News & Reviews Europe Greece Review: Porto Zante, Greece

I have been to Greece eight times.  The first time was for Amanzoe.  Also, the second.  Third, fourth, and fifth too.    And not forgetting the sixth, seventh and eighth time.  Every time I looked for alternatives, I failed to be convinced.  And every time I looked, Porto Zante was there, staring at me like a drooling dog with puppy eyes.    And every time I looked back at Porto Zante, I gave it a resounding no.  And then, after finally relenting and arriving, I realised how right I was.  Only to realise how wrong that made me.  Maybe.

Still with me?

Er, what?

Porto Zante is based in Zakynthos, Greece, which seems to be a magnet for overweight Brits who achieved the notoriously difficult feat of surviving to adulthood without being able to dress themselves.  The type of place hooligans go when they get out of prison and need somewhere to recuperate their knuckles.  It’s a beautiful island, but the tourists are much more EasyJet than private jet.  It certainly doesn’t feel like the kind of spot you’d expect to find a hotel featured in Virtuoso’s Ultraluxe, a category that contains only 26 hotels (although one is a Ritz-Carlton, which is like saying, “26 of the best and kindest athletes of all time, including OJ Simpson”).  Porto Zante is a villa-only retreat, but with only eight villas and few facilities, there’s not much of the retreat – it’s apt that it’s part of Small Luxury Hotels of the World.

Even this fully-grown bear is small.

Before arrival, their team reached out for introductions, including a suggested itinerary.  Things were looking good.  We were driven there in their full specced out Mercedes V Class, with starlight ceiling and bright orange seats; I was unsure what awaited us.  It was definitely not that.  Found on the cliff edge, accessible only via double gates, with stairs leading down to the private beach, the pebbled buildings all make it feels like you’re in an old compound.  But found on the other side of those vast doors that ironically scream for your privacy, there was the GM and most of the team.  Most importantly, the nannies from the kids club were there.  Just metres from the entrance was our villa, with some of the best welcome amenities I’ve ever seen, including a handmade welcome poster for my daughters.  The setup was perfect.  Time to look around the room.

Looking good so far. Let’s just go inside and…

What.  Da.  Fuck.

The decor is what always put me off coming here.  And it still puts me off.  It’s unsurprising – no one was ever won over after hearing of a colonoscopy and then changed their mind after having one.  It’s the design equivalent of celery: tasteless, no one asks for it, no one wants it, but there it is.  In Blast from the Past, a family goes underground in the 1960s and emerges 35 years later to discover how much the world has changed.  I suspect their interior designer was stuck in that bunker with them but only had Readers Digest editions from 50 BC to inspire him.  Lucie compared it to a three-star hotel in Czech Republic whilst pacing around and muttering, “I don’t see how people can get away with it”.  It was so hideous our baby couldn’t sleep, such was the offence it caused to her retinas.  Maybe I don’t “get it”, but “it” is as ghastly as the pictures depict.

The polished wooden floors, the obscure decorations, the blinding fluorescent lights, the bathrooms, oh god, the bathrooms, the vast emptiness.  The bathroom lights are like being in a prisoner of war camp.  There are controls on the wall that no longer do anything, endless amounts of switches that make no sense, and cables hanging out.  The iMac in the office brings back Burj al Arab vibes, and similarly, they both share being wildly out of date.  It’s not just poor design, it feels cheap and is cheap.

All of this is with us having received a double upgrade.  I booked the Presidential Spa Villa at €4,300/n and got upgraded to Royal Infinity Villa at €7,400/n.  All their nine villas were occupied, so I didn’t have a chance to see any other rooms, but it’s unlikely that the designer suddenly was possessed by the ghost of Karl Lagerfeld and improved.  If anything, it looks like multiple designers hated each other and did their best to sabotage the other.

The outside area doesn’t suffer any of these problems.  The heated swimming pool was a delight, with beautiful views out into the turquoise waters.  They claim it was heated to 28C, but to all our great pleasure, it was definitely warmer than that.  We had most of our meals in the shaded gazebo, which felt timeless.  We had direct access to the beach via a private staircase, easy enough for our two-year-old to walk it, and down there, we had our loungers at the end of a pier and another gated, private area with loungers.

