By Emily Olsen
Named after Io, a beautiful priestess who caught the eye of Zeus, the Ionian Sea has always been steeped in romance. With tales of nymphs, shipwrecks, caves and waterfalls, there are over 20 islands scattered to the west of mainland Greece. And just beyond Skorpios, the private island where Jackie Kennedy famously married Aristotle Onassis in 1968, lies Meganisi. One of the Ionian’s best kept secrets.
Sloping emerald hills, punctuated by olive groves, sleepy harbours, and the occasional goat perched haphazardly on limestone cliffs, the island is known for sailing, and most travellers to Meganisi stay on the water – glossy yachts and sleek catamarans bobbing amid brightly coloured fishing boats.
The island is quiet and unassuming. If you’re looking for sleek rooftop restaurants and beach bars with bottle service, then this isn’t the island for you. Meganisi feels like it’s hanging in a time warp – in the most charming way – as if each moment could have been plucked from decades before. There’s a routine here – from the early-dawn hum of fishing boats and the mid-morning delivery of peaches to sleepy afternoons where locals play backgammon in the shade and slinky stray cats nap under tables. Tourists are not the focus, which is what makes it so enchanting. This also means honeymooners will have to make their own adventures – renting a boat, hiring a scooter, or finding hidden tavernas for long lazy lunches.
Set the Scene
The island is sprinkled with villas, apartments and a couple of pretty hotels. On each visit to Meganisi you’ll notice the concrete skeletons from the year before now transformed into whitewashed, blue shuttered holiday homes with the first signs of hot pink bougainvillea climbing above freshly painted front doors.
But the island’s newest opening is a little different. A Bond-style lair baked into the landscape, the property is both deliciously understated and yet draws the eye – with yachties reaching for their binoculars for a closer look as they head into Meganisi’s largest port, Vathy.
During the day, the earthy structure would be barely distinguishable from the craggy hillside if it weren’t for the thin lapis line of the hotel’s infinity pool snaking its way the entire length of the property. But at night, it glows. Warm light flooding from the hotel’s terrace restaurant and bouncing off the water below.
The hotel was built with the surrounding nature in mind. Even the reception is open air: sans-walls with deep cushioned sofas, low coffee tables and statues of big-bottomed ladies sitting amongst terracotta pots filled with bunches of dried lavender. This is the work of acclaimed interior designer, Dimitris Papanastasiou.
The only doors are those to each of the 18 suites – large floor to ceiling entrances that slide open to let the warm breeze swallow up the air conditioning. Elegantly stacked up the hillside, all rooms have unobstructed views of the Ionian Sea and most come with pools or hot tubs.
With a nod to Santorini in their design, the interiors are calming and fresh, with low couches submerged under giant cushions, roomy walk-in showers, and lofty wardrobes – all white-washed with tones of milky coffee and taupe.
The curtains are long and white and wispy and do almost nothing to keep the light out, but that means each day the sun rises and bounces off the swimming pool, filling the entire room with golden dappled early morning sunshine.
Food and Drink
Expect deconstructed Greek Salads with generous slabs of feta, saganaki prawns, chargrilled broccoli, fried courgettes, and fresh-out-of-the-oven bread with a generous glug of the local olive oil. You might even see the chef wondering around the property, pensive as he slaps fresh rosemary against his palm and crumbles wild oregano between his fingers.
The draw of Vathy’s traditional tavernas is inevitable, but it’s worth having at least one or two evening meals at the Azur Retreat, particularly as the hotel has just started serving sushi – using the morning’s catch for their take on Japanese cuisine.
And, while it might be tempting to keep drinking freddo cappuccinos into the early evening, the drinks menu and wine list promises the perfect sundowners – wines from the Peloponnese sit alongside Dom Perignon and cosmopolitans and old fashioneds together with aromatic, local concoctions – the Azurina blends gin with fresh local cucumber, elderflower, rosemary and ginger.
Our recommendation? A crisp bottle of white sent to your balcony to enjoy while you watch boats slowly gathering in the harbour for supper: the most soothing evening ritual.
The retreat has Honeymoon written all over it.
From the perfect pool suites to the promise of solitude with the clever architecture, to the Bali day beds fit for two. The team is particularly attentive with the knowledge that even if their guests aren’t honeymooners, they are there to feel special. So, couples can expect a fruit platter and a bottle of sparkling wine on arrival. There’s a spa for an extra dose of indulgence, but more than anything, it’s the fact that the Azur Retreat provides the perfect base for an island adventure: Jackie O style explorations on the back of a scooter with hair tucked beneath a silk scarf.
The spa is tucked underground via a long dimly lit staircase. The treatments make the most of the surrounding and local produce, and the spa has partnered with Greek brand Ariadne Athens, which is known for taking inspiration from ancient Mediterranean rituals and ingredients. The ‘Meli’ promises vital hydration and nutrition for the skin using local sage and the island’s honey for the most refreshing facial, while the Confetti Rainfall Shower is the perfect all-body treatment that utilises the power of jasmine and gardenia. Our recommendation for couples would be the Warm Candle massage that combines heated wax and Greek herbs for the most relaxing honeymoon treat.
Vathy is the main town on the island and is around a ten-minute walk from the Azur Retreat. While some couples might choose to scoot or drive their way to dinner, it’s far nicer to walk there and back. The winding walk takes you past white-washed, blue domed churches, little houses where local children watch curiously from balconies, and sunbeaten roadside shrines housing flowers, tealights, and the statues of various beloved saints. You’re never too far from swimming spots in Meganisi, which is another advantage of exploring by foot or scooter – often you can find gaps on the side of the gleaming sun-baked roads where rocky slopes lead down to a hidden oasis of turquoise waters – a necessity for a mid-afternoon dip. And while there are towns nearby that are well worth a visit (Spartochori and Katomeri), it’s well worth hiring a boat from Vathy or Spilia to seek out the spots only accessible by water.
Rates start from £265 per night in a double room on a B&B basis.
Related Article: Honeymoon Review: Grace Hotel, Auberge Resorts Collection Santorini