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December 10, 2023

Greek myth: Mykonos remains a haven for high-end hedonism

Mykonos shows no sign of giving up the reputation that put it on the HNW map

By Edwin Smith

‘Yes sir, we have panadol.’

The words elicit a palpable sense of relief as they drift across the pool at the Belvedere Hotel, where several guests are elegantly splayed across their sunloungers, recovering on the morning after the night before. We have just arrived from the airport, so we don’t require any painkillers, but Mykonos is already living up to its reputation: as the party island ne plus ultra, a place with louche excess in its DNA.

The modern myth of this Greek island has its foundations in the Sixties, when Jackie Kennedy Onassis came here with her second husband, shipping magnate Aristotle Onassis. In their wake the likes of Brigitte Bardot, Grace Kelly and Sophia Loren visited too.

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In the same decade, the island’s first gay nudist beach, Super Paradise, became known and, in 1973, Italian-American painter Pierro Aversa and local fisherman Andreas Koutsoukos further burnished the island’s reputation as an arty, liberal party mecca by opening the first gay bar, Pierro’s.

 private beach lies downhill from the Cali hotel – but close enough for waiters to deliver refreshments
The private beach lies downhill from the Cali hotel – but close enough for waiters to deliver refreshments

The changing tide of Mykonos

Over the years, the profile of visitors to Mykonos has changed. In 2013 members of the wider Kardashian clan decamped here en masse; celebrities and billionaires have flocked ever since. It was on a yacht anchored just off one of the picturesque bays that Elon Musk was captured in an unflattering photograph last year, looking rather chubby and pale – but this is where the beautiful people come.

Bella and Gigi Hadid, George Clooney, Lewis Hamilton, Heidi Klum, Usain Bolt – they’ve all been. Inevitably, those who wish they were celebrities have followed – less renowned social media influencers and the species of poser that is mercilessly ridiculed by the satirical Supersnake Instagram account.

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The changing blend of the island’s clientele has created an interesting moment. To say there is battle for the soul of Mykonos might be pushing it but, as we’ll discover during our stay, there’s a clear tension between the island’s glamorous, bohemian heritage and its status as a byword for shallow, thoughtless displays of excess.

A man and a woman on a boat in the Aegeon
Guests taking a private boat tour from Cali are likely to encounter superyachts owned by familiar names

This is in evidence later on our first day, when we see two young women – unquestionably English – taking a selfie while riding a quad bike along a thrumming main road. ‘You can do anything in Mykonos,’ says our taxi driver, merrily. ‘There are no rules!’ We later hear that there are, however, around 100 road deaths per year on the island, which is about the same size as Jersey (which averages two road deaths per year).

The picturesque narrow streets and whitewashed houses of the small capital, Chora, are filled with tourists and shoppers during the day. Some have streamed out of the vast cruise ships that dock in the harbour, but there are also plenty of customers for the boutiques of brands such as Gucci, Dior, Audemars Piguet and Chopard. The artist Richard Orlinski, who is pictured on his website alongside the footballer Neymar and the restaurateur known as ‘Salt Bae’, has a gallery here too. More interesting, to my eye, is Rarity Gallery, which displays neon, textured work by contemporary artist Neil Halley and photorealistic pieces by British painter Raphaella Spence.

24-hour party people

A DJ at a beach club with people dancing
Music is a constant presence on the island

At night, when the daytrippers have returned to their cruise ships, Chora takes on a different feel. Everywhere you go in Mykonos, there is house music playing. Not just in the bars and clubs, but at the beaches, in the shops and galleries, in the taxis, on the boats, in the restaurants – the party vibe resonates everywhere.

And Noema – an outpost of Richard Caring’s restaurant empire that opened in 2021 and bears witness to the international elite’s love affair with Mykonos – is no different. You enter by descending a flight of stairs to a sunken courtyard that, according to the restaurant’s website, is designed to ‘create a seamless transition for eating, drinking and dancing’. The focal point of the space is a DJ booth, which is raised over the main dining room floor.

There are certain Caring trademarks – the look of the cassock-like uniforms worn by male waiting staff is perhaps best described as ‘sexy monk’ – but the food is also notable. The menu is the work of Athinagoras Kostakos, formerly of Mykonos fine dining fixture Bill & Coo, and includes grilled keftedakia and a god-tier smoked tarama.

As well as the music, you get used to the prices. Of course the hyper-exclusive international hotels and restaurants are mind-bogglingly expensive, but so are bottles of water, taxi rides and locally run establishments. More than one local tells us they worry it’s not sustainable. Prices are increasing, but quality doesn’t always keep up. Push it too far and, one day, even the (private) jet set might just decide not to come back.

An infinity pool on the Aegon
The 115m swimming pool at Cali has to be seen to be believed

Finding peace of the party island

We spend our first few days on the edge of what you might call ‘downtown Mykonos’, at the Belvedere Hotel. The main building is arranged around an intimate courtyard, which has a pool at its centre. The space is also home to Matsuhisa Mykonos, a dependably excellent sushi restaurant from Nobu Matsuhisa that celebrated its 20th anniversary this year. There’s specially commissioned artwork by British interior designer and artist Luke Edward Hall, which decorates the walls as well as the extremely tasteful menus.

The staff are friendly and generally adopt the air of ‘fellow travellers’ who know the best places to go. We stay in one of the hotel’s new hilltop villas, which boasts stunning views of the town and the bay, as well as its own private pool in the front garden. Later in the week, we move from the hubbub of the west of the island to a quieter corner on its south-eastern coast. Our destination is Cali, a hotel that opened for its first full season this year.

A pool and courtyard
The Belvedere Hotel offers an intimate courtyard space

It is the brainchild of Greek-American Eric Mourkakos, a first-time hotelier whose family made their money in pharmaceuticals. But it feels like the work of a hospitality industry veteran. The 40 private villas resemble traditional Mykonian buildings and have been created in part from rock excavated from the hillside on which they now sit. Most have their own pool, heated to a custom temperature.

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Mourkakos is not here to make a quick buck. If he were, he wouldn’t have invested so much in the impeccable design and finish of the rooms, nor would he have built a 115m swimming pool, which has to be seen to be believed. Below the pool is a path that winds down a hill to an idyllic private beach, where waiters from the hotel will deliver a glass of something cold and crisp. A little further along is a jetty, where guests can board one of Cali’s Axopar speedboats.

Modern day temples

A close up of a picture showing people eating b ya pool

Distinctive artwork by Luke Edward Hall at the Belvedere

One day we take a private boat tour of the southern and western part of the island, stopping off at various spots to swim, come ashore to have a drink, and generally nose around. En route we spot several super-yachts, including the 50m Mariu, once owned by Giorgio Armani, the 59m Senses, owned by Google co-founder Larry Page, and the 115m Lürssen megayacht Ahpo, which was renamed Lady Jorgia earlier this year, when it was purchased for €330 million by Canadian billionaire and former ice hockey goaltender Patrick Dovigi.

We stop at the gay-friendly beach club Jackie O, as well as a place that is central to the modern history of Mykonos: Nammos. The Dubai outpost is the highest-earning restaurant in the world, raking in $71 million per year; the Mykonos branch isn’t doing badly either. (It helps when some of your customers are prepared to spray bottles of Veuve Clicquot around like they’ve just taken the chequered flag at Silverstone, as Philip Green was pictured doing in 2017.)

Someone tells us that one of the beach clubs here, Scorpios (acquired in 2019 by the Soho House Group), is ‘the Acropolis of Mykonos’. And although the island has some beautiful historic architecture and the ancient ruins of Delos are close by, it does feel as if the restaurants and clubs are the modern temples at which people come to worship.

You might consider this a damning indictment of modern society. Then again, who doesn’t enjoy eating and drinking beautiful fare, among beautiful people, in a truly beautiful part of the world?

Dining with a view

Before we leave we have the chance to do this a couple more times. Once, at Fteliá, a beach club opened in 2022 by the people behind Pacha. It is one of the island’s classier establishments, with rose pink banquets perched on a headland overlooking a stunning turquoise sea, stylish waiting staff, and a menu with highlights such as scallop sashimi with sea urchin, fennel, lemon and chives.

A table by the sea at a high-end restaurant
The Gastronomy Project is one of the most established fine dining destinations on the island

Zuma, which also opened in 2022 and is nestled next to a Louis Vuitton boutique, offers a different but no less enjoyable experience. From high up on a hill just north of Chora, you have a majestic view, especially as the sun sets. The crowd is cosmopolitan, with tables of glamorous young Europeans alongside Arab families, who wish their toddlers good night via video calls between courses. (Of the excellent things we eat here, the wagyu sirloin tataki with truffle ponzu is the best of all.)

The astonishing thing is that more of these places are on the way. Four Seasons, Aman, Bulgari and One & Only are among the international hospitality brands either confirmed or rumoured to be opening establishments in the coming years.

They must be confident their elite customers’ appetite for Mykonos will endure. I just hope there’s enough panadol to go around.


The food scene

Five must-visit restaurants in Mykonos…

ZUMA

Come here for dinner and watch the sun set into the Aegean. High- glamour, high-gloss and stunning food. Be sure to try the wagyu. (zumarestaurant.com)

Zuma restaurant on the Aegean

NOEMA

This Richard Caring restaurant with a DJ booth at its centre is characteristically theatrical. Order the smoked tarama and the umami ‘Prometheus’ cocktail. (noemamykonos.com)

A table at a restaurant with food on it

GASTRONOMY PROJECT

Situated on an epic terrace at the Bill & Coo hotel, this is one of the most established fine dining destinations on the island. Food, service and location are all exquisite. (bill-coo-hotel.com)

Plate of food decorated with flowers

FTELIA MYKONOS

This classy beach club-cum- restaurant is from the people behind the Pacha empire. In quieter moments it’s blissful. At other times, things get turned up a notch. (fteliapacha.com)

Ftelia Mykonos

MATSUHISA MYKONOS

Nobu Matsuhisa’s Mykonos outpost is part of island lore. Its location – beside the intimate pool at the Belvedere Hotel – is hard to beat. (belvederehotel.com)

A pool and courtyard

Spear’s was a guest of the Belvedere Hotel (belvederehotel.com) and of Cali Mykonos, where doubles with breakfast start from £680 (calimykonos.com).

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