Blue sky, blue sea

Updated: 2013-09-15 07:33

By Mike Peters (China Daily)

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From a family-style retreat to a posh hotel-casino complex, Greece's seaside beckons tourists looking for a bargain with quality and locals who still know how to have a good time, Mike Peters discovers.

Recent TV reports about Greece, with its financial crisis and street protests over the country's austerity measures, don't make it look like party central. But drop into the country for a few days of relaxation, and it's suddenly clear why Greece has long been the word for an idyllic holiday.

I'm hanging out on a beach that could be on a postcard or in a Disney film. The sea gleams before us in jewel tones: first a bright band of turquoise, then an expanse of cobalt blue as far as the eye can see.

About a dozen Chinese entrepreneurs in the food-and-beverage business are in my tour group, stretched out on the Peloponnese shore with me. A cellphone rings near us, and I jump up for a little pantomime - grabbing my own phone, scowling at it like a cartoon pirate, and winding my arm back as if I'm about to hurl the offending little gizmo into the sea.

 Blue sky, blue sea

From the mountaintop above Chalkidiki, guests can see vineyards and the nearby village of New Marmaras. Photos by Mike Peters / China Daily

Barks of laughter erupt around me. I speak neither Chinese nor Greek, but I'm talkin' their language.

It's chill-out time. A waiter from one of the bars along the shore path strolls by in case I crave a mojito. A few minutes later, another solicitous soul wonders if I'd like a cappuccino.

A fellow could get used to this. There are vineyards to tour, and our hosts at each winery are eager to know what we thought of the chardonnay. And the sauv blanc. And the sparkling rose. And the pinot noir. And the Man, this wine tasting is a lot of work before lunch!

The trip sponsors, who were in fact working, were eager to make us feel aglow with "the spirit of Greece".

That didn't run all the way to dancing on tables or breaking any plates - this wasn't a Disney movie after all. But the Greeks have a great knack for enjoying life, despite the ongoing economic crisis. And while times are tough for many locals, the silver lining for tourists is that Greece is safe and a real bargain for sun-and-fun seekers from anywhere.

Blue sky, blue sea

Many of the country's islands are deservedly famous - Crete is a photogenic paradise of beaches and olive groves, while Santorini's spectacular sunsets draw 50,000 Chinese couples every year as a wedding location.

Our July trip was all on the mainland - "better for swimming", we're told, since the sea around the islands can be nippy, and "better for wines". In fact, the vineyards we saw on two interesting peninsulas produce some of the country's best-known and most-exported wines, many with a presence in China.

After two pleasant days roaming the streets of Athens, we were off to the Peloponnese peninsula. For history buffs, that evokes an ancient war (get your Sparta T-shirt here!). Passing through nearby Corinth, Christian visitors may be reminded of St. Paul, who wrote scolding letters to locals there a few centuries ago.

Happily, nobody scolded us, despite our slothful and often gluttonous ways.

We took a morning dip in the beautiful pool outside our suites at the Harmony Apartment Hotel, and spent afternoons enjoying the beach just a five-minute walk away. We dined on big platters of seafood - from delicate fish to lemon-drenched grilled octopus - at seaside cafes thanks to our hosts at the Cavino winery.

The Peloponnese area is a real community. Despite the financial crisis, most homes in the area belong to locals or to city families who have a vacation home here on the coast, though the owners may be more dependent on seasonal renters than they once were. The beaches are gorgeous but surprisingly quiet; many swimmers in the surf are middle-aged folks who have come here to while away summer days for decades.

Nearby there is pleasantly casual shopping and a few options for excursions. Delphi, Mount Olympus and Athens are all within a two-hour drive, so Peloponnese is a good jumping-off point for a week of exploring Greece.

We opted to tour a small olive-processing center and then visit Megalo Spileo. That means "Monastery of the Big Cave": This eight-floor edifice was carved into the rock some 924 meters up the mountain, originally built by two monks in the 4th century AD.

Open to the public, the monastery boasts exquisite murals, relics including a finger-bone from St. Theodore, and many beautiful icons, including an image of the Virgin and Child reportedly crafted by the evangelist St. Luke out of beeswax, mastic gum and perfume. That icon has turned black from age (and perhaps from smoke when the Nazis burned the place in 1943), and its image is featured on gift-shop souvenirs from plaques to postcards.

A path from the monastery leads up to cliffs where we could see remains of a castle, a few cannons and the monks' old vineyard - now leased to the Cavino company, which produces a premium wine labeled Domain Mega Spileo.

Our next stop was the grand resort of Chalkidiki, which would have been a five-hour van ride away if we hadn't stopped for a long, relaxing lunch at a riverside cafe. But we arrived in plenty of time to catch the sunset behind the clutch of luxury yachts at Porto Carras resort.

Focused on the glassy harbor's fiery glow, we almost missed the two hotels - easily the biggest edifices on the shoreline - because their clever architecture mirrors the look of two grand cruise ships.

Despite some recent layoffs, the service at Porto Carras's two grand hotels never missed a beat. Mealtimes were particular pleasures, graced by attentive waitstaff and picture-perfect seafood and beef orchestrated by award-winning chef Axiotis Paraschos.

The resort features several restaurants that range from "cruise casual" on the beach to gala dinners at the Villa Galini, with a mountaintop view of the seacoast so grand that you half expect Zeus himself to plop down here to watch the sunset.

Blue sky, blue sea

The resort is a self-contained city of pampered luxury: Golf, tennis and horseback riding are available, as are a recently refurbished spa retreat, and both party beaches and private coves where you and a few friends can enjoy a little solitude as well as natural beauty.

You can visit the winery for a tasting and lunch. Good disciples of Bacchus, the vineyards produce not only the standard European vintages (chardonnay, cabernet sauvignon, pinot noir) but also local varieties that date back to ancient Greece, such as limnio. Many of these wines can also be found in China's Greek restaurants and supermarket wine bins.

You can have an activity-filled day or lounge at the beach with a good book and press a button when you get thirsty. Someone will be at your elbow in a moment.

In a week of sun, fun and more seafood than we could eat, it was easy to forget recent news reports that might have made us nervous about a holiday in Greece.

Whether we were in pampered seclusion at a holiday resort or roaming the streets of Athens looking for baklava and coffee, we found a nation that was all smiles and - for more than one reason - happy to see us.

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 Blue sky, blue sea

Greek olives are traditionally stuffed by hand, with almonds, garlic or peppers.

 Blue sky, blue sea

Scenic Porto Carras has long attracted celebrities like Salvador Dali.

 Blue sky, blue sea

This ancient temple sits near the Acropolis in Athens.

 Blue sky, blue sea

Simple grilled souvlaki lures diners to the capital's many sidewalk cafes.

(China Daily 09/15/2013 page16)