Greek party islands chill out

Greek party islands chill out

It was around the time that the ferry eased itself into the port of Ios, an island in the Greek Cyclades, that I began to wonder if we had come to the right place. We – my husband and I, elder millennials on the cusp of middle age – were shoulder to shoulder with teenagers, hordes of them, youthful energy bounding off their dewy skin. In the thick of summer, the ferry’s windowless boarding area felt like a furnace. I felt a wave of claustrophobia. These kids had come to party. We had … not. We sought good food, local wine, to somehow come home healthier than when we left, like the people who go to Paris and return 10 pounds lighter, “because of all the walking” and the unprocessed bread.

To paraphrase a popular meme: Could the island do both?

For sure, there’s plenty of respite to be found within Ios’ 42 square miles. Goats still roam the island’s craggy hills and cliffs. It lacks an airport. But, since the 1970s, Ios has been known, primarily, for one thing.

“It’s a place to party,” said Katerina Katopis-Lykiardopulo, a photographer who collaborated with author Chrysanthos Panas on “Greek Islands,” a coffee-table book published in May. “Back in the day, there were hippies, there were drugs, there were people sleeping on the beach. Is it still a party island? Do teenagers still come? Yes, of course. But the island is making an effort to be more than that.”

Aware that not every visitor wants to rage until dawn or cross off points of interest with their fellow cruise ship passengers, intrepid operators on Ios, as well as its world famous Cycladic neighbors to the north and south, Mykonos and Santorini, are inviting tourists to put up their feet and lean into a version of wellness that hinges on slowing down.

Case in point: Calilo, a 3-year-old resort on the east coast of Ios, enough hairpin turns over the hills and away from the port to (almost) banish the memory of a billboard advertising a nightclub named Scorpion (“Don’t leave until you get stung”). A Disneyland for the spiritually optimistic, Calilo pushes motivational mantras instead of five-for-one shot specials.

“When we enter this place, we leave everything negative behind,” said Sandy Parisi, a Calilo concierge with a disposition to rival the midafternoon sun, leading us through a breezeway with shapes strategically cut out of its roof: When the light hits right, hearts spray out across the path.

In the white stone lobby, Parisi stopped beside a revolving marble-and-metal sculpture. It looked like a man pierced by arrows, falling into a pit.

“Here, we throw away the darkness, the anger, all the negative stuff,” Parisi said. Words sculpted out of metal floated in the pit: “malice,” “negativity,” “lies.” She explained that the man was not falling but, in fact, being lifted up by words that jutted out of the arrows on heart-shaped tips: “love, hope, pathos, which means passion, in Greek.” So engrossed was I in taking a video of this carousel of good vibes that I almost crashed into a heart-tipped arrow that said “smile.”

“The purpose of this experiment, if I can call it that, is to bring as much positivity, love and freedom to people as we can,” said Angelos Michalopoulos, who owns and operates Calilo, as well as six other restaurants and hotels on the island, with his wife, Vassiliki Petridou, and four of their five children.

Motivational messaging is part of Calilo’s holistic approach to wellness. An on-site farm grows much of the produce served at the resort’s restaurants, including tomatoes flavorful enough to make you wonder if you had ever really tasted one before. The decor endeavors to surprise and delight. The sunken dining tables by the main pool look like something out of “Alice in Wonderland,” and all over the property, swings sway in the breeze. We swayed while drinking coffee. We swayed while reading books (or scrolling Instagram).

Over the course of three days, Calilo’s whimsy overtook me to the degree that I almost got over the grammatical idiosyncrasy of the neon mantra blinking above its bar (“Create a life you can fall in love with”). When I found myself fixating on that dangling preposition, I reminded myself of the countless liberties I’ve taken with grammar, and the fact that I was supposed to throw my cynicism in the pit upon arrival.

“A lot of our guests say that when they come here, they’re entering a fairy tale,” said Petridou. “They can be kids again. Most people come to Greece for the pools, the party and the nightlife. We want to break that cycle.”

Athens natives, the couple first came to Ios in 2003 for a family vacation. They were astounded by the degree to which it remained untouched – save for the chora, the Greek term for an island’s main town, where bars and nightclubs reigned.

“After seeing some of these beaches, I was absolutely stunned,” said Michalopoulos. “I said to myself, either I have sunstroke or there is a Russian nuclear dump somewhere around here, because this place has two things that are completely opposed to each other: unbelievably beautiful and virgin. This, you do not have in Europe. To be between two epically developed islands, Mykonos and Santorini, and somehow remain pristine – it’s paradoxical.”

Michalopoulos had a financial firm in New York, where he and Petridou attended university. They did not intend to get into the hospitality industry but said they saw an opportunity to preserve the island’s beauty while developing it in a sustainable way. Over the course of five years, they bought 182 parcels of land from 2,137 landowners. They got approval from the local government to build on 1% of the land and leave the rest untouched. They planted 70,000 trees, including some centuries-old olive trees that were previously marked for firewood. They hired 400 workers.