However, it is completely practical.  Whilst the design offends anyone born after 1850, nothing was absent that altered the enjoyment of the stay.  The layout is fine; the outside area is fine; the square meterage is more than we needed.  Ultimately, it offers everything needed, it just does it in a way that makes you forget it – air conditioning, complete blackout blinds, three bathrooms, a kitchen, and even an office area.  The size and layout are not an issue; the facilities are not even an issue; it’s just how it looks.  Don’t judge a book by its cover?  You would if it was smeared in toddler’s faeces.

Their facilities are similar: functional, without blowing your mind.  They do what they can in the space they have available.

The Kids Club could not have been more conveniently placed from our villa – walk right, and you’re there.  It has two parts: a playground with table tennis and a pool table; and the indoor club.  Next door is the gym, with a few cardio machines, some weight machines, and weights.

The spa is uniquely placed metres from the ocean.  It’s just large enough for two beds and a sitting area, but it directly faces the sea and can be opened up, so during our treatments, we had the sound of the ocean constantly entering.  The downside is it’s near the beach, so I could hear some guests talking during my wonderful four-hands treatment.  Unless they were complimenting my muscle tone, then talk away.

I needed to double-check the definition of a beach just to make sure Trading Standards didn’t need to get involved.  It’s ultimately a man-made pier with sand on it, but it’s not large enough, and the water could be pretty rough at times, so it could splash up near the beds.  Still better than Amanzoe’s pebble beach because at least there is sand here and it is completely private as there’s no access from anywhere but the villas.  For Europe, it’s about as good as we can get.  My daughter absolutely loved it, but barely a year ago, she used to eat sand, so maybe not a connoisseur of luxury quite yet.  They offer some non-motorised equipment like kayaks and baby jet skis, which were pretty cool.

They include some free activities for kids, including visiting a nearby water park with a piece of paper saying free snacks, pony riding, and touring the island.  Their initial itinerary suggested a lot of yachts, but that’s not my thing.  We went to a nearby wildlife park, only for our children to fall asleep, so we drove back.  I basically paid a taxi driver four hours to drive us around in a circle.

It turns out there is something brilliant about the small, intimate nature of Porto Zante.  The pool is metres away from our bedrooms; our dining options seconds away; the beach a quick walk.

I was thinking I was going to have to give up this blog.  After 15 years of visiting luxury hotels I must have learnt nothing as Porto Zante was so well-rated that it made no sense.  Then the service happened.  The service is where everything changes.  This is where it becomes a two-part story.  This is why I love boutique hotels.

I write notes throughout the trip, which are translated into this exquisite review.  I can see my internal struggles as I battle over the price here.  I try to avoid the subject of value for money, as it’s so subjective and, meaningless to some people, but the room really put that into question here.  There are undoubtedly better, cheaper villas to be found elsewhere.  What made the doubt begin to fade was how brilliantly we were looked after.  It truly was like the entire property was made for us.  I began to understand the glowing reviews, the atmosphere, the attention to detail.

We often talk of service reaching an Aman level, but Porto Zante is not what Aman is; it’s what Aman dreams about being.   Awards are utter bullshit, with he who screams loudest the winner, but I could see why they won Conde Nast’s World’s Best Family Hotels.  I wanted to leave my family here to be raised by them.  Whilst the other guests were retirement age, they could not have been more prepared for my two young daughters.  The Kids Club nannies are easily the best I’ve ever seen, helped by the manager being a mother, which does kind of help when you know what you’re doing.  They nannies are around until 10 pm each night and are always willing to help, always going above and beyond.  Yet everyone was involved in this, not just the nannies; people would show up with colouring kits for dinner; the beach attendant would help; managers would hang around to ensure she was looked after.

We were incredibly well taken care of.  I cannot express how nice it is just to dump an 8-month-old and two-year-old at the Kids Club without prior notice.  Our daughter wanted to spend her entire time with the nannies, in our pool, or at the beach – sometimes at the beach with the nannies.  As I took pictures of the beach, I found her making sandcastles with two of the staff.  I wondered where she’d got to.

