Picture Vettriano’s Singing Butler (you know – the couple waltzing on a beach with servants holding umbrellas shielding them from the elements). We felt similarly cosseted during the unseasonable cold snap that descended on Spetses and the Poseidonion Grand Hotel on our autumn visit. Somehow the missing swell of summer visitors, the horse-drawn carriages waiting idly for hire and the lack of combustion vehicles (which are prohibited), imbued a ‘good old days’ frisson, giving us the sensation that we were on a Grand Tour back in the Twenties.
The Venetians named the island Spezia (spice) in the 15th century, when it was on a major trade route. It nestles close to the Peloponnese and from Athens can be reached by car or by sea, both in about two and a half hours. By car, there are distractions en route, notably the Corinth Canal or Greco-Roman amphitheatre at Epidaurus, where Mrs Smith, on stage, can be heard perfectly from the back rows, murmuring under her breath. It’s a pretty drive, but cars must be abandoned at Kosta to catch a connecting ferry-boat, or a more expensive water taxi. Alternatively, it is catamaran or Flying Dolphin hydrofoil from Piraeus.
Spetses is small, quiet, unspoilt, pine clad and affluent. The pastel and whitewashed villas are charming, the streets are decorated with pebbles set in sand depicting octopi and maritime themes, and old cannon point seaward. Boutiques, antique shops and tavernas huddle round the port and even the lowering skies and empty streets can’t suppress the charisma of the island. The Poseidonion sits prominently on the seafront with an enormous flag fluttering from its highest point, an edifice of apricot and beige marble emulating the grand hotels of the French Riviera. By contrast, it’s impressive.
Inside the double front doors of Poseidonion time stands still: one imagines it is 1914 when the hotel was first built for rich Athenians, later attracting high society and royalty. The traditional and beautiful patterned floor tiles are eye-catching against the simplicity of the white walls and cushions, high ceilings and commodious mahogany furniture. It feels airy, cool, discreet. A huge ledger rests on the baby grand piano, a record of comings and goings between World Wars; books with black-and-white photographs festoon the coffee tables, old artefacts hide in corners competing with exhibits from local artists. We discovered a will written by Sotirios Anargyros, the original owner, which was none too kind to his widow. In the distance the bar beckons, a cross between a library and an apothecary: it has considerable charm.
Staff are universally professional here and radiate an enthusiasm rarely encountered. We were offered freshly squeezed orange juice before being escorted up the central marble stairs. Our room was also very white, with ceilings that gave us vertigo as we climbed into the wonderfully comfortable bed and looked up; but it lacks for nothing. The feel is English, with oak floorboards, Lefroy Brooks old-fashioned bathroom fittings and some quaint light switches that look like taps. Initially, I wondered whether all that wall space needs pictures, but the simplicity and calm grows on you until you feel cocooned.
Breakfast is outstandingly tasty, organic and homemade. Maria’s orange marmalade is superb, the speciality pepper bread was right up my street and the crispy bacon on a par with Dunmow Flitch. The wooden serving utensils we discovered were lovingly carved by (bored) local shepherds, while tending their flocks. Keen to see their countryside, we hired bicycles for the day (for a snip), hoping also to burn calories. We headed up hills and down dales, found some stunning and uninhabited beaches, saw no cars but spotted two helicopters, a private island and the place they burn the rubbish. In open country it is so quiet you can hear the silence. Spetses is an island, which involves going round in a circle, so three hours and 24 kilometres later we puffed back into town.
Aching profusely, we headed to the spa for a massage opting for the ‘Bouboulina’, tasking my tiny Athenian masseuse to apply maximum torque. I’m convinced that the towel covering my chakras was no longer effective as she contorted me with extraordinary strength into unnatural configurations. Bouboulina, incidentally, is the local heroine in the fight for Greek independence from the Turks and the only female Admiral of the Fleet in naval history. Her statue stands in front of the hotel. She met an ignominious end: officially, she was murdered in a family spat; unofficially she was on a balcony while her victorious islanders loosed off celebratory volleys below her, when a stray bullet found its mark.
Before dinner under high chandeliers, we wandered in a garden full of fragrant herbs and roses and noted several turtledoves ignoring the warning that the pool water is not drinkable. These also frequent the cupola on the roof; converted to a room favoured by newlyweds, it really is possible to swing from the rafters there, and by candlelight it’s said to resemble a local caïque, or fishing boat. Settling on the wide-fronted veranda, I enjoyed a beer with pepper-covered carrots and baby tomatoes, while people-watching across the esplanade. A large model bi-plane landed in front of me, absolutely in keeping with the period. In high season, up to 300 people sit here to appreciate the Peloponnese culinary delights of the On the Verandah restaurant; we enjoyed a starter of avocado, fresh peas from the garden, cracked wheat, dill and mustard vinaigrette, followed by steak in red wine sauce cooked to perfection and were happy with the peace and quiet.
All too soon, it was time to go. As the Poseidonion receded into the distance and we prepared to return to the madness of Athens city life, I toasted Sotirios Anargiros (even if he was posthumously parsimonious to his widow). Inspired by the Carlton in Cannes and the Negresco in Nice, the islander who got filthy rich in the States came home to spend his money on Spetses. He built this grand hotel for the rich Athenian hunters who flocked to the island between August and October, keen to bag some migrating turtledoves and quail (Spetses has always been something of a playboys’ playground). Sotirios’ hotel was a success, and still is. Here on Spestes you’re surrounded by the visiting Athenian A-list; here at Poseidonion, you’ll feel like one of them.