How to Run a Most Excellent Small Hotel in Mykonos

Mykonos town harbor view

As Forrest Gump once said, hotels are like a box of chocolates. When you pick one, you never know what you’re going to get. Or something like that….

Mykonos view of windmills
The view from the terrace of my bungalow at the Villa Margarita.

My stay in Mykonos turned out to be wonderful, in large part because of the hotel that I stayed in and the people who ran it. I usually check Trip Advisor for the reviews of places before I make a reservation. Often the reviews are accurate and useful, but sometimes the reviews are faked. Your mileage may vary.

The reviews for Villa Margarita on the island of Mykonos in Greece were glowing. Every review mentioned the hotel manager named Nikos and how friendly and helpful he was. I was thinking, OK, the guy is probably friendly and helpful, but that’s his job isn’t it? I guess he could be surly and rude like some French waiters, but that would be bad for business. In these days of the Internet, such behavior would quickly be noted in the hotel’s ratings and his reservations would probably take a nose dive.

I got off the ferry from Athens and Nikos was at the port to meet me and give me a ride to the hotel. As we drove above the old town of Mykonos he told me some interesting facts about the island and things to do. His hotel was just outside of town, overlooking the famous windmills of Mykonos.

villa margarita
My bungalow at Villa Margarita (on the lower floor)

Although Nikos was originally from Athens, his grandfather lived on the island and he would spend his summers here. He said that his mother had started the small hotel 25 years ago. This was his seventh summer season back on the island to run the hotel for his aging mother. His younger brother Alex was a new addition to the team for this summer.

Mykonos town street
A typically narrow street in Mykonos town.

When checking in, Nikos and Alex quickly learned our names (my daughter was traveling with me) and every time I saw one of them they would greet me with a smile:

“Hello Steve! How are you today?”

I soon felt like they were my new friends instead of some workers at a hotel. It was refreshing to be treated that way instead of just as a customer or tourist who is here today and gone tomorrow.

Every morning I would walk the few yards from my bungalow room to the office.

“Good morning, Nikos. Could I get a cappuccino?” I would ask.

“Of course, Steve! In two minutes Alex will bring you one.” Nikos would cheerfully reply.

Nikos and Alex lived with their mother (who I never saw) on the upper level of my bungalow. They had a little white dog who would come visit me every morning as I sat on my terrace overlooking the windmills of Mykonos, enjoying my cappuccino.

little white dog in Myknonos
Allison and her new friend, Boobies.

“Nikos, what’s the dog’s name?” I asked one morning.

“Boobies” he replied, laughing as he did so.

“You named your dog Boobies?” I asked.

He explained that the dog was actually his mother’s dog, and that in Greek the term describes what we would call a “momma’s boy.” The dog was very attached to his mother so that’s what she called him.

windmills of Mykonos
The windmills of Mykonos.

My daughter’s 24th birthday occurred while we stayed at Villa Margarita. Understandably, she wanted to go out and celebrate in the wild party town of Mykonos, instead of spend a quiet night in the bungalow with her co-traveler, the old man. In Mykonos, things don’t start hopping until at least 11:30pm, and the night clubs and beach clubs with their famous DJs stay open all night.  The cool crowd doesn’t even show up until at least 2am. Or so I have been told. I wouldn’t know personally, since I have a hard time staying awake past 11pm.

Nikos told her that he would take her out, or if he couldn’t, Alex would. When Alex took the job at the hotel for the summer, I’m not sure he knew what he was getting into. Nikos had to stay at the hotel (he often worked all day, every day during the summer season) so Alex got date duty.

Mykonos town harbor view
Mykonos town harbor.

The next night was our last one at the hotel. As we came back from the beach we saw Nikos at the front desk.

“Hi Steve and Allison!” he called out.  He asked about our dinner plans for the night and gave us some recommendations. He then said that he was planning on taking a rare few hours off to go out with a friend that night, and would we like to join them?

I didn’t want to impose, knowing that he worked so hard all the time, but it seemed impolite to decline his offer. We agreed to meet him and his friend at one of the best restaurants in town later in the evening.

As we approached this swanky seafood restaurant overlooking the harbor in Mykonos town I was glad that I had stopped at the ATM machine beforehand. It was that kind of place. A stunning tall blonde hostess greeted us at the entrance. 1980s pop songs pulsed from the bar. The ambiance was Euro hip and the view across the harbor was magnificent.

