From olive harvesting to spa treatments inspired by the ancient Greeks, the new resort destination of Costa Navarino has much to offer incentive groups, says Jenny Southan

Standing on a rocky spit in the cobalt blue Bay of Pylos overlooking the Island of Slaughter (or Sfaktiria in Greek), I get my first introduction to the seafaring history of Messinia. The mythological birthplace of King Nestor, the wise Argonaut leader whose words, it was once said, “flowed from his mouth like honey”, the small coastal town of Pylos has borne witness to some of Greece’s most significant and bloody naval battles.

During the Pelopponesian War of 431-404BC, the Spartans were laid siege to here by the Athenians and, many centuries later, in 1827, it formed a strategic point for the Battle of Navarino (the old name for Pylos) in the Greek War of Independence. A furious exchange of artillery fire between an Ottoman/Egyptian fleet of around 80 ships and the allies’ flotilla of only 25 miraculously saw the near complete destruction of the enemies’ vessels, while not a single British, French or Russian ship was sunk.

Although it was a few more years until the country’s boundaries were agreed, the sea continued to play an important part in the lives of Messinians. In more recent times, one local, Captain Vassilis Constantakopoulos, has proved that both the land and the water surrounding it can be a source of great wealth. After spending more than two decades in the merchant navy, he started Costamare Shipping Company – a venture that made him a billionaire, giving him the means to return to his homeland in the eighties and go about buying it up.

Constantakopoulos’s vision, it turns out, was to create a high-end sustainable resort integrated with the landscape, and in May last year, after years of planning and despite the worldwide economic crisis, the first phase of the ambitious 1,000-hectare Costa Navarino development was unveiled.

Marina Papatsoni, marketing and communications director at Temes, the developer of Costa Navarino, says: “We were fortunate that Messinia wasn’t developed during the eighties, when a significant amount of Greece was destroyed because people were lacking environmental responsibility and awareness. The good thing is that now people are much more aware of their footprint on the environment and aesthetics, so we hope the whole of Messinia will be developed in the right way.”

As it stands, there are two luxury Starwood hotels on the Navarino Dunes site totalling 766 rooms – a Westin property and the Romanos, part of Starwood’s Luxury Collection – plus a 5,000 sqm convention centre, a 4,000 sqm spa, 15 bars and restaurants, a 1km private beach and an 18-hole golf course designed by Robert Trent Jones II. But there is plenty more to come. A second course will open in September on the new 140-hectare Navarino Bay site, while a 117-room Banyan Tree resort will follow in 2013, with luxury villas featuring infinity pools, spacious gardens and living roofs planted with local foliage.

The second phase of development will see the addition of the final two deluxe eco sites – Navarino Blue and Navarino Hills – each of which will boast five-star hotels and leisure facilities amidst picturesque settings.

Now in his seventies, Constantakopoulos has appointed his son, Achilles, as managing director of the project. Over green apple martinis on a sunset terrace, Achilles explains what he hopes the project will deliver. “It is not a new resort – it’s a new destination,” he says. “If this thing succeeds, it’s not just about the hotels and the spas, it’s about the whole experience, and what the region has to offer.

If I go away, I want activities – I want to learn things because I get bored quickly. Put me on a beach for half an hour and I can’t sit still. I want choices – restaurants, high-ropes, archaeological sites, bike rides, surfing… I think we are trying to build authentic, socially and environmentally guilt-free experiences. That’s luxury today – people don’t want a 1,000 sq ft room with gold taps. First of all, you have to get the fundamentals right.”

So what are these fundamentals? One thing the Constantakopoulos family are passionate about is the development’s environmental credentials – they assert it is not “greenwashing” for the sake of positive press, but making a genuine bid to create a resort that is sustainable and in tune with its surroundings. Temes has ensured that the resort will occupy less than half of the land available for building on, while initiatives to provide renewable energy sources include installing a geothermic system for heating and cooling the properties under the Dunes golf course.

While Greece’s Mediterranean climate may be appealing to visitors, a lack of rain means water is precious, and critics will be quick to point out that thirsty golf courses go against Temes’s green philosophies. However, it seems to have found a way around this by digging two reservoirs to collect runoff for the resort from the Selas and Xerias rivers.

