27 February 2005
Jilly Goolden takes up the challenge of finding a holiday that suits her entire family - and succeeds in Zakynthos.
We're not dysfunctional as a family, but we're certainly disparate. It would be difficult to find five people with more widely divergent interests, such contrasting personalities. To find a holiday to suit all tastes, therefore, is well nigh impossible.
My husband Paul is happy to be still, to sit and read, to contemplate; I'm a shade hyperactive, always looking for the next challenge. A holiday in the deserted north-eastern corner of the Greek island of Zakynthos, therefore, didn't at first look as though it was going to be our dream ticket.
We booked into the Peligoni Club for a week. It's a watersports centre stuck in the middle of an apron of honeycombed limestone rock jutting into the wind-scuffed sea overlooking Cephalonia. None of us sails, and our two eldest children - Oriel, 19, and Verity, 18 - didn't like the sound of the isolation of the place. Pip, 13, grabs the prospect of anything new with enormous enthusiasm, so he was just raring to go.
The club is just that: sim ply a club. It has little permanent structure, and is tucked into trees up above the rocks. Accommodation ranges from functional studio rooms in a nearby Greek house through low-key cottages to villas small, medium, large; modest or fantastical. These are spread around the sparsely populated hinterland, in olive groves and up in the hills.
John Alexander and Vanessa Goldie, the club owners, discovered this remote spot 20 years ago while sailing by after a trip to Corfu. It was virtually uninhabited then, apart from an occasional goat herd. The nearby fishing 'port' of Micro Nisi had one family living there. From that moment they were preoccupied with only one thing: how they could live in such a forgotten, marvellously anachronistic place and earn a living.
The area's strong, consistent winds gave them the idea for a sailing club. But the real brilliance of this vision was to establish it right there, slap on top of these volcanic rocks with not a beach in sight. Only then could they hope to preserve the far-flung beauty of the place.
Oddly, the beach-less aspect of the Peligoni Club never occurred to us while we were there. Wooden decks and platforms have been built into the rocks, each kitted out with umbrella and loungers, so families establish a basecamp at a vantage point for looking out to sea. There's a diving board, steps down into the water and, 25 metres out, a floating platform for sunning yourself or diving.
The watersports are run from a ramshackle bamboo shelter (known as the love shack). A fleet of sailing dinghies bobs in the water, backed up with more serious craft for experts. There are phalanxes of windsurfers of various sizes and skill-levels. Lessons for beginners are conducted on land-based simulators - both dingy and windsurf - and after an introductory session you are then launched in whatever vessel you like, under supervision or on your own.
However old you are, how ever shy you are, there are loads of 'fitties' of the same age willing to pal up. For young teenagers there's a constant blast of ludicrously casual activities laid on, such as the 'freestyle windsurfing' championships of the world, for instance, whereby fearless kids perform a routine of their own invention on a static board in the sea with a running commentary along the lines of Scrap Heap Challenge .
There's waterpolo and tennis (shoes, rackets, rules and partners provided). And for older teenagers there's an unspoken recipe for keeping them 'well happy': the freedom to party every night. The owners hire British gap-year students to run the watersports (they hang out in the loveshack, of course), the kitchen and the bar. Every night after dinner, the tables are pulled back and the open-sided restaurant slips into a dance floor under the stars. And it rocks.
At the bar everything is done on tab. And for those parents concerned they may have to remortgage when they get back to pay the bill (or retrieve, in the small hours, one of their offspring in less than perky shape), a limit can be set.
Vanessa is a brilliant hostess, so there is never a sticky moment. Even when there's an influx of new guests (the maximum is about 100), they are seamlessly integrated.
When the bar finally closes, just a stagger up from the club is Art Cafe Mahogani, open all night, every night. In an atmosphere of eastern mystery - the place is lined by vivid and exotic artifacts created by the owners - the night drifts by for anyone with the stamina to string the party out.
As the Peligoni founders had hoped, north-east Zakynthos hasn't yet been 'discovered' by mass tourism. Not one big tour operator has given this gloriously beautiful, deserted place so much as a sniff. And, because of the rocks, chances are they never will.
When Alexander and Goldie arrived on the island, the seething, throbbing, thrill-seekers' paradise of Laganas in southern Zakynthos had only two simple tavernas on its mile-long beach and Alikes, another fave-rave Zakynthos dive, had just a few little buildings scattered by the coast. The main way on and off the island then was by ferry from the Peloponnese.
Today there's an airport - well, planes certainly take off and land there, but in other respects it's a bit more like a cattle shed. Apparently there are plans to redevelop. On the other side of the north tip of Zakynthos is probably the most photographed beach in Greece, a cove with iridescent white sand (mixed with stardust), where a shipwreck lies photogenically centre stage. It is reachable only by boat, and the trip takes about 45 minutes.
You come back through rock tunnels (you can swim that bit if you like), via the inside of caves with neon-tinted algae lighting them by magic, and weaving through python-like stalactites. The scents that blow in the wind in this largely uncultivated, untouched slice of earth are like a wind-borne potpourri. For a close olfactory encounter, you can accompany Vanessa on an evening walk to a ruined monastery. The path passes through olive groves, abandoned orchards, past beehives sheltering their wild thyme honey, and all the while you're trampling through a wild bouquet garni of oregano, thyme, rosemary, myrtle, juniper, fennel and coriander.
The sun drops down, the breeze gets up, and you arrive just beyond the monastery on a cliff top as the sun sets over the sea. Exquisite cheese and dried meat, plump, fresh almonds, olives and feta are passed to you with your chilled drink as you lie back and look out over Cephalonia, basking like a pregnant girl under the last rays.
Children and teenagers are happy doing their own thing back at the club while you do yours. This is the one holiday I know where you all do exactly what you want and nobody cares.
As we waited for the plane home, I chatted to some of our fellow passengers. A young couple said they'd had a good week. Where were they based? The name of the place escaped them. Only by looking at their paperwork did the name Argassi show up. A trio of fellas had had a storming time. What did they think of Laganas? They looked sheepish. Turned out that two had never been awake during daylight hours, and the other had only once been to the beach.
My teenagers also like a good night out. One of them recently had the holiday of her life with her friends - in Laganas. So how can the Peligoni Club compete with that? Magically, it just does.