Nikos was there with his friend Fania. She was the manager at another hotel close to Nikos’ hotel, also working nonstop and on call 24/7 for the summer. I thought maybe she was his girlfriend, but wasn’t sure and didn’t want to pry. We had an excellent dinner and great conversation. We talked about their careers in the hotel management industry, the state of Greece’s economy, and what they liked to do for fun in their precious free time.

Nikos and Fania in Mykonos
Nikos and Fania in Mykonos.

It was a nice night out with a local couple.  So unexpected. He didn’t have to invite us, but that’s the kind of person he is.

And that’s how you run a most excellent small hotel in Mykonos.

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The Dog Rescuer of Zakynthos

Chewbacca

I came around the sharp curve and slammed on the brakes. I almost rear-ended the car in front of me. The car had stopped suddenly because the car in front of it had stopped suddenly. I couldn’t tell what was going on. How could there be a traffic jam on the island of Zakynthos?

old church on Zakynthos
An old church on Zakynthos.

Zakynthos is in the Ionian Sea between Greece and Italy. It was once ruled by the Venetians, who called it Zante. It is still known by both names. Today it is a tourist center for sun-seeking Scandinavians and Germans, as well as for Greeks from the mainland. I was spending a few days on the southeast coast of the island, because that is where the best beaches are.

Zakynthos beach, Greece
An almost empty beach on Zakynthos.

It turned out this traffic jam was only three cars long. After a couple of minutes, the lead car moved on, followed slowly by the car in front of me. I inched forwarded to prepare to take the next hairpin turn and stopped again. There was a puppy in front of me.

He had sat down in the middle of the road. Again. Now I knew the reason for the stops. I pulled my car to the side of the road and jumped out.

old olive tree
An ancient olive tree.

He was a cute little guy, all big feet and floppy ears. He was some kind of mutt but with a nice coloring of buff yellow, white, and light brown. He was about three or four months old. He came over to me as he wagged his tail. I scooped him up into my arms. He started licking my face.

“Hey little guy, you can’t wander around in the road like that. Somebody is going to run you over.”

There was an old house at this turn of the road. With the pup in my arms I walked to the front door and rang the bell. There was no answer. I banged on the door. There was still no answer. After ringing and banging for a while I gave up. Maybe it’s not his house?

I walked down the road to the next house and started ringing that door bell. There was no answer at this place either. Did everyone go to town tonight? The pup kept licking my face.

Those were the only houses around so I turned to walk back to my car to wait until somebody showed up. I couldn’t in good conscience leave the pup alone.

Out of the corner of my eye I saw a middle-aged woman pushing a wheelchair towards me. A very old woman was in the wheelchair. They were about fifty yards away. Maybe they could help me find the dog’s owner.

Zakynthos view
A fellow hiker enjoys the view of the Ionian Sea.

I waited by the side of the road. As they got near me the woman got a big smile on her face and starting talking excitedly in Greek. Of course I had no idea what she was saying.
Like a tourist, I started talking to her in English.

“Hi. I found this puppy in the road. He almost got run over by a car. Do you know whose it is?” I said.

“No English,” she said, then rattled on in Greek. She did point to herself, the dog and the first house. This was a good sign. It must be her dog, that must be her house, and the old woman must be her grandma. She must have walked down the road to grandma’s house to get her or perhaps was taking her for a walk.

Since she was pushing the wheelchair I carried the puppy as we walked back to her house. When we got to her driveway, I started to set the puppy down. The woman chattered away again. I didn’t understand the words but her hand motions indicated that she wanted me to keep the pup and take it away with me.

Chewbacca
This is my new dog Chewbacca, not the Greek puppy.

“Whooaa, lady, I like dogs, I love puppies, and this seems like a nice one, but I can’t take your dog with me,” I protested. She didn’t understand me. She kept going with her hand gestures and rapid fire Greek.

I tried to explain that I was just visiting and that I was leaving the island tomorrow. I couldn’t take a dog with me. Besides, I already had a new puppy reserved for me back home. I was picking it up in a few weeks.

Eventually she realized that I meant business. I set the puppy down and told it to stay. He sat down and looked up at me with sad eyes.

I said “Arrivederci” (since I don’t even know how to say goodbye in Greek), got in my car, and drove away.

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The Acropolis of Lindos

Lindos, Greece
Lindos acropolis rock
The rock above Lindos.
Acropolis street sign
This way to the Acropolis.

