A Greek Island to Call Your Own
When you think of a private island in Greece, it's easy to lean into romantic imagery of whitewashed villas, shimmering waterfronts, tiny churches on secluded hilltops, and maybe even a little song and dance from Meryl Streep. But forget all of that for a moment, and step back in time. Imagine an undeveloped island that was part of a Russian princess's dowry when she married the King of Greece. Imagine an island so secluded that it was once a glamorous hideaway for the likes of Jacqueline Onassis, Rudolf Nureyev, Greta Garbo, and Gene Kelly.
Welcome to Chersonissi, one of the Petalioi Islands, located off the coast of Attica about an hour by boat from Athens. The archipelago is mostly unpopulated, but owners Maria and Maris have called it home since 2006. As the story goes, back in 2005, Maria was working at a large bank in Switzerland, while Maris, a renowned photographic artist, was living in LA and thinking of selling a Greek island that had been in his family for generations. They met in Greece through a friend and, as luck would have it, they fell in love. Maria persuaded Maris to keep the island, and today they've restored the homes once frequented by legends, are farming the land, and have opened up their hideaway to guests.
This is Greece steeped in history and romance—but without the show tunes. We caught up with Maria to find out more about this magical place she calls home.
Can you tell us a little about the history of the island?
The islands belonged to the Ottoman Empire but were bought by a powerful Russian family. Back in the 1870s, a 16-year-old Russian princess Olga, the niece of the Tzar Alexander I, married George I of Greece, and became Queen Olga. And she brought these islands—under Russian control at the time—as part of her personal dowry. In 1913, King George was assassinated and, as Greece was in financial turmoil, his son decided to sell the islands. My husband's grandfather was a successful shipowner and bought the islands from the prince in 1916. It was long before it became a fad to have a private island!
The islands were all nature with old buildings from the time of the Pasha that date back to the 1600s and 1700s, which they renovated. They added an incredible house, a Neoclassical prefab Sears Roebuck house, shipped from the US by Maris' grandfather in 1916, complete with wiring and piping and fireplaces. His elder son and his wife, both socialites in New York, used to visit the island every year and bring their friends with them, people like Greta Garbo, Rudolf Nureyev, Margot Fontaine, the Rothschilds, and Jacqueline Onassis.
Since you moved to the island, what has your life been like?
It needed a lot of love and a lot of work to bring it back to some kind of normality because it had been neglected for so many years. So, we dedicated ourselves to come and stay here. And it has been a miraculous time. We learned so much. So, from high heels and Chanel bags, I've landed into being a farmer! My big, big love is to go into the seed catalogs, especially one called Baker Creek, and they have a fantastic selection of vegetables, all kinds of sizes and colors of heirloom tomatoes. So, I order seeds, and I plant my own tomatoes and vegetables here.
We love the image of the tiny island with the solitary house on it. Can you tell us about that?
The tiny island has one small building, but that's not where guests stay! That's the grandfather's coffee house, where he used to escape to go and watch the sunset. Right behind it in the pictures is a much bigger island, about 900 acres, which houses the guest house, other buildings, and several beaches. There's even a beautiful old church there, a Russian Orthodox Church built in 1848. It is so amazing, the whole feeling of that church. It speaks to my heart, and I was very lucky to get married there.
What is it like to live here?
Everybody tells me that pictures do not do justice to this place because from the minute you step on it, it is so peaceful. That is because we are not on the electricity grid. You don't have magnetic fields here. So, the whole energy and the ecosystem of the island is so absolutely unique. I have a lot of guests who tell me that from the second night that they are here they start feeling as if they have rested for a week.
I have to tell you, one of the best things to do here is just listen to the quietness. It is just an incredible symphony, between the lapping of the water, the birds singing, the leaves, and all the little sounds that happen around you. And then you feel that you're in such a rich and plentiful environment. There's nothing still about it. It's just so incredibly energized and lively.
What do you love most about the island?
The crystalline turquoise colors of the sea and the 500-year-old olive trees that I want to hug and talk to!
What is your most treasured possession here?
When I walk on the beach and on the island trails, I find fragments of antique glass and pottery that remind me of those who have lived here before.
What is your favorite place to curl up with a good book?
A sand beach about 7ft walking distance from the villa that has cedar and pine trees at the edge of the water. Under their shade, on the soft sand, time stands still, and I dive into my books and travel in history and meet extraordinary people.
What book would you read there?
Peter the Great: His Life and World by Robert K. Massie. I love the life story of Peter the Great, the most amazing love stories only real life can truthfully invent, like the peasant woman he fell in love with, Marta, an orphan, a displaced immigrant of war, a prisoner that became the big love of his life and an Empress of the Romanov Dynasty.
Picture yourself sitting on the pier with the sea lapping around you, calling for one more dip before lunch. Meanwhile, freshly caught fish is being grilled on olive wood branches, with thyme and olive oil from the island drizzled onto heirloom tomatoes from the garden and locally-made feta cheese. That's the romance of Chersonissi.
If you'd like to experience it for yourself, there's room on the island for up to 20 guests in three separate dwellings. If, like Maria and Maris, you'd like to tie the knot there, the church is available for weddings. And if you can't get the idea of Mamma Mia out of your head, the island is also available as a movie location. For more information, click here.