I’m sitting on a bench, watching windsurfers glide effortlessly across the expanse of an azure sea. Between us, on the beach, the orange fringes on parasols flicker in the breeze that the Greek island of Rhodes is famous for, and on the horizon a cruise ship moves slowly from right to left, like a prop in an amateur dramatics production.
Behind me, in Ixia, on the outskirts of the capital Rhodes Town, the backdrop is a collection of sophisticated hotels, all trying to outdo each other with their good looks, style and innovative architecture.
But if legend is to be believed, this sense of style is nothing new; Rhodes has always had a penchant for beauty. One story goes that Rhodes emerged from the bottom of the blue sea, profuse with flowers, and Helios, the mythological being, made it the most beautiful in the Aegean. Another tale tells how Rhodes was named after a very beautiful rose. Whatever her origins, the island, set alongside the western coast of Turkey, is a beauty in her own right, with a mix of sea, mountain and meadow, and a mild climate boasting just two seasons – spring and summer.
Rhodes is the largest of the Dodecanese islands, yet with a coastline of just 220km, visitors can explore the whole island, not just their holiday corner. Ironically, she’s nearer to Turkey – just 18km away from the southern shore – than the Greek mainland, which is more than 200km away. And while she’s up-to-date with her luxurious hotels and spas, there’s still a strong sense of history in parts.
Due to the economic crisis that tightened its grip on the Greeks, the country has had a tough few months by the time I fly into Diagoras International Airport in the north of the island with my travelling companions – husband Ian, son Jack, and Jack’s friend George (both boys are 15). But if the crisis has done anything for the people of Rhodes, it’s made them even friendlier and they are as generous in spirit as the Greeks have ever been. Before we return home, we travel around every part of the spearhead-shaped island, finding nothing but hospitality, friendliness and Greek good humour. Our first port of call is an €80 (about Dh330) cab ride from the airport to Kiotari Bay in the south-east, where we are staying at the Miraluna Village and Spa. Our mezzanine room in this large complex overlooks the pools and a taverna from the front, and at the back, upstairs, we have our own small dip pool. Our two rooms are comfortable, with a double bed, and two singles, a mini fridge, television, sofa and an en-suite shower room.
Always hungry, the boys love the all-inclusive package, which sees them tucking into cooked breakfasts and traditional Greek dishes at lunch and dinner – roast lamb, moussaka, meatballs and chicken stews – while overlooking the sea. After a few days, they realise there’s also a 4pm children’s tea, so they enjoy burgers and fish fingers too. With the all-day ice cream, it really is a teenage culinary paradise.
Although the brilliant crazy golf, evening entertainment and drinks are included in the package, there are extras to pay for… the internet, the safe – vital now that travellers are carrying cash instead of using credit cards in Greece. On the beach, the sunbeds are €7 for a pair. The first attendant we meet seems embarrassed to charge us, only to relax when I ask if there are any sharks in the sea. He soon smiles, and winks at the men in our group, and tells them: ‘Just mermaids.’
Just a 15-minute walk away is our favourite beach on Rhodes – almost hidden, Glystra Beach is perfect for swimming and snorkelling. The café is mobile, but don’t judge. The food is delicious!
As we tuck into Greek salads and cheese burgers, we hear a choo choo and some bells ringing, and spot a little train that tours the area, playing catchy Motown music. Costing €5 per person, it’s a great way to check out the surroundings and Ian and I hop aboard, leaving our supercool teenagers so embarrassed they pretend they don’t know us. The Miraluna resort is just half an hour by bus from Lindos, which is the jewel in Rhodes’s crown. A picture-postcard pretty village that is totally pedestrianised, Lindos is as popular with football club owners (Roman Abramovich’s yacht is a regular sight in Lindos harbour) as with tourists, many of whom jump on cruises to see the dazzling 17th-century houses, with courtyards of black-and-white pebble mosaic, overflowing with hibiscus and bougainvillea.
The main streets are lined with tourist shops where good buys are tablecloths, leather goods and olive oil products, but it’s easy to go off the beaten track and explore the labyrinthine alleys. On top of all this is the spectacular acropolis, which dates from a century before the acropolis in Athens.
It’s a strenuous 10-minute climb to the entrance and definitely not a hike for the unfit, especially in the scorching hot midday sun. There are well-cared-for donkeys that carry visitors up the hill, if their conscience allows (mine didn’t).
Entry to the Acropolis is €6 and even if you’re not impressed by the fourth-century Temple to Athena or the soaring pillars of a Greek temple silhouetted against a clear sky, it’s worth the nominal entrance fee for the panoramic views of Lindos village and her sandy beach.
By now my husband Ian has started a holiday romance with a red Citroen convertible, hired from Oasis Car Hire near the Miraluna for €50 a day. Because Rhodes is a small island, we can drive down to the southernmost tip within half an hour. En route to Prassonissi we spot melons growing in the fields, and once there, we escape the many surfers and walk to find a secluded bay for a swim.