I followed the signs through the winding backstreets of the old Greek town of Lindos, on the island of Rhodes.  The streets were only about eight feet across and were too narrow for most vehicles.  The square buildings were painted white in the Grecian style.  The buildings had old wooden doors and small blue address numbers.  Some 17th century mansions have been converted into restaurants, where today’s diners can sit on the rooftops on hot summer nights and eat traditional Greek food.

Lindos street
A typical street in Lindos.

The town was built many centuries ago at the foot of a rock that is 350 feet high.  The rock towers over the Aegean Sea with sheer cliffs on the seaward side.

In the sixth century B.C., a tyrant called Kleoboulos ruled Lindos for many years. Kleoboulos led the Lindians to build an Archaic temple of the Greek god Athena at the highest point of the rock.  It took the place of an earlier temple structure that had been destroyed.  The new acropolis was a place to give votive offerings and sacrifices to Athena.

Unfortunately, this temple burned down in 392 B.C.  Perhaps one of the worshippers accidentally knocked over a candle.  Not to be deterred, the Lindians rebuilt the temple.

Today, the ascent to the acropolis is still by the same steep road as used in antiquity.  I found the start of the road at the back edge of the town. I hiked up the narrow road that wound around the rock. I passed old women who were setting out tablecloths and other locally made linens.  They were ready to sell their goods to the busloads of tourists who would be following me later in the morning.

Lindos acropolis view
The view to the Aegean Sea from the Acropolis.

Near the top of the rock I walked through an outer entrance to a medieval fortress.  The Knights of St. John conquered the island of Rhodes during the Crusades and later fortified the existing structures in the 14th and 15th centuries.

Further inside the fortress is a large stairway, originally built in the first century B.C., which leads up to something called a stoa.  A stoa is a covered walkway or portico.

acropolis stoa
Remants of the acropolis stoa.

Athena’s temple was isolated from the outside world by a wall with five entrances.  The inner stoa flanked a courtyard in front of the temple.

Temple of Athena
The partially rebuilt Temple of Athena.

The acropolis was destroyed during Ottoman rule, which started in the 16th century.  The Italians occupied the island of Rhodes in the 1930s and partially restored some of the temple.  Today, the Greeks continue the restoration work at a pace commonly referred to as “island time.”  I saw two guys in overalls operating a power saw to cut through some old stone for a few minutes before stopping for a smoke break.

As I walked down the road back to town I wondered what it would have been like here 2,400 years ago.  How did the Lindians react when their leader told them to build a temple for worshipping a statue made of stone?

Lindos, Greece
My house is the white one.
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Sizzling on Santorini

View of Oia, Greece

“Give me your ticket,” snarled the scruffy looking man.

“What for?” I said.

“You need ticket here. You have cable car ticket.”

“What?  I don’t believe you.” I said. “This is not the cable car!”

The ship was anchored off the coast of the Greek island of Santorini.  The curved shaped island was formed from remains of a volcano that erupted in 1,700 BC.  The bay is what is left of the caldera.  The island is hilly and rocky, with the main city of Fira perched on a high cliff above the Aegean Sea.

Along the ridge of Santorini, Greece
The Aegean Sea from the top of Santorini, Greece

Since there was no dock, we took a small tender boat to shore.  The day was hot and windy and the boat heaved up and down like an amusement ride.  The tour bus wound back and forth along the narrow switchbacks until we reached the summit.  At the top we visited a winery specializing in Vin Santo dessert wines.  I didn’t care for the wine; I thought it tasted like cough syrup!

The bus careened along the spine of the island.  We could see the sea far below us on either side.  We stopped in a traditional fishing village called Oia, on the north end of the island.  The village is built into the cliff side.

View of Oia, Greece
The fishing village of Oia, on Santorini, Greece

Most of the buildings are several hundred years old.  Rich sea captains built the houses and had them painted with paint left over from painting their ships.  Thus, most houses are white, although a few are red, blue, or yellow.  The village had many nice shops.  We bought a print of the Oia seascape from an art gallery.  The elderly owner/painter, who didn’t speak much English, sold us the print from behind his ancient desk.  There was a painting on the wall of a much younger man.  I asked the painter if it was a self-portrait of him many years before.  His face broke into a big smile and he nodded vigorously.

