Great small hotels with strong characters

Looking for a water massage after a day on the ski slopes? Or maybe a rich homemade breakfast followed by horseback riding? These days, Greece has it all. Published by Explorer publishers (in both Greek and English, with the Greek edition already in its second print), Jacoline Vinke’s «Great Small Hotels in Greece» is a series of lovingly written portraits of hotels and guesthouses full of character – mostly run by people with strong characters. Born and raised in the Netherlands, Vinke studied in London and went on to work in Paris as an economist for the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development and the United Nations Environment Program. Living in Athens for the last four years with her Greek husband and two children, Vinke witnessed a lack of guides suggesting cozy, alternative vacation spots. A career change seemed inevitable. With previous writing experience in OECD climate-changing policies, however, the search for a new pen style was vital. «I went from an inspector style to that of a brochure, and little by little got a feeling about how I wanted to do it. In the end I tell the story the way I would tell it to a friend,» said Vinke. The result is a reader-friendly travel manual based on extensive desk research (including an initial 300 phone calls) which began three years ago, complemented by and one and a half years of copious yet rewarding travels. The work finally culminated in a selection of more than 100 hotels and guesthouses from Epirus to Crete, ranging from breathtaking sea views of the Aegean to beautifully refurbished mansions and country estates, as well as local examples of boutique hotels. «Greece is not only white and blue, there is a lot of green,» said Vinke. «In a way, this started as a mainland project. On the islands the separation between small hotels and city hotels was less clear, whereas on the mainland, some hotels are wonderful and handled with so much care. In Greece people tend to spend their summer holidays in places they know and enjoy, while in the winter, they try to explore different parts. As for the tourists, it would be nice for them to explore more of the mainland.» Though the author concedes that her research for the book did not reveal a multitude of hidden treasures, readers will feel that they already know their potential hosts. Take British Jill Sleeman, for instance, who bought a 130-year-old neoclassical house in Pilion’s Mouressi, turning it into the Old Silk Store guesthouse – from where guests take off for beautiful organized guided walks led by the owner. Further north, in Kastoria, Tasos Sfinarolakis bought the 150-year-old mansion that housed the boarding school he attended as a boy, and transformed it into a hotel where local architecture mixes with Indonesian-style furniture; or even George Tzavellas, who together with his wife Theodota run the Mourikiou guesthouse, near Ptolemaida. One of the book’s true findings (you won’t find it in hotel books and the area is not high on tourist lists), the guesthouse rests at an altitude of 1,600 meters and features comfortable, cocooning facilities on the inside coupled with spectacular views and activities on the outside. During her travels the author came across passionate people who had given up one life for another. In Megalo Papingo, for example, Nikos Saxonis, a former advertising executive, and his wife Poly, a former clothing store owner, run the Saxonis Houses, having abandoned Athens in the late 1980s. Besides hotel profiles, the book also provides practical information such as price ranges, credit card policy, whether places are suitable for traveling with children and whether establishments accept pets. Having completed the book does not mean that the project is over, as Vinke is the recipient of a bulk of e-mails with fresh suggestions from readers; about 40 of them seem to be worth visiting. Was the ambitious writing and traveling project an opportunity to appreciate Greece a little more? «I already loved the country; I have never been one of those complaining foreigners,» said Vinke. «I don’t find everything easy here, but I am grateful to this country, for giving me the opportunity to do a project like this. Here, if you have a great idea, together with the energy, you can go for it, and it can work.» It worked for these charming hotels and guesthouses too.