Friday, May 18, 2012

A Delayed Departure

Fortune (and an incredible eleventh-hour Internet deal of 99 euros, including breakfast) dropped us at the door of the Relais et Chateaux property, the Zannos Melathron Hotel. It’s the type of place that responded with a wink when we asked when breakfast was served, “We start at 8am and serve until the last guest has eaten.”

As so often happens when Greek island hopping, the ferry we’d hoped would take us to Rhodes, our next stop, wasn’t scheduled to leave when we’d planned to depart. Lengthening our stay on Santorini was in no way a hardship, so we adjusted our plans to catch the next ship to Rhodes and made arrangements to stay two nights at Zannos Melathron. From the moment of our unique arrival at the base of the pedestrian-only hilltop village of Pyrgos until we reluctantly left 48 short hours later, we were treated like VIPs. We were met by bellman, Misha, with his trusty assistant Irina the donkey who carried our luggage and led our way up the whitewashed hill. The hotel manager, Alexander, greeted us in the courtyard with warmth and enthusiasm and passed along his intimate understanding of the property’s interesting family history as he gave us a tour, which made our stay even more meaningful. A wealthy merchant had built the home for his daughter as a wedding gift and soon thereafter, erected another house for himself just below the main building’s terrace. MaĆ®tre d’, George, presented us with flutes of bubbling champagne as we settled in. Our suite (we were upgraded!) included a lovely mix of traditional stone surroundings and antique furnishings combined with plenty of modern conveniences. We enjoyed a delicious dinner of time-honored Greek recipes prepared with a modern flair while watching yet another Santorini sunset from new heights and a fresh angle. George was extremely knowledgeable about the food and its preparation as well as the wines of the island and answered all our culinary questions. We so appreciated his thorough, gentle manner as he helped educate us about all things Greek. The thick creamy Greek yogurt with swirls of honey and slices of fresh fruit we enjoyed the following morning was the perfect pre-hike healthy breakfast. Whenever we found ourselves unwinding in any of the hotel’s public areas, the staff always made sure we had glasses of ice-cold water in front of us, so very important on the dry, sunny island. And when we let them know we would be leaving on a late-night ferry, Alexander refused to let us check out at the normal hour of noon. While we were out and about for the day, he had our luggage moved to a smaller room that was then available for us that evening to freshen up and shower if we liked. It was above and beyond the call of hotel hospitality.

I could go on about charming Pyrgos, the beautiful views from the hotel’s many terraces and the cool tranquility of the stone-walled accommodations, but what made Zannos Melathron an extra special oasis was the sincere kindheartedness and warmth of its staff. We are steadfast fans of the Relais et Chateaux properties and have stayed at dozens over the years. They all specialize in warm welcomes but the hotel we found on Santorini established a new level for friendliness and service. We will never forget how relaxed and comfortable they made us feel.

Over the past eight months of traveling, there have been places we visited out of curiosity, because of their station in history or because we simply wanted to experience them and see their signature sights. In many cases, one visit will be enough and plans to return will likely never materialize. It’s not necessarily that we didn’t like them, but now that we’ve been there, we’re not inclined to return: Morocco, Vienna and Prague are three that come to mind. But there are other locales we’d visited previously and decided on an encore just because we’d enjoyed being there. Santorini definitely falls into the latter category and now that we’ve experienced a stay at Zannos Melathron, our affinity for the island has grown even stronger.

The Greek kindness and hospitality we’ve experienced have been without equal. The people we’ve met have been passionate yet gentle, optimistic in the face of extreme difficulty and helpful in every way. We can count on two fingers the individuals who were not up to par with their fellow Greeks and these folks were hardly rude – just a bit bored, perhaps. Without fail, at the end of every meal, we’ve been given a little something extra: a shot of ouzo, a coffee liqueur shooter topped with whipped cream, a dish of pudding or a honey-drenched sweet. At one little taverna on Naxos, we were even presented with a second, brimming, frosty carafe of white wine – on the house!

But the ultimate act of customer service came after we left Zannos Melathron to face the reality of a 1:30 AM ferry to Rhodes – the only one that makes the trip from Santorini. I’ve never been able to discipline myself to function well without adequate rest and I wasn’t looking forward to the prospect of staying up well past midnight to catch a ship. If I hadn’t known that a berth was awaiting us on board, I never would have made it. The island’s main commercial port is quite remote -- several miles from Fira, at the end of a treacherous, winding road that makes its way down a barren, rocky cliff to the edge of a small bay. We decided to head to the port by about 8:30 PM to make ourselves comfortable with plenty of time for a leisurely dinner at a harbor taverna, to sip some wine and by the time the ship arrived, be ready to pass out for the overnight journey. Our taxi dropped us off, however, to quite a cruel surprise. Not a single taverna had its lights on. Little did we know, since our late ferry would be the next to arrive or depart, all commercial ventures were closed and wouldn’t open again until 11 PM. Hanging out for hours at a dark, deserted port with empty bellies was not a part of our plan. But then we met Tonis.

A friendly, industrious young man in his twenties with a smiling, open face, he immediately saw our predicament – how forlorn we must have looked standing with our bags in the shadows. He and several friends were sitting in the dark having dinner in front of one of the tavernas, but he jumped up quickly, came over, greeted us and asked if he could help. We explained our situation and he told us, “no problem, I will open my restaurant for you.” We’ve been told endless times in Greece, “relax, it’s no problem,” and it never has been. Tonis turned on the lights, got us situated at a large table in the corner where we could spread out with our computers and books and made us feel at home. He brought us complimentary sausages, olives and peanuts, and then served us the Greek salads, tomato croquettes and fava bean puree we’d ordered. He periodically left his friends to check on us, bring us a fresh carafe of wine and just chat. Hours later, by the time the port started to show some signs of life with taxis, busses and scooters delivering passengers in anticipation of the ferry’s arrival, we knew Tonis’s life story. He was adopted by his mother who was unable to have children and has a sister who lives in Italy; we met his half-brother with whom he works, were told that his father died and his stepfather, the taverna’s owner, is a task-master; he has a girlfriend in Bulgaria and visits her a couple times a year; he wants to open his own restaurant one day and is saving money to do so. As we got ready to pack up our things to line up in the vaulted ceilinged terminal hut, Tonis delivered a final gift – generous shots of both “very strong” Bulgarian scotch he’d brought back from his last visit with his sweetheart and ouzo. How do you refuse such heartfelt generosity? We shared hugs all around and based on how sad we looked, you would think we were saying farewell to a loved one. But say goodbye we did to our new friend and evening host with a reinforced conviction that the Greek people are the most magnanimous in the world. 

Our ride to Rhodes finally arrived, almost a half hour late, and by that time I could barely see straight from fatigue and of course, the liberal libations Tonis had poured. While we anxiously watched the Blue Star 2 ferry back up to the concrete quay, visions of our comfy bunks dancing in our foggy heads, a young man with a melodic voice started singing a traditional Greek song in the echoing waiting room chamber. It was almost 2 o’clock in the morning, we were dog-tired and were being serenaded as we headed up the ship’s steel ramp. We loved our first three weeks in Greece and were looking forward to the additional two ahead of us. If there were to be further delayed departures, no problem.

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