Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Grand ambitions: ecoluxury in Greece

King Nestor was the ancient Greek fabled for his wisdom, his kindness, his banquets and a mighty palace on the Peloponnese peninsula. Homer tells in the Iliad how he sent a fleet of ships to Troy to bring back the lovely Helen, and in the Odyssey how Nestor's youngest daughter, Polycaste, bathed Telemachus, the son of Odysseus, in his tub.

Well, the palace is now a peaceful old ruin on a hill surrounded by olive groves overlooking Homer's "wine-dark" Ionian sea, Nestor's romantic bath is still there – if a bit grubby – and from the old stones you can just about see beyond the trees some buildings on the coast that future historians may well declare to be a 21st-century palace.

The place is called Costa Navarino, and it was built by a modern-day Nestor. Vassilis Constantakopoulos, aka "the Captain", was a local boy made billionaire shipping magnate, who died in January. He said his life's work was to revitalise one of Greece's most depressed regions with international luxury ecotourism.
By any measure, what the Captain and his son, Achilles, who now runs Costa Navarino, have done is extraordinary. So far, two linked, five-star resorts have been built, the Romanos and the Westin, which opens this week. They are impressive in a sparse, marbled way, full of smart design and fine workmanship, oozing money.
The ambition is impressive. Armies of local masons, gardeners and craftsmen must have been employed for years. There is a sports centre to make the Olympians gape, two "royal" villas for the obscenely rich, immense meeting halls and plazas, six restaurants, two golf courses and, literally, dozens of swimming pools because if you pay enough you get your own.

More remarkably, hundreds of square kilometres were bought up by the Captain over 20 years and the nature is being reordered. The beaches have been untouched, but roads and rivers have been diverted, reservoirs created and two 18-hole golf courses of bright green, watered lawns fashioned among new olive groves and old ruins. Some 6,000 trees have been lifted and replanted; 400,000 shrubs have been heeled in and roof gardens galore created. This is Capability Brown meets Jackie Onassis.

You walk around in wonder. How much money has been spent here? How many Helens of Troy could have been ransomed for the price?

I confess that I am not a resort person. The idea of lounging round a pool or playing golf all day is weird. So we hired a car, pootled off to the Mani peninsula and the 10 major historical sites within a few miles, watched storks in the nearby bird reserve, swam on lonely beaches and came back every night to gorge on five-star foods. It felt shamelessly lavish and we loved it.

As we moved around the area, the vast ambition of the Captain revealed itself. Three miles away, his builders were carving out monster golf course number two, as well as two more five-star resorts. One will be a Banyan Tree brand, with villas dug into the hillside, another will be built high above the lovely Navarino Bay. Ten miles on, near the city of Kalamata, famous for its 1986 earthquake and its olives, the grandest resort of them all is planned. In all, the Captain planned three golf courses, six five-star hotels, perhaps 3,000 rooms spread over hundreds of square kilometres, employing thousands. Motorways are being built to attract rich Athenians, the airport is being expanded and hopes raised that the Captain's vision could turn round the ailing Peloponnese economy.

Locals are agog at the money being spent but no one will say anything against the developments publicly. Vassilis was held in awe, but the longer we stayed, the more we heard shy doubts expressed. Does it make sense, said the whisperers in nearby Pylos, to build golf courses in an arid land, or to ask tens of thousands of people a year to fly in from around the world and threaten a virgin coastline? And what about the cultural landscape? Greece has offended purists by allowing big developments to dominate its wild places. A £800m plan by UK company Minoan for five holiday villages and three golf courses at Cavo Sidero, one of the most remote and ecologically fragile areas of Crete, has been condemned by ecologists and historians and is being fought through the courts.

The Navarino architects have tried to take account of the environment. This isn't parched Crete. The land here is degraded, monocultural olive groves, ecologically wrecked by big farmers and largely devastated by the fires of 2007 which ironically helped developers.

They have used local materials, the hotels are in scale with the landscape; the golf courses will take water only from specially built reservoirs which collect winter run-off, the hot water is solar-powered and the next phase of the development will use its own solar electricity. Collecting and pressing their own olives, and the Captain's idea to set up and fund a marine research observatory for the Academy of Athens and Stockholm University to study the effects of climate change in the Mediterranean are good. Could you call it a genuine ecoresort? Just about.

If there's a problem, it's in the scale. Whatever the Captain's intentions, this is big, risky business. What if Costa Navarino fails to attract the five-star tourists or conferences and has to be sold on? What if the price of aircraft fuel doubles or tourism to Greece becomes prohibitively expensive? Will the Captain's family ever stop buying land or will they buy the rest of the Peloponnese and rule it like Nestor? The sustainability stakes are high, the area of land being taken out of the local economy is vast. The developers argue that there is no option but to think big to have any positive social effect, and that it's possible to blend the old and new cultures. They believe they have improved the environment and argue that a degraded environment acts as a brake on development.

Come back in 10 years and how will this wild stretch of coastline have changed? With luck, not much at all. The golf courses should have blended in, the money from the jobs may have trickled to every family in the poor region, and the young people will no longer have to go to Athens to find work.

But as a reality check, we spent four days roughing it on the beaches and in the quiet villages around the development. In this parallel universe, the food was also fine, the beds were soft and the people welcoming. It felt like going back to a messy home after a lavish weekend away with people you don't know. A case of phew! Best of all, the Greek past and the hospitable spirit of King Nestor was present in both worlds.


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