The new Amanzoe resort is putting a little known part of the country on the map - and for all the right reasons. Debbie Pappyn pays a visit
CHARMING AND QUIET, the Peloponnese region of Greece does not register on many tourist maps. But that's likely to change with a new opening from one of Asia's most luxurious hotel groups, Aman Resorts.
The group, founded by Adrian Zecha in 1988 with the Amanpuri in Phuket, has grown to 25 resorts in 15 countries. The Mediterranean is their new hot spot, with Aman Sveti Stefan opening in Montenegro, Amanruya in Bodrum, Turkey, last year and more are planned for Portugal and Italy.
Amanzoe opened in August on a site along the eastern coast of the Peloponnese, a boat ride away from the jet-set islands of Spetses and Hydra. When Zecha visited the area in 2006 he said, "This is an Aman site", and began buying up 50 plots of land. It's an ambitious project, costing more than €100 million (HK$1 billion), with 38 pavilions.
Once again, Aman Resorts turned to renowned American architect Ed Tuttle who studied the site for two years and created a dramatic concept; a resort which recalls an ancient Greek mansion, with grandiose décor, high ceilings, colonnades and lots of marble and stone. Yet it's given a modern interpretation with sleek furniture and accents - like a 21st-century version of the Acropolis.
Despite the size of the project it's not easy to find. There are no road signs showing the way to Amanzoe. When I ask a friendly local at a petrol station if he knows where it is, he smiles. "Sure, it's just over that hill. I will show you." We follow his motorcycle along a winding road, through centuries-old olive groves with the shimmering Argosaronic Gulf in the distance.
On arrival I get a warm welcome from Char Gray, who, together with her Scottish husband Henry Gray, has been managing Aman Resorts' properties for more than a decade.
Occupancy is high although the resort has just opened. Athenians like to spend weekends here, and Europeans combine Amanzoe with another Greek destination. The remoteness and beauty have already attracted luminaries, with the Dutch royal family dropping in while cruising the area on their yacht.
The appeal is self-evident. All rooms have a courtyard entrance and spacious living area opening onto a private pool and pergola-shaded terrace. Glass doors slide away into recesses for comfortable indoor-outdoor living and the contemporary furniture is custom-built locally. The six-metre long pool is made of soothing dark green marble and there's sufficient terrace space to throw a small party.
Many guests spend their time in the privacy of their own pavilion, but it's worth hitting the main swimming pool, too, which is surrounded by a large terrace, a kid's pool, an enormous gym and panoramic yoga pavilion next door.
Most guests like to hit the Beach Club, a 15-minute drive away in Amanzoe courtesy cars. "Guests like the fact that the hotel is split in two," Henry Gray explains. "More adventurous guests take a mountain bike. It's an easy ride downhill. When they want to come back, we throw the bikes in the car and bring them up to the villas again."
I take the car to Korakia Bay where a handful of yachts bob in a tranquil sea. The real eye-opener here is the Wally One powerboat. This is a dream come true for every boat lover and water babe in search of sleek sophistication. You can charter it for the day and visit Spetses and Hydra, exploring the bays and secluded beaches along the coast. Or, for the romantically inclined, take a cruise at sunset.
People-watching at the Beach Club bar is also fascinating. Glamorous yachts anchor in the bay and guests come ashore for a leisurely lunch by the pool. Freshly grilled octopus, locally caught shrimps from the nearby fishing village of Kilada, grilled bread topped with local herbs - the menu lists local producers by name and location.
This resourceful approach, a new concept for Aman, is thanks to executive chef Rick Gonzalez and Greek sous-chef Ilias Doulamis. "We worked hard to put together a menu with local products," says Gonzalez. "We looked for producers close to the hotel who could supply the best products." And given the parlous state of the Greek economy, Gonzalez's final point is pertinent. "The local community, small businesses and farmers, should also benefit from a big project such as Amanzoe."
To illustrate the point, he takes me to the farm of Pascale who supplies Amanzoe with eggs. Pascale keeps 400 chickens in the nearby hamlet of Arkiand and gets special grass seeds imported from New Zealand. "Only the best for my chickens!" says Pascale, who returned to Greece after spending more than 18 years in New York because he "missed the sun".
Now he sells eggs to Amanzoe where Gonzalez and Doulamis turn them into fantastic breakfasts, served with local greens and beans. When Pascale has too many eggs, he makes pasta. "We should create some dishes together," he suggests to the two chefs. "Why not? Come to our kitchen and let's see what we can make!" says Doulamis.
I also visit a fish supplier in Kilada and meet Ermionis, the beekeeper who lives next-door to the resort. The small producers like their new client. And while they live different lives, everybody's happy and content.
Suppliers on Amanzoe's Beach Club menu are listed by name and address, including egg farmer Pascale, the Kilada fishmonger and Ermionis the beekeeper.
Getting there: Etihad Airways flies daily from Hong Kong to Athens, via Abu Dhabi. www.etihadairways.com Amanzoe is open until January and re-opens in April 2013. Double rooms available from HK$8,600 per night, plus seven per cent tax. amanresorts.com