The only question I ask every guest on my Travel Tales with Fergal podcast is “If you close your eyes, take four deep breaths and think of your happy place. Where is it and why?” My latest podcast episode is a collection of my clients’ favorite happy places.
My guests choose places all over the world, Verbier in Switzerland and the Maldives being the most cited. We hear of secluded beaches in Bali and Brazil, traveling the Camino in Spain, the mountains of Patagonia, the Zambezi in Africa. But unsurprisingly, after more than a year of lockdown, several guests have chosen locations in Ireland and near their homes, including Inis Oirr, Lough Gur and Dalkey, to name a few.
When asked where my happy place is, I now say the Suir Blueway which never fails to delight my daily walk. If I choose a place abroad, I choose Agios Nickolas in the Mani region of the Peloponnese Peninsula on the west coast of mainland Greece.
When we see a promotional photo from Greek tourism, it’s usually a Greek island like Mykonos with whitewashed towns and beautiful people around a chic swimming pool watching a sunset over the Aegean Sea. But I’m looking for a small village by the sea, with a great local restaurant with friendly staff that you don’t mind going almost every night and an area steeped in history with many adventurous excursions. I think I found this place with Agios Nickolas which is the most beautiful, idyllic little fishing village surrounded by a magnificent turquoise sea and superb mountainous landscapes.
My first holiday abroad as an adult was in the Cyclades Islands in Greece in 1996 and I returned with my family a few years ago. Islands like Paros and Naxos are as beautiful as ever, but I was surprised at how busy they have become with tourists. I would recommend the Peloponnese Peninsula for its history and beauty but also because it feels a lot less crowded and looks more like Greece that I knew and fell in love with 25 years ago.
There are daily flights from Ireland to Athens. It is worth spending a few days in Athens at the start or end of your trip. The city has recovered from the recent financial crash to become a vibrant and modern culinary capital teeming with ancient Greek landmarks such as the Acropolis, the perched citadel towering over the city, dating back to the 5th century BC.
The Peloponnese Peninsula is an hour’s drive from Athens via the historic Corinth Canal which technically cuts it off from mainland Greece and it feels like entering a new land. This region is full of historic sites that were considered ancient even to the ancient Greeks, with many ancient civilizations including the Spartans, Corinthians, and Mycenaeans.
Nafplion is on the east coast and was the first capital of Greece when it became independent from Turkey around 1821. This city is quite different from Athens in its architectural style reflecting its Venetian heritage. It is an ideal base for history buffs as it is surrounded by ancient sites, including the Epidaurus Amphitheater dating from the 4th century BC. Greece’s best-preserved ancient theater can seat 14,000 spectators and is world famous for its incredible acoustics. Epidaurus always holds concerts throughout the summer.
Just an hour on the east coast of Nafplio is the glittering resort town of Porto Heli, popular with the glamorous and trendy set of Athens. It is an ideal base for visiting the stunning islands of Spetses and Hydra, made famous by Leonard Cohen in the 1960s.
The journey from Port Heli to Agios Nickolas passes through the Laconia region where the famous Spartans once ruled and where the laconic word was coined. The modern capital Sparta has some ruins of this ancient battle race, but the nearby abandoned ancient city of Mistras is worth a visit. Atmospheric Mistras was the final capital of the Byzantian Empire and is full of history.
The road from Mistras to Mani on the west coast is considered one of the greatest routes in the world, passing through deep river gorges and crossing steep passes. It’s easy to see why Sparta has never been successfully invaded when driving on these spectacular narrow winding roads.
You will arrive after an hour in Kalamata, cradle of the best olive oil in the world. There are now direct flights to Kalamata from the UK. Then, an hour’s drive through other mountains reveals the beautiful coastline of the mystical Mani region where legend says the Spartans found themselves.
The Mani was once a very remote part of Greece that few Greeks visited, but with EU money new roads were built to open up access to some of Greece’s most beautiful resorts, including Agios Nicolas, Stoupa and Kardamyli, location of the film “Before Midnight” And the recent SKY television show “The trip to Greece”.
Mani is famous for the friendliness of the locals, many wonderful beaches dotted along the coast and the nearby mountains, ideal for hiking. The famous seaside town of Limeni is one of the most picturesque in Greece and, unsurprisingly, it is often used in Greek tourist advertisements. The entire Peloponnese region is full of natural wonders and ancient historic sites like Olympus, the site of the ancient Olympic Games.
I chose to dive on the rocks, with my children, in the warm turquoise sea at the edge of Agios Nickolas as my happy place and I liked it so much that I made the logo photo for my podcast.
The Travel Tales with Fergal podcast is now streamed in 75 countries and the Happy Place special and all episodes can be streamed on www.traveltaleswithfergal.ie