“Are you sure you can drive a shift lever?” Aldo asked as we sat on the veranda outside the lobby of my hotel in Mykonos. A tall, mustached Albanian who understood cars perfectly, Aldo gave me the keys to a tiny Fiat Panda in fireman red. He looked at me as if he had handed over a gun instead and asked if I knew how to engage the safety.
“I learned about a Triumph,” I assured him, remembering the sporty British convertible of my youth.
He carefully handed the key to my rental car to Assimomitis, a local company, adding, “Turn off the air conditioning before going up a steep hill. “
My hotel, the new and spacious five-star Amazon Mykonos Resort & Spa, stretched out on a hill on the southwest coast of the island, right next to Agios Ioannis beach. The only way out of the steep driveway was at the top, and I approached the summit at Panda Red before turning off the A / C and trying again. This time I succeeded.
This was my third visit to the Greek island of Mykonos. Although long recognized as the queen of the Cycladic island group, during my last visits in the 1980s, a capricious and disorganized hotel infrastructure demonstrated that Mykonos had not yet taken the wheel of the international express of the luxury travel. My introduction to the island had been arriving at the modest four star hotel that I had been told was the first place, only to find out that it had lost my reservation. I was exiled to a simple bed and breakfast nearby.
I came back six years later to see things still pretty much the same; indeed, half the fun on both trips was trying to find a restaurant or tavern meal that wasn’t criminally awful.
At that time, to reach one of the popular beaches on the southern end of the island, one had to take a weathered boat inevitably led by a grizzled and aging sailor. Following bad advice, the first time I tried it, the skipper dropped me off at Super Paradise Beach, at the time the island’s gay nudist beach. Swimming without panties has been Greek since before the start of the Olympics, in 776 BC.
How times have changed. All the buildings on the island have the same white stucco block appearance, offering both charm and wonderful architectural uniformity. White boulders rise out of the barren-brown landscape, punctuating the hillsides like milestones along narrow, rolling roads.
Mykonos Town now looked like it used to be, with narrow pedestrianized main streets for the streets. The difference was that they were now filled with good restaurants serving good Greek wines. There were still some modest local boutiques, but there was also a Gucci, a Kiton and many other luxury names that you know. New white buildings, some quite large and elegant, populated the rear hills previously inhabited by goats.
For my first trip, I took Panda Red to the center of the island, to see the Monastery of Panagia Tourliani. Tourist buses circled the square outside, and cruise ship trippers piled into its narrow church in relays. It was like trying to get spiritual revelation in a mall on Christmas Eve.
From there, Panda Red and I reached the lighthouse at the northwestern tip of the island. Isolated, desolate, and motionless, it looked like an artifact from a disused missile base, but the promontory it stood on offered a brilliant view of the city and its harbors in the distance.
I then made my way to what the GPS said was the entrance to a northern beach, Panormos, but found myself in such a steep fern path, even with the air conditioning turned off Panda Red struggled to climb to freedom, only succeeding on the second attempt. Finally arriving at my destination and avoiding the valet parking to protect Panda Red from damage, I arrived at the entrance to the beach, which was effectively blocked off by the Principote Beach Club. Full of chic young people in designer labels, I could have sworn it was Saint-Barth during a Vogue cover shoot.
Even if I had wanted to pay dearly to rent a “transat” (lounge chair), it was not possible because I had not made a reservation in time. I followed the directions through a desolate path to the free side of the strand, resulting in a low-end version of what I remembered from my previous visits.
Dinner was at the Amazon, at an outdoor table in his Flavor restaurant, above the long infinity pool, served, by chance, by another conscientious Albanian named Aldo. The food at the hotel was always good and good value for money.
Overnight someone had discovered a utility access panel in front of Panda Red’s right front wheel – which fell into the hole the moment I released the parking brake. A huge man from the car rental company has now appeared, only to say sullenly that I was wrong: it was not possible to free the car. I asked him to get into the driver’s seat. After summoning three copious men from the hotel staff, with one in front, two on the right side and me in front, the driver backed the car back as I shouted, “Push, men, push!” until Panda Red is released, with no signs of damage.
I told a young man at the hotel that from now on I would be grateful if they parked the vehicle. Another asked gently, “Do you want to keep your parking space, sir?” “
After checking out the Oracle of Delphi (it now has an app), I made a commitment to limit my driving to very short trips, which would result in a surprisingly delicious day of luxury, Mykonos new way. The Amazon prepared me with a delicious breakfast by the sea. From there I drove a few minutes across the beach, to arrive at the small and very exclusive Bill & Coo Coast Suites, where refined minimalism was a calming motif throughout.
I was finally able to rest on a beach lounger, conscientiously assisted by the staff. I only interrupted this for lunch at the open-air Beefbar Mykonos restaurant, which offered a Mediterranean version of the steakhouse, like my sophisticated al Kobe beef pasta – meat ravioli topped with black truffles.
Dinner was at Katikies Mykonos, across the street. The chef of his restaurant Mikrasia, Aggelos Bakopoulos, served a special signature menu (literally: as a souvenir, I received a signed copy) at outdoor tables set in the sands of the beach. I particularly enjoyed his bar à la polita; surprisingly sweet, the fish fillet was served in a foamy vegetable sauce. I could watch the sun set in the sea, the island turning blue and falling into royal darkness for the night.
Even a short overnight drive was a challenge. The roads twisted like confetti in a windstorm, and local drivers passed me with inches to spare if I used the wrong way to obey the speed limits.
The southern beaches were close enough that I could hazard a return visit. New roads were reaching them now, and they swayed beneath Panda Red like roller coaster tracks. I braked for a carefree goat and came back to Super Paradise Beach, which only resembled its old self in name. Opulent and well-attended, with lounge chairs and champagne available at your leisure, it was both sophisticated and suitable for family visits.
The same was true for Agrari, the nearby beach, where I got a lounger in a peripheral group for 15 euros ($ 18) – by far the cheapest I had seen. A diligent and somewhat abandoned man served inexpensive comfort food.
I set out on foot for the opposite end of the beach, climbing a hill bristling with jagged rocks, facing Elia Beach, just to the east. Below the ridge, however, was a small sandy alcove. Although it was not listed on my tourist map, it contained more than three dozen men, almost all naked, crammed into beach towels. Many were young and fairly well built; I thought to myself: I’m older and bald lately, but I’ve kept my abs soaking wet – surely that’s a visa for entry into Poseidon’s domain.
Since my last visits, haven’t I learned that to travel well you have to go beyond your comfort zone? I took the narrow, single path to the beach, without saying exactly “Sorry, straight dude coming”, but obviously giving that impression I was once again politely ignored by all.
To complete the circle of my first experience at Super Paradise Beach so long ago, I joined the other guys for a good Greek dip. The water was perfect – the right temperature and the smooth ride that made it feel more like an outdoor bath than a trip to the beach.
When leaving Mykonos, Aldo came to pick up Panda Red. He quietly and carefully documented four areas of slight damage, likely caused in parking lots or by roadside ferns, handing me a bill for 600 euros (around $ 700). (I was told later that my Mykonos driving experience was not uncommon.)
Aldo offered to drive me to the ferry in a company SUV. When dropping me off, he left me a good tip: “Next time, please take taxis.”