Operation Incognito: How the Uber Elite Visit Greece

While some celebrities post every detail about their Greek holidays on social media, many other VIPs prefer to keep things very private.


We’re talking about the VIPs who fly below the Instagram radar. Those who do not wish to broadcast their private moments of relaxation to thousands – or perhaps millions – of internet followers with the swipe of a smartphone screen.

“Often the definition of a VIP is one who tries to attract attention because they want and need it. But the people who are truly important are those who don’t want all of that interest; on the contrary they ask for certain things, and when you provide them, they are satisfied. They don’t need anything more,” says Polis Ioannou, founder of Epitome, a boutique company that deals with high-end hospitality services.

“In Greece there are many [such people] who can and do go unnoticed, and that acts as a draw for this kind of traveller.”

In summertime Greece, Hollywood stars mingle with sports heroes and major Wall Street players. CEOs of Fortune 500 companies leave their bespoke Italian suits behind and don shorts and flip flops, while founders of Silicon Valley behemoths purchase relatively inexpensive yet high quality souvenirs of their Greek holidays.

Getting Away from It All

“This year Greece was a very hot destination for Europeans and Americans: this summer the country was visited by many celebrities and high-flying individuals, most often via a combination of yachts and hotels which allows them to experience the islands as well as enjoy a private setting,” says Markos Chaidemenos, owner of the Canaves hotel group in Oia, Santorini. “In Santorini they don’t come to be seen, but to enjoy the natural environment, serenity and privacy.”

That was the aim of Oscar-winning actress, Jennifer Lawrence, who visited one of the hotel’s luxury properties in recent years. “One night we went out, but people started to recognize her. She asked that we return to her room to continue the evening there,” Chaidemenos says.

While he remains tight-lipped about this year’s arrivals, Chaidemenos reveals that in past years his hotel’s stunning rooms have played host to Kobe Bryant as well as Israeli model Bar Refaeli, the latter of whom was on a babymoon and did not leave her suite.

Rumors and Innuendo

Every age has the celebrities it deserves, and today’s is characterized by a slew of hyper-social individuals who will often share snapshots from their holidays on social media as an expression of gratitude to the places they visit.

Others however prefer to be more discreet, such as actress Jennifer Connelly, who visited Patmos this year. Rumors that Elizabeth Hurley was in Spetses were only corroborated by sources reporting that the actress and swimsuit designer was staying in a country home in neighboring Porto Heli, located just opposite from the island in the Peloponnese.

Jude Law’s presence in Corfu might have gone entirely unnoticed had a friend of his daughter not made a few key posts on Instagram.

Likewise Jean Paul Gautier’s visit to the Peloponnese was similarly low-key and private. The fashion designer and fan of Greece, stayed at the Costa Navarino resort where one of his creations that was inspired by Greek traditional dress is on display in a temporary exhibition.

Meanwhile sources in Mykonos claim that the daughter of a prominent world leader stayed on the island, but her name was kept off the reservation which was made in the name of her artist boyfriend.

Stealth and Pseudonyms

Greece may not have the history of areas such as the South of France where paparazzi photographers continue to devise ingenious ways of getting snapshots of the private lives of stars, but even here pseudonyms are frequently deployed when bookings are made. Personal