Almost sunset in Fira
Almost sunset in Fira on Santorini

After more touring of the island, we ended up back at Fira.  We sat in a café on a balcony overlooking the azure sea as the sun started to go down.  We had two choices to get back to sea level and the ship from our lofty perch – take a cable car or walk down 600 steps.  There was a big line for the cable car so we chose the steps.

“I don’t think you need my ticket.” I said.

He wouldn’t let us pass.  I started to get annoyed.

“Get out of my way or I’ll go find the police.”

He finally backed down and let us through.  He was a mule herder.  He wanted my cable car ticket to sell.  The mule herders ferried tourists from the small dock hundreds of feet below up the steps on the backs of mules for a fee.  Since we were walking down instead of riding the cable car, we didn’t need the tickets provided for us by the ship.

There were many mules milling about on the trail.  Some of them were tied up, and some weren’t.  At times packs of mules came running up the hill toward us.  We had to dodge them as they ran by, hugging the wall so as to not get stepped on or body-checked.  These mules were not as big as horses, but they still would pack a mighty wallop if they run into you.  After several close calls we made it down all of the steps to the dock for the boat ride back to the ship.

I have never run with the bulls at Pamplona, Spain, but I can now say I have safely run with the mules of Santorini!

Fira on Santorini
Fira and the Aegean Sea
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The World’s People on a Cruise Ship

spa on cruise ship

I have long resisted the idea of taking a vacation on a cruise ship.  I like to be an independent traveler, going where I want to go when I want to go.  No organized tours for me.  Being cooped up in tiny room with a small porthole, a worn out bed, and crowds of people smoking by the elevators didn’t appeal to me.

The bow of a big cruise ship
All aboard!

With some trepidation I booked a room on the inaugural Eastern Mediterranean cruise of the Celebrity Silhouette.  It was too good of a deal to pass up, especially since we were already going to be in Rome near the sailing date.  Somebody told me later that there were thousands of cancellations by Americans after Bin Laden was killed by Navy Seal Team Six.  People were afraid of a possible Al Qaeda backlash I guess.

From the moment I stepped on board my misconceptions evaporated.  This new ship was an enormous five star resort hotel on water.

spa on cruise ship
A rare bit of solitude on a crowded ship

The world’s people were represented on the ship.  They were not represented very well, and certainly not proportionate to size of population. The ship departed from Rome, so there were many Europeans, probably 80% or more, and not very many Americans (as compared to a typical Caribbean cruise).  A ride in the elevator or a trip to the café was like a meeting of the General Assembly of the UN without the translators.  You never knew what language you were going to hear – Italian, French, Spanish, British, German, Chinese, Polish, or something I didn’t recognize.

Americans have a reputation as being loud and obnoxious travelers, but on this ship there was no national monopoly on that behavior.

It started with the Serbian in the cabin next to me who started smoking on his veranda.  We were very near the front of the ship, and his cabin was just forward of mine.  This meant that because of the movement of the ship his smoke blew backward into my veranda.  He would also spontaneously burst into snippets of operatic arias several times per day.

The French and Italians jockeyed for supremacy in the high art of reserving deck chairs.  They would scamper out first thing in the morning and put their towel and book on all of the best chairs, ignoring the rule against this selfish act.  When I wanted to sit in a chair, I simply moved the towel on the deck and sat down.  Being an innate rule-follower, if I was confronted, my strategy was to invoke the rule and tell the chair hog to go see the pool butler.  I never had to follow through.

a ppol on a cruise ship
The Pool Deck on the Celebrity Silhouette

The British were continuously getting lost on the ship and loudly arguing among themselves.  I would walk through the restaurant to find my morning allotment of fresh squeezed orange juice to hear the following conversation.

“Where ya goin’ Luv?” said the man.

“I doan know, I’m looking for me tea,” said the woman. “Café is aft.”

“Yer bloody daft, woman, tis over there.  Can’t you read the signs.  Aft is that way!” said the man.

“Whats yer ass?” she replied.

The captain of the ship is a Greek with a dry sense of humor.  Every time he spoke on the loudspeaker he had some deadpan joke to throw into the daily report.  During the opening night show, he introduced the senior crew members and noted disdainfully that some of them weren’t Greek. He said the officer who was second in command had the responsibility to lead the ship when he went to party.

There was also a smattering of Germans, Russians, and Scandinavians.  However, I saw few passengers who were not white Western Europeans or Americans.

