A Greek palace fit for royalty: It's a triumphant return for the glamorous grande dame of the Athens Riviera

Teresa Levonian Cole
Once notorious for its atrocious service, the celebrity-favoured Astir Palace Hotel with a fresh look and a new ethos - KENSEET

Churchill and Onassis, Bardot and Sinatra, Gorbachev, Mandela, and a host of since-deposed potentates... From its opening in 1961, all the usual suspects flocked to the famed Astir Palace, to lounge on its beaches, sip ouzo and watch the yachts sail into the bay. In an idyllic pine-cloaked location on the Vouliagmeni peninsula – the so-called Athens Riviera, some 13 miles (20km) from central Athens – this summer playground of the beau monde would kick-start luxury tourism in Greece. But fortune is fickle, and in 2016, this much-loved Greek institution – renowned as much for its atrocious service as for its star quality – closed its doors.

Athens held its breath, and waited. Finally, in March this year – after long delays due, in part, to the discovery of archaic ruins in the grounds – the Astir Palace quietly reopened under new ownership and the promise of impeccable management typical of Four Seasons Resorts.

The seaside facilities include three private coves and two dazzling pools (one with a floating olive grove), connected by a boardwalk dotted with off-white loungers and cabanas Credit: KEN SEET

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For those unfamiliar with the old Astir Palace: it was a complex consisting of three independent hotel units – the Arion, Nafsika and Aphrodite buildings, along with the 60-odd cabanas (now renamed bungalows) with which the Astir originally opened. For those familiar with the hotel, it will be a homecoming. Although the Aphrodite building is no more (it will be replaced by luxury villas, unrelated to the hotel), the cabanas, Arion and Nafsika remain on the same footprint, their Sixties and Seventies facades, terraces and beach areas much beautified with the addition of wood, stone and glass details. Four thousand pine trees have been planted, olive trees rise from the depths of Nafsika’s seawater swimming pool, and Greek herbs and plants perfume the air. The Astir Palace has been restored to the glamour of its Sixties heyday.

The interiors, however, have been entirely remodelled and updated, with cool neutral tones and lashings of pale woods and marble (47 different varieties, mostly from Greece) along with subtle references to peristyles in the slender vertical slats that line many corridors. The emphasis on natural materials extends to the promenade that links the buildings, and to the smallest detail – such as those little notices requesting a change of bed-linen, made, here, from compacted seaweed resembling tortoiseshell. Natural, yes – and also local. The Greek heritage of the hotel is celebrated in everything from the artwork to the staff uniforms, the latter by Greek-born fashion designer Sophia Kokosalakis, with books on Hellenic culture scattered liberally throughout the hotel, and signature Greek scents wafting through the buildings – fig, for example, pervading Nafsika. “We want to provide the unique and authentic spirit of Greece,” says Sam Ioannidis, the general manager, with whom I sip Negronis made – naturally – with Greek gin, specially produced for the hotel. Ioannidis, a passionate advocate of Greek culture, personally sources produce, from Cretan avocados to Arachova cheeses.

From Brigitte Bardot to Winston Churchill, the Astir Palace of yesteryear was the favoured haunt of the 20th-century 'beau monde'

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On the subject of food, there is no shortage of choice. The Italian Mercato, the all-day Avra (excellent black truffle risotto), and the Latin-American poolside Helios, which serves ceviches, tacos and more, are based at Nafsika.

This is, at first glance, the more striking of the two buildings, with its dramatic entrance perched high above the Mediterranean, a lobby that plunges into the bar below, and all sea-facing rooms and suites. Nafsika also has the larger of the two outdoor pools – which is generally synonymous more with children, although tranquillity can be found by parking offspring in the kids’ club, and retiring to one of the elegant wooden cabins dotted along the seafront.

For true seclusion, or a romantic break, you should opt for a stay in one of the bungalows that line the beach at Arion and meander into the pine forest. Or, better still, go for one of the five exquisite “speciality suites” – the size of Monaco and, at up to €25,000 (£22,148) a night, the price of its prince’s ransom.

Cigar lovers will be delighted to find a humidor at Arion, which stocks, inter alia, the Kolumbus brand offered to Churchill and Onassis on their visit to La Palma in 1959, along with Metaxa brandy from the first barrel. Smaller and more sophisticated, Arion is embellished with ever-changing, flamboyant floral designs in its lobby, and houses the fabulous Pelagos fish restaurant (which already sees politicians and shipowners vying for a table). 

Designed by Martin Brudnizki, with riveted brass surfaces, fish-scale tiles, an undulating blue stone bar, wood and rope detailing, and marine-related artwork beneath a beautiful semi-arched ceiling, it resembles a cross between a brasserie and a ship. 

Sup on the freshest sea urchins, sea bass carpaccio with bottarga, eel in aubergine mousse, and cuttlefish with spinach rice, before selecting your own clear-eyed creature of the deep from the fish counter.

The best place for sundowners is Avra bar Credit: KEN SEET

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The informal – and equally fabulous – choice is Taverna 37, also at Arion (although, of course, guests have the run of facilities throughout the 75-acre property). This waterside tavern offers traditional Greek dishes at their best, together with an extensive choice of ouzo and tsipouro, and world-class Greek wines. It also offers innovative, locally inspired cocktails. Scolion, a verdant delight featuring gin, mastiha, cucumber, basil and lime, perfect in sunshine, lends particular zing to your day. For the active, jogging trails and numerous non-motorised water sports (tranquillity is key) are on offer, along with tennis courts. Venture beyond the grounds with a range of excursions organised by the concierge, such as private “Alternative Athens” walking tours – a revelation, even for locals; or a romantic cruise to the magnificent Temple of Poseidon at Sounion, some 40 minutes away, to watch the sun plummet into the Aegean.

Not forgetting the spa – a temple of another kind. This sanctuary of light-infused calm with an indoor pool, hydrotherapy zone, aroma “grotto” and 10 treatment rooms, pampers with all the bells and whistles you would expect. Encased within walls of wood, contrasting rough and polished white marbles, and a glass frontage facing the sea, the excellent treatments on offer also feature natural ingredients and custom-made oils from Greek herbs and plants. 

As Hippocrates said: “The way to health is to have an aromatic bath and scented massage every day.” And, one might add, Four Seasons hospitality.

Rooms from £378 a night, including breakfast

Read the full review: Four Seasons Astir Palace Hotel