Rhodes: A classical re-education

HANNAH STEPHENSON quietly revisits the Greek island where she once let it all hang out. Pictures by Stephen Patterson

THE last time I came here was on an alcohol-fuelled, man-hunting 18-30s type of holiday back in the Eighties. I saw little beyond Faliraki’s bars and nightclubs, did virtually no sightseeing and spent the days in dark sunglasses with a hangover and a glass of Alka-Seltzer.

Taking my own family back more than 20 years later, I wondered if it had retained some sense of history and traditional culture away from the tourist trail.

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At the southern end of the Aegean, about 10 miles from the Turkish coast, Rhodes is the largest of the Dodecanese group of islands. It’s 48 miles long and 23 miles wide, and promises 300 days of sunshine a year.

There’s no trace of the Colossus of Rhodes, one of the Seven Wonders of the World. An earthquake toppled it centuries ago, but there is still much to see in a long history dating back to the Stone Age. Waves of invaders – Persians, Romans, Arabs, Knights of St John, Ottoman Turks and Italians – valued this strategic location.

With children in tow, you can’t rely entirely on antiquity. More to the point in our all-inclusive hotel complex were the umpteen pools, water slides, football camp and non-stop daytime and evening entertainment. Air-conditioned rooms are bright and spacious and some guests have swim-up rooms with a pool outside, while deluxe villas have private pools. An adults-only bar in the deluxe area is for all guests.

The hotel complex is split into a number of different areas, one for activities and daytime entertainment. My kids loved the pool sessions, with kayaking and raft-building, while the high rope course is enjoyable if you don’t suffer from vertigo.

The football camp, run by enthusiastic coaches, took place on the Astroturf pitch, and my son probably learned more in a week about soccer skills than he did all season with his club back home. A branded football shirt and water bottle for each child went down extremely well.

While the kids joined activities on site, we discovered the quieter part of the complex with yet another swimming pool with a swim-up bar. I whiled away hours sipping fruit punches in the cool water. I also discovered a fantastic spa in the quieter area with a tranquil indoor pool, an ideal escape from the heat of the day. The spa offered treatments for kids, so my 10-year-old daughter had a manicure with me.

But one of the main pleasures was not having to think about food. The buffet restaurant offered the usual European food, with a fabulous Greek section with all the favourites and some new ones, vegetarian dishes and mouth-watering local produce. In the evenings, the whole family could enjoy pop shows, bingo, live music and cabaret. My children went to cinema nights organised by club staff.

To see the island, we hired a car and found that driving wasn’t too difficult – if you avoid potholes and locals riding mopeds three deep with no protective gear. First stop on our cultural quest was the capital, Rhodes. The medieval old town within the city walls is a maze of narrow streets, arches and old buildings mixing Byzantine churches and Gothic architecture and housing the Church of Saint John of the Collachium, built in the early 14th century and dedicated to a patron of the Order.

While my husband took the children for some serious haggling for leather handbags, belts and watches in the old town, I wandered around the imposing Palace of the Grand Masters, the largest building in the medieval city, with its majestic stone walls and grand staircase leading to the upper floor.

The city of Rhodes is a magnet for tourists, but you escape the crowds in shady tavernas in the old town.

After that, we headed for beaches on the east coast, avoiding Faliraki in search of some peace.

Lindos, further south, has a fantastic beach and was about the only stunning resort I remembered from my last visit. Although busier than it was 20 years ago, with new hotels along the coast, this area is little changed; two beautiful sheltered bays between a rocky hill, its peak dominated by the acropolis of Lindos, sitting above the whitewashed houses of the village with their pebble-paved courtyards and narrow alleys. It was too hot to walk to the top, but many people take the traditional transport – a donkey – for the princely sum of five euros.

Away from the traffic of Lindos, we opted for the quieter beach of Agathi, 15 minutes south of Kolymbia, which boasts free sun-loungers, meltingly soft sand and shimmering blue water which deepens so slowly it is quite safe for children. My son went waterskiing for 20 euros, while others preferred “wet and wild” rides on ringos behind the speedboat.

On another day we found the nearby shingle beach of Stegna, a pretty fishing village near the town of Archangelos, famed for its pottery and carpet-making. Stegna is the only place where I have hired a sun-lounger and been presented with fresh figs from the owner’s garden. For windsurfing, you’re better off on the west coast, where the sea is rougher.

Further inland, past the well-worn tourist attraction of Epta Piges, famed for its pines and spring water, we drove through unspoilt villages, including Archipoli and Psinthos, largely ignored by tourists. The villages have whitewashed houses and their own squares.

Even in villages, the locals have a smattering of English. Off the beaten track, tavernas use food from local farms and can be half the price at twice the freshness of many resort restaurant.

To the west, Embonas is the main wine-making region and you can visit the Emery Wine Factory, which produces much of the wine on the island, for a tasting. Further south-west, in Siana, you can pick up some local honey and a bottle of suma, the infamous firewater.

GETTING THERE...

• Hannah Stephenson was a guest of First Choice Holidays which offers seven nights all-inclusive at the five-star Holiday Village Rhodes, in early May, from £764, departing Manchester.

• Reservations: 0871 200 4455 and www.firstchoice.co.uk Rodos Cars delivers and collects a car at the airport or hotel of your choice, free of charge. Visit www.rodoscars.gr, or e-mail the firm at [email protected]