Making the most of Greece
There can't be many links between Turkey Twizzlers and a dream Grecian holiday. But here's one. When Jamie Oliver condemned the Twizzler for being unhealthy during his school dinners TV series, the negative publicity sent sales soaring.
And so to Greece. With an economy struggling even more than ours, rioting citizens and fuel shortages, it starred on TV news for much of last year. So when it was time to pick a holiday destination, Greece sprung to mind.
Far enough away for definite sunshine, it was still only a five-hour flight and had all the ingredients for a perfect holiday cocktail: culture, beaches, warm weather and good food.
So, weeks later, my boyfriend Howard and I flew into Athens. It was midnight and the city was still buzzing. But it wasn't until the next morning when we awoke in a large room at the Hotel Grande Bretagne that the city's chaotic character truly emerged.
It roared beneath us, the sun beating down, and we had a perfect view from the roof terrace. We breakfasted on literally-just-squeezed orange juice, Greek yogurt, tiny cakes and perfectly-poached eggs, then set off into the city's pulsing heart.
We strolled the old streets and market stalls of Plaka, then headed to Acropolis. The €12 ancient sites' ticket provides access to the city's best archaeological sights over several days. Arrive early for the Acropolis (unless you enjoy sightseeing with your nose pressed to other tourists' wet backs) and try to imagine it without the scaffolding: the restoration work will continue for decades. Returning to the hotel, the roof-top pool and underground spa, with laconium, sauna and herbal steam bath, was a wonderful way to finish off a hard day's
Grande Bretagne: prices from 240 per room per night. www.luxurycollection.com
St.George Lycabettus: Prices from 92 euros per room per night. www.sglycabettus.gr
Kinsterna Hotel and Spa: Prices from 180 euros per room per night (including a la carte champagne) www.kinsternahotel.gr
At night, we found the city's food offerings exceeded its reputation. Highlights included the Kalmanaki Kolonaki, a tiny cheap eaterie spilling out on the pavement full of locals enjoying pita, souvlaki kebabs and salads. For a posh treat we took a taxi to Matsuhisa, Athen's branch of Nobu. The waterside-setting, with straw lanterns reflecting off the water and bobbing boats, was only bettered by the food, with seven courses of sushi, chicken, tempura vegetables and black cod washed down with cool mojitos.
For our last two nights, we moved about a mile across town to the boutique hotel St George Lycabettus. Perched half-way up the photo opportunity that is Mount Lycabbetus, this family-owned hotel had extraordinary views of the Acropolis, particularly from the glass-walled breakfast room. Its reasonable prices made it an ideal base for families.
Rooms feature quirky design touches and there's a roof-top pool here, too, but the best feature was the location: in the heart of the trendy Kolonaki district, where we found the best shops, from sweet-sellers to couture, bars that the locals frequent and open-air cinemas.
Next, we decamped from Athens for a four-hour drive to medieval Monemvasia. We were booked into the new Kinsterna hotel, with only 27 rooms and suites, atop a steep, stony hill strewn with olive and orange groves. Kinsterna's renovation took two years longer than scheduled, and the effort shows. The building, a patchwork of Ottoman, Byzantine, Venetian and modern construction, hosted enormous rooms and suites: ours had wooden beams, taup sofas, restored furniture, wooden shutters and a large bed with bedding so soft and comfortable we resolved to source its supplier.
The free mini bar filled with Valrhona chocolate, water and booze was another nice touch, as was the pouch of sleep-aiding lavender popped under our pillows during turn-down.
We loved exploring the hotel's facilities, from free bikes to climb the mountainous terrain to a small spa with hamman, tropical rain shower, and Jacuzzi, and the infinity pool flowing through the grounds. Kinsterna's gardens grow oodles of produce, such as squash, tomatoes, melon, pomegranates and there's an outdoor bread oven next to the pool which emits hunger-inducing aromas. We had high expectations for dinner-time and weren't let down: the fresh seabass, home-made fungi ravioli, artistic sundaes and tarts for dessert were just some of the highlights.
At breakfast, just-made fresh strawberry compot replaced ordinary jam, and the cooked breakfast was prepared to perfection. The only flaw was that what seemed to be the entire local population of wasps rather liked the food too. Luckily, a local trick of burning tiny buckets of Greek coffee helped solve the problem.
Monemvasia's fortress town was an enjoyable visit too. Used to protect citizens from waves of invaders over the centuries, its ruins, tunnels, disused Byzantine churches and homes have been protected from
After sweaty climbs to see phenomenal views at the summit, we dived into the sea to cool off.
Too soon we had to leave Kinsterna to board a 40-minute flight to Crete.
An hour's bus ride from Heraklion airport took us to St Nicolas Bay in
Agios Nicolaos. Here, our long, cool suite was another relaxing retreat, bathed in
whites with a private plunge
pool in the garden, a lounge area and big bathroom with Jacuzzi tub.
The hotel had stellar facilities including three swimming pools, enough loungers that you never have to fight other guests, indoor and outdoor cinemas, kids' games room and an enormous, very professional spa.
Crete isn't known for its beaches, but St Nic has created a lovely swimming cove with stone sun platforms carved into the rock and a small, sandy and private beach.
The hotel was a 25-minute stroll (or €6 taxi ride) into 'Ag Nik', the picturesque town with a good array of restaurants and great leather sandal and bags shops. We took day trips to Spinalonga, the former leper colony immortalised in Victoria Hislop's novel The Island - shopkeepers gratefully stacked copies of the book in their windows.
Most of the time, however, we were content to stay around the hotel, lazing in the sea and enjoying cocktails at the seaside bars, and dipping, after dinner, into the enormous stack of DVDs that St Nic lent guests (for free).
On the last night of our holiday, we sat clinking champagne glasses with the sea lapping at our feet on St Nic's beach.
There was only one thing to toast: the Turkey Twizzler effect -
and the glorious Grecian adventure it inspired.