Sea salt sun drenched days, families laughing sharing stories on street side tavernas as their plates of colorful tomatoes, sardines, calamari, and olives arrive to their tables.
The distant hum of fishing boats at sea accented by seagulls calling above, the subtle aroma of limes, jasmine, oranges and of course cigarette smoke of local men commiserating on sidewalks are the sweet and acrid smells lingering in the warm Mediterranean air that let you know you have arrived in the Greek region of Messenia, a beautiful but often skipped destination on the Greek mainland. This pristine and even mythical region is usually passed up by travelers that are instead distracted the glamorous, photo-op that is the Greek Islands; but as I experienced, Messinia, Kalamata, and Costa Navarino easily rival the beauty of the Greek Islands as a bucket list worthy destination for families.
The Birthplace of Zeus
A little less than one hundred miles to the southwest of Athens on the Peloponnese peninsula, past the plains where ancient Spartans ruled from their warrior city-state, lies the Messenian region of Greece. Homer mused that “...like that star of the waning summer who beyond all stars rises bathed in the ocean stream to glitter in brilliance.” while writing about Messenia in Europe’s oldest work of literature, The Iliad. To spend time in the ancient city of Messene is to feel its ancient history under your feet as you walk along the city streets. Historians say that “In size, form and preservation, Messene is one of the most important cities of antiquity, the city has the rare advantage of not having been destroyed or covered by later settlements and of being situated in an untouched Mediterranean natural environment... This landscape combines the mountainous majesty of Delphi and the lowland riverine tranquility of Olympia, with the looming bare limestone mass of Mt Ithome and its acropolis, and the low, fertile valley around the ancient city.” During my visit I found it impossible not to sense the ancient history that has created this mythical region, and to easily believe what is said here, that Ancient Messenia was favored by the gods. According to local myths, Zeus was born here and raised by the nymphs Neda and Ithomi, who bathed him in the same spring that gives the modern village its name.
Touring the ancient structures of old Sparta, is to witness the wonders created by man in this place, and muse over the possible divine intervention of the gods. We arrive at the large amphitheater in the center of this ancient city, which has been reconstructed for contemporary use, although it still appears to be mostly in its original form. A footpath leads past the fountain of Arsinoe, which supplied the ancient city with water. As we head downhill continuing on the footpath beaten into the earth to the large stadium, surrounded by a forest of columns standing like guards. Walking this path it is not hard to imagine the ancient sounds of gladiators in battle, and the cacophony of a roaring crowd filling the amphitheater. On the left hand side, near the arena are the VIP seats. On the right hand side, near the intact gate of the enormous gymnasium, are round holes in stone slabs, which are, unceremoniously Roman public toilets, indicating the primitive and crude lives of the ancients. Nearby are numerous graves and memorials dedicated to important Messinian families. The Doric temple at the far end of the stadium is the mausoleum of the Saithidae, another prominent Roman family. Improvements are ongoing here, leading to the feeling of contradiction and continuing life of this land of relics and ruins.
Location is Everything
This rich land boasts lush green timber filled mountains; steep gorges carved by ancient rivers below that no longer exist, and olive groves that stretch across the landscape. The olive trees have a mythical quality fitting of this region, their knotty winding roots inlaid in the earth lead up slightly twisted trunks to a stubby umbrella top sitting slightly askew, ripe olives weighing down the leafy branches, beckoning to be picked. Soft sandy beaches lead into tranquil blue waters that outline the southern boundaries of this stunning region. The capital of Messenia is the port city of Kalamata, which lies on the shores of the Messenian Gulf. Our stay in Kalamata brings energy into our pace. At first sight, Kalamata seems to be two cities, an old one hugging the mountainside, a newer one opening onto the sea, with a large section of one or two story homes separating them. The striking “castle of Isabeau” perched atop the old city was constructed on the site of the Farai acropolis offering a bird’s eye view of the city and today is a lovely open air venue for the renowned International Dance Festival.
The town has a lot to offer such as inviting cafes and boutique shops. Walking barefoot in the white sand will give you plenty of time to appreciate the seemingly endless beach. It is 5 km from Verga where it begins, to the port of Kalamata. This is the second largest town in the Peloponnese, and a top travel destination with more than enough to intrigue the mind and delight the senses.
Back in Messenia, there are many beaches on the gulf and Ionian Sea to spend our time, from alluring hidden coves, to expansive stretches of pebbled sand and sparkling water. The gulf beaches offer calmer waters with little or no waves, where you often find children splashing and swimming their cares away, their giggles rising up into the breezy ocean air. Arguably, the most famous beach of the region is Voidokilia, approximately 6 miles from the village of Pylos. Voidokilia beach is beyond enticing, with promises of sea salt tan lines and glittering water lapping lazily in perfect rhythm onto the soft velvety sand, cerulean sea and sky laid out on the horizon, rocky hills and lush green grass to your side, seagulls above adding their calls to the tranquil sounds. For those seeking sportier thrills, the Ionian Sea beaches on the western coast of Messenia are better suited for surfers and those who enjoy the raucous sounds of crashing waves and more adventurous water activities.
