by Teresa Levonian Cole, The Telegraph, September 18, 2018
Some hotels have a story behind them, and Istoria – as the name suggests – on the Greek island of Santorini is one of them. “It used to be the mansion of an eccentric Greek widow who lives in Italy – a lady who loves horses,” explains Kalia Konstantinidou, who was instrumental in the concept of Istoria and, with husband Antonis Eliopoulos, now owns the property.
“After her husband died, it stood abandoned for years,” said Konstantinidou. “When we heard she was selling the house, we tracked her down and went to see her in Milan. She regaled us with so many fantastical tales about her life. How her father, who taught her to ride, was equerry to King George of Greece; how, at a palace ball, she met a Saudi prince who wanted to marry her, so her disapproving father packed her off to Istanbul to escape his attentions. There were pictures of her wearing a maharaja’s tiara… She led an interesting and rather mysterious life. So we decided to call the hotel Istoria – Greek for ‘Story’.”
Istoria, which opened this summer, is the couple’s third hotel on the island – the others being Vedema, “which set the standard for luxury hotels on Santorini, back in 1993”, and the cliff-edge, semi-troglodytic Mystique in Oia. In its way, Istoria is also ground-breaking. On an island of volcanic sand not renowned for its beaches, it is a cut above the usual seaside hotel, offering a laid-back beach destination for a more discerning clientele, on the south-eastern tip – far from the crowded, caldera-facing west coast where most of the island’s luxury hotels are located. Perivolos, a quiet two-mile stretch of black sands and clear waters, is on the doorstep. There’s also a lovely hillside trail from nearby Perissa to Kamari and sights such as the ancient archaeological site of Akrotiri, dating from 1700BC, are just a taxi ride away. This contrasting, laid-back vibe makes Istoria a perfect choice for those wanting to escape the crowds.
Kalia and Antonis engaged Interior Design Laboratorium, based in Athens, to remodel the mansion into a 12-suite boutique hotel. Key to the conversion was the retention of its architectural idiosyncrasies and homely character. “The former owner would come every summer and bring her beloved horses with her,” says Konstantinidou, “so we decided to keep the horse theme.” The façade was transformed to create an open-air reception area and restaurant, Mr E, while the interior was gutted, turning the five stables into ground-floor rooms with walled patios and plunge pools. Rectangular basins of black rock recall the old horse troughs, bridles hang outside rooms and the arched ceilings of the stables have been kept throughout.
“Seventy people worked full-time on the job, for seven months,” says Konstantinidou of the €1.2 million (£1 million) conversion. The result is an eclectic Cycladic style which combines cool greys and beiges with textured walls and handcrafted fabrics; barely-blush polished cement with stone; and wooden beams with cement pillars that mimic the pumice of the island. The exterior walls feature rough volcanic rock.
Furniture and fittings were also custom-made, incorporating local stone and, in some cases, traditional rope work. Detail extends to ceramic lamps in imitation of the surrounding basalt, and room keys on a delicate komboloi of volcanic stone. The vibe is one of bright, cool, uncluttered serenity; of barefoot chic. Greek, yes, but with attitude – except where hospitality is concerned. That remains warmly and very traditionally Greek.
Each suite has a unique layout and a private balcony, terrace or patio, with blue accents that echo the Aegean, just a short hop across the road. Within, thick Cycladic walls keep you cool – with the help of air conditioning – and insulated from the sound of jet-skis. While the upstairs suites have side views of the sea, two have full-frontal views – Conte, and the top category Storia Suite (all have names meaning “story” in some language) whose terraces cocoon you from the surrounding hubbub in a universe of limitless blue – ideal for a romantic dinner. The restaurant is under the charge of executive chef Alexandros Tsiotinis – owner of the acclaimed CTC restaurant in Athens. Open to the elements beneath canvas sails, with stylishly rustic wooden tables and chairs set on coarse black sand, it is home to Greek food reimagined. Traditional dishes appear in new guises: kataifi-crusted shrimps come served with Santorinian capers and fava; while pork materialises wrapped in sun-dried tomatoes, with feta cheese panna cotta and lemon potato purée. Lunches can be served at the hotel’s sunbeds on a quiet stretch of the two-mile beach, or around the hotel’s most dramatic feature, the 100ft-long black-slate pool, the latter likely to be a hit with Instagrammers.
The pool occupies the former gardens, where goats and chickens once roamed (the eccentric lady’s love of animals was not limited to horses). Ensconced within protective walls lined with olive trees, this haven of tranquillity is further enhanced by a statement sunken bar of black stone, behind which mixologists create cocktails of moreish intensity. Once again, the unexpected gives a fillip to the familiar. And if an Aegean Cucumber Collins seems a tad potent in the midday heat, a glass of chilled local Assyrtiko wine, accompanied by softshell crab souvlaki, will see you right.
Drag yourself away and you can ride on the beach, cruise around the caldera, take a tour of the island’s 17 wineries or pay your respects to the advanced civilisation that existed at nearby Akrotiri nearly 4,000 years ago. But relaxation, as everyone knows, is exhausting – especially when sun and sea air are involved.
The remedy lies in Istoria’s tiny but perfectly formed spa – just two treatment rooms and a shaded, black Jacuzzi – at the far end of the pool. Using ila products, and blends of organic and essential oils, it offers a range of facials, wraps, massages and treatments to soothe or invigorate. The 80-minute signature massage, a blend of Thai massage followed by warm oils, seemed to do both.
“Make sure you drink plenty of liquids” were the parting words of my therapist. I headed obediently for the bar.
Double rooms from €312 (£280), breakfast included. Perivolos, Santorini, Greece; 00 30 2286 085 051; istoriahotel.gr.
Read the full review: Istoria