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We had been at the Peligoni Club in Greece all of 10 minutes when our teenage sons were hijacked by some very forward young girls. One minute the boys were enjoying a quiet drink, the next some willowy blondes had surrounded them in a pincer movement and were busy chatting them up. Whatever our holiday on Zakynthos might have in store, it was certainly not going to be dull.
But then as any parent of teenagers knows, Avoiding Dullness is an essential holiday requirement – along with a ready supply of same-age children. Which is why the Peligoni Club on the north-east coast of Zakynthos has proved such a draw for families with adolescents in tow. Click on the website and you could be watching the credits for that cult teenage television soap The OC. Pictures flash up of a bronzed and topless young windsurfer flipping his board across the waves; teenagers racing dinghies across a sun-dappled sea; a girl staring wistfully at a boy on the sun lounger below. There is no doubt which age group these images are designed to attract.
But Peligoni also does a good job of keeping parents happy, lulling them into such a state of torpor that they barely flinch at the size of their end-of-week bar bill. Its great selling point is that guests don’t stay on site – as they do on many other club holidays – but in villas of varying size and sophistication, scattered around the north-east corner of the island. So there is none of the claustrophobia of communal club living – no dodging over-keen holiday companions at breakfast. In fact, you could stay in your villa in perfect isolation for the whole holiday if you chose – as one mother did while we were there, reading and enjoying the peace, while her husband and teenage daughters dipped in and out of club life.
In the case of Peligoni, club means clubhouse – a bar and open-air restaurant ringed by a shady veranda. Below it is a comfortable sitting area of rattan sofas and brightly coloured cushions under a roof of bamboo and coloured awnings. Paths lead down between white-painted wooden platforms and sunbeds to the inky blue sea. There is a bathing platform but no beach; beyond the bar, in the leafy grounds, there’s a large swimming pool with swim-up bar and a tennis court.
Despite the cohorts of teenage guests during school holidays, the clubhouse is a soothing and relaxing place, set in a peaceful spot at the end of a long track with views to the distant humps of Cephalonia. Most guests seemed to make their way down there from their villas sometime during the late morning, just as the wind started to pick up enough for them to enjoy the club’s chief activities – sailing and windsurfing. On top of your villa rental you pay a weekly membership for use of club facilities – plus an optional extra charge for watersports. This allows you unlimited use of a fleet of new and well-maintained Laser dinghies, Dart catamarans and windsurfing equipment, as well as some tuition and the services of a rescue boat to head you off before you disappear over the horizon.
In tune with the laid-back atmosphere at Peligoni there are no set lessons – no bolting your breakfast to meet a 9am deadline. You simply ask for tuition when you feel like it – within reason – and one of the team of tanned young sailing and windsurfing instructors will show you the ropes. Some instructors responded with rather more enthusiasm than others, but on the whole they were a friendly, approachable crowd and they certainly added to the club’s cool credentials.
So too did the waitresses – most on a gap year or university vacation, all looking and sounding as though they had been recruited from the social pages of Tatler. “Oh God, I’m terribly sorry,” they chorused each lunchtime as someone invariably ended up with the wrong dish or faced a 30-minute wait for food.
The teenagers got rather blunter, big-sisterly treatment: “What on earth did you eat that for?” a stressed blonde bombshell wailed at one of our group who had been too polite and too hungry to complain about not getting what he’d ordered. “You knew it belonged to someone else and they’ll be furious.”
But on the whole guests took it all in good part, although many, like us, chose to eat at one of the local restaurants in the evening. Our favourite was La Storia in the little port of Agios Nikolaos just below Peligoni, where we sat at tables on the sand and watched the moonlight stream across the water. We also liked Kaminaki, in the old village of Anno Volimes, 20 minutes away by car.
Because of the lack of accessible beaches, this northern corner of the island is still largely undeveloped – and very beautiful. Many of the largest and smartest villas are in remote and scenic settings in the hills, 15 to 20 minutes’ drive from the club. But if you want to avoid being a taxi service it’s better to be based rather closer to the action. Orfos Villas, where we stayed, is less than five minutes away by car – a group of four wood-and-stone houses, with sweeping views, set on a hillside above Peligoni.
Each is charmingly decorated, has its own small pool and terrace and, crucially, is close enough to the club for teenagers to walk home on late-night disco evenings (although staff arrange taxis for those staying further out). These were rumbustious events, popular with staff and teenage guests, and they almost certainly involved more alcohol consumption than the Chief Medical Officer would recommend. Those under 18, having secured their parents’ permission to drink alcohol, were fitted with a black plastic wrist band and given strict instructions (most of which were ignored) about how many drinks they could order.
Not everyone found Peligoni an easy place to socialise though. Checking the reviews from the TripAdvisor website, I found a 2006 report from a former guest entitled “SW3-on-Sea”. “Unfortunately, we don’t rank ourselves among the beautiful people (!),” she writes, “so found the clientele of Peligoni – dazzlingly gorgeous, self-assured and perma-tanned teens and their similarly privileged parents – a tad intimidating, although everyone was very friendly.”
I could see her point. Peligoni attracts a well-heeled, well-dressed crowd, and club life can seem like an extended Home Counties drinks party at times (note, this is not a place to bring your trekking sandals and daypack). As the children in our group commented, “It’s a bit of a public school bubble – like Cornwall abroad. The first thing everyone asks you is ‘What school do you go to?’ ”
I was relieved that I had the buffer of being there as part of a large group of three families – and the children certainly found it easier to have a base from which to make friends. One mother I spoke to said that her daughters, normally confident and sociable, had found it difficult at first to infiltrate the social scene.
But there were plenty of opportunities to break the ice. These ranged from boat trips to go swimming and snorkelling around the island’s spectacular Blue Caves and Shipwreck Beach to tennis tournaments or a sunset walk through ancient olive groves and fields of wild fennel and thyme to a cliff-top monastery.
The walk is a legacy of Vanessa Alexander, who with her then-husband, Jonny, started the Peligoni Club 20 years ago. She was a warm and vivacious hostess and the club has perhaps lost some of its eccentric charm since they sold up.
However the current owner, Ian Shearer, has brought huge improvements in the shape of new watersports equipment and the lovely swimming pool. He has also added a small spa that offers massages and Pilates classes.
In fact, it would be very easy to spend the whole holiday shuttling between villa and club in this little corner of the island – but it would be a shame. Zakynthos town, although levelled in the 1953 earthquake, has been thoughtfully rebuilt and its squares, churches and breezy promenade are well worth seeing. So, too, are the white sand beaches of the Vasilikos peninsula, and the mountain villages in the western highlands.
The children, of course, saw none of these. They were far too busy learning to sail and windsurf, speeding around the bay on large “ringo” inflatables, playing card games and just generally “hanging out”. And despite being licked into shape by the waitresses, they all left with a plan – to go back and work there in their gap year.