After a day spent in the sun, taking in the breathtaking landscapes and formidable history of this mythical place, there is no better place to return to in Messenia than Costa Navarino.
Two deluxe hotels make up Costa Navarino, the Romanos Luxury Collection Resort and the Westin Resort, which consists of the Anazoe Spa, and two signature golf courses among other amenities. Costa Navarino has acquired numerous awards for its luxury status, spa, sustainability, wines and olive oils, including being voted one of the best family destinations in the Mediterranean and named “European Golf Resort of the Year 2017” by The Global Golf Tourism Association LAGTO. Costa Navarino is easily one of the foremost holiday destinations in Europe.
Dining at Costa Navarino’s 13 award winning restaurants, 4 bars, and 3 poolside bars provided a authentic, captivating experience each time. Fresh, organically grown ingredients with flavors so vivid it seems as though the tomatoes were plucked from the vine for your dinner, and the fish caught moments earlier and filleted just for you. Award winning chefs concoct a range of Greek cuisine influenced by Mediterranean diet, and the lush countryside. Amongst the numerous dining choices and bars I found a perfect mix of glamorous fine dining, airy beach patios such as the Barbouni Beach Bar serving chilled wines and fresh caught fish.
Da Luigi offering creative Italian cuisine in the main hall, or private romantic dinners and wine tasting upstairs. Authentic Greek coffee houses offering traditional coffee service with aromas of coffee and pastries with which dreams are made. Neighboring culture’s are pleasantly represented with the restaurant Nargile, featuring Middle Eastern and Lebanese cuisine. The Mourais offers breakfast buffets and in the evening a diverse menu highlighting Greek and international cuisine. The list goes on to include contemporary restaurants, steak houses, and even a 1960’s style American diner. Amongst this diverse array of choices every one in the family can find something.
Picturesque Vistas, Divine Cuisine and Folklore
Having a dream resort as your home base, you can now venture out and delve into the vast culture of Messenia, choosing to either take your children along for an educational adventure, or allowing them to enjoy the numerous programs designed for them at Costa Navarino. Experiencing Messenia is about getting out and exploring. This region is so vast, and yet very accessible. A couple days spent on a private trip from Kalamata to Pylos and Voidokilia is a highlight of our stay. The ride from Kalamata to Pylos is relaxing as we take in olive and orange groves admiring the simplicity of the scenery unfolding in front of us. The intricacies of the picturesque town of Pylos is explained to us by our private guide who regales us with the folklore of its past and the violent battles that raged here during the time of the Spartans. The sweeping views over Sfaktiria Island and Navarino Bay allow glimpses of historic fortresses hiding on the forested hillsides. We travel past fertile olive groves to the historic coastal town. The olive groves are everywhere, rolling across the hills, providing life to the countryside. Strolling through the vibrant, sunny streets that are exactly what you would expect to find but also somehow so much more, each little nook,
alleyway and staircase coaxing you to explore their labyrinth and to discover new treasures. Panoramic views lend to a deep appreciation for this region and the beautiful balance between land, and sea and the inhabitants who have married the two for centuries. Exploring brought insight into the violent struggles that took place during centuries passed. The history of this region has been baked into the stones and dirt over centuries of sun and wind and lives lived here. Spending time in this place feels as though you are soaking in the history through osmosis of merely walking over the same stones and dirt. After our private tour, we reflect at Voidokilia beach, sunbathing with tourist and locals alike and indulging our senses with a swim in the inviting waters. Returning to Costa Navarino after a full day of exploring, tasting exceptional local cuisine and having been drenched in sun on the beach, we find the kids giggling and telling us their own stories of adventures and excitement from their day spent in the children’s program at Costa Navarino. We relax happily together watching a burnt orange sun against a turquoise sky drift down the horizon into twilight.
A destination vacation is a place where memories are created, unfolding easily before you in a mix of comfort, tranquility and adventure. Costa Navarino accomplishes this and so much more. Towns like Messenia, and beaches like Voidokilia bring sea salt tan lines, mythical stories that live in stone paths beneath your feet, olive trees that sit askew with beckoning fruit, and soft sweet aromas floating in and out of your awareness. It is a place where old men and women whose lives and laughter have been baked into the lines of their faces and glittering eyes smile in acknowledgement at passersby. It is in these towns and these cafes that colors have flavors of their own and smells become memories. Messenia, Kalamata and Costa Navarino bring together all of what I love in a destination vacation.
UNESCO World Heritage Centre 1992-2018, WHC.UNESCO.org
“European Golf Resort of the Year 2017” -The Global Golf Tourism Association LAGTO.
Costa Navarino Awards, (June 2018) www.costanavarino.com/awards/