The crew was a different story.  The cabin stewards were typically Indians.  Most of the waiters were Filipinos.  The European crew was mostly from Macedonia or Slovenia.  South America was represented by Peru and Chile as coffee bar baristas.  The only black people on board were bartenders from Jamaica (Ya mon! Red Stripe for me!).  There were no Chinese among the crew.  Their poor young workers are stuck in China making all of the goods sold at Walmart.

There were no black Africans (other than a couple of South Africans), Arabs, Pakistanis, or Indonesians.  In these times of Islamist fanatical terrorism, I suppose it would be unsettling to American or Western European passengers to be served by someone like that.  It’s hard to enjoy your vacation and forget the cares of the world if you suspect the waiter might have a suicide vest.

The Celebrity Cruise Line probably has very tolerant employment policies which are open to all.  The workers have to speak at least some English, be willing to work for peanuts, and be gone from home for months at a time.  That must restrict their pool of available workers.  But as I noticed when getting on the ship, perception is everything.  The ship must be perceived by the passengers as safe, welcoming, pampering, and relaxing.  No potential jihadists need apply.

All of the service crew were excessive polite and gracious.  It must have been drilled into them nonstop during training.  It made me feel like a colonialist.  I was the Governor General of this colony and I didn’t have to make the bed or put my dishes away.  I did, however, put the toothpaste on my toothbrush.

The excessive politeness was robotic at times.

“Good morning, Mr. Steve.  How are you today?” asked the stateroom attendant as I left my room.

“Great, thanks.  How are you?” I responded.

“Fine, thank you,” replied the attendant.

After walking 10 yards down the hall, I realized I forgot something in my room, so I went back.  Less than two minute later I saw the attendant again.

“Good morning, Mr. Steve.  How are you today?”

“I am just as good as I was 120 seconds ago, but thanks for asking.”

grass on a cruise ship
The lawn on the Celebrity Silhouette

The advertising for cruises usually show some photogenic couple lounging poolside, eating gourmet meals, and dancing the night away.  The man is typically a distinguished looking CEO type in a GQ suit.  The woman is always quite a bit younger, a big haired trophy wife with a big diamond ring.  The ads are meant to convey the idea that cruising is glamorous, exciting, and extraordinary.  If you go on the cruise, you will enjoy yourself like them, look like them.  You will be them.

I didn’t see anybody like that.  I’m sorry, but I must call it like it is.  I saw lots of fat, ugly, old people.  They weren’t just Americans.  Europeans have definitely caught up to us Americans in the obesity department.

I saw few young adults, and only a handful of children. They were some honeymooners, but younger people typically can’t afford to go on a cruise.  They’re working hard to start a career, buy a house, and raise a family.  Only richer, older people can indulge themselves in a week or more of gluttony, sloth, and late night karaoke contests.

It’s funny how you see the same people over and over on the ship even though there are 2,800 passengers on board.  Like the old Chinese man with the mysterious scar on his head, the typically loud know-it-all New Yorker, and a Russian guy who looked like either a mixed martial arts competitor or the muscle for the Moscow Mafia.  We kept running into one particular American couple and one night had a long and interesting conversation with them.  We also got to know a very nice Portuguese couple.  It’s good to make new friends.  But what I want to know is why is it that I saw the beautiful young Italian supermodel-type woman in the string bikini only once in twelve days, but saw the current champion of the world’s ugliest woman contest three or four times every day?

I did see lots of fat old women in strange looking swimwear lying in the sun with their pale white wrinkly skin getting completely fried.  Here’s a beauty tip: given your age, body type, and weight, getting sunburned or even deeply tanned will not make you more attractive.

I saw old men with enormous tanned pot bellies protruding over their tiny Speedos smoking cigars while drinking beer and reading Italian men’s magazines.  Once per hour they flipped over and rocked from side to side on their rounded bellies with the movement of the ship.

One time I walked out of the café and glanced to one side and saw a large woman sunbathing topless.  She had large dark, flat nipples, and quite a pair.  Wow, I knew there were lots of French people around but I didn’t think this was that kind of ship…  On closer inspection (but not too close…) I realized that it was a man with his head covered by a towel.  Yes, he had man boobs! From a distance they looked almost like woman boobs.  Dude, either wear a man-bra or put a shirt on before some teen-aged boy takes your photo with his cell phone and it goes viral.

And please, Ms. Middle-aged Italian woman, if you’re going to wear that small of a bikini and lie on your stomach, please get a full wax job first…