Sitting beneath an ancient olive tree, mugging up on Greek philosophy with Doctor Eleni Volonaki from Kalamata University, I suddenly have a eureka moment, a bit like Archimedes in his bath. What if everyone who reads Spectator Life went on holiday to Greece next summer? What if we all came home and told our friends what a great time we’d had? What if they told their friends? And their friends told their friends? Maybe we’d kick-start a tourist boom that would save this enchanting country from bankruptcy. I’m about to tell Dr Volonaki about my bright idea, but she stops me in my tracks. ‘Plato argues in his Republic that only a philosopher can save the State,’ she tells me, firmly. Well, maybe, but Plato never went on holiday to Costa Navarino. If he had, I reckon he might have changed his mind.
A philosophical chinwag with Dr Volonaki is one of the many cultural treats on offer at Costa Navarino, a vast resort that’s transformed this forgotten corner of the Peloponnese. A three-hour drive from Athens, at the south-west corner of the country, we’re in Messenia, one of the prettiest parts of Greece. Messenia has just about everything you want from a Greek holiday — secluded beaches, elegant ruins, rugged (but not too rugged) scenery — yet it was virtually untouched by tourism until a Greek tycoon called Captain Vassilis Constantakopoulos came along.
Captain Vassilis was born into a poor family in Messenia in 1935. Like a lot of Messenians, he had to get on his bike to look for work. He went away to sea and eventually started his own shipping firm, called Costamare. It’s now one of the world’s biggest container shipping companies. He’s become a local hero — Kalamata airport was recently renamed in his honour. Angela Merkel must wish there were a few more Greeks with his entrepreneurial zeal.
In the 1980s the Captain started buying up land in Messenia. He bought only a few acres at a time from locals who knew and trusted him. Over 30 years he gradually acquired a huge estate. Finally, in 2010, he opened two smart hotels on this sleepy peninsula. He died in 2011, but his affable son, Achilles, carried on where his dad left off. Today there are lots of swanky villas and two immaculate golf courses too, but it’s mostly still open countryside. Only a fraction of the Captain’s plot has been developed — so far.
I’d expected a sprawling modern complex, a hideous blot on the Hellenic landscape but, arriving at Costa Navarino, first impressions are pleasantly low-key. The buildings are unobtrusive, built from local stone and brick. The two hotels, the Westin and the Romanos, are both five-star, but the Romanos is especially posh (and a bit more pricey). The Romanos is ideal for couples and the Westin is better for families. However, they share a lot of the same facilities and the best thing about both hotels is the beach.
Costa Navarino’s beach is one of the loveliest I’ve ever seen. A secluded bay sheltered by wild dunes and olive groves, it drops straight into the turquoise Adriatic. Within a few feet of the shore it’s deep enough to swim. The water is warm and clear and the sand is clean and crunchy. You get big waves when the wind picks up — ideal for surfing or bodyboarding. There’s a chic beach bar where you can grab a beer or a cocktail, or eat a proper sit-down meal. Or you can simply wallow on a sun lounger with a trashy paperback, stare out to sea or go to sleep.
But this isn’t just a place to top up your tan. The Captain wanted to create a cultural forum in Messenia and it’s the events they put on here that set this place apart from most ‘drop and flop’ resorts. Both hotels are full of art: not the anonymous, expensive tat you get in most high-class chains, but proper antiquities from the Ottoman Empire — engravings, maps and manuscripts chronicling the Greek War of Independence. And that’s not all. When I arrive, the resort is hosting its first ‘Art & Democracy’ weekend. It’s an offshoot of the Athens Democracy Forum, a series of current affairs debates supported by the New York Times which are staged in the Greek capital each September. They’ve brought some top speakers down to Costa Navarino. This weekend’s speakers include artist Jeff Koons, Nobel-winning economist Paul Krugman, and Sir Richard Dearlove, former head of MI6. Clearly, there’s a bit more to Costa Navarino than a few drinks and a round of golf.
It’s also an ideal base for exploring the region, still remarkably unspoilt despite the Captain’s business plans. Seafront tavernas in the quaint village of Gialova six miles away, provide a nice alternative to hotel grub. Another six miles along the coast is Pylos, a lively and attractive port guarded by two spectacular hilltop castles: Paleo Kastro (the old castle), a romantic ruin built by the Franks in the 13th Century, and Neo Kastro (the new castle), put up by the Turks in the 1570s. Walk around the battlements for stunning views over the bay.
Navarino Bay was the site of a heroic British victory (hurrah!) over the Ottomans in 1827. You can see how the Turkish fleet was routed. The bay is an ideal natural harbour, shielded from the open sea, but there’s only one way in or out, so when the Brits found the Turks at anchor here their ships were sitting ducks. Basking in the sunshine at a quayside cafe, it’s hard to reconcile that fierce sea battle with the peaceful scene you see today.
Just up the road is King Nestor’s Palace, which features in Homer’s Odyssey as the location of a lavish banquet. It’s currently closed for renovation, but an hour’s drive away is one of the most amazing archaeological sites in the whole of Greece. Ancient Messene was a metropolis even bigger than Ancient Athens. They’ve excavated only a small part of it, but even that’s enough to make you gasp. There’s a theatre, a stadium and loads of intricate mosaics. But it’s the splendid isolation that makes it so atmospheric. It’s relatively undiscovered, even by the Greeks. There were only a handful of other visitors when I arrived. Wandering around in total silence, you really feel you’re back in Ancient Greece.
I got back to Costa Navarino just in time for the Art & Democracy debate. It was held on the driving range and we travelled there by golf buggy. It was bizarre but charming, like a scene from a surreal film. Koons and Krugman sat in comfy armchairs on the lush green fairway. Luminaries like George Kaminis (mayor of Athens) and Benny Tai (leader of the recent Hong Kong pro-democracy protests) sat on white sofas on either side.
It was one of those glorious evenings you only ever seem to get in Greece — a soft warm wind and a hazy sunset bathes everything around you in golden light. The debate was uneven and inconclusive, and the sound system kept playing up, but it felt like the start of something special, a sign that Greece, for all its problems, is still a fitting place for passionate discussions and big ideas. It summed up everything that’s best about this sleek and slightly eccentric resort, where luxury and high culture co-exist.
Greece is in an awful mess and it’ll probably get worse before it gets better. But here at Costa Navarino, they seem to have found a winning formula which actually pays its way. Greece can’t compete on price with cheaper destinations like Turkey. The only hope is to go upmarket and focus on the things that make this historic country unique. Captain Vassilis built the prototype —now all the other Greek resorts have to do is copy it. I’ll be back again next year, for the next democracy debate, and another crash course in philosophy. Hope to see you here.
Time to drive from Athens
Distance from Kalamata Airport
Date of British naval victory here
Doubles at The Westin Resort, Costa Navarino, start from €200. Doubles at The Romanos (a Luxury Collection Resort) start from €310. For further information visit www.costanavarino.com. Aegean Airlines (www.aegean air.com) fly daily from Heathrow and Gatwick to Athens.