In 2019, they opened Calilo to lure a new type of traveler to Ios. Calilo’s nightly rate starts at 660 euros, or about the same amount in dollars – significantly higher than those of the modest hotels that populate the chora. The couple hopes the generated income will keep their development company, which Michalopoulos calls “a prototype,” going.

“This is mostly a land-preservation project rather than a profit-maximizing project,” said Erica Michalopoulos, one of the couple’s daughters, who is Calilo’s director of business development and partnerships​​. “But the key point is that we need to be financially sound to be able to preserve the land.”

“This is not just a hotel,” her father added. “Hopefully, it’s a lot more than that. It’s a proposal of a new way of looking at a hospitality business.”

Tourism accounts for approximately one-fifth of Greece’s economy, according to the consulate general of Greece. Unchecked, the compulsion to drive up profits can lead to, for instance, the global phenomenon that is Mykonos: beautiful beaches and legendary sunsets, yes, but also streets jammed with Mercedes Sprinter vans, Starbucks and day clubs that can charge upward of 150 euros for a sun bed. After Ios, we had planned to continue unwinding in Mykonos for two days. Mykonos had other plans.

“Mykonos is the party island,” said Tasos Pavlidis, a local concierge who attempted to get my husband and me on Mykonian standard time: breakfast at 4 p.m., lunch at 6.30 p.m., dinner at 11 p.m. Sleep? “You don’t come to Mykonos to sleep,” said Pavlidis.

“Mykonos is a planet of its own,” said Katopis-Lykiardopulo, the “Greek Islands” photographer. “We used to have people like Jackie O,” whose 1961 arrival on the island thrust it into the global jet-setting scene, “now we have Elon Musk,” she added.

Beach clubs such as Alemagou (which Pavlidis describes as “bohemian,” although it also attracts people who wear Cartier watches and hats that say EBITA) and Scorpios (affiliated with Soho House, a members’ only club) attract swarms of hopefuls jostling for the chance to pay 20 euros for an espresso martini. For those who like to dance, drink and people-watch after dark, the chora of Mykonos exerts a magnetic pull. Despite this, in July, a new resort opened with the goal of getting guests to chill out: Cali Mykonos, an amalgamation of clean lines and sumptuous curves fueled by solar panels, a rooftop herb garden and an on-site water-purification plant.

“Last night, we had a couple who went to a local beach club in the afternoon and planned to go into town in the evening and party,” said Eric Mourkakos, Cali Mykonos’ managing partner. “They came back here to shower, got to their room and said, ‘We realized, we have no reason to leave.’ I found them later, sitting by their pool under the pergola, looking up at the sky.”

One need not possess self-control of herculean proportions to avoid the thrum of the dance floor in Santorini: Compared with Mykonos and Ios, there aren’t a lot of clubs. The madding crowd functions differently on this volcanic island, with vistas so jaw-droppingly picturesque, they’re frequently punctuated by social media influencers and soon-to-be brides and grooms, along with their attendant photographers.

In 2017, Greek hospitality company Andronis opened Andronis Wellness Concept Resort, inviting Santorini visitors to stay awhile and sink into some atypical offerings, which include a lantern-lit, hammamlike spa and a health assessment that uses a strand of hair for epigenetic testing. The test claims to offer insights into your habits, “and how you might change them to lead a healthier life,” said Carla Sage, Andronis’ director of wellness. “It’s growing in popularity. We’re doing one or two assessments every few days.”

Strolling through Andronis’ open-air corridors as dusk falls feels transformative in and of itself (a friend we met in Santorini compared the resort’s high, undulating walls to the abstract curves of sculptor Richard Serra). Restaurants on the island also present an argument for slowing down: dinner at Botrini’s, in the Oia village of Santorini, sprawls out over 11 two- or three-bite courses, best enjoyed as the sun dips into the Aegean and the sky goes Rothko.

An epigenetics test sounded like a chore: a chance to get scolded, probably, indoors. Potential bad vibes, negative energy. Not the way to end a trip.

We decided that the healthiest thing we could possibly do, on our last full day in Greece, was take a wine tour. Healthy for the mind and soul, at least, if not for the corporeal body.

Under the tutelage of Santorini Winetopia’s Marissa Diamanti, an effervescent tour guide with an encyclopedic knowledge of Hellenic wine, we dug our hands into the crumbly soil beneath the vineyard of the family-owned Hatzidakis Winery and marveled at the way the vines had been kept low to the ground and shaped into baskets to protect the grapes from harsh sun and wind.

At Artemis Karamolegos, a winery 10 minutes down the road, we swooned at the way a bite of squid ink and fennel risotto elevated Pyritis, a white wine made from Santorini’s indigenous Assyrtiko grape. We indulged in one of the most holistic forms of wellness: an excellent meal with great company, outdoors, on a summer afternoon.

After lunch, the 76-year-old proprietor of Art Space Winery, an art gallery, history museum and winery across the street from Artemis Karamolegos, unearthed an unlabeled bottle from below his bar and proffered it to us with a question.

“This is my moonshine. You know moonshine? You’ll try moonshine?”

Given my Cycladic understanding of wellness, there was only one right answer.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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