If the thought of a band of diggers carving up the land conjures up images of wanton destruction, think again – Temes has also managed to uproot and replant more than 7,000 olive trees, many of which are hundreds of years old, in and around the area. When the programme is complete, in excess of 16,000 will have been re-homed and, so far, the success rate of the trees surviving has been close to 100 per cent.

Given the endeavours Temes has made to maintain the natural beauty of the region, visitors are unlikely to consider Costa Navarino – the hotels of which comprise low-rise villas, with meandering paths, lawns and swimming pools – a blight on the land. In fact, as Ian Ciappara, director of sales and marketing for the two Starwood properties, points out: “You are fully immersed in nature.” He adds: “I don’t think I have ever been to a resort of this dimension with the same sense of tranquillity.”  You only have to take a stroll down the unspoilt golden beach or take a drive to Gialova lagoon, a protected habitat for more than 270 species of birds, to see what he means.

Incentive groups looking to book should note that the hotels are only open seasonally at the moment – the Westin is taking reservations from mid-April to October, while the Romanos is available between May and the end of September. Delegates from the UK should fly to Athens (Aegean Airlines, British Airways, Easyjet and Olympic Air serve the London route daily) and then either catch a 50-minute connection to Kalamata airport (Aegean Airlines started this service in May last year) and drive the 45 minutes to the resort, or go the whole way by car, which takes about four hours.

There are many ways to spend your time at the resort, and activities can be tailored to suit your requirements and the size of the group. As well as tennis, squash, badminton, football, canoeing, windsurfing and swimming, mountain bikes can be rented and cycling tours of the area arranged. Spend an afternoon speeding along the quiet country roads lined with fig and citrus trees, past silvery olive groves and sleepy hamlets with scattering chickens, and any tension you might have had when you arrived will quickly dissipate.

For those feeling more adventurous, cycling trips can be arranged to the mountainside Anargyri Cave, which has a religious shrine built inside. Shepherd’s picnics and friendly tavernas can also be scheduled, but go easy on the ouzo if you want to get back on your bike. Groups keen to explore the region on foot can take hiking tours to Paleokastro, a 13th-century Frankish citadel, Polyminio gorge, and Sfaktiria Island, where there is a small wooden church and a memorial to the Russian sailors who died in the Battle of Navarino.

The two hotels at Navarino Dunes share their facilities and activities – a central plaza between the properties, known as the Agora, has a giant outdoor screen for films and is also where most of the dining establishments are located. A particularly enjoyable option is to eat poolside under the stars, where barbecues can be set up beneath the trees. Either you or your chef can cook up a feast of fresh local fish, meat and vegetables, while listening to the cicadas chirp.

For a truly exclusive event, you could rent out one of the two lavish presidential villas for an evening and host a champagne-fuelled soirée. But if this sounds a little ostentatious, rest assured that there are options for engaging with the local, and rather more humble, way of life. Temes’s Papatsoni says: “We recently started a programme for experiencing Messinian authenticity. For example, you can take part in olive harvesting, see how wine is made at our own vineyards, and gather salt from the sea.

“We are also considering organising visits to people’s homes so you can have a cooking lesson and eat with the family – we are looking for the homes and the families who want to do it at the moment. We haven’t finalised this programme yet as it will involve a lot of [input from] the local community, but from this year you should be able to participate in all these activities.”

After a day in the fields shaking olives off branches, or on the beach taking part in a mini-Olympics, the perfect sign-off is some time in the Anazoe spa. It has three pools, saunas, whirlpool baths and 20 treatment rooms, where highly trained masseuses with magic hands perform techniques incorporating traditional recipes and practices. Papatsoni says: “We are also using music based on ancient Greek tones and rhythms – the ancient Greeks thought music was a gift from God and actually has the power to heal.”

Spa treatments include the 20-minute Messinian salt honey scrub and the hour-long “healing massage remedy by Hippocrates”, which will leave “your spirit calm and your zest for life restored”. And what could be more of an incentive than that?

Useful websites