There are approximately 1,400 Greek islands scattered like confetti throughout the three seas surrounding the country’s mainland — each one a piece of the collective paradise, beckoning by virtue of the borders it doesn’t share and a past drenched in mythology.
Yet you could visit them all without ever finding the special blend of beauty, luxury, history and style that is Costa Navarino, a magnificent new resort on the southwestern tip of what is known as the Peloponnese, Greece’s peninsular, hand-shaped bottom half.
I tried. Over the course of my 10-day stay, I made it to Páros and Náxos, Mílos and Mykonos and stunning Santoríni. And I enjoyed every second I spent kicking around those sun-bleached Cyclades with their lime-washed villa walls and sheer cliffs plunging into sparkling blue bays. Someday, perhaps, I’ll pick up where I left off.
But upon arriving in Kalamata, capital of the province of Messinia, I realized I’d come to something altogether different — an unusually lush corner of the country that, though long renowned for its abundant archaeological wealth, is seldom celebrated as a leisure destination, competing as it must with the many others so firmly established on the country’s traditional tourist path.
That path typically begins in Athens, where visitors rush through a checklist of must-see sites, including the Acropolis and the fabulous new Acropolis Museum, opened last year; the Parthenon and the residential Plaka; the ruins of the Temple of Olympian Zeus; and the longstanding National Archaeological Museum. After that, they hurry off to the port of Piraeus to catch the next ferry for the islands.
Little do they know that what they miss along the way may be the single most dynamic package Greece has to offer. From its big sandy beaches and spectacular coastal scenery to its stylish hotels and the many-layered history of the land itself, Messinia’s mixture of old and new rivals that of any island or province in the country. So, too, does its rich biodiversity, including the hundreds of rare and often endangered plant and animal species sustained by its wetland habitats.
Native Messinian Vassilis Constantakopoulos knew that well, which is why in the early 1980s the master seaman and founder of a successful international shipping company began buying up pristine coastal property around Navarino Bay, the site of a famous 19th-century naval battle during the Greek War of Independence. (You can still see the wrecked remains of the Ottoman armada that was routed that day in 1827 by the combined might of British, French and Russian forces.)
A longtime environmentalist, Constantakopoulos was driven by the desire “to promote Messinia while preserving its natural heritage and beauty,” so the story goes. In an effort to do so, the master seaman-turned-master developer threw himself into the full-time pursuit of his grand vision: sustainable, high-end accommodations with all of the amenities a discerning traveler would expect.
The result is the flagship property of the Tourism Enterprises of Messinia, a luxury seaside resort slated for development in four phases over a 10-year span. Last May, the first of those phases came to fruition with the opening of Navarino Dunes, a 350-acre Luxury Collection Resort property on the Ionian Sea featuring two Starwood hotels, the 321-room Romanos and the 455-room Westin; a 2,000-seat conference facility; and a spa, Anazoe, offering therapies derived from the teachings of Hippocrates, the father of medicine.
Guests can tee off on one of Greece’s first two signature 18-hole golf courses — one designed by former PGA Masters champion Bernhard Langer in cooperation with European Golf Design and the other designed by renowned course architect Robert Trent Jones, Jr. — while the kids learn about Greek mythology and olive oil production through hands-on classes in the children’s center.
Of course, part of the appeal of a place like Messinia is the very fact of its remoteness and isolation, the dearth of development or any visible sign that things have ever changed. Amazingly, after decades of mass tourism to the rest of the country, Messinia, like the Peloponnese itself, has remained largely unspoiled by modern buildings of any kind. And despite its prominent billing as a locally and environmentally sensitive undertaking, Costa Navarino can sound, at first, like a threat to that purity.
As it turns out, Constantakopoulos wasn’t making false promises when he said he wanted to preserve Messinia’s natural heritage. He forged partnerships with the Hellenic Ornithological Society and other non-governmental organizations committed to protecting local species, among them the endangered loggerhead sea turtle. He set aside approximately 10 percent of the resort’s annual budget for “the implementation of environmental practices.” And before the first shovel broke ground, he built the massive reservoirs required to meet the projected water needs of the entire complex (golf courses included).
That commitment to conservation continues today. As a partner of the Plant for the Planet: Billion Tree Campaign sponsored by the United Nations Environment Programme, Costa Navarino pledged to replant some 24,000 olive and citrus trees by 2015 — Europe’s largest such effort. The resort also co-founded, with partners at the University of Stockholm and the Academy of Athens, the Navarino Environmental Observatory, a research program dedicated to the study of climate change and its impact on the fragile and increasingly arid Mediterranean environment.
Greek National Road 82 wasn’t around when Homer was writing his epic poems, but with a window seat for the hour-long ride from Kalamata to the coast, I could imagine the Late Bronze Age Messinia his characters inhabited, including the wise and hospitable King Nestor, ruler of “Sandy Pylos,” whose palace still stands.
Arriving at the brand-new Romanos hotel, I was prepared to be jolted back into the present. But that didn’t happen. Modeled on the traditional Messinian mansion and made mostly of local stone, the resort manages to blend in even as it bowls over, to be at once imposing and inviting. And if it represents a break with Messinia’s material past, the hotel preserves an ages-old custom; for the ancients, who believed deities mingled among mortals by taking the human form, it was simply good sense to treat every guest like a god — just in case. In every respect, the Romanos does just that.