That’s how they look after the children, but I felt it too.  There was an immediate understanding of preferences and a desire to please.   It feels extraordinarily welcoming and relaxed, but always with the guest in mind.  It always felt like being at home, even down to the resident dog just wandering around and enjoying life.

I’ve never been somewhere where so much is offered complimentary.  I was expecting them to wheel the bed out with me on departure.  During every meal, special, complimentary food is sent that they wanted us to try, sometimes completely over the top, like an entire lobster; at random points in the day, someone shows up and gives the entire family your favourite drinks.  Not that they need to, because the fridges are absolutely stocked with everything and refilled immediately.  The minibar is free, the amount of booze they include is quite incredible (perhaps to help you forget the design) – the generosity at Porto Zante is exceptionally high.

I was a bit worried initially, as it felt a bit too silver service for lunch, with it taking so long, and then clearing everything away after the starter, to bring it all again for the main course, but without even saying anything, they stopped doing that – probably my impatient tapping and passive-aggressive death stares fixed that.  The staff are in uniforms, but all wear trainers, which I think summarises it: extremely professional, but relaxed.  I think they’re all in uniforms though, as we never once saw housekeeping, but they were in multiple times a day.

Their restaurants are small and intimate, as you might imagine, with Japanese and Greek offerings.  You can eat anytime in your villa – which we did a few times because the restaurants were metres from our room, so it made little difference.  ou’re right on the cliff edge with open views of the ocean, but the real treat really is the food.

The Greek restaurant had a pianist each night.  The piano, the ocean, the ambience – it felt like being in a love story at times.  I’ve already spoken about the room’s decor, and unsurprisingly, it’s no different here, so I’ll speed past that.  But speed was not of the essence when it came to getting the food, but the quality more than made up for that.  I did not come to Greece to try Japanese food, but I ate there every day.

You might be like me and hate the design, but there is no chance you will leave without complete admiration for how everything else comes together.

The Good

  • Private beach
  • May and September continue to prove to me that they’re the best times to go to Europe.  We had gorgeous weather with blue skies and always in the 21-23C range.

The Bad

  • Design
  • Noise from aeroplanes – until 11 pm, we could hear flights taking off
  • The beach being called a beach

The Luxurious

  • Exceptional service
  • Kids Club
  • Japanese food

Rating

Good

Hire an interior designer it gets Luxurious.

Conclusion

Porto Zante has a bit of Villa Feltrinelli about the place in that it looks a bit shit, yet somehow makes you feel great and looking forward to returning.  The problem is, they need to get every element of the service right every single time because the facilities aren’t great and the rooms aren’t great, and the beach isn’t great and being underneath a flight path isn’t great.  So they need to make you feel better than Prince Charles finding out his mum died, and that throne is his.  You need “That crown is mine, baby!” energy, 24/7.

Competition is about to step up in Greece.  Mandarin Oriental Costa Navarino opens in August (review will be forthcoming); One&Only Kea Island has been pushed back to April 2024.  The Four Seasons Athens opened a few years ago.  It used to just be Amanzoe.  I worry for Porto Zante.  I worry that you will make the same mistake as me – seeing the suicidally-depressed-Philip Glass-on-prozac inspired minimalist design and never giving it a chance.  That’s a mistake because the service makes you feel like they built the entire resort just for you.  The service, the kids club, the views, the privacy, the food – that’s what Porto Zante offers.

I had to give a lot of thought to whether this place was terrible value for money.  I spent almost the entire first day contemplating it, only to ignore it all by the end.  Yes, they need to refurb, for similar reasons that Jeffrey Dahmer needed to stop eating people – it’s just vile.  But Porto Zante needs a complete refurb for their business, too, as then the price doesn’t become such an issue.  The staff do such an overwhelmingly positive job that whilst they’re fighting against the tide, they make up for the lack of investment elsewhere.  With a refurb, all the other problems start to fade, and you’re really just left with the annoyance of being under a flight path.  But I can ignore that when everything else feels so good.

Room type: Royal Infinity Villa When: May 2023 Rates: from €7,400/n

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Tom Cahalan

Written by Tom Cahalan on 9th Jun '23

Dorsia Travel’s co-founder Tom Cahalan’s take on travel is reliably candid. Here’s his take on what’s good, bad, and luxurious.

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