The Greek Peloponnese isn’t on everyone’s list but has a real pull
Until recently, it wasn’t on my radar either. In fact, it wasn’t until a friend’s family trekked the Peloponnese, and fell so in love with the region that they moved there, that I began planning a trip of my own.
Luckily, it’s easy enough to reach, with direct flights from London Gatwick to Kalamata airport (only an hour’s drive from the Peloponnese).
But as I’m a fan of a road trip, I travelled with a friend into Athens and embarked on a scenic five-hour drive from there.
Once we’d left the highways behind, we enjoyed the sight of soaring mountains, glistening oceans and Byzantine churches on the rugged Mani Peninsula, with barely a soul in sight for miles.
It’s this wild strip of land that has been at the heart of Greek theatre, literature and history for more than 3,000 years.
The Mani Peninsula promises beautiful vistas with a private feel
Exploring the region properly would come later in our trip. First, we headed to Laconia and the beautiful Kinsterna Hotel, a historic manor that has been converted into a 54-room resort and spa.
On arrival, we were greeted with a cool drink, before being shown to our lovely room, with its exposed brickwork and views over olive and citrus groves.
After a few hours by the pool – fed continuously by natural spring water – we dined at Kinsterna Restaurant, built around (and named after) the original water cistern (kinsterna). We were in foodie heaven as we tucked into scrumptious lamb, cooked in a wood-burning oven, while taking in the sea views.
The next morning, we set off to explore, heading north to the medieval citadel of Monemvasia.
Perched on the east coast, this enormous sea rock had an estimated 40,000 residents in the 1600s; now, it’s believed that only 10 people reside here full time and most of the old mansions are now guest houses and boutique hotels.
It’s not possible to explore the island by car, so you have to park up before you enter Monemvasia proper.
And make sure you put aside an afternoon to fully explore the cobblestoned streets and take in its incredible history.
Keen to explore the region further, we soon bid a sad farewell to Kinsterna Hotel and hit the road for a two-hour drive back to the Mani Peninsula, where we based ourselves at the gorgeous family-owned boutique hotel Citta dei Nicliani, in Stavri.
In 2006, retired couple Tania, an interior designer, and Ilias Sepsas, an oil engineer, lovingly restored this collection of three historic tower houses into a stylish seven-room inn.
Each room is individually styled, but all have plenty of characterful stone walls, exposed beams and wooden floors, with unique little touches (mine featured an olive press).
The hotel serves delicious food, Ilias baking delicious bread and making homemade jam daily.
The property also boasts more than 600 different wines – the most extensive collection in the region.
The hotel is just two miles from deserted beaches and fishing villages, and we loved the harbour-front restaurant Theodora’s in the quaint fishing village of Limeni. There, we also basked in the sun on the lovely beach at Marmari.
The Greco-Roman city of Gytheio, half an hour away, is also a must-see. It’s the largest town in the Mani Peninsula, with 5,000 permanent residents, a huge port and a coastal road lined with fish restaurants, which ends at the small island of Kranai.
According to Greek legend, this is where Paris and Helen stayed the night before he whisked her off to Troy.
We visited the impressive tower built on Kranai for Helen of Troy in 1829 and also headed out to the lighthouse of Gytheio, built in 1873.
If you have time, the beautiful ancient Roman theatre is worth checking out, too. After saying our goodbyes to the Sepsas family, it was time to drive to Villa Vager, in the small town of Levidi, at the heart of the Mantineia region – our final port of call.
This former 1800s mansion, run by husband and wife team Nikolaos and Tania Vager and overlooking the Mainalon mountain range, has been transformed into a 10-room bed and breakfast, with exposed stone walls, ceiling beams and cosy fireplaces, lanterns and antiques.
There’s no restaurant, but a five-minute walk down the road is a bustling village square with several tavernas. It was a lovely end to our exploration of the picturesque Peloponnese, but we had really only scratched the surface. Thankfully, it’s a great excuse for a return visit!
Ten things you must do in the Peloponnese
1 Drive from Athens to the Peloponnese, for one of the world’s best sightseeing experiences.
2 Stop off at Monemvasia; enjoy the sea views and soak up the history from this medieval castle town, carved into the slopes of a rock.
3 Have breakfast – or watch the sunset – at a spot overlooking the breathtaking Arcadian mountains.
4 Enjoy a long lunch in the serene fishing village of Lemini.
5 Spend an afternoon soaking up the rays at a beach in Marmari.
6 Tuck into delicious seafood at Saga restaurant in the seaside town of Gytheio.
7 Enjoy peace and quiet and the wonderful historic surroundings at luxury boutique hotel Citta dei Nicliani.
8 Take pictures at Helen Of Troy’s tower in Kranai.
9 Visit the vibrant town of Levidi and dine in the square…
10 …or if you’re feeling more energetic, take a quad bike tour through the nearby Mainalon mountain range.