The welcome is as warm as ever in Rhodes
Fears of imminent economic collapse put many holidaymakers off going to Greece this summer but Gail Bell found sunshine, friendliness and tourism in full working order on her recent trip to the Dodecanese island of Rhodes
IT IS a blisteringly hot afternoon somewhere on a dusty highway between Rhodes airport and Kolymbia and the scenes rolling past the window are not exactly the type to make you whip out your camera.
So far we have passed ugly, abandoned new-builds, ugly, abandoned old-builds and ugly, abandoned cars of indeterminate age casually left to rust in fields and roadsides.
It is not an attractive first impression and is all the more jarring when set against a sublime blue sky and dazzling sunshine which seem to mock promises of a different Greece: picture-postcard islands full of white-washed tavernas, verdant olive groves and romantic ruins.
They are still there, of course, but the main route towards them holds occasional grim reminders of the financial crisis to befall this holiday paradise of late.
Predictions of pending economic collapse sadly kept many tourists away from the Greek islands during summer 2015, fearful of what a bankrupt Greece might mean in terms of the holiday essentials: cards and cash – and food and medicine if you believed all the media reports at the time.
But the reality, as we found out on a trip to Rhodes in late August, is that tourists themselves had never any real cause for concern. The ATMS were still dispensing money and bank cards at resort hotels were not declined.
The azure sky did not fade to grey nor fall to Earth and life – away from Athens at least – pretty much went on the way it always did.
In Rhodes medieval old town tavernas were full, streets were bustling and the welcome for tourists friendlier than ever, while visitors to the acropolis at Lindos still arrived daily in their busloads, ready for the long and winding climb to the top.
Tsambika beach – reputedly the best on the island with crystal clear water and golden sand instead of pebbles – was crowded on the Sunday we visited, when Greek families, as well as tourists, were keen to unwind and picnic in the sun.
The financial fallout at the country's epicentre seemed a zillion miles away and it was tempting to wonder: 'Crisis? What crisis?'
But the clearest indication that tourism was still rocking in Rhodes – the largest of the Dodecanese Islands – was in the holiday resorts themselves. At the five-star First Choice Holiday Village in Kolymbia (conveniently positioned on the north east coast between Rhodes town and Lindos and our base for the week), it was a race to get the best pool-side sun loungers at dawn and you also had to be quick off the mark to book a table at an a la carte restaurant in the evening.
As well as the main buffet-style restaurant, guests are permitted one visit to each restaurant per week but such were their popularity it was necessary to book in advance through a new self-booking touchscreen system in the main lobby.
Having never had the all inclusive experience before I was a little wary of what to expect, but once recovered from the initial shock of being branded with a (garish green) identity wristband for the week, I began to see the benefits.
Obviously the main one is that you never have to worry about money as everything is included (apart from spa treatments and some activities) but the service and quality of food – Greek, Italian, Mexican, European – was as good as if a bill was still pending and it was worth impressing the guests.
Several large swimming pools, splash park and 'lazy river' put the resort top of the list for families with young children, but older couples also proved enthusiastic residents, with the nightly outdoor entertainment a hit with all ages – the 'Holiday Village Got Talent' night was almost better than the TV Ant and Dec version.
Accommodation at Holiday Village Rhodes is definitely aimed at those who appreciate their home comforts at the end of busy day lazing by the pool, whether staying in the activity, deluxe or relax areas of this expansive resort.
Rooms are furnished to a high specification and come with TV, wifi, air conditioning, fridge and balcony or sun terrace as standard – and some even have a 'swim up' option (at extra charge) where you can literally step into the pool straight from your patio door.
A stand-out feature are the First Choice Kids Clubs where super-enthusiastic staff offer everything from football fun to the dramatic arts – and activities begin virtually as soon as you can pull yourself out of bed.
On our way to an 8am breakfast one morning we spied youngsters (and some adventurous parents) already dangling precariously from the labyrinthine 'High Ropes' climbing zone before most people had downed their first coffee.
The timing, however, may have more to do with August temperatures in Rhodes rather than any manic desire to stick to a rigid activity schedule as the heat at high noon can easily cancel out plans for trips outside the village.
Coming from Northern Ireland the heat is always a treat, of course, but it does tend to get in the way of your itinerary.
We opted to visit Rhodes town (about half an hour away by bus or taxi) in the cool of the evening while a trip to Lindos began at 8.30am one morning to avoid the risk of wilting in the maze of cobbled streets or, worse, falling off a donkey en route to the acropolis.
And so to the donkey dilemma – should you walk the hundreds of steps to the top or take the scenic route on the back of a 'Lindos taxi'?
For novelty value – as well as energy conservation – we opted for the latter, clip-clopping to the top of the architectural heritage site at a leisurely pace and with only the odd slip of a hoof near a precipice giving momentary cause for alarm.
There are plenty more places of interest inside and outside Rhodes, of course, and, if time is not a constraint, the islands of Halki and Symi should be high up any cultural to-do list.
Accommodating just 250 inhabitants, Halki (which once supplied 50 per cent of our sponges) is a picturesque day trip destination, to which you can sail daily from Rhodes town.
With its pastel coloured, Venetian style harbour houses and sleepy demeanor it is an antidote to the (slightly more) frantic pace of Rhodes while nearby Symi, although busier, also exudes a laid back charm, framed by steep cliffs, cafes and obligatory old ruins.
Rhodes may well have been scarred in its more recent past with new ruins left to crumble in the sun, but the locals look upon them as mere superficial blemishes with shallow roots.
On your journey across the island you won't find the lost Colossus – one of the seven wonders of the ancient world unfortunately destroyed in an earthquake – but you will still find the real Greece. It is alive and well and just around the next corner.
:: Thomson and First Choice, part of the TUI Group, have launched a new route from Belfast International to Rhodes, beginning in May 2016. The new route will depart every Tuesday from Belfast International Airport.