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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A Villa in Umbria

La Preghiera

Calzolaro is a tiny village in the middle of Umbria.  As you drive through it, your eye catches the faded sign of the Rio Rosso café.  Old men play cards at an outside table while drinking their grappa.  Old peasant women shuffle along the sidewalk on the way back home from doing their shopping.  Boys are kicking a soccer ball around the field.

Welcome to rural Italian life in Umbria.  Where the pace of life is slow, the air is clean, and the hills are heavily forested.  Tuscany, Umbria’s neighbor to the east, gets more attention, but the small towns of Umbria are as tranquil as they come.

La Preghiera
La Preghiera, Calzolaro, Umbertide, Umbria, Italy

I found the bed and breakfast hotel called La Preghiera on the Internet.  I was looking for a place to hold a small destination wedding in Italy.  It looked very promising on its website, but you never can tell until you get there.  In my case, the villa was everything it was advertised to be and was the perfect place for the wedding.

The villa is owned by an elderly British/Uruguyan couple named John and Liliana Tunstill.  They bought the property approximately twenty years ago.  The buildings, consisting of a large house (formerly a monastery), smaller house, and chapel, had been built in the mid-19th century.  When they found the property, it was in ruins.  John, an architect, led a meticulous renovation project to transform the wreckage into a comfortable and modern, yet rustic Italian villa.

The house has nine bedrooms which can be reserved individually or as a group and a large veranda on which to sit when having breakfast or pre-dinner cocktails.  The view from the veranda is across the neighboring farm fields to the forested hills beyond. Currently the farmer next door has a tobacco crop planted.  I didn’t know they grew tobacco in Italy.  John explained that tobacco had been grown in the area for over a hundred years but was being phased out due to the health risks.  However, the farmers have hung on to tobacco as a cash crop because there is more profit in it as compared to other crops.

The view of the neighbor's field

The small house is a self-contained vacation apartment with three bedrooms.  The property also has a large pool which is a welcome respite on hot, muggy August afternoons.

View of the pool at La Preghiera

The unique feature of the property is the chapel.  Built in 1871, it is ideal for a small wedding with no more than 40 people.  In our case, there were only nine people (including the bride and groom), so we fit nicely in the first two rows of the chapel.

The Chapel at La Preghiera
inside chapel
Inside of the Chapel at La Preghiera

Despite being in the countryside, the villa is only a few hundred yards from the village of Calzolaro, and a mile or so from the small town of Trestina.  The town has the usual amenities, such as a bakery, a flower shop, small grocery stores, and a few restaurants.  We were there in August, when many locals take vacations, so the stores and restaurants were closed everyday from 1pm to 4pm.

In the evenings we ventured out to suggested local restaurants in the countryside for authentic Italian cuisine.  These restaurants were far from the poor quality and expensive tourist traps in Rome and Florence.  The food and service were good, the prices reasonable, and every dinner was a three hour affair.

Our time in rural Umbria was relaxing and pleasant.  If you are thinking of visiting Italy, I recommend getting away from the big cities and seeing how the locals live in the countryside.  Consider La Preghiera for your stay.

la Preghiera sign
The entrance gate at La Preghiera