Like many resorts around the world, Navarino Dunes is a destination in itself. From the indoor basketball court and the ’50s-style bowling alley to the Navarino Racquet Academy, two signature golf courses and the 43,000-square-foot spa — plus, of course, the private beach — there’s no shortage of ways to kick back and relax.
But it’s also an ideal base from which to explore Messinia’s many noteworthy archaeological sites, the most visited of these being the Mycenaean-era Palace of Nestor, famous for its frescoed walls and a cache of some 600 inscribed tablets encoding an early form of the Greek language. It was here, as Homer tells it, that the wise Nestor lavishly entertained Telemachus as he searched for his absentee father, Odysseus, 10 years after the Trojan War. Some of the site’s treasures, including fragments of the frescoes and plaster casts of the tablets, are housed in the Archaeological Museum of Chora, about two miles north of the palace.
Rediscovered in 1939 by the American archaeologist Carl Blegen, the palace sits atop the low-lying ridge Ano Englianos (“Hill of the Englishman”), offering clear views of Navarino Bay, where in 1827 a critical naval battle — and the last ever recorded between sailing ships — gave Greece its independence from Turkey. On either side of the bay are the castles Neókastro, built by the Turks in 1573, and Paleokastro, built by the Franks in 1278.
Pylos itself is a charming harbor village centered around the Plateia, the town’s main square, with arcaded shops and cafés looking out on brightly colored boats bobbing in the water. Have a café frappé, Greece’s own foam-covered iced coffee, or take a boat tour of the harbor and visit the tiny island of Sphacteria, the site of a major land battle between Athens and Sparta in the Peloponnesian War.
The massive Fortress of Methoni is also worth a visit. Stretching the length of a 1,000-foot peninsula, its complex system of turreted walls and underground tunnels makes for excellent exploring. For all of its might, though, it couldn’t sustain Venetian troops against an invading force of Turks. The latter’s legacy can be seen in town, where amid sleepy tarvernas you can find the ruins of a Turkish bath and mosque.
In a country that boasts the world’s 10th-longest coastline — approximately 9,300 miles — the breathtaking Bay of Voidokilia still manages to stand out. A large, circular lagoon located less than a mile from the town of Pylos, Voidokilia is a break in the limestone ridge that runs from Methoni to Gargaliani, and its beach is considered one of the world’s most spectacular.
It’s also the starting point of a trail to Nestor’s Cave, where Hermes is said to have hidden Apollo’s cattle, and to the Tomb of Thrasymedes, Nestor’s son, one of the earliest examples of a beehive, or tholos, tomb.
Although it’s outside Messinia, it would be a shame to come so far without paying a visit to the ancient site of Olympia, just north in the city of Elis. Here, every four years between 776 B.C. and A.D. 393, throngs of spectators packed in for a glimpse of the Olympic Games. In addition to the stadium, the site features the Temple of Hera and the much larger Temple of Zeus, to whom the games were dedicated, among dozens of other ruins.
Also beyond Messinia’s borders, but not far, is the must-see Mystras, the ghost city atop towering Mount Taygetus, the highest peak in the Peloponnese, just north of the modern city of Sparta. Once a jewel of the Byzantine Empire, known as the Florence of the East in Renaissance times, Mystras contains a number of well-preserved mansions, monasteries and churches full of dazzlingly realistic murals.
For shopping, head to Kalamata, where boutiques in the bustling historic center sell the silk kerchiefs and hand-painted pottery for which the city is famous, not to mention the olives, figs, wine and honey native to Messinia’s fertile soil. There’s also Navarino Dunes’ own Agora with its cafés, bars and shops, a traditional Greek amphitheater and a big open-air cinema.
Info To Go
While it’s possible to drive the 168 miles from Athens to Costa Navarino, most visitors choose to fly. There is daily service from Athens International Airport (ATH) to Kalamata International Airport (KLX), which is less than seven miles from Messinia’s capital city of Kalamata and approximately 31 miles from Costa Navarino. Although bus service to the latter is limited, taxis to the resort are available for about $110. Through a special arrangement with Hertz, guests of Costa Navarino can rent a car solely for the trip to and from Kalamata Airport for about $83 each way.
Classical Filoxenia Hotel Located at the foot of Mount Taygetus, the 4-star beachside property is about 10 minutes from the airport. Navarino Street, Kalamata, tel 30 272 102 3166, $$$
The Romanos, Costa Navarino Opened in July 2010, the new hotel is a cluster of low-rise villas set amid olive groves; each ground-floor room has a private infinity pool. Navarino Dunes, Costa Navarino, tel 30 272 309 6000, $$$$
The Westin Resort, Costa Navarino Located next to the Romanos, the 455-room Westin forms the other, more contemporary half of Navarino Dunes. Navarino Dunes, Costa Navarino, tel 30 272 309 6000, $$$$
Eleon In the open kitchen of Eleon at The Romanos, diners watch chefs prepare traditional dishes like grilled octopus, baked lamb and eggplant casserole. The Romanos, Navarino Dunes, Costa Navarino, tel 30 272 309 6000, $$$$
Oasis An à la carte taverna perched above beautiful Navarino Bay, this longtime favorite draws on local fishermen and an organic garden for fresh ingredients. Gialova-Pylos, tel 30 272 302 4001 $$
Rex Housed in the century-old Hotel Rex in Kalamata’s historic center, the restaurant offers traditional and international fare year-round. Aristomenous 26, Kalamata, tel 30 272 102 2334, $$
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