Natural-rubber Pop, number four, or goosedown Morpheus, number nine? The pillow menu that we are sent in advance of our stay at Kinsterna Hotel & Spa rather sets the scene. And takes the edge of the hours required in the car for these Athenians. To get to this boutique hotel in eastern Laconia, there are few alternatives to driving: but the 200-mile journey through the Peloponnese from the Parthenon proves scenically astonishing. Nemean vineyards, unexpected alpine and deciduous forests, snow-covered Taygetos mountains and lush plains of olive and citrus groves surround Sparta giving way to a springtime scent of lemon blossom, which is intoxicating. Mrs Smith helps herself to a quantity of windfall oranges.
Monemvasia, often referred to as ‘the Gibraltar of the East’ (mone and emvasia together means ‘single entrance’), is a huge rock, resembling a floating trilby, connected by a short causeway to the mainland town of Gefyra, with its attractive fishing harbour and restaurant-bars. The hotel is seven kilometres past it and encouragingly, as we head inland the locals all know exactly where the Kinsterna is. The last few hundred metres find us bumping along a dirt track in a swirl of safari dust, reflecting that a 4x4 might have been a sensible option, but a smart electronic gate soon ushers us into another dimension. Passing an eclectic mix of cabbage patches, jasmine and vines, we spot a bright pink wrought-iron chair suspended low from a giant eucalyptus tree. The rope looks as if it might have served a more sinister purpose during Venetian, Papal and Turkish times, when the Kinsterna was a fortified manor house.
Immaculately restored, the hotel reminds me of the cult 60s’ series The Prisoner, set in Portmeirion: 27 suites – each with distinctive front door, terrace and style (one complete with oubliette), polite service staff in crisp crimson uniform, quaint direction plates, even a covered electric buggy for getting about – all reinforce my fantasy.
A welcome glass of cold water to settle the dust appears on a tray as we sign in. Escorted to ‘Number 37’ through low stone arches and stairwells, I realise that the human race has increased in stature since the Middle Ages. A shorter Mrs Smith glides blissfully on. Our suite has expertly carved wooden beams underpinning traditional bamboo roof-tile supports, floral pargeting to the walls and polished pebble infills; the slightly safari look is but a fleeting notion. Every feature has been restored to period, and then a modern touch of inspiration added. The view is across vineyards towards Monemvasia and the breathtaking Aegean Sea.
The sitting room, with original fireplace, was an upstairs kitchen in former times. One corner has a void in the floor covered by a glass panel incorporating a cat – not a real one, of course, but a formaldehyde impression detracting from the catacomb space beneath.
The bedroom provides a consummately comfortable bed, with Pop pillows and a sachet of lavender within. Mrs Smith prefers something firmer, but she comes from more Spartan stock. The bathroom has a huge shower and the surfaces are a wonderful mix of polished slate, exposed stone wall and pink-brown marble. Individually framed windows, some tiny, cover slits from which arrows were once fired.
Kinsterna is about relaxation, serenity and birdsong. A spring emanating from a small church runs through the estate, visible through glass conduits, first feeding a water-lily-filled central ‘cistern’ (hence the name), then flowing through small waterfalls to the swimming pool. (Alas, gents of a certain age, that tinkling sound might be a problem.) Wherever we sit, someone appears in the most unobtrusive and timely way to ensure we need for nothing.
Mrs Smith is particularly taken with the spa with two Jacuzzis, a sauna and a full menu of treatments and products. It is me though who plumps for the de-stressing back rub in preference to a 50-minute Indian massage, even if it does allegedly activate your chakras. The masseuse is a local girl who hides politely behind a towel while I strip off and expertly administers what it said on the tin. The pool is divine, with double loungers set in private recesses and never a need to bag a space at dawn with a national-flag towel.
Kinsterna makes its own wine and olive oil using traditional methods and equipment, including a one-horsepower olive press and a still, brewing tsipouro. We meet the horse when trying to visit the little church – it’s very bored and has no intention of letting us pass. Visit in September and you can throw off your shoes and help trample grapes. A sample bottle of their rosé is provided in each suite.
After a healthy breakfast of crêpes, homemade cakes, mini-croissants, freshly-squeezed orange juice and fruit salad, and a visit to castle-touting Monemvasia is a must. The narrow cobbled streets of this ancient walled town mean no cars and a journey back in time; lots of café-bars with friendly cats overlooking Venetian battlements and great traditional fare to be found at Marianthi’s Taverna, especially the wonderful leek patties. A small, sandy beach called Ambelakia, nearer the hotel, provides alternative bathing – but if something akin to Hawaii is desired, the hotel can organise an excursion to Elafonissos Island, an hour away. The most famous beach of all is the twin Simos-Saracenico on the south-eastern tip.
Kinsterna Hotel & Spa may be off the beaten track, which for us is the appeal, but it’s absolutely worth the trek. With healthy, beautifully presented cuisine, including a tasty bar menu and fresh fish caught locally, it engages the soul. After a delicious meal of kokoras (coq au vin) and sargos (sea bream), Mrs Smith and I watch a full moon ascend into a goldfish-bowl sky and start dreaming about Morpheus.