Since the arrival of two world-class luxury resorts – Amanzoe and Nikki Beach – the once sleepy seaside hub of Porto Heli now attracts a new class of global traveller. Together with its stylish companion island Spetses, the two destinations are one of the Greek Riviera’s Classiest Double Acts, writes Amanda Dardanis.
Porto Heli and Spetses make a glamorous – but refreshingly low-key – double act where wealthy Greeks and the European yachting crowd head to unwind and stay off grid.
Much of the reason for Porto Heli’s desirability is Spetses, a gentle and sophisticated island gem that lies just ten minutes away across the Argo-Saronic Gulf, in the Greek Riviera. This pine-covered, cosmopolitan beauty has the looks of California’s Catalina island, and thanks to a proud maritime history, the social pedigree of Portofino or Cape Cod.
Spetses is a word-of-mouth kind of place. For Athenians, it’s always been an ideal weekender because it’s only a 2.5 hour ferry ride from Piraeus. During summer and when Spetses hosts one of its upwardly-mobile sporting events such as the Spetses Tweed bicycle race, the Classic Yacht Regatta or this weekend’s Spetses Mini Marathon (October 7-9), the entire island is usually booked out well in advance.
Traditionally, demand has spilled across into Porto Heli where there are now two world-class luxury resorts – Amanzoe and Nikki Beach – and where a who’s who of the country’s shipping tycoons and old money aristocrats (Goulandris, Nomikos, Livanos, and the King & Queen of Holland to name a few), have built luxury villas on huge blocks with helipads and private jetties, so they can dart over to Spetses – and each others’ pool parties! — at will. Many also prefer the mainland location for the ease in getting to neighbouring attractions such as romantic Nafplio, ancient Epidavros, the charming traditional fishing village of Koilada with its excellent fish tavernas, and beautiful, bohemian Hydra.
Over on Spetses, a visual splendour of bougainvillea, climbing jasmine and rotund palms, enchants at first sight. Chi-chi horse buggies trawl tourists across pretty Dapia harbour. Sea taxis bob about next to luxury craft, Victorian lamp posts and wartime cannons. Neo-classical mansions that once belonged to sea captains have been converted into chic hotels, galleries and museums as the island has prospered.
Presiding over it all is the island’s most historic landmark and the beating heart of the Spetses’ social whirl, the Poseidonion Grand Hotel. Built by local tobacco tycoon Sotirios Anargyros in 1914 as his gift to the island and modelled on the Negresco in Nice, the Poseidonion was also immortalised by writer John Fowles in The Magus. In the guest book, the faded signatures of Ingrid Bergman, Bobby Kennedy and Elizabeth Taylor appear among the list of visitors past.
It’s here that you may encounter Ralph Fiennes, who comes to Spetses every year to stay at a friend’s villa, admiring local art in the lobby. Or perhaps Valentino, who’s been known to pop in for high-tea on one of the woven bamboo deck chairs on the seafront terrace.
Spetses has been dubbed the “Monaco of Greece” – but at heart, it’s not a flashy place. Alongside the island’s famous specialties such as the €120 lobster spaghetti at old-time classics such as Tarsanas in the Old Harbour, it’s also easy to source less expensive food, for instance at Kaiki, which cooks up the island’s best pizzas in buzzy Clock Square; or at rustic beach tavernas such as the one that’s been serving up the same delicious “souzoukakia” meatballs in red sauce for the past forty years on Zogeria, a stunning run of unspoiled sandy bays accessible only by water (or by braving a 1km trek down a loose dirt road).
Spend the day at idyllic pebble and sand coves, such as Vrelos, Agia Paraskevi or Agii Anargyi, with umbrellas and loungers and it will only set you back about €8. Best of all, some of the most memorable Spetses experiences come free. Take the wonderful scenic walk from Dapia around to Panagia Armata Church in the Old Harbour to admire the winsome sculptures of renowned Athenian artist Natalia Mela. Or there are 25km of continuous panoramic trails on which you can cycle around the island, stopping in at any number of no-named bays along the way. At mesmerising Bekiri’s Cave, you can snorkel in the spot where local women and children once took refuge from Ottoman raiders.
And, of course, there’s always the main square in front of the Poseidonion where you can simply sit back and “people-watch” for hours. Who knows who you’ll see.
* This is an abridged version of an article that first appeared in The Times.
How to do Porto Heli and Spetses like a Local:
In Porto Heli
This elegant and popular taverna near the church covers all bases from €8 moussaka up to €90 king crab platters. There’s a 20 percent Happy Hour discount on your restaurant bill every day from 7pm-8.30pm. This would never happen in St Trop.
For local delicacies such as Greek paella with squid and mussels (€35 for two) and “marathopita” country pie, combined with the best views on the marina.
Terrific cocktails and incredible 360 degree views over a crescent-shaped bay at the luxe rooftop Pearl Bar; or by day, pay from around €35 per person for a sun-lounger to join the decadent beach party below.
Veranda del Vino
A vibey old-style wine bar with a great roof terrace that’s frequented by off-duty resort staff and sociable locals.
Tarsanas (in the Old Port) or Nero tis Agapis (in Kounoupitsa)
Both restaurants are run by second-generation local fisherman Minas Kaloskamis and are distilled Spetses. Order the signature “fish a la Spetsiota”: the local method that broils fillets like red snapper and cod with fresh herbs, onion and tomato inside parchment paper.
A Spetses institution run by a Spetses institution (aka local character Costa the Cantankerous). Everybody who’s anybody goes there. At least for the first drink of the night.
The Old Harbour district is Spetses’ party HQ. Reigning hotspots are Bikini Bar, Guzel and Marine – plus Summer 2017 newcomer 1800.
A stunning run of unspoiled sandy bays with natural shade and shallow waters perfect for wading. Accessible only by water or by braving a 1km trek down a loose dirt road. In summer, a boat service leaves Dapia at noon.
The perfect Greek summer past-time of outdoor cinema awaits at this newly-re-opened landmark, where you can forgo popcorn and mediocre wine to enjoy a glass of sangria and Greek gourmet meze created by the Poseidonion Grand Hotel’s chef while watching the latest Hollywood release in English.
Insider Weekly, October 4, 2017.