Porto Heli, the Riviera of the Peloponnese
The word “private” is key at the seaside resort of Porto Heli, in both senses – privately owned and discretely experienced – which is why big players are taking an interest
Rika Z. Vayianni | October 9th, 2015
“ Although the town evolved, like Saint Tropez, from a sleepy fishing village into a cosmopolitan destination, it did not manage to keep the traditional charm of the villages of the French Midi, or the Italian coastline. ”
Whoever re-invented Porto Heli and its environs as the “Peloponnesian Riviera” was thinking, I suspect, more Cap Ferrat, less Monaco. Although the town proper evolved, like Saint Tropez, from a sleepy fishing village into a cosmopolitan destination, it did not, unfortunately, manage to keep the traditional charm of the villages of the French Midi, or the Italian coastline. The unsuspecting traveler can easily be fooled into mistaking the architectural and aesthetic mélange of the hectic town center for the inside real deal of “Heli,” as the locals call it.
You only have to climb down a low hill, drive a short distance to Ververonta, Costa and Aghios Aimilianos, or ride a water taxi to understand what all the fuss is about: Majestic vacation homes, magnificent resorts, private beaches (the owner of one has famously imported powder-white sand to sprinkle over the bay in front of the hillside villa). You can’t help noticing the mega-yachts, the Riva classics or the equally expensive hand-crafted Greek kaikia (fishing boats). These latter are the creations of master craftsmen, with built-in home theaters, chef’s kitchens and other amenities that an actual fisherman would find, to say the least, shockingly interesting. And the word “private” is key here, in both senses – privately owned and discretely experienced.
“ The stunning AmanZoe, complete with 38 private cottages and communal grounds, opens its guarded gates up on the hill overlooking Kranidi, to the select few. ”
Now, if there is a sudden plumbing problem in your Porto Heli mansion, if you are currently remodeling and the interior designer is past his deadline, or the property is still (or forever) under construction, have no fear: Not one but two accommodation alternatives have recently sprung up in the area. The stunning AmanZoe, complete with 38 private cottages and communal grounds, opens its guarded gates up on the hill overlooking Kranidi, to the select few. I expected the full Aman feeling (a.k.a. died and went to Heaven) during the short walk-through, closely escorted by a management representative, who was ferociously protective of the privacy for all guests – even those who never leave their villas and choose not be heard or seen (was that Shakira? They will neither confirm nor deny). I did not flinch at the huge, almost monastic library or the open-space Acropolis Lobby with the reflecting pool that catches and beams back the incredible light of the place from dusk to dawn. I was not taken aback by the state-of-the-art gym, the watsu therapy tank or Verde Guatemala marble-lined pool. I was unfazed to the point of being downright blasé at the sight of the miniature ancient Greek-style open theater, channeling the nearby Epidaurus festival, reserved for live jazz or classical concerts. I kept my cool. After all, this is Aman. One would be naïve to expect any less.
It was the yoga room that made me gasp. Huge, completely bare, with a panoramic view of the untouched Peloponnesian landscape, olives and cypresses, blue sky and floating clouds, a spot so intensely spiritual that I almost felt my third eye open there and then – without as much as a single sun salutation.
“ The Nikki resort is open, happy, relaxed, vibrant and funky. You want to check in, unpack an obscenely large trunk of bikinis and caftans and never, ever check out. ”
I needed a reality check, albeit not an ordinary one. On my way back to Porto Heli, on the outskirts of Kranidi, I stopped at the antique shop of “Poulcheria” (please, call the lady “Poly”). This is an Aladdin’s cave, charming, wondrous, chaotic. One can spend hours there, I always manage to find a piece of local history, affordable enough for me to take home: an old coal-burning iron to use as a doorstop, a vintage crochet from the dowry of some long-lost housewife of ages past. This time I didn’t trust myself. After forty-five minutes in the parallel universe of AmanZoe, I may have just found myself calling my next-door villa neighbor (was it Shakira? They will neither confirm nor deny) to chat about shipping a few thousand dollars’ worth of a salvaged clay olive container for the Palm Springs cottage). Poly made me an omelet with local cheese and fresh bread, sliced a ripe tomato, drowned me in a huge mug of Greek coffee, revved up for a major gossip session, then suddenly realized that today it’s work, not pleasure, and, along with her darling of a husband, kissed and hugged and sent me on my way.
I headed towards the beach. Nikki Beach. The second “fiver” in two years in the Heli area, and the first Nikki – of the world famous beach-party chain – that comes complete with a full, spectacularly located seaside hotel. “Nikki,” coincidentally, also sounds like “niki,” the Greek word for “victory.” There is a definitely a win-win situation here. The resort is open, happy, relaxed, vibrant and funky. You want to check in, unpack an obscenely large trunk of bikinis and caftans and never, ever check out. I have at times covered resorts that ticked all the right boxes, but I do not handle seclusion very well. The holiday jackpot of my dreams would be located right on the doorstep of an actual living town, preferably by the sea, with a breathtaking view and the option to get out and about on a whim: Mingle with the locals, grab a street meal, and hit a bar or a pizza place around the corner. Nikki Beach is located in exactly one of those rare spots. In fact, they encourage their guests to explore. They offer names, mention new shops, pass secret tips, suggest fish tavernas at nearby Koilada, or hikes to the archaeological sites of Ancient Halieis and the Franchthi cave, or to the sleeping beauty of Ermioni, the nearby town. Mysteriously, I found myself unexpectedly reluctant to even leave the lobby. Maybe because the staff and management treat guests and visitors with the warm smile and the occasional joke you only share with a long-lost friend. Maybe because the chefs are insanely right-on regarding the yummy factor, any time of day. Perhaps the infinity pool right next to the sandy beach is just too good to exit. Maybe the music is too right: The DJs must be psychic or something, able to catch the vibe of the moment, leading the mood from sweet lazy chill to crazy dance-party to sunset romance R&B. Or maybe they are just a bunch of people who are damn good at their jobs.
The smell of fall, the afternoon light, the olives fast maturing, fig trees in full fruit, fragrances of pine and rosemary, prepare the soul for the low season. As is so often the case throughout the Peloponnese, Porto Heli can be incredibly charming in winter. We managed to locate two seaside hotels (Rozos Best Western and Edem Resort) that heroically struggle – and will stay open 365 days a year. The owners of Edem recently invested in building fireplaces in the rooms, to underpin the message that they mean year-round business. The message got through but, much to the manager’s disappointment, no client has ever used the fireplaces. Porto Heli’s mild Mediterranean climate is one of the best in Europe for enjoying the low season. In another country, the autumn months could easily pass as the height of summer. Winters are temperate, rarely too cold, sometimes exuding a sweet melancholy that evaporates with the first rays of generous, golden winter sunshine.
The Porto Heli experience has a wonderful elephant in the room but I am not supposed to talk about the elephant here: Technically, the islands of Spetses and Hydra do not belong to the Peloponnese and certainly, they deserve exclusive coverage – they are both exciting destinations in their own right. It’s just that glamorous, historic, unspoiled Spetses is a one-minute water taxi ride away (or 20 minutes by sea bus for a 3 euro fee). As for Hydra, this living museum of an island, this Shangri-La of so many international famous artists, poets and musicians, is 30 minutes away, by taxi and boat. Spetses beams to the visitor in its entire splendor from the other side of the narrow strait. The majority of resorts in Porto Heli offer their customers free rides to both islands, effectively including them in the “Riviera package.”
With all the affection and respect I have for the fabulous Mediterranean coastlines of Italy and France, last time I checked, there were no cosmopolitan, charming islands practically attached to the mainland. Original Riviera, you better watch out.