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GREECE

Mythical

The Peloponnese is home to historic ruins, pristine beaches and family-friendly resorts

June 24, 2012|Amanda Jones
  • The Kinsterna Hotel & Spa, which sits above Monemvasia, Greece, went from ruin to chic vacation spot.
The Kinsterna Hotel & Spa, which sits above Monemvasia, Greece, went… (Cathy Cunliffe )

COSTA NAVARINO, GREECE — "The Peloponnese," my friend Peter Poulos tells me, "is the real Greece. Really. This place is less populated and more beautiful than most of the trendy tourist places in this country."

He says this as we cross the slender isthmus between mainland Greece and the paw-shaped southern peninsula of the Peloponnese. "It's a different world down here," he adds.

Peter is a saint. He's a recent transplant from San Francisco to Athens, a Greek American who loves his roots so much he chose to move to a place where he has never lived. He's saintly not because of this but, rather, because he has agreed to drive me and my two teenage daughters around the Peloponnese for a week. Peter is an entrepreneur, and one of his passions is the export market for Peloponnesian olive oil and honey. With the rest of the world having cottoned to the benefits of the Mediterranean diet, his job is not hard. The likes of Dean & DeLuca are guzzling up the products.

Few other countries need tourism right now more than Greece. And the Peloponnese, which gets a fraction of the visitors, is a bargain. Mountainous, forested, farmed and hauntingly lovely, the Peloponnese peninsula is home to some of the world's historic ruins: Olympia, birthplace of the Olympic Games; Mycenae, citadel of Agamemnon, commander in the Trojan war; Sparta, home of the bombshell Helen and her cuckolded husband, Menelaus; Nestor's Palace, the geriatric Argonaut who entertained extravagantly; Corinth, where St. Paul enlightened the Corinthians, and on and on.

If history is not your bailiwick, there are rolling white beaches, whitewashed villages, tavernas and luxury family-friendly resorts where you never need leave the premises.

After a three-hour drive from Athens, we reached Nafplio, a seaside town with a plaza lined with iron-balconied mansions, antique street lamps, a marble-lined square and a stone fortress on the hill above, overshadowing all. We strolled the cobblestoned town after eating Greek ice cream.

Peter, a theatrical storyteller, had the girls enthralled with tales of the Greek she-warrior Bouboulina, who spent her fortune fighting the Ottomans (who occupied Greece from 1458 to 1821). "She paid to build eight warships," Peter was telling them, waving his hands in true Greek fashion, "and decided to lead a sneak attack on Nafplio, where the Ottomans had their military stronghold. She commanded her boats to fire on the impenetrable fortress," he explained, pointing to the gloomy stone castle that grew out of the top of the cliffs. "She found it, well, impenetrable. Most of her boats were lost, but her actions contributed to the start of the War of Independence, which, happily, we won in 1832."

Several hours south on the second claw of the Peloponnese paw is Monemvasia, a rock-island fortress connected to the mainland by a narrow causeway. Concealed on the rock is a medieval village so intact that, despite its modern bars, art galleries, restaurants and boutique hotels, it gives a good idea of what life must have been like in Byzantine Greece.

One-room churches perched on rocky outcroppings and a giant cathedral dominated the tiny center square. Paths meandered among scarlet bougainvillea-covered buildings that were rescued from ruins and are now homes to artists, poets and chefs. I could have spent a month in Monemvasia, and I briefly fancied myself sitting on a rooftop patio staring down at the pounding sea writing my long-planned novel.

Instead, we headed into the green hills above Monemvasia to the Kinsterna Hotel & Spa, which opened quietly in 2010 and has since leapt onto the world's glossy magazine pages, hailed for its design, service and glorious setting. The Athenian owners took a 15th century ruin and turned it into one of the chicest hotels in Europe (and one of the best deals).

Its sun-steeped vineyards and gnarled olive groves make it a magical old-world setting. The girls and I slept in a room that was once a Byzantine kitchen but now has wood floors, sleek modern furniture and a glass and marble bathroom. The bed was so comfortable that I asked where I could get one. (Coco-Mat, I was told, a Greek company that has taken the sleep world by storm with mattresses made from coconut, horsehair, seaweed and cactus, among other things.) I was beginning to believe this business about things Mediterranean being good for health.

From here we crossed the paw, from the east to the southwestern edge, heading beyond Kalamata (stamping ground of the olive) in Messinia to what, five years ago, was a lonely stretch of beach.

Capt. Vassilis Constantakopoulos, one of the world's wealthiest shipping magnates, was born in a village nearby and always loved this region. Twenty years before he died (in 2011), he bought thousands of acres, intending to develop part of it to revitalize the struggling local communities and to stop the flood of young men leaving for Athens.

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