Monday, 14 July 2014

Weekend Life....Levendis Estate, Ithaca, Greece

Levendis Estate, Ithaca, Greece, early June 2014.

It was the trip we always dreamt of taking but had never quite managed.  Crystal clear turquoise water, azure blue skies, white pebble beaches tucked away in secluded coves accessible only by boat; the heady scent of jasmine, rosemary and pine mixed with the tang of sea salt; waking in the early morning sun to the sound of waves crashing against the cliffs far below and the soft, distant clang of the village church bell.  Dreamy, romantic and impossibly beautiful…. where was this hideaway? Not some far-flung destination accessible only with tedious, jet-lag inducing flights . . . but the Greek island of Ithaca.

Rich in history, legend and ancient mythology – the fabled Greek warrior Odysseus took ten years to complete the epic journey back to Ithaca after the end of the Trojan war – we were on our own personal odyssey though admittedly not nearly as noble as that of Odysseus. Ours was to simply relax, read, swim, nap and take that trip we had always dreamt of.  And our beautiful home for the week, Levendis Estate, perched high above Afales Bay on the Northern tip of Ithaca, was the perfect location for our quest.  With spectacular unbroken views of the surrounding countryside, craggy cliffs plunging into the brilliant blue sea below and the distant mountains of Lefkada, our first glimpse of Levendis took our breath away.  Even on the rainy afternoon of our arrival (unusual for early June on Ithaca) the pervading sense of peace, tranquility and utter beauty was captivating.

Greek-Australian owners, Marilyn (Mal) and Spero Raftopulos, have created a wonderfully unpretentious organic retreat on Spero’s ancestral property where the only decisions you need make are which beach you will swim at that day (shady Kourvoulia or secluded Perivoli), which sleepy seaside village will you visit for lunch (Frikes or Kioni), which creamy Dodoni ice-cream will you choose after a long morning hike (pistachio or hazelnut…..or both!), which tree will you doze under in the warm afternoon sun (olive or eucalyptus) and which wine will you sip to watch the setting sun (white or rosé).  Set on 7 terraced acres brimming with centuries-old olive groves (we snuck a cutting from one of Mal and Spero’s olive trees to plant on our balcony in London*), fields of wildflowers, towering cypress and eucalyptus trees – the latter reminding me of our distant home in Australia - and landscaped gardens overflowing with white roses, vibrant flowers, and thick hedges of fragrant rosemary and lavender, Levendis Estate is a visual and olfactory sensation.  Camouflaged by the magnificent gardens are four blue-shuttered, two-bedroom guest cottages dotted around the estate. Simply designed, with rustic, comfortable interiors, the cottages are in keeping with the laid-back, low-key feel of Ithaca. You could come back from a day at the beach with sandy** feet – and we did – and not worry about being scolded by the housekeeper.  Outside, gorgeous pink bougainvillea tumble from the terrace roof while the vines provide welcome shade for long alfresco lunches and dinners.

Spending time with warm, easy-going Mal and Spero and their adult children Kate and Naki (each morning Mal runs a coffee shop at the top of the estate where guests can chat and discuss plans for the day, grab an espresso and light breakfast, collect freshly-baked village bread as well as organic seasonal produce from the garden) it is obvious that guest happiness – and a relaxing, hassle-free holiday – is vitally important to them. And given the number of guests that return to Levendis year after year, it is clear that they have achieved this. From the thoughtful food provisions in our cottage on arrival (homemade jams, poached fruit, muesli and thick yoghurt, wine, a loaf of village bread, eggs, decadent chocolate truffles) and the homeopathic toiletries in the bathroom (the aloe healing hydration tonic was brilliant for soothing overly sunkissed skin) to airport transfers, and arranging car hire, Mal and Spero have thought of everything.

We spent our days pootling around Ithaca by car (and boat!) visiting drowsy mountain-top villages, some with only a few inhabitants or abandoned completely***, swimming in turquoise water so clear we could see tiny striped fish darting around our legs, hiking through olive groves and cypress forests with only the melodic hum of cicadas and the clang of goat bells for company, splashing about in Levendis’ breathtaking infinity pool until our fingers and toes were wrinkly, feeding Onkey - Mal and Spero’s rescue donkey - our leftover fruit and vegetable scraps, reading (and napping) under the shade of the beautiful old olive tree at the front of our cottage as pretty yellow butterflies danced around our bare legs, eating simple, zingy salads, grilled calamari, briny olives and traditional Greek dips bursting with flavor (and garlic!) all washed down with a carafe of house rosé. It was one of the most incredible, magical and restorative weeks of my life and I feel so grateful to Mal and Spero for introducing us to their little piece of paradise, Levendis Estate.

And what did we bring back in our suitcase? No t-shirts proclaiming we had been to Ithaca and survived. Instead two bottles of creamy, herbaceous olive oil from Levendis, a clutch of beautiful smooth stones we had collected over the week, each stone from a different beach, our precious olive cutting, sunkissed skin (even I, who slathers on copious amounts of suncream and is never without a hat), and most importantly the happiest memories of a place I know we will return to again and again.  Our Odyssey was complete.

To Do:

Ithaca is a turn up, kick-your-shoes-off and head to the nearest beach or taverna kind of place.  It isn’t a party island (though don’t leave behind the headache tablets completely - those carafes of wine over long lunches can kick quite a punch) but that is precisely the point of holidaying on Ithaca. If you love pristine beaches, peaceful traditional villages, friendly people, walking paths that hug the dramatic coastline and spectacular scenery, you will adore Ithaca.

At Levendis Estate, Mal has prepared two comprehensive compendiums (the best I have come across!), which detail the best beaches (depending if you are holidaying with littlies or not) and things to do on Ithaca during your stay (drives, walks, day excursions, boat hire, scuba diving, pilates, yoga, restaurant and taverna recommendations).

Highlights?

Hiring a boat from George at Kioni Boat Hire for the day. Mal packed us an esky picnic lunch and after some instruction from George (with detailed questioning from me on the likelihood of sharks – he laughed and said “No sharks!”) we set off. Wind in our hair and slicing through the intense blue water, we hugged the coastline and explored deserted coves and beaches.  We finally put down anchor at a little beach - “our beach” - and sat with our legs in the water, sipping wine, snacking on homemade dips and bread, and intermittently slipping into the water to cool off.  A perfect day.

The hike from Levendis Estate to Frikes via the coastal road.  Exhausting (the first part is mostly uphill) but rewarding with spectacular views. Take lots of water and your swimsuit for a dip at Marmakas Beach before heading on to Frikes for lunch and ice-cream.

Take the drive up to Kathara Monastery for sensational views back towards Vathy.

Tip: Buy wet shoes before you go (ours were from Two Bare Feet) and if you wear glasses, a pair of prescription goggles are a must (we chose Aqua Sphere Eagle goggles) to see starfish, sea urchins, bristle worms, and ditzy little fish hiding in the sea grass.

Eat + Drink:

Staying at Levendis you have the option of self-catering, ordering home-cooked “ready” meals, salads and dips which Mal or Spero will deliver in the early evening (brilliant for the first night of your stay and anyone travelling with little children), or eating out in the local villages (Stavros, Frikes, Platreithias and Kioni).

Polyphemus, Stavros. Tucked away in a pretty garden in Stavros, we enjoyed fried Greek cheese, creamy feta and zucchini fritters, and grilled calamari.

Penelope Restaurant, Frikes. Lovely seaside setting with pretty turquoise and white chairs. Try the aubergine salad (mop up the garlicky oil with chunks of excellent bread), moussaka, and souvlaki.

Dodoni Coffee Shop, Frikes. Peter makes a great macchiato or cappuccino and is the man to see for bowls of creamy, cold Greek ice-cream. We looked forward to our daily chat with Peter….and our scoop of hazelnut parfait ice-cream. An excellent vantage point for yacht peeping as well.

Rementzo, Frikes

Yefuri Restaurant and Bar, Platreithias. We only had a drink here (great for village-watch!) but will return for a meal on our next visit to Ithaca.

*Definitely do not try this if you are visiting from Australia!

**There are a couple of sandy beaches on Ithaca one of which is directly below Levendis Estate.

*** The 1953 earthquake devastated Ithaca with the result that many homes and historical buildings were destroyed. Many Ithacans immigrated to Australia, South Africa, Canada and America to escape the devastation. Hence the very strong Australian-Greek connection on Ithaca and you are just as likely to hear a G’day as Yassas in the small villages.

We were hosted by Levendis Estate on our trip to Ithaca.

A note on the photographs: 

Onkey the donkey loves littlies but can be a little nervous around adults due to his past mistreatment (before he was rescued by Mal and Spero).... but the way to his heart (and trust)  is through food scraps. I spent a lot of time with Onkey chatting to him and feeding him vegetable and fruit scraps. 

The bearded chap has a sister in Sydney and in his younger days apparently had quite the adventures in Kings Cross ;)


11 comments:

  1. Wow...I was planning a trip in my head as I looked & read your post...seriously! Amazing photography as always, what a place. xox

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    1. Hey Debra - argh! It was a dream trip - it took me 7 years to finally make my dream of visiting a Greek island a reality but it was so worth the wait! It was just so beautiful and well, I didn't want to leave!

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  2. Amazing photography..!! I'm from Greece but I always find it surprising more beutiful through foreigners' eyes, but Ithaka and most islands in general are superbly beautiful anyway. The place you stayed is just perfect, and that view...!

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    1. Thanks Christina! I am the same when I see photographs of Australia - it is lovely to see my country through the eyes of other people. It makes me so proud and happy! And yes, Levendis Estate was just perfect - the view was incredible, straight out to sea from our cottage (perfect for my morning coffee and listening to the birds and waves!).

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  3. Aaah these photographs make me happy, thanks for that!

    x Lola

    www.introducingiamlola.blogspot.co.at

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    1. @Laura - yay! So pleased they made you happy :))) I was so happy being there!

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  4. Absolutely stunning photos! I really want to visit Greece now... it's so picturesque. Thank you for sharing!

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    1. @Dorothy - Ithaca blew me away. It feels somehow "untouched"....I think because it doesn't have an airport so it doesn't attract hoards of tourists like other islands. It feels authentic....and everyone was so friendly and nice!

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  5. Good lord, these photos are AMAZING. I'm seriously in love with almost every single shot. Would it be okay for me to share your photography on my blog? I just can't keep this to myself!

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  6. @Christina - sure! No problem Christina, and thank you for your very kind words!

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  7. Great post :)

    www.tiateilli.blog.com

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