So it was that we left Amanzoe to go to its sister hotel, Nikki Beach. Nikki Beach is not so much a full sister as a step sister, sharing only the investment company behind the two ventures. It is this investment company who have the vision of returning the Greek Riveria to its former heyday – a heyday that used to see the likes of Sophia Lauren, Dean Martin and Leonard Cohen grace its shores. Today it is almost exclusively Greeks who come here, with the odd royal, model and oligarch thrown in for good measure.
The epicentre of the Riviera on the mainland is Porto Heli – a town set on a beautiful natural harbour. At one end there is a marina full of yachts – this area is very popular for sailing enthusiasts. This end is the more attractive part with its array of tavernas, a smattering of bars, some small shops and a children’s play area that has seen decidedly better days. It is nice enough, but lacks somewhat in classical Greek charm. The other side of the bay is a different story. This is where the hotel chains built their large 1960s complexes – most of which now are either closed, or in need of updating. And, at the very end of the strip, is the gleaming white Nikki Beach – its presence a sign of hope in an area with far more potential than it has investment.
Nikki Beach is generally known for its hip beach clubs dotted around the world from Miami to St Tropez and Thailand. This is their first hotel, so it was a little unexpected that they would choose Porto Heli to launch – again a statement of intent. The hotel itself is on the beach front, a rarity these days in Greece, and the only one in Porto Heli to have this position.
The first thing that strikes you about the hotel is that everything is white. The walls, the seats, the floor – even the staff wear white. Move up to the rooms, and the theme continues. The only non-white element is the floor to ceiling room length mirror which of course reflects the whiteness of the room: that is unless you draw the white curtain across it. Our room had an enormous shared paddling pool, whereas other deluxe rooms get their own jacuzzis or plunge pools. The standard rooms, which are a good size still, all come with a modest balcony to watch the stunning sunsets. Every room here gets a sea view, and it’s definitely a view worth having. The bathroom is integrated into the room via a sliding window which opens onto a deep bath and powerful rain shower, whereas the rooms also sport kitchen sinks and microwaves, presumably to support room-based cocktail making and snacks. You get the sense that Nikki Beach is very much set up as a party hotel.
So, if white is not your thing, this hotel is not for you. However, to be fair to Nikki Beach it is aimed at a particular clientele – trendy 20- or 30-something couples, without kids. Or, as my wife, four year old and I were told as we were escorted to our room, “Nikki Beach is all about hanging out in the jacuzzi with your friends, looking sexy, drinking champagne and having fun. Its all about seeing and wanting to be seen”. So about as far as it gets from me, then – an early-40s gently-reserved British family man.
Front desk service was extremely friendly and helpful, a real plus point when trying to navigate an area that holds a lot of promise but not too much development. The bar staff were similarly attentive and effective. The waiting staff on the other hand seem to have taken the mantra of being seen too much to heart – they look great, but they need to pick up some basics on how to wait on tables. I asked about this, and was told that this was the first season that the hotel had been open so there was still a lot of training going on. I hope they sort this element out, as of everything this was the standout let-down of a hotel that broadly has it right for the clientele it aims to serve. Similarly, the food was a little hit and miss; the restaurant being passable, but the room service we abandoned. I could only conclude that the room service menu was made by someone other than the main kitchen – but then you don’t really come to Nikki Beach for its culinary delights. Besides, there are some great local tavernas nearby.
The pool – white, of course, – is a strong point, and being right on the beach it is truly impressive with the obligatory infinity aspect. You can lean on the edge of the pool here and look out across the undeniably beautiful bay, punctuated by an attractive fishing wreck that is lying on its side, and apparently it was not sunk there on purpose. Interestingly, this also belies the fact that the water in front of the hotel is very shallow – the boat is 30 metres out and the water at that point is still only waste deep. Surrounding the pool they have placed the classic sun loungers, but warming to their couples theme many of these are actually more double bed than lounger, some of them with four posts and awnings to keep you cool. Relaxing here is not a problem.
The beach itself is a little disappointing. The natural sand here is a mud colour, and many of the beaches in the area are pebble beaches, so, to mitigate against this, Nikki Beach have brought in their own sand, but it doesn’t quite make up for what lies beneath. It is not terrible, but it is certainly a far cry from the gorgeous golden beaches and crystal clear water that holidaymakers have come to expect of this part of the world. If you stay here though, you will only use the sea for its visual impact, the infinity pool, loungers and sand around the pool more than make up for what is lacking on the beach itself.
On our last night I discovered Nikki Beach had a final ace to play – their roof terrace. Here they serve sushi (a cut above the restaurant on the ground floor) and cocktails staffed by extremely inventive mixologists. It is here where you can really see the heritage of the beach club at work – lots of comfortable areas in which to eat, drink and relax, finished off with gentle mood lighting, appropriate music and a big sky above you glittering with stars in a way that you only ever get in the southern Med or North Africa. The view from here is stunning, and if nothing else it is worth coming up here to see the sun go down. It is to the roof terrace where the millionaires with their yachts and villas are wont to pop in to relax. On the night we were there it was the King of Holland’s turn to have a few drinks (not believing the claim I took a good look and Googled him to ascertain that I was, in fact, in the presence of a king). Like so much else about this area it has the power to surprise – the rich and famous owning luxury holiday villas a mere stone’s throw from the currently unremarkable town of Porto Heli.
However, get out of Porto Heli and you can see why the likes of Amanzoe and Nikki Beach are banking on a renaissance for the region. The area has one of the greatest capacities to surprise that I have come across – from the incredible islands of Hydra and Spetses nearby, to impressive ancient Greek ruins still in use, secret beaches and wonderful tavernas there is more than enough to keep the restless tourist occupied, and should you wish to kick back and relax – both Nikki Beach and Amanzoe will deliver that in spades. Its Achilles’ Heel remains the long car journey from Athens. However, should the much discussed seaplane service from Athens begin to serve the area – cutting 2 hours off the trip down here – then Porto Heli will suddenly become very much a going concern.
If that happens I would fully expect to return in five years and find it utterly transformed.
Nikki Beach Resort & Spa, Porto Heli, Argolis, Greece. Room rates at Nikki Beach Resort & Spa are from €295 in high season, not including breakfast. For more information, visit www.nikkibeachhotels.com.
Next weekend, Larry ‘does islands’, from the quintessential Skiathos to the lesser-known Evea…did you know that Evea is Greece’s second largest (after Crete)? And there’ll be more topical titbits next weekend in the Arb’s travel special…