Mary Gostelow falls in love with Santorini

Iconic Santorini and Grace Santorini on the bucket list

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Santorini, named for St Irene, is one of Greece’s most popular islands, and from June to September hotels are jam-packed. The most exclusive are in Imerovigli, at 300 metres up, the highest point in this Cyclades island. Think of a 3D jigsaw and this is how hotels here are packed in, one bit of land protruding into its neighbour, but no one minds. To get to Iconic Santorini, for instance, after leaving the car there is a 10-minute walk up and down the twisting 1.2-metre-wide road, past the jewellery-boutique-like reception of Hotel Chromata, and, five minutes later, down past the open reception of On The Rocks. End of the road is the super-luxury Iconic Santorini.

Imerovigli Village

What makes this accommodation super-luxury? Where else are you offered a choice of Caran d’Ache, Montblanc and Peugeot pens to sign the register? Where else on this island are no others allowed to come? The pool and the restaurant are hotel-guests only, and although it does have 19 rooms – an understatement for the styles of lodging, as you will see – the hotel avoids having them all occupied at once, and if the staff can upgrade you, they will. Somehow, it has managed from day one (back in 2013 when the current Chilean owner bought the place) to fill as many rooms as it wants, at the rate it wants, with no branding and no affiliation (Mantis Collection merely handles SEO and replies to TripAdvisor posts).

Andreas Nauheimer, the long-time Hyatt operator who now, as owner’s representative, put this super hotel together, is obviously a visionary. He wanted Iconic Santorini to be different, and it is. Perched cliff-side high above the Mediterranean, he knew guests would not be able to get down to the water, so he brought it to them. All rooms have outdoor seating with blue-tiled tables the colour of the sea. All rooms have indoor and/or outdoor plunge pools. I was in Psi (all rooms have names derived from the Greek alphabet) – the Cliff Suite – with a nearly private terrace and Jacuzzi, and a totally private enormous indoor plunge pool, big enough for swimming and at least suitable for the Dom Pérignon that some guests order as soon as they arrive by private jet. Cleverly, Nauheimer also brought in a bubbly Argentinean, Marcela Alfaya, as GM.

Nothing is too much trouble for this dynamo, though she does wish that people booking via an OTA knew that Iconic Santorini does not accept any child under 14 and it is, frankly, absolutely unsuitable for anyone with the slightest mobility or breathing challenges. From Psi, for instance, it was 133 steps up to Reception and the public ‘road’, for which read ‘mountain path’. Most of the steps’ treads are bearable but, from Psi up to the next level, the treads were over 28 centimetres (yes, there is a lovely bijou Cybex gym but, honestly, with the hotel’s infinity pool plus rooms’ plunge pools and all those steps, unsurprisingly no one except me ever seemed to use it).

The 19 staff who, apart from baking and laundry, make Iconic Santorini work 24/7, are one reason people come back again and again. Another is the food. There is one restaurant, with several nooks and crannies where tables can be put up. No outsiders can eat here, and hotel guests must say by 2.30pm whether they will be dining here or going out.

Perhaps, if you are lucky, you will, like me, be given a private cooking demonstration of what chef Mattheos Sorotos can produce. Everything was ready prepped. He was going to show how to do three highly popular local dishes: fava, using local beans to make a flavourful dip not unlike hummus; tomato fritters fried in sunflower oil; and saganaki, which implies the hemispherical metal pan used for eventual presentation. This dish turned out to be a stew of whole prawns with garlic, spring onion, feta cubes and the delicious Santorini tomatoes that are justly famous.

Mattheos Sorotos is so passionate. Now 27, he started cooking in high school. Local suppliers bring him what he needs, including just-caught fish. He buys in bread and yoghurt but little else. Generally, his dinner menus run to a rough 14-night cycle while breakfast, which is usually a composed multi-course meal, is on an eight-day rotation. Of course Iconic Santorini is as flexible as it can be, though if anyone wants halal, sorry, and the only kosher is catering packs flown in from Athens. For me, at breakfast, a change was necessary but no problem. Set out on my Mediterranean-blue tiled table on the private terrace outside the hotel’s Cliff Suite was, exactly at 8am, as requested, a blue and white linen mat, Raynaud china, WMF cutlery and masses of superb coffee in a big white Alfi pot. Imagine eating the best Greek yoghurt in the world, and two eggs served in their skillet, with oil-frosted lightly-toasted farmers’ bread. Seated at my blue-topped table, I felt as if I were floating on the cantilevered terrace above the steep-sloping cliff.