With an appetite built up, we head back to the hub of activity and tuck into swordfish at Oasis Taverna. To the boys’ delight, the Greek waiter confidently corrects our pronunciation of swordfish, emphasising the silent W, which starts a whole new holiday version of the English language.
Our next road trip is from the Miraluna to the Atrium Platinum in Ixia, near Rhodes Town, where we’re spending our second week.
Our first impressions are unreliable. Nestled among several other huge hotels, about 3km from the capital, I yearn for the quietness of Kiotari Bay, not the busyness of a capital city, albeit a small one. How wrong I am. Breathtakingly beautiful, the Atrium is privately owned – by a family of architects, who have put their innovative stamp on this five-star hotel good and proper. Their aim was to combine nature, the mountain and the tranquillity of the area, and by building their 299-bedroomed hotel into the hillside, in 2011, they have done this without a doubt. You enter the spacious, gleaming lobby on level eight, where the main restaurant is also found, and apart from some speciality restaurants on the ninth floor, serving Asian, Greek and Italian food, everything else is below. Even the car park is on level five and it takes a while to get our heads around this upside-down hotel!
The corridors on level three are a little dim, so when we open the doors to our rooms, the light, the airiness and the sense of space take our breath away. With silver light features and immaculate, tasteful decor, the look is one of subtle opulence. From our balconies we look out over the pools, and further afield, the sea.
We’re on full board so we have three meals a day in the restaurant, a beautiful spacious room, resplendent with traditional Greek pillars, and geometrical design on the ceiling. The buffet breakfast suits all our tastes – mackerel for Ian, waffles and maple syrup for the boys and eggs, fruit and smoothies for me. Lunch is also a buffet, exquisitely laid out and the choice is huge – moussaka, salmon, squid, lamb and stuffed tomatoes were just some of our favourites.
For dinner the buffet is even more exotic with sushi, filo prawns, calamari and vegetable spring rolls among the starters, and main courses of salmon in ginger sauce, Chinese spice chicken and roast duck. The desserts feature my holiday staple – Greek baklava pastries – along with tiramisu, a huge cheeseboard, cakes and a pancake counter. The staff are so accommodating you get the impression if what you want isn’t there, they’ll get it, cook it, and serve it with a smile for you. Even the evening entertainment is brilliant – we love Rock Night where a band plays music from Robbie Williams to ACDC. When we get back to our rooms, there are chocolate kisses on our pillow as part of the turn-down service.
Because it’s so beautiful and we feel so cosseted, we are reluctant to tear ourselves away from the pool area, just venturing to a nearby café for a game of minigolf. But a trip to Rhodes Town is recommended, if only to see the Old Town. It’s a pleasant coastal saunter from the Atrium, and as you get nearer the town, the waves lash menacingly at the rocks.
In the Old Town, walk up the striking Avenue of the Knights, an imposing cobblestone street, which dates back to medieval times and, even now, has a noble aura about it. Its lofty buildings stretch in a 600-metre unbroken wall, with huge doorways and arched windows. The Palace of the Grand Master, also known as Kastello, is built at the highest point of the city, yet it isn’t so busy you can’t stop and read the information as you admire the main hall, mosaics and courtyards.
We stumble upon tucked-away tavernas and squares – a favourite is Socratous Garden, where we sit among trees growing pomegranates, oranges, bananas and dates. Browsing around craft shops selling leather goods and pottery, we’re astounded at the number of olive products – there’s olive oil shampoo, bath products, skincare and cosmetics, while the wood is made into picture frames, chessboards, chopping boards and kitchen utensils. In one shop, a shopkeeper half the height of our boys hugs them, then rushes off to fetch them a biscuit – even she has sussed the way to the teenage boys’ heart! A little inland, at Petaloudes, just 10km south-west of the airport, is the Valley of the Butterflies. Crickets chorus as we amble along the narrow cobbled paths, spotting butterflies – which are actually strikingly coloured moths – fluttering through the lush vegetation. Trees form a canopy and shade us from the midday sun as we head uphill over several rustic footbridges to a monastery. It’s forbidden to touch the trees and because the butterflies like their peace and quiet, the area has almost a meditative feel. Also worth a look is the nearby Natural History Museum, which is small, but fun and free.
In the opposite direction is Kalithea Springs, where scenes for films such as The Guns of Navarone, Zorba the Greek and Escape to Athena were shot. A pretty bay with curative waters, Kalithea attracts people with conditions as diverse as arthritis, asthma and diabetes.
I’d quietly wondered if a small Greek island might be too tame for two active boys, but as I watched Jack and George jumping into the sea and swimming at Kalithea, I realised Rhodes is the island with everything, for all ages – brilliant beaches, lovely people, water sports, stunning scenery, great food – and a good dollop of history.