This week I’ve got a treat for all the early adopters out there. It’s a tip about a boutique arts hotel that’s so up-and-coming, it hasn’t actually come up yet.
Let me backtrack.
Maybe, like me, you feel a little twinge when you discover a fabulous venue and then hear someone say, “Oh, I’ve been coming here for years, back before ___________.” (Fill in something that seems inconceivable.)
I’m not sure what that twinge is. Competitive frustration? A possessive tendency? Self-chastisement for all that time that flew by without traveling? Bottom line: like many others, my desire for uncharted territory far outweighs that of the beaten path. It keeps me forever and always on the lookout.
Set in an untraveled quarter of the Greek island of Crete, Koutsounari Traditional Cottages is the kind of place whose untapped potential makes my heart flutter. It’s a jet set bohemian hideaway from the ‘70s that is currently being revamped, and if you get there soon, you might be the one saying, “I remember when” several years from now.
The back story
It all began with Eleni Nakou, the visionary credited with bringing tourism to Crete in the 1960s through the opening of two properties on the northern coast of Crete. Shortly thereafter she spotted and became transfixed with a small village made entirely of stone, set on a hill overlooking the sea on the opposite side of the island.
Koutsounari (or the original “Ay-Yanni Koutsounari”) became her final project, which she lovingly refurbished to great acclaim (in 1978 it won the prestigious Europa Nostra cultural heritage award for the renovation.) Her clients from Elounda followed her to this new property, and fondly remember wearing dressing up with long dresses for dinner at the taverna.
I know this because their children were playing with Ioanna Madala, daughter of the property’s managers, and the current force behind the hotel’s latest incarnation.
Ms. Madala has a dramatic, Maria-Callas-like presence, a piercing gaze, and a big heart. She seems to gather all the energy in the room as she steps about, first making a thick Greek coffee, then animatedly describing a collection of antique Cretan pottery; her love of art; the ongoing property improvements; her dream of reviving the hotel’s glory.
Back in the day, she says,
“travelers were a different breed. They were just happy with the discovery, the adventure. They were travelers, not tourists.”
The subtext here is that they were less concerned with matters like comfort, convenience, sound sleep, and being in touch with the rest of the world. Though beautifully designed, the cottages are “traditional” and “rustic”: entirely self-catered, without air conditioning or heat, equipped with extra extra firm beds (the standard in Greece), and until not long ago, without working wifi.
The elder generation of Madalas felt that altering any of the above risked destroying the traditional nature of the cottages. The younger Madala, however, believes there is a middle way, one which strikes the delicate balance of adhering to traditional intent and modernizing the facilities.
A way forward
And she’s got big ideas: traditional Cretan breakfasts, individual plunge pools, and art throughout the property. You’ll find her sketching ideas for bathrooms with rain showers, discussing reliable internet infrastructure with contractors, and rushing to provide additional coat hangers for the LGBT clients that requested them for their linen suits.
If anyone can do it, she is the one. She carries a pedigreed diploma in hotel management from Lausanne, a tremendous work ethic, and a fierce love of her childhood stomping grounds. After obtaining her degree she worked in Cyprus for several years, but eventually followed her heart back home.
The location supports the dream, as well. A long beach separates the town of Koutsounari from the Lebanese Sea; offshore lies Chrissi Island, a nature reserve described as the Caribbean of the Mediterranean. The cottages overlook this view, and though they are no longer isolated on a hill as they were when Ms. Nakou first spotted them – a town has built up around them, so close to the hotel that creative dividers will need to be installed – it is still the preeminent draw of the hotel. (In fact, the people at prestigious hotel brand Relais & Châteaux liked it so much they once approached the Madalas about developing the property.)
That, and the clean Aegean design of the eight units, which calls to mind every fantasy you’ve ever had about summering in your own Greek villa. The sandy neutrals and bursts of blue invite you to relax longer than anticipated, hiding away from a busy world in a place that turns back the clock.
Time will tell
This is the first property we’ve reviewed that we recommend with reservations. It’s not “there” yet.
Appreciating it as-is takes a special mindset. (Temperate weather won’t hurt the cause, either.) Like all start-ups, there are risks to investing your (travel) funds. Can you withstand the lack of air conditioning? Will you miss the amenities of that other hotel you considered? Will it transform into all that we hope? Will the traditional essence remain, enhanced rather than throttled by modernization?
For some, the love of all that is unique in the travel world will outweigh the questions above. They will journey to tiny Koutsounari and, if all goes well, will eventually be part of a select group that can say, “Oh, I used to spend summers here even before it was reinvented by Ioanna.”
Koutsounari Traditional Cottages
Lassithi, Crete, Greece
Tel: +30 28420 61815
Mobile: +30 6974396919
Fax: +30 28420 61292
*While researching this article I was a guest of Koutsounari Traditional Cottages. We personally stay in each hotel we review, and compose a full review only if we believe our readers are likely to consider choosing that hotel. To read about our commitment to candid and balanced reviews, see our disclosures page.