Bookings for the Greek islands are slowly picking up, mostly for Aegean favourites such as Santorini and Mykonos. My choices for social distancing this summer are two less-visited islands: Lefkada and Kastelorizo (pictured).
Often dismissed as “not a real island” because of its causeway to the mainland, Lefkada’s lack of huge resort hotels must count as a plus in the coronavirus era. Along the western coast, solidly built villas (Lefkada lies on an earthquake faultline) set among cypress and olive trees overlook white beaches and turquoise water. Terraces are angled for perfect sunset views over the Ionian Sea.
On the landward side, a cluster of enticingly green islands known as the Little Ionians, some privately owned, look towards the rugged Acarnanian mountains of western Greece. Aristotle Onassis married Jackie Kennedy on his island, Skorpios. Its current owner, the Russian billionaire Dmitry Rybolovlev, is building a handful of luxury villas to rent to glitterati visitors.
Konstantinos Rokofyllos, a local developer, says a villa close to the waterfront on either coast sells for about €1.2m. Aktion national airport is a 30-minute drive away.
Kastelorizo in the south-east Aegean is the farthest island from Athens: its residents normally take a boat to the Turkish port of Kas opposite to do their supermarket shopping. The U-shaped harbour is lined with elegant 19th-century sea captains’ houses, some recently restored by descendants of families that migrated to Australia after the second world war.
Though there are no beaches on the island, its swimming and snorkelling are renowned. “It’s the only place in Greece where you can step out of your front door and jump straight into a crystal-clear sea,” says Yannis Ploumis of Ploumis Sotiropoulos, a Christie’s affiliate in Athens.
He is selling a refurbished captain’s house, complete with an Ottoman-era mezzanine family room, for €500,000. Passenger ferries call at Kastelorizo three times a week, and there are regular flights from Rhodes.
I still have the photograph. It is dated July 3 1998 and it shows four of us journalists (all looking frighteningly young) having lunch in the sunlit flower garden of the Colombe d’Or restaurant in St-Paul-de-Vence.
On our table is a basket of Provençal vegetables and a wine bucket. Inside is the restaurant’s famous picture collection: paintings by Picasso, Matisse and Chagall, supposedly left behind as payments for lunch. My friends and I were living the life that Dutch and Germans describe with the phrase “Living like God in France”.
Of course, like many spots in la France profonde, the Colombe d’Or had become a facsimile of the rural French idyll: so perfectly designed that it was available chiefly to rich foreigners. But then we had money in our pockets; in 1998 journalists still got proper expenses.
The four of us were in France to cover the football World Cup. In that month, I learnt to live like God in France — to eat bouillabaisse beside a swimming pool in Marseille, or andouillette on a little place in Lyon.
These may be clichés, but they were so seductive that when I returned to FT office life in London after Zidane’s two goals, I couldn’t take it any more. A month later, I resigned from my staff job. In 2001, I bought a little flat in Paris. In 2002, I tried living there. I’m still here.
Île-à-Vache, a bucolic island of green hills and pristine blue water off Haiti’s southern coast, was the spot the British pirate Henry Morgan once used as a refuge. In this day and age, it could be an isolated shelter from global viruses.
One pioneer here was Didier Boulard, who arrived from France not long after the fall of Haitian president and dictator “Baby Doc” Duvalier in 1986 to found his own shelter, a rustic hotel.
“It was one of few virgin spots in the Antilles. Thirty years later, it is the last virgin spot this side of the Caribbean,” he once told me while, on an assignment break, I was sipping Haitian Barbancourt rum — a favourite of the novelist Graham Greene, who spent much time in Haiti.
The island has a makeshift helipad for wealthy residents and visitors to make their escape here. Haiti, known as “the pearl of the Antilles”, used to attract renowned visitors; Mick Jagger and Jackie Onassis have stayed at the Oloffson Hotel in Port-au-Prince.
And visitors once flocked to the Citadelle Laferrière — a mountaintop fortress built soon after Haiti became the world’s first black-led republic, after it broke free of French rule in 1804.
But lack of infrastructure, political turmoil, violence, epidemics and natural disasters have deterred many from coming in more recent times — though lately, cruise ships have anchored in the northern port of Labadie. Meanwhile, next door, the Dominican Republic has attracted millions of visitors.
On the other end of Haiti, Île-à-Vache remains gorgeously isolated. It has only a few places to stay, peppered amid its white sand and palm trees. With its chilled vibe, it is easy to forget where one comes from among the fishermen offering snapper, the drum beats, the islanders chewing mangoes.
Ambitious plans to turn it into “the” next Caribbean destination did not come to fruition due to complex land registries and local resistance. Tourism development has to be “with the people and for the people”, says local leader Jean Matulnes Lamy.
The northern region of Emilia Romagna embodies Italia che fa: Italy that creates, makes, gets things done. It is home to many world-leading Italian companies: Ferrari, Ducati, Max Mara, Barilla and Technogym.
This has meant tourists often overlook this wealthy part of the country in favour of more sleepy Italian landscapes. But the destination, which contains two distinct areas, Emilia and Romagna, has plenty of charm.
Romagna is probably better known, as its long sandy beaches at Rimini lure families and partying teenagers. But Emilia, which offers food and wine tourism off the beaten track, has a low-key allure that may chime with the desires of post-virus travellers.
In Italy, Emilia is celebrated for its food: parmesan cheese, prosciutto ham, tortellini in brodo (broth). In May, its cherry orchards groan with succulent fruit. There are the beautiful art towns of Parma, Italy’s Capital of Culture 2021, and Reggio Emilia, home of the Maramotti dynasty behind Max Mara and the eponymous children’s teaching method.
Then there’s Modena, the destination for balsamic vinegar and Massimo Bottura’s three-Michelin-starred restaurant Osteria Francescana, with its 12 well-spaced tables perfect for social distancing. Bologna, the region’s capital, is an hour south of Milan by high-speed train.
Julia Prestia, an Austrian and former McKinsey consultant who lived in London for nearly 20 years, discovered Emilia’s charms in 2015, when she and her Sicilian husband bought an organic winery, Venturini Baldini, that had fallen on hard times. They revived it, becoming part of a new trend for producing organic new-generation Lambrusco wines. “Food is a huge thing here and wine is having a revival,” she says.
Prestia, who is one of a growing number of women winemakers in Italy, says although tourism in Emilia has been off the radar, it doesn’t mean it is out of touch. “It’s about going into nature, visiting a winery or getting connected to an operating farm and having some nice food. For me, it’s a lot about what we want now,” she says.
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