The other top Imerovigli resort, Grace Santorini, has the best view of Skaros, Santorini’s distinctive natural ‘sculpture’ that, just connected to the main land, rises up out of the sea to a height of about 200 metres. Once again, of course, I felt the resort, like many of its neighbours, was cascading down Imerovigli’s cliff-face. From room 35, where I stayed, it is 52 steps up to the metre-wide track constituting the ‘public walkway’, and a further 81 steps down to the lowest level of the property.

Villa 35 was actually ideally placed as it was also a two-minute walk to the gym and a super boutique which has work from such local designers as Zeus+Aione, who made the pulled thread linen yukatas in each of the 21 rooms.

Many guests spend a lot of the day around the hotel’s big infinity pool. Breakfast here, lunch here, dine here; either outside, at one side of the pool, or when the weather suggests, inside to the cool, cave-like interior. Cleverly there are also two niches, like open-sided boxes set into the wall alongside the pool. Each ‘box’ holds a table for four, away from the searing sun, or a wind that can sometimes get just a bit annoying. Between meals by the pool I spent a lot of time in my room as it was so agreeable. I had my own outdoor hot tub, 3.6 by 2.4 metres and nicely warm, and with all those steps up and down when I needed.

The GM of this place, George Vlachopoulos, is a brilliant creator. Among the delights in my room was a memory box, with sand and tomato jam and other things to remember this place by (he also suggested I write down three things I really liked, for a memory capsule to personalise my next visit, but honestly I liked SO much I could not zero in on three). Even on holiday, for instance, Wi-Fi is indispensable and here it was superb, and even better, the Grace Santorini’s always-there IT specialist, whom I called George II, was so brilliant he sorted out lots of knotty problems. He finished what he was doing just as the sun set. Oh what a start to a memorable evening.

I dined with George I, and started with an aperitif of Aeyptiko Wild Ferment 2017. We talked luxury, which to George (who constantly refers to mentor James McBride, for whom he ran Nihi Sumba) includes all the senses and consistency, with continual surprises. I had surprises galore here. Surf and turf, according to chef Spyros Agios – who can, by the way, do halal and kosher – is lobster and water buffalo. Many go for the five-course tasting menu, which can be paired, but I went à la carte, starting with an alternative Greek salad of smoked eel, avocado and sweet and sour boukovo sauce. And then after the surf and turf, which came with a spicy seaweed sauce, I walked a few steps back up to bed, revelling in the fact that all rooms at this unforgettable hotel have Intellipure dehumidifiers, just as many Americans now have in their homes.

And so the morning came, with the sun rising about 7.30am on Santorini. But by that time I had already been hiking for half an hour. The South African personal trainer at Grace Santorini was, as planned, waiting outside room 35 at seven sharp, and off two keen young ladies set on their expedition. Down well over 300 steps to sea level and then up Skaros Rock natural sculpture, and round it to a dear little old church, Theoskepasti, behind. The program was 20 minutes getting there, 20 minutes quiet meditation while there and 20 minutes back again, ready for chef Spyros Agios’ superb breakfast.

As elsewhere, here it seems breakfast is a composed meal (the printed menu for the day announces ‘it’s all Greek to me’), but the servers did not mind if you wanted something else. For me, they swapped the melon smoothie of the day for a berry mix; they let me have plain yoghurt rather than a dish smothered with honey and nuts; they did not mind me skipping both a blatsaria cornflour pie filled with vegetables and a pancake filled with xinomizithra (goat or sheep) cheese and thyme honey. Instead of strapatsada, local scrambled eggs with feta, smoked mackerel and tomato, they smiled when I asked simply for fried eggs. The breads, which came in a box with jars of apple sauce, butter, honey and syrup, were so good they could have made a meal all by themselves.

Spyros Agios has been here nine years and he knows many idiosyncracies (food is a big draw on any vacation, especially when the average stay is 4.5 nights). 35% of people staying here are from the USA and 23% from UK: across the board, 17% of guests are repeats but when it comes to the Villa it is way over 20%. Oh the Villa, this is privacy personified, separated from the rest of the 21-room resort by a two-metre-high wall, but I know that on the other side were two bedrooms with plunge pools and a sizable private infinity swimming pool. Personally I was so happy with room 35 I thought it was just perfect. I loved the seven-choice pillow menu and the Apivita toiletries and having my own espresso machine and a selection of grape dishes to nibble (‘make a wish to always harvest life’s beautiful moments!’).

After the joy of experiencing two so-different resorts, only 10 minutes from each other as a crow flies but both so unique, I cannot wait to return. Book now for the 2019 season.

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