Costa Navarino, Messinia
Off the beaten track in Greece
It’s time to trade the Greek islands for an undiscovered slice of the mainland. Costa Navarino is where the ancient history, cuisine, and landscapes of Messinia come together in the lap of luxury.
Olive groves shimmer as far as the eye can see; some grow in uniformed rows, others are wild and tangled. They carpet the undulating land in bushy swathes interrupted only by smatterings of white houses with terracotta roofs, and a winding road along which our car speeds in the languid evening light. This is Messinia – a verdant and bounteous region in the southwest corner of the Peloponnese peninsula, entirely unspoiled and relatively undiscovered by tourists. Most visitors to Greece flock in their droves to the islands of Zakynthos, Corfu, and Mykonos, where they bask shoulder-to-shoulder on sun loungers beside other pasty vacationers, as the commotion of a beach bar unfolds in the background; however, those travellers in-the-know choose the pristine and wholly less-crowded environs of Messinia.
Ravishing beauty abounds in this peaceful corner of Greece where virgin Mediterranean countryside caresses an immaculate coastline of chiselled golden cliffs, rippling milky sands, and the midnight blue waters of the Ionian Sea. Such landscapes have been the stage of 4500 years of history, manifested today in crumbling ancient ruins and cliff-top medieval castles. But of course, it is the profusion of olive groves – now merging into an iridescent haze in the amber evening light – at the heart of Messinia’s history and livelihood. The production of olive oil is the chief industry here and the sprawling groves comprise a colossal 85% of the area’s tree crop. The regional capital also produces and gives its name to the globally famous appetiser that is the purple Kalamata olive – an indigenous delicacy jarred and exported in multitude worldwide. In fact, Messinia is almost unfairly well endowed; as the road meanders through cluttered villages, I see fruit trees lolling with engorged lemons, bulbous oranges, and the yet-to-bloom buds of figs. Messinia’s deep-rooted gastronomic heritage is renowned for its copious production of these fruits, as well as vinegar, honey, cheese, cold meats, and wine. Among the yielding crop there is also dazzling flora. Beneath silvery canopies of olive groves, and tickling at the foot of their gnarled trunks, are tides of lilac, cream and yellow wildflowers wagging in the breeze, whilst straggles of magenta, violet and crimson foliage snake down telegraph poles and along garden walls. This, I think to myself, is the southern Mediterranean at its finest: fertile, fragrant, vibrant, and ancient.
The portion of Messinia I am heading for is Costa Navarino – a unique and burgeoning destination developed around two deluxe hotel complexes and signature golf courses, known collectively as Navarino Dunes. Located on Messinia’s west shore, Costa Navarino grazes a serene sweep of coastline north of Navarino Bay, and whilst it may lie among age-old sand dunes, it is very much in its youth as a tourist destination. I am staying in Costa Navarino’s Westin Resort – an impressive and extensive complex of low-rise villas built from local stone and wood, and cosseted in flourishing native foliage that seamlessly melds them into the coastal landscape. As I wander these lush grounds, past 700 year old olive trees, poker-straight cypresses, and billowing flora, the heady scent of rosemary and lavender fills the air, cut with a trace of salty sea breeze. Our guides, Irene and Maria, two Costa Navarino representatives, tell us we have arrived in time to catch spring in early bloom, and it certainly smells like it. Irene and Maria are both Athenian’s, born and bred, yet their passion for this area and its nature is infectious.
Although the Westin resort is inspired by the ochre hues of centuries-old local buildings, it still oozes the contemporary elegance expected of a luxury hotel; neutral colour schemes, natural materials, opulent furnishings, and exquisitely landscaped pool areas create an atmosphere of organic sophistication. The adjacent Romanos Resort weaves effortlessly with the Westin, however, is classical in its architectural emulation – clad in ivory marble tiles and boasting a sleek interior design. The Romanos is the more exclusive of the two, and radiates a kind of Arabic glamour as opposed to the Westin’s rustic Mediterranean ambience. All this contemporary extravagance may sound out of place in a region renowned for its nature and fertility, yet the design of the destination has been painstakingly considered so as to embody the values and philosophies of Messinia. The resort is the birth child of Captain Vassilis Constantakopoulos, a Messinian native who – following a rich career in shipping – had the grand vision of promoting his home region whilst protecting and preserving its natural beauty, biodiversity and heritage. Sustainable tourism is thus at the core of the destination, and we are fed a wealth of facts and stats that prove it. 70% of the work force is locally sourced, the building footprint is less than 10% of the area, and approximately 16,000 olive trees and 200,000 endemic shrubs will have been uprooted and replanted across the 321 acre site by its final completion. However, whilst sustainability is central, Costa Navarino is also about offering an experience of high-end indulgence and unparalleled facilities. Standing at the sliding patio door of my suite, I get a glimpse of this philosophy in action: the glassy waters of my private infinity pool fall away into wild bounds of mauve shrubbery, and through a gap in the growth I spy the indigo waters of the Ionian. This is the epitome of modern luxury, yet in the midst of raw nature.
I awake the following morning to pastel blue skies and a pleasant temperature, and after a generous bowl of Greek yoghurt and local honey, we hit the road to Voidokilia Beach. Hailed as one of the most exquisite coves in Greece, Voidokilia (translated as ‘ox belly’) is an omega-shaped idyll hidden among sand dunes. I stroll along the half-moon stretch of vanilla sand, observing the crystalline surf rhythmically lapping the shore before melting back into the lustrous turquoise bay. Ahead, two Jurassic promontories create the entrance to the bay, acting as windbreaks and making the water mesmerisingly calm. Clinging to the top of one of the rocky outcrops are the ruins of Paliokastro, a 13th century castle overlooking the bay with an air of mythical enchantment that can be reached via a sandy path ascending the cliff through thickets of scrub. Today the bay is deserted, and Irene and Maria ensure us that even in peak season Voidokilia is a horseshoe of tranquillity, swarming only with myriad bird life. It feels wild and secret, and is so devoid of signs of 21st century life it appears almost prehistoric – like a pterodactyl might swoop across the sky any moment.
Before continuing along the coast, we ascend a rough dirt track up a nearby hillside, hemmed in on either side with thick foliage. At the top stands a lone church: blindingly white and bordered with an azure trim, it is a vision of Greece. The views from here are panoramic and heart-stopping, engulfing me in a swathe of indescribable blue where the sea and sky appear fused and endless. Behind the church, the cliff side tumbles to Voidokilia Beach whose crescent beach from this height is a mere sliver of ivory. Flaming golden against the vast sky there is also a swell of yellow daisies, beyond which, Costa Navarino can be seen protruding unassumingly from among dunes to the north. It is deadly silent on this hilltop – ethereally so – other than for the whistle of the sea breeze and the rustle of the grasses. I ring the bell which hangs from the church veranda just once, and a sharp gong bellows out over the landscape, momentarily shattering the silence before it inevitably resumes.
We drive further along the coastal road, hugging a luxuriant slope. Olive groves pass in a blur of emerald, and Navarino Bay sparkles below like a tray of Swarovski crystals. Our destination is Pylos – a modest town of whitewashed buildings topped with terracotta roof tiles, spilling down the leafy hillside to a natural harbour. As we zigzag through the town down to the waterfront, it unfurls vibrantly before our eyes. Window shutters are faded and peeling in shades of navy, mint, peach, and pale blue; flowerpots and trailing plants crowd verandas; florets of lilac wisteria hang like bunches of grapes over balconies; telephone and electricity lines are strung like cobwebs between buildings; and through chinks in the urban sprawl, glimmer the cobalt waters of Navarino Bay. Down in the town square a tone of celebration pervades the air. It is 25 March – a Greek national holiday commemorating the start of the War of Independence against the Ottoman’s in 1821. Strings of Greek flags crisscross the harbour front, whilst throngs of locals line the square to watch youths perform traditional line dances. I amble the narrow backstreets and soak in the non-touristy authenticity that Pylos serves up, feeling lucky my visit coincided with a day of patriotic merriment as it has imbued the town with a compelling buzz. I will return to Pylos the following morning for iced coffee and loukoumades (Greek doughnut balls glazed in syrup and sprinkled with nuts and cinnamon), though it will be empty as the villagers linger indoors, nursing their sore heads following an evening of raucous entertainment.
It is late afternoon by the time we arrive back in Costa Navarino, and Irene has planned an evening olive oil tasting class. A chunky dark-wood table is laid with sapphire crockery, oily bowls of maroon Kalamata olives, sprigs of fresh herbs and stylish cans of Costa Navarino’s estate-grown, extra virgin olive oil. The significance of this product to Messinia has so far been unmissable, but perhaps more staggeringly, I learn many groves have been cultivated for over 5000 years – evidence of which can be found on ancient tablets. History also tells that the Greek poet, Homer, called olive oil ‘liquid gold’, and it remains as much for the families to whom it is their livelihood, and has been for centuries. Messinia’s millennia-old trees and ideal microclimate makes for some of the world’s finest olive oil, and the region is rightly proud of being Greece’s largest producer of extra virgin. Our session leader, Christina Stribacu, – who calls herself an olive oil enthusiast – harbours a deep interest in the product. ‘Why is it there is always a wine menu in a restaurant, but never an olive oil menu?’ she put it to us rhetorically.
I taste four types of olive oil – the first, a defected supermarket brand with a buttery smell and a dull flavour; Christina informs me that cheap supermarket oil brings no health benefits and is probably blended with an old batch so it can be sold at low prices. The following three olive oils are high quality extra virgins, meaning they smell fruity (like cut grass, banana, or cooking apples), taste initially bitter on the tongue, and leave a lasting spice in the throat. The third sample I try is Costa Navarino’s signature, award-winning brand, made from Koroneiki olives. It is balanced in taste creating a soft, elongated burn at the back of the throat, and appears to be the favourite. The session is intriguing and revealing, and Irene tells me it is an activity available to all guests as part of Costa Navarino’s authenticity program, alongside philosophy walks, cooking classes, art tours, and visits to ancient city ruins.
The sun is minutes from setting as I emerge from the tasting class, and Irene leads the way to the beachfront. The sand is cold; the sun blazes the colour of cayenne pepper and bleeds into the horizon, casting a corridor of bronze ripples on the sea. On some rocks sit a group of Germans, drinking beer and singing songs on a guitar, so we quietly join them. In this perfect moment I realise that what the team at Costa Navarino have crafted here is not simply a holiday, it is an experience; one where visitors are invited to deeply connect with the local Messinian landscape, the history, and the cuisine. In fact, it is almost impossible not to; Costa Navarino’s location and philosophy draw you in without you even realising it. This wedge of Messinia is without doubt one of Greece’s hidden gems, though not the kind that must be rushed to before excessive crowds and thoughtless developments deem it neither hidden nor a gem. This is because Costa Navarino will never be a soulless resort on a coastline stuffed with other characterless hotels; it is a destination that respects its surroundings, its past, and its future, and in return, it garners the respect of all who visit.
Rates at The Westin Resort Costa Navarino start from €195 in spring and autumn, and €300 in summer. The Romanos, a Luxury Collection Resort starts from €390 during the summer. For further information and reservations visit www.costanavarino.com Prices are for a deluxe garden view room on a bed and breakfast basis, based on availability.
Aegean Airlines offers daily flights from London Heathrow to Athens. For more information please visit www.aegeanair.com
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