Christopher Jackson visits Mykonos – and finds a gem of a boutique hotel just before the season starts
Mykonos is nicknamed the Island of Winds. You have to go to Greece in May – when off season is edging into the season itself – to realise the truth of this.
Naturally the place still exhibits its self-contained charm: the white houses dot the sleepy landscape with geological authority; and there is everywhere the sense of an immemorial seafaring culture. Ships back and forth from here to nearby islands Naxos, Paros, and Ios – the so-called Cyclades. Some of the ferries bear back-packers quad-biking from one island to the next.
But this is not Greece as you may have known it: the beaches aren’t so thick with tourists; the clubs and restaurants are just beginning to warm up; and the weather, though regularly magnificent, is prepared to admit temperature swings and cloud. Most of all, from 6pm onwards those famous winds sift the bay, causing a slight chill: a night-time walk is best undertaken in a jumper.
The Grace Mykonos is cut into the north-west of the island, about a twenty-minute drive from the airport. The hotel operates smooth transfers for guests: you are greeted by a warm towel to wipe away the fact that British Airways now charges £4.50 for a cup of instant coffee in the skies.
The hotel itself has that same typical Grecian look: a place of white lines and wise proportions. To arrive here is the hotel equivalent of unpacking an iPhone: you feel rightaway that all your practical needs have been catered for, and in an unexpectedly aesthetic manner. There is a reception area where we were given a glass of champagne each. We were also greeted by Stephanie and Lara, coincidentally my wife’s sisters’ names, who turned out to be very kind. The uncomplicated warmth of the Greek people is always noticeable, and was especially so during this stay. This national kindliness is enough to make all English people feel they are harbouring secret stratagems.
Our room had a balcony with a view of the bay and a plunge pool. The latter was somewhat obsolete in the off season. May is full of tourists tentatively paddling up to their knees. Then, with a what-the-hell moment of decision, they dive in, only to emerge a second later whooping with astonishment at the freshness of the waters.
Happily addled not to be on the plane anymore, we observed the bay. In the Cyclades, there is always a ghost-like shape in the distance, denoting the next island – perhaps the place you’ll go to next. Admittedly, our view had two wires running across it, like the piping in a Mondrian. But then if the building hadn’t been fed with electricity then we wouldn’t have been able to enjoy the other features of the room: the enormous-headed shower, and the generous hum of the mini-bar.
Stuck in the bay, lurk the only real evil in Mykonos: the cruise-liners, who some days port here six at a time. These are populated by people who haven’t, among other things, the self-sufficiency to google the Grace Mykonos. The retiree cattle leave their great iron grid at 6pm, herding out to sustain the worst restaurants. At 9pm, they are driven back by the encroaching sunset, mooing their approval.
We also went into the Old Town, taking advantage again of the hotel’s excellent shuttle service, and walked round the bay towards the shops. Every few metres there is a small white Orthodox church: to the Englishman used to vast cathedrals, and half-empty cavernous churches, it feels as though a more neighbourly worship is being insisted upon.
Mykonos, though, is paradoxical. Alongside that sense of people looking out for each other, it is also a natural home for the independent-minded. This has to do with the island habitat: we have known since Darwin’s studies of the Galapagos that to develop apart it to develop uniquely.
It’s not surprising then that the LGBTQ community has found sanctuary here. And when history happens on Mykonos, it is also an aspect of a quest for independence – except this time political. Manto Mavrogenous (1796-1848) is the most famous figure associated with the island. This heiress – who was born in nearby Paros – first came here to ask the local leadership to join her revolution against the Ottoman Empire. A life-size bust commemorates her life in the main square.
There are some okay-ish restaurants around the bay, but readers should avoid those and head inland to Eva’s Garden. There are hanging baskets of flowers, friendly service, and customers served unpronounceable delights: dolmades avgolemono (stuffed vine leaves with beef meat, rice and egg-lemon sauce); kolokithokeftedes (zucchini with egg and herbs); and the wonderfully named Mama’s Soutzoukakia – essentially, beef and pork meat, garlic and cumin. ‘Ah the perfect crime,’ said the waiter approvingly, as this last dish came out.
Food would prove one of our highlights in Mykonos. The following morning, we headed to the Grace’s terrace bar to experience its exquisite breakfast tasting menu. Up there, is an even better view than our room – the Mondrian wires cannot aspire to these heights – and the eating area neighbours a pool and sunbathing area.
This is a fine hotel: all air and light and warmth. In Greece in May, you’re likely to get the best fish catch as there are fewer tourists competing for your meal, and the beaches on good days cheerful and spacious. It is a place to be happy in – and the same can be said of Mykonos, and the Grace itself.
Christopher Jackson is deputy editor of Spear’s