Dramatic and delicious, the Peloponnesian Peninsula forms Greece’s culinary heartland. Ringed by aquamarine bays and topped by some of the nation’s tallest peaks, a trip here feels like an adventure and a journey back in time. The former home of the Spartans and Helen (lately, of Troy), its recent history has been less warlike. In hidden valleys and tiny villages, you’ll find Greek staples—olives, feta cheese, and especially wine—grown and served as they have been for centuries, which is to say, the best way imaginable.
Eumelia is a dream for those who love the soil and the fruit it produces. It’s set on 50 acres across a picturesque plateau dotted with centuries-old olive trees, grapevines and fields chock-full of herbs and vegetables. Make a point to stay in one of its remarkable terracotta villas. “The idea is for the buildings to breathe, to come out of the clay,” says co-owner Frangiskos Karelas. He once worked for the European Parliament, but returned to his family’s ancestral land to operate this agro-tourism farm with his wife, Marilena Karadema, a certified sommelier. Here, you can get your hands as dirty as you like—snip your own basil, thyme, fennel, radish and other dinner ingredients. Or you can let someone else do the work and take one of their Greek cooking classes (or even better, a wine tasting with Karadema, who showcases the best vintages from the region).
A small seafood restaurant set on the blue waters of the sweeping Karavostasi Bay, the time here between hook and plate can be just minutes. Ringed by cliffs and hills pierced by man-made caves once used as refuges from marauding pirates, fishermen still ply these waters. (You can even take a ride in one of their boats, although it’s a real, working vessel, so be prepared to sit on heaps of nets in the back). Modern conveniences like electricity only reached this area in recent years, but old-school hospitality still prevails here. The octopus and shrimp are popular, but the real stars are the local slipper lobsters. Kourmas owner Giannis Panagiotarakos will be happy to let you choose your favorite from the tank, then prepare it however you’d like.
Fresh and local have always been in style around the smallest villages of the Peloponnese, which for years were isolated by bad roads and big distances. Nestled on a quiet hillside in a tiny village of the same name, the owners of this picturesque eatery (think: small tables under a canopy of vines, fringed with flowering bougainvillea) have taken this ethos to the extreme, foraging for greens and grinding their own flour. The results are amazing. Select from the handwritten menu, which includes handmade cheese pies, beautiful salads and—if you’re really hungry—meaty pig’s thigh, braised and slow-cooked in red wine.
Once upon a time, a young woman was known as Helen of Sparta—until, as legend has it, she fell in love with the Trojan prince, Paris, during their first meeting in picturesque Gytheio. Now the principal town in the Peloponnese region of Mani, Gytheio is a placid place, a frequent port-of-call for cruise ships and home to Saga, perhaps the finest restaurant in the area. Fresh fish is delivered daily, and Saga’s grilled calamari, fish soup and grilled sardines have become the stuff of culinary legend.
Certified organic, this family-owned vineyard and winery grows only local grapes in a stunning setting, tucked into a valley in the shadow of surrounding peaks. Here, you can sample and buy award-winning Malvasia, Mavroudi, Assyrtiko, Kydonitsa and others. If you’re lucky, owner George Theadorakakos will give you a tour of the place. And if you’re really lucky, he’ll take you for a tour of the beautiful fields in his dusty pickup truck.
Enetiko Cafe and Cocktail Bar, and Edodimpolio
A sort of Gibraltar of southeastern Europe, the town of Monemvasia is striking, shielded by a massive rock island just off the southern shores of Laconia. Founded in 583, a visit here is definitely a trip back in time. Stroll narrow streets built for donkey and foot traffic, explore Byzantine churches and stop in at these two local favorites, which sit across from one another. Overlooking the sea, Enetiko offers coffee and cocktails created by owner Panagiotis Govatsos, an internationally awarded mixologist. Many of the local meads and liqueurs he uses can be bought across the way at Edodimpolio. It’s a charming shop that serves as a sort of clearinghouse for handmade local products, from wine to cheese and beyond.
There was a time when Monemvasia Malvasia could have been considered the world’s most popular wine. Known primarily as white dessert wine derived from sun-dried grapes, it spread from the fortified port town of Monemvasia and traveled across the globe. Monemvasia Winery, which sits just a few miles from town, has focused on this varietal grape, along with a number of other local varieties, which you can try onsite.