Driven by design
A surge of design-led boutique hotels are setting new standards for décor in Athens, reports Mark Caswell.
Comic book heroes, dream sequences, private jets and high-tech periscopes – it may sound like the plot of a Hollywood blockbuster, but these are all features of the burgeoning boutique hotel scene in Athens. Buoyed by the success of the 2004 Olympic Games, the Greek capital has seen a raft of design-led properties enter the market, and it’s a trend that is set to continue.
New hotels are springing up both in the city centre and its suburbs, and traditional hotels are being converted into modern design properties. Nowhere is this more evident than at the recently opened Classical 2 Fashion House Hotel, a 115-room property managed by Classical Hotels, which previously went by the name of Grand O. The “O” stood for nearby Omonia Square, the point from which all distances from Athens are measured, and a growing district for boutique properties.
Described on the hotel’s website as “a crime scene for fashion victims”, the traditional interiors have been replaced by eclectic rooms individually designed by Greek fashion designers, stylists, photographers and artists. The public areas have also had a makeover, with the restaurant taking on a football theme and the ground level cocktail bar looking like the inside of a private jet. Even the dull exterior has had a facelift – it now features brightly coloured pop-art balconies, most visible at night, when the hotel looks like it would be more at home in the Tate Modern.
This sort of offering would have been unthinkable in Athens a decade ago, as Yiannis Retsos, CEO of Electra Hotels and secretary-general for the Athens-Attica Hotel Association, explains. “During the late 1980s there was a lack of investment, with five-star hotels competing in the €50 market,” he says. “Then in 1997 Athens won the bid for the 2004 Olympics, and as a result €1.5 billion was invested in the city’s hotel industry. Some 90 per cent of existing hotels were refurbished.”
Retsos adds that before the Olympics, the boutique/design hotel concept simply hadn’t been heard of in the capital. “There was no differentiation, and smaller hotels just competed with larger ones,” he says. “The effect of the Olympics was that owners realised this new trend could work here. Smaller hotels are now converting to the concept.”
Probably the most famous example of a converted design property in the city is the Baby Grand Hotel, also run by Classical Hotels. The property has a plethora of design features, from reception desks made out of genuine convertible Mini Coopers to the Meat Me restaurant, which is draped in leaf “curtains” that create an Alice in Wonderland feel.
But it’s in the rooms and suites where the designers have really let their imaginations run wild. In 57 of the 76 rooms, guests are greeted by graffiti concepts, with murals depicting everything from comic book heroes (the Spiderman room is apparently one of the most popular), to Japanese art and jungle landscapes. It’s a far cry from the more traditional offerings in the Classical Hotels portfolio, and shows that the larger hotel groups are now embracing the concept.
Epoque Hotels, a collection of “avant-garde, trendy-chic and luxury-classic boutique” properties, according to its website, has three hotels in the city, including O&B Athens Boutique Hotel and Fresh Hotel. The latter is a 133-room property in the Omonia district, where design is less about outlandish concepts and more about minimalist décor and warm colours, creating an ultra-modern city centre hotel.
The nine-floor building has a rooftop pool and bar with views of the Acropolis, while on the ground level is the recently opened Imperia Ice Club, Athens’ first ice bar. Its walls, bar, sofas and glasses are made from 30 tons of the cold stuff. The bar offers cocktails and resident DJs at -5°C, and for the less adventurous, there is a lounge bar annexe at room temperature.
O&B Athens Boutique Hotel is an altogether more intimate affair. Its 11 rooms are located south of Omonia in the up-and-coming district of Psiri. Renovated in 2005, the “O” and “B” stand for ochre and brown, the interior’s predominant colour scheme. The hotel has a stylish Mediterranean bar/restaurant on the entrance level, as well as a third-floor junior suite with views of the Acropolis from its terrace.
Eridanus, meanwhile, has mixed the traditional with the modern at its 38-room “luxury art hotel”. The property displays modern pieces by local artist Giorgos Lazongas alongside original neoclassical frescos. Rooms boast high-tech facilities and there are views of the Acropolis from the roof garden.
Talking of art, the biggest player on the Athens design-hotel scene is arguably Yes! Hotels, owned by Dakis Joannou, a prolific modern-art collector and founder of the Deste Foundation, a non-profit centre for contemporary art located in the Athenian suburb of Nea Ionia. Standing for Young, Enthusiastic and Seductive, Yes! Hotels currently has the 22-room Periscope in the upmarket Kolonaki district, and a further three properties in the city’s equally wealthy suburb of Kifisia.
Located at the foot of Lycabettus Hill, the Periscope is slightly too low to have views across to the Acropolis (except, that is, from the outdoor spa bath in the penthouse suite). But the hotel has cleverly attempted to overcome this by providing guests with a “periscope” – effectively a wireless controller that can be manipulated to beam 360-degree footage of the city from a camera positioned on the roof of the building on to a flatscreen TV. Guests are free to use this in the hotel’s bar area, and sit in comfy Mini Cooper car seats. The “views” continue in the rooms, with photos of panoramic landscapes and huge aerial maps of various areas of the city.
Over in Kifisia, about a 20-minute train ride from the city centre, Yes! guests have a choice of three distinct properties. The Kefalari Suites consist of 13 traditionally designed rooms and suites, while Twenty One, located at 21 Kolokotroni Street and with a total of 21 rooms, is a modern boutique hotel with artwork in each room depicting a scene from a 21-step dream sequence. Guests can piece together the dream via a smaller version in reception.
The third property, Semiramis, is the flagship for the Yes! brand. Its 51 rooms were individually created by Karim Rashid, an industrial designer who has a permanent collection in New York’s Museum of Modern Art. The hotel has a wonderfully coloured and curved outdoor swimming pool, as well as an art gallery in the public areas showing pieces from Joannou’s collection on a rotating basis.
The group is also planning a second city-centre property, to be located within the building of the former Olympic Palace hotel near Syntagma Square. Due to open early next year, the hotel will feature 79 rooms created by Brazilian designers Humberto and Fernando Campana, famous for creating furniture made from found objects and recycled materials.
Meanwhile, Starwood is also getting in on the act, with a W hotel due to open next year in the exclusive Vouliagmeni beach resort.
These new developments would suggest that Athens’ boutique hotel scene has a rosy future, although Retsos stresses the need for a co-ordinated campaign to draw leisure visitors to the city.
“Four years after the Olympics, Athens is still not a city-break destination,” he says. “The national strategy still concentrates on the islands, but Athens is a different proposition and will need to be promoted as such.”
The city will also need to overcome any bad publicity generated by the recent anti-government protests, but with the Olympics leaving behind a good transport infrastructure, and ancient sights such as the Acropolis, the Parthenon and the Theatre of Dionysus continuing to attract tourists, the design hotels market looks set to go from strength to strength.
Four airlines fly direct from the UK to Athens International airport. Aegean Airlines flies three times a day from London Stansted, while Olympic Airlines has a three-times daily service from Heathrow (with a morning flight on Tuesday to Friday from Gatwick), as well as a three-times weekly service from Manchester. BA flies from Heathrow three times a day, and Easyjet has a twice-daily service from Gatwick (except for Saturday, which is once a day), and a daily service from Luton. The budget carrier will also start twice-weekly flights from Manchester on August 1.
For address and booking details of each hotel , click here.
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