best souvlaki restaurant on the island. Great for a quick bite. +30 22980 53099



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