I’ve always thought the “hotel weekend” an odd idea – the notion that you would choose a holiday primarily because of the hotel rather than the location.
But I’d heard so much about the Poseidonion Grand Hotel in Spetses that last bank holiday I headed there with my wife and two close friends. Spetses is the Greek island that inspired John Fowles’s brilliant (and infuriating) novel, The Magus. I wondered if any of its magic and mysticism remained.
The hotel was almost the first building we saw as we arrived on the Seacat from Athens. It sits in a commanding position next to the harbour and it is truly gorgeous. Opened in 1914 by Sotirios Anargyros, a philanthropist, it resembles a miniature French chateau.
When you enter the reception area with its wide staircase and lovely marble floor, you don’t feel you’re in a hotel at all. It’s more like the home of a very wealthy friend.
The reception desk is just a table tucked away in a corner with an antique switchboard close by. Some of the art was a touch garish for my taste, but as you wander through the library, the piano room and the bars, everything else feels understated and elegant.
Our room looked out over the sea, with the Greek mainland just a short distance away. The hotel has a lovely terrace running alongside a wide esplanade with palm trees and a statue of Bouboulina, the first female admiral and a local hero.
You could sit here all day, watching life go by. Food and drink prices at the hotel are expensive, eye-wateringly so for Greece, but the service is exemplary, and you’re paying for a standard of luxury you won’t find anywhere else in the country. A first-class breakfast was included in the price.
It was quite hard to tear ourselves away, but the town of Spetses was right next door. It’s charming, unlike anywhere I’ve visited in Greece, starting at ground level with mosaics fashioned out of coloured pebbles.
There’s a distinctly Côte d’Azur vibe about the place, which, perhaps because of its proximity to Athens, has always been something of a millionaires’ playground. In fact, it was slightly spoiled by some of the super-yachts moored ostentatiously along the quay.
There are also some fantastically handsome mansions built above and into the fortress walls – again, they’re said to be the most expensive in Greece. The shops are generally upmarket with much less of the tat I’ve found on other islands.
I loved the old general store, which looked as if it had always been there and was crammed with thousands of useful things, a reminder that Spetses isn’t just about tourism.
In fact, the tourist season is fairly short. Spetses has two harbours, one old, one new, and you can take a horse and carriage between them for just €10 (£8.80), or walk around to the lighthouse with the pines and cedars parting to provide gorgeous views. Even in May the water was easily warm enough for swimming, and if you hire a bike or a motor scooter there are plenty of decent beaches within easy reach.
There are dozens of restaurants but generally we found the cheaper, more ordinary ones more to our liking, with better food and atmosphere. I’d recommend Bouboulina, which is just on the other side of the town, and Akrogialia, a lovely tavern near the hotel and right on the beach.
I also discovered the local brandy, tsipouro, which is made from the residue from the wine press. Throwing a few of those back with a white moon in a pale blue sky … that was the magic I’d come for.
If Spetses has one disadvantage, it’s the journey there. Our easyJet flights to Athens were late both ways. The Seacat is comfortable but long. Piraeus is still a bit of a dump, miles from the airport with a choice of expensive taxi, slow bus or even slower train. Even so, it was still a wonderfully relaxing weekend.
There is no traffic in Spetses and none of the graffiti and derelict building sites that blight so many of the other islands. Why does this have to be? Presumably it’s a question of money, but since tourism is Greece’s biggest asset, you’d have thought they’d find the means to clean up their act.
You need to book the Poseidonion a long time in advance. I may well go back.