Jennifer Barclay recommends four stylish ways to unwind in historic boutique hotels and soak up this Greek island’s unique heritage
In the south-east Aegean, surrounded by deep blue sea and dazzling with sunshine for much of the year, the Greek island of Rhodes is the largest in the Dodecanese, popular for its laid-back lifestyle, good food, long beaches and bustling nightlife. Unsurprisingly, it has a wealth of places to stay for any budget – from sleek and sophisticated spa hotels to cheap and cheerful pensions.
But what makes the island really special – and what few visitors know before they arrive – is its history. With abundant natural resources, at a crossroads linking Europe with the Middle East and Africa, Rhodes was a strategic hotspot in the Mediterranean from more than 2,000 years ago when ships carried people to trade and war. The legendary Colossus stood in its harbour, and Rhodes Old Town has been continuously inhabited ever since, a labyrinth of medieval alleys and squares built around Ancient Greek temples, while relatively modern Ottoman mosques and baths fill any spare corners.
Now that the ships around its port are mainly ferries and cruise liners, boutique hoteliers have decided to make the most of the island’s colourful past and offer guests something special: sheer relaxation in memorable surroundings where you can soak up the history along with the sun.
Nikos Takis Hotel: 26 Panetiou Str., Rhodes Old Town
This delightful hideaway attracts visitors who want to be right in the historic heart of Rhodes Old Town and absorb the cultural mix that won it UNESCO World Heritage status. The hotel building was built in 1864 to house some of the Sultan’s harem, and is sandwiched between the Palace of the Grand Masters of the Knights of the Crusade, an Ottoman mosque and a scattering of other notable old buildings – you could spend an interesting day or two just ten minutes from your doorstep. Nikos and Takis lived here in the bohemian 1970s and started creating one-off fashions for the jet-set arriving by yacht. They furnished the hotel with the same elan and sense of fun.
The Grand Master Emery suite is filled with a gorgeous array of wild colours and sparkly drapery. Its bathroom is flooded with natural light from a large shuttered window looking out down towards the harbour – a bathroom where you can watch your ship come in. The floor is all blue tiles with flower patterns, the shower high-tech for power massage. Through the bedroom, painted yellow and green with pink curtains and decorative flourishes on the ceiling that distract from chipped plaster, a door opens out onto a terrace with a cushioned Moroccan divan where you can lounge in the evening and look at the stars.
You'll soon discover on your stay that you don’t book the room, you book the breakfast. There is carrot, walnut, cinnamon and orange cake baked daily, as well as the little fresh-baked spanakopita (spinach pastry) and tyropita (feta cheese pastry), yoghurt and honey and freshly squeezed orange juice, all served on the terrace on white linen.
Definitely what the Grand Master would have ordered.
Spirit of the Knights: 14 Alexandridou Str., Rhodes Old Town
For the Knights Hospitallers, Rhodes town was a perfect stop-off point on their way to the Crusades. A stone’s throw away from the solid medieval walls of the citadel and its D’Amboise Gate, hidden down a narrow (and therefore quiet) alleyway, is an opulent oasis at Spirit of the Knights. Originally built by Crusaders over a Roman road and ancient Doric columns, the building had been restored by the Ottomans but was again falling to ruin when an English family saw its potential as a hotel. They spent the first few years just dealing with the archaeological department of the Greek government. Then they restored it to sheer luxury.
‘One of the rooms was probably a private hammam [Turkish bath], and it’s clear it was owned by a pasha or someone high up the ranks,’ says co-owner Alex. The rooms retain original dark wooden beams and thick stone walls, but with sleek flat screen TVs and gleaming marble bathrooms. Just half a dozen rooms share a vaulted stone bar and an airy upper-floor library, and a calm, shady garden with flowers and a fountain and a Jacuzzi: it feels like a private club, spacious and intimate.
Melenos Lindos: Lindos, Rhodes
Less than an hour south of Rhodes Town, past miles of pine trees and olive groves, whitewashed houses huddle under a medieval castle and a cliff-top ancient Acropolis at Lindos, a powerful city known for seafaring around the days of Homer. A hippy hangout in the 1960s, now Lindos draws coachloads of international visitors and wedding parties – and you can understand why when you first glimpse the turquoise of St Paul’s Bay and its diminutive white chapel. It also has some of the hippest nightlife on the island in the summer. Things calm down out of season while the microclimate keeps temperatures balmy.
Wonderfully secluded from the day-trippers in any season, with a private path to the beach, the Melenos Lindos hotel is modelled on local captains’ houses, its hidden pebbled courtyards naturally cool, while spacious terraces look out over the deep blue sea. Listed in the Small Luxury Hotels of the World, its individual suites have antique furniture and embroidered quilts; the owner collects pieces that reflect the oriental culture of Asia Minor, and has a shop close by.
The rooftop restaurant adds to the appeal: food is from local suppliers, herbs from the garden. The hotel started offering cookery courses last winter.
The Old Markets: Kali Strata, Symi Harbour
An hour’s cruise from north Rhodes town is the breathtakingly beautiful harbour of Symi, where brightly painted Venetian villas with neo-classical impediments cling to steep, rocky hillsides. As with all of the Dodecanese islands, Symi has relics of Classical times and attracted its share of medieval Crusaders, but was also an affluent sponge-trading centre in the Ottoman era. At the heart of what feels like a film set – this unique architectural extravaganza is protected by law – is The Old Markets.
What was once a galleria of shops has been transformed lovingly into a handful of exquisite rooms, without losing the shape of the original building or its sense of heritage; the stone oven of a bakery has been converted into a unique shower, and each of the handful of rooms is themed on an ancient trading route that supplied the market. Décor is a mixture of fine antiques – silver artefacts that once graced the dining table of King George I of the Hellenes – and iPod docking stations, iPads available on request, kingsize beds and percale linens.
But perhaps the highlight is the terrace; sink into a cushioned four-poster day bed with a glass of champagne overlooking one of the best views in the Aegean.
Jennifer Barclay loves to visit Rhodes and other islands by ferry from Tilos, which she now calls home – follow the blog at www.octopus-in-my-ouzo.blogspot.com. Her book about love and Greece called Falling in Honey will be published in March 2013.This article originally appeared on www.uniquehoneymoonideas.com – the website for people who want more from their honeymoon: exhilarating activities, wildlife encounters, romantic journeys and incredible places to stay