Spectacular views, luxurious lodgings and culinary excellence make for the perfect post-pandemic travel experience.
Post-pandemic overseas travel had reached near-mythical status in my mind, so you can only imagine the thrill on finally hearing the words, “cabin crew, please prepare for take-off”. We’re leaving London behind at the crack of dawn, headed for a luxurious break at MarBella Elix, the third property to be added to the MarBella Collection portfolio, and the first for the brand outside of Corfu. Mainland Greece, to my shame, had thus far eluded my own portfolio of Places I’ve Been so I’m glad to be making up for it with a stay in this previously undiscovered area – about an hour’s drive from Preveza airport – and one, I’m told, of astounding natural beauty.
Indeed, the hotel is seemingly carved into the verdant mountainside above the golden stretch of Karavostasi beach. The handiwork of Dimitris Thomopoulos and Konstantinos Kydoniatis, the property is designed to respectfully take second place to Mother Nature’s own architectural sass, and in doing so, guests are treated to breath-taking, uninterrupted views of the Ionian Sea. Cleverly, every one of the hotel’s 146 guest rooms and suites, all forward-facing, comes with a dreamy seascape, with Corfu to the right, Paxos straight ahead, and the sparkling turquoise water in between. We are at one with the elements here.
But this is a property of pleasing contrasts and as much as I’m floored by the natural surroundings, I’m also impressed with the hotel’s dramatic, glamorous interior. The first of many pinch-myself moments comes in the capacious, modern, gallery-like lobby, welcome Bellini in hand, as I take in the cool, contemporary environment. The clean lines are as crisp as the sea, but stark minimalism here is offset with thoughtfully placed objets and artworks celebrating the area’s rich cultural heritage and its history during the Ottoman occupation. Two jewel-hued framed kaftans provide a vibrant colour pop against the otherwise neutral décor, while a huge, ornate and exotic hammered brass chandelier hangs overhead. It is a deft mix of old and new.
In a hotel in which every guest room is a room with a view, expectations are high, but even then I can’t help but gasp at the stunning blue-meets-blue horizon in front of me. With its calming, sandy décor – think blonde rattan, ecru linen and rustic wood – the suite is designed to blend seamlessly with the surrounding natural palette, making it impossible not to relax in. There’s an enormous, inviting bed complete with snowy white sheets to dive into, too, but that can wait, the turquoise sea is calling me.
Unlike some luxury resorts in which you can find yourself on the beach in seconds, here, up on the mountain, you have to put in a little bit of work: choose the seriously thigh-toning stone steps if you didn’t manage to hit the gym pre-breakfast, or plump for the far more civilised funicular, sit back, and take in the spectacular views as you slowly descend. A restorative swim in the choppy, warm sea proves nothing short of spiritual, while back on the beach, I’m served a chilled Aperol spritz, straight to my lounger, feeling thoroughly spoilt on the hotel’s Ultra All-Inclusive package. Indeed, all the facilities you could want for are here on the beach, upon which you could easily lose a day. Vehicles for the serious (jet ski) and not-so-serious (plastic pedalo with slide) water sportspeople are available to hire, while the Azure beach restaurant guarantees a laid-back, lengthy lunch between dips.
A bona fide destination for foodies, the hotel boasts four restaurants and three bars with a comprehensive offering from the casual to the haute cuisine. Back on the main site, there’s light bites to be had poolside at the Indigo restaurant, while modern Mediterranean fare is up for grabs at Saffron. If you’re a fan of the hotel buffet, you’ll be like a child in a sweet shop here – albeit one wearing Covid-safe plastic gloves as you fill your plate with a glut of culinary delights. I’m relieved to learn the hotel buffet breakfast is still very much A Thing in a world with Covid, and on my first morning, cannot resist a boastful snap of my smoked salmon and scrambled egg, complete with wow-worthy vista, to send home. As part of the hotel’s exclusive Dine Out programme, we’re treated to a slap-up meal at a local taverna and have our fill of delicious traditional Greek foodstuffs. But the real treat comes at the hotel’s elegant Pearl restaurant. We’ve timed our trip to coincide with the brand’s inaugural culinary series, Greek Chefs Abroad, and we have celebrated global chef Yiannis Kioroglou, together with Alexandros Ioannou of Katogi Averoff Winery, at our disposal for an exclusive pop-up tasting dinner. Relishing our way through ten exquisitely crafted courses with wine pairings, including Fleurs de Côte d’Azur (zucchini blossoms in tomato sauce), Langoustine in the Forest (with raspberry and rosemary sauce), and Black Iberico (with black trumpets and Porto sauce), we are wined and dined to the nines.
Just as MarBella Elix marries its rugged landscape with sleek architecture, so it offers the perfect mix of relaxation and adventure. Sunny mornings lolling on giant beanbags by the pool are met with afternoon hikes to explore the surrounding countryside. We discover a quaint, rustic chapel complete with gilded iconography and ornamental stone tiling. Our guide has us going around the church’s bejewelled wishing tree three times, such is the tradition, before we venture further into a forest of intertwined olive trees and over babbling brooks, all with glorious sunshine peeking through. It is picture postcard pretty.
A rare day of inclement weather sees us swapping out a planned catamaran cruise to neighbouring Paxos and Antipaxos for a cooking class centred around feta and traditional Greek dishes with MarBella head chef Vasilis Moschotas. Rainy days here are made for cheese and wine – and baklava making, of which we devour every sweet, nutty layer.
We are able to visit the islands on the following day, albeit downsized to a (still luxurious) speedboat. We soon discover that what the vessel lacks in deck size it more than makes up for in fun. Before we know it, we’re clinging on for dear life as we hurtle across the Ionian Sea, club tunes from the captain on full blast. It feels impossibly glamorous – and just the right level of dangerous. We take in the sights of the picturesque ports, explore the intricate caves – in which no cumbersome catamaran would fit – and find ourselves jumping into those sparkling turquoise waters before flopping onto the softest sandy beach imaginable. We make the most of our final lunch with a feast of traditional Greek fare at Paxos’ Genesis restaurant, before racing back to pack for the airport. As a final hurrah, we convince the captain to indulge us with a blast of Mamma Mia!. It is beyond cheesy, but after an 18-month travel drought, it proves a fitting soundtrack to our longed-for Greek escapades. Brits abroad, eh?
It doesn’t look like that wishing tree is working. I’d asked for it to formulate a cunning plan for me to stay on in Greece. But in the here and now, I resolve to drink in and bank the sights and sounds, the salty waves, the beating sun and the belting cries of Agnetha and Anni-Frid. I haven’t felt so alive in years – and I’m sure I can live off this feeling for a while, even after the tan fades… My my, Greece, I could never let you go.
Rooms at MarBella Elix start from £121 per night per room on a half board basis (marbella.gr/marbella-elix)
Olympic Holidays offer a 7 night package at MarBella Elix from £615pp, based on 2 people travelling, including 7 nights’ Half Board accommodation with flights from London Gatwick. Departures are available on 4 May 2022, this includes a 37 per cent saving of £366pp (price was £981pp). For bookings, call 020 8492 6868 or visit olympicholidays.com