Myth, history, classical style and natural beauty merge with dramatic effect in the Peloponnese, the vast peninsula that forms southernmost mainland Greece. Shaped like an open hand with four distinct south-facing ‘fingers’, the Peloponnese stretches west to east between the Ionian and Aegean Seas, 8,300 square miles of forests, mountains, coastline, sleepy villages and archaeological wonders. This is Greece’s agricultural heartland, the country’s largest wine and olive producing region. Neat rows of vines and acre upon acre of olive trees fill the landscape, their silver-grey leaves and twisted trunks forming much of the scenic backdrop.
Deliciously off-radar? Well, yes and no. The Peloponnese doesn’t share the international glamour of prime Greek islands like Santorini or Mykonos but wealthy Athenians and European royalty know it well, with their secluded holiday homes hidden in hillsides laced with fig, citrus and carob trees. The King and Queen of the Netherlands have set the pace here, having bought a lavish family home overlooking the sea on the eastern side of the peninsula – the newly christened ‘Greek Riviera’. Those seas, generally calmer than around the Greek islands, are a major reason to visit the Peloponnese. The land is lush and verdant, it’s dramatically different from the arid Cyclades, but most attention lands on the 750-mile coastline with myriad secure and discreet places to moor. Marinas include Kalamata, Spetses and Porto Heli, while sandy beaches tucked into coves and bays across the peninsula offer up idyllic, lazy days afloat.
But the Peloponnese’s greatest claim to fame is its wondrous history and heritage. This is a land of fable and formidable might, named after the mythological King Pelops, it has featured in the works of Homer and Sophocles and was once filled with temples to Zeus, Apollo and Poseidon. Must-visit sites include Olympia, the site of the first Olympic Games in 776 BC and the magnificent fourth century BC limestone amphitheatre of Epidaurus, its perfect acoustics continuing to astonish visitors today. Epidaurus is one of six UNESCO World Heritage Sites in the Peloponnese, where the Mycenaean, Roman and Byzantine dynasties all left their mark. Ottoman mosques and Venetian fortresses are among the architectural wonders but there are more recent marvels too. The Corinth Canal is a narrow, man-made shipping channel constructed at the entrance of the peninsula. The idea of carving a route through the stone cliffs to connect the Corinth and Saronic Gulfs was first conceived 2,000 years ago but only realised at the end of the 19th century. Watching a cruise ship progress skilfully through the sheer stone walls of the slender canal, which is 25 metres at its widest, is mesmerising and a reminder of the ancient ambition that marks the land.
Modern-day Peloponnese celebrates its history with regular festivals, most notably at Easter, the most important celebration in the Greek Orthodox calendar. The town of Leonidio hosts one of the best, filling the sky with colourful lanterns on Easter Saturday in celebration of the resurrection. For the affluent sailing crowd the end of June is an important time, when the delightful car-free island of Spetses hosts an annual four-day Classic Yacht Regatta. Now in its seventh year with over 70 classic and traditional boats, the regatta is a spectacular show of elegance and craftsmanship, run by the Yacht Club of Greece and attended by Olympic sailors and royalty.
Spetses is an island off the eastern coast of Peloponnese, a short journey from lively Porto Heli, which is itself a popular holiday home region for well-heeled weekenders from Athens, just two hours away. The town provides immediate access to scenic coves and beaches, while its natural harbour is regularly filled with imposing yachts. Porto Heli is rapidly becoming an elite destination in the Eastern Mediterranean with the arrival of über expensive five-star hotels. Nikki Beach Porto Heli is a 66-room, gleaming white beachfront property that has successfully brought Miami-beach style to the area. However, top billing – for expense and spoiling luxury – goes to Amanzoe, ten minutes inland and the first villa-integrated European resort from super-hotel brand Aman. Amanzoe opened in 2012, a calming retreat of pale stone, marble and reflective pools, where evenings start around the clifftop fire pit with sunset views as epic as the classically inspired architecture. The 38 suites are in oversized ultra-private cabañas in gardens stuffed with lavender, herbs and olives. Just a short drive away, the elegant Beach Club has an additional spa and gym and more laid-back cabañas, a top tip-off for boat owners who want a day ashore.
Over the past two years, increased flights into Kalamata airport and the arrival of new five-star hotels have raised the profile of the quieter, more remote west. Costa Navarino in Messinia is a substantial and well-thought-out leisure resort aimed at re-creating a traditional Greek village. It has two hotels (smart Romanos and the more family-friendly Westin) and exceptional sports facilities including two golf courses. Nearby marinas include Pylos and Kalamata, while the Bay of Navarino provides safe anchorage for private yachts and sailing boats. Don’t miss out on a day trip to Voïdokiliá, a horseshoe-shaped beach with eye-popping turquoise waters and soft sand dunes, populated by birds and lizards. The twin 13th-century Venetian fortresses at Koroni and Methoni are also well worth a visit. The seaside town of Kardamyli is a favourite with many Europeans who own white holiday homes among the cypress trees, colourful geraniums and bougainvillea.
The Mani peninsula is a wild area of outstanding beauty on the central south coast. Explore the stalagmites and stalactites in the sea-level caves at Diros, walk through the spring wild flowers around the fishing village of Gerolimenas (population 99), or carry on to Cape Tenaro, the southernmost part of mainland Greece, to find the ominous sea cave renowned as the entrance to Hades. East of the Mani is Laconia, whose administrative capital is Sparta, the notorious hard-man city-state of classical times. The pleasures of the Peloponnese today, however, are rather more sybaritic. Anchor on the west-facing Elafonisos Bay for a long lunch at the local taverna before a reviving swim in the cerulean sea and know you are in truly one of the most glorious locations in the Eastern Med.