x Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 26 July 2017

Rhodes the perfect Greek isle

Enjoy warm seas and ramble along the ramparts guarding the town on this ancient Greek island, Robin Gauldie says.

Mandraki Harbour of Rhodes town is dominated by the brooding mass of the Palace of the Grand Masters, a reminder of its medieval glory.
Mandraki Harbour of Rhodes town is dominated by the brooding mass of the Palace of the Grand Masters, a reminder of its medieval glory.

Why Rhodes?

I first visited Rhodes almost 40 years ago. I go back often, drawn by its splendid architecture, great food, laid-back atmosphere and - not least - 300 days of sunshine each year.

There's no better time to visit than in autumn, when its cool cafes and super beaches are uncrowded, sun and sea are still warm enough for swimming and lazing, but it's not too hot to ramble round the ramparts of the Old Town or the tumbled hillside ruins of ancient Kamiros and Ialyssos.

Tourism has altered the island, but within the massive walls built by the Knights of St John surprisingly little has changed. Arched lanes and alleys, lined with old stone houses, remind me of the medinas of the Middle East or North Africa. Carpenters and cobblers labour in tiny workshops, so the air is redolent with resin and beeswax - and the appetising aroma of grilling meat, wafting from hole-in-the-wall souvlaki shops. Palm trees, and a skyline studded with domes and minarets emphasise a long connection with the world of Islam, which lasted from the Ottoman conquest in 1522 until 1912, when Rhodes was seized by Italy (it didn't rejoin Greece until 1947). The Turkish hammam is still in use, and members of one of the few surviving Muslim communities in Greece still worship in the graceful, colourful Mosque of Suleiman.

Sightseeing here spans millennia. Allow a full day to make the most of the fine Archaeological Museum, visit the Mosque of Suleiman and the neighbouring Islamic Library, and explore the cool, echoing halls of the Palace of the Grand Masters, once the home of the commanders of the knightly order. Essentials also include the one-hour walk round the circuit of fortifications behind which the Knights defied the Ottoman Empire for three centuries (huge stone cannonballs litter the dry moat below). After that, with a grateful sigh, relax at a jasmine-shaded cafe table or cool off with a swim. Later, I like to watch the sunset from the ruined Temple of Apollo, atop Monte Smith (a five-minute ride from the Old Town) - the perfect way to end a day in Rhodes.

A comfortable bed

In the 1920s, the Italians built a grandiose spa at Kallithea on the east coast, south of Rhodes town. Now, Kalithea has become the latest hotel hot spot, with the opening of luxury properties including La Marquise (www.lamarquise.gr; double rooms from €120 [Dh563], including taxes) and the Elysium Resort and Spa (www.elysium.gr; doubles from €117 [Dh549], including taxes).

At Ixia, five minutes from Rhodes town on the west coast, the Amathus Beach Hotel Elite suites (www.amathus-hotels.com; suites with private pool from €399 [Dh1,873], including taxes) is an opulent annex to one of the island's best hotels, with lush grounds, a black marble pool, slick service, a spa and private beach access. Within the Old Town (opposite the Palace of the Grand Masters), Nikos Takis Fashion Hotel (www.nikostakishotel.com; doubles from €170 [Dh798], including taxes) is a quirky and colourful boutique hotel, created by two of Greece's top fashion designers.

Find your feet

Roam the Old Town on foot - most of its lanes are too narrow for cars. Beyond Pili Navarchiou (Admiral's Gate) at the west end of the ramparts, bombastic art deco buildings overlook yacht-filled Mandraki harbour. West of the harbour, Elli Beach offers swimming in clear water.

Almost 80 kilometres from end to end, Rhodes is one of Greece's bigger islands. The busiest beach resorts are on the east coast, between the Old Town and pretty (but over-commercialised) Lindos.

A good bus system spans the island. Taxis are plentiful, but it is best to agree on a fare before setting off. For go-as-you-please touring, there are plenty of car hire outlets.

Meet the locals

Inside the "New Market" (Nea Agora), next to Mandraki Harbour, seek out a psistaria (grill-restaurant) patronised by islanders if you want to try authentic local dishes, or join Rhodians enjoying sticky pastries and sweet Greek coffee at Akteon, the venerable zacharoplasteion (patisserie) under the arcades at Martiou 7. Smart younger Rhodians meet at Ice Lounge (Afstralias 88; 00 30 22410 25285) for music and sushi.

Book a table

The New Town has many mediocre restaurants. The Old Town is more promising. Nireas (Sofokleous 22; 00 30 22410 21703; from €40 [Dh188]) has a light touch with traditional dishes, served on a cool and shady terrace. Alexis (Sokratous 18; 00 30 22410 21703; from [Dh422]) has been patronised by stars since the 1950s, serving dishes such as octopus carpaccio alongside favourites such as lobster and red mullet. Meltemi (Koundouriou 8; 00 30 22410 30480; from €35 [Dh164]) is unassuming, friendly, and best for lunch at Elli Beach.

Shopper's paradise

Leather goods, airy white cotton and linen beachwear can all be found on the Old Town's main shopping street, Sokratous. Kaloudis Jewelry has been a landmark here since 1959.

What to avoid

Too many stores display furs and reptile skin accessories, flouting rules against trade in endangered species products. Avoid them. Avoid, too, tacky Orfanidou, the New Town's entertainment street, lined with noisy, scruffy bars, pizza parlours and curry restaurants.

Don't miss

Bring a good head for heights to enjoy a panoramic view of the Old Town from the top of the 19th-century Roloi clock tower.

Go there

The five-hour flight to Athens with Etihad Airways (www.etihad.com) costs from Dh2,920 return, including taxes. Olympic Air (www.olympicair.com) flies from Athens to Rhodes daily from €130 (Dh610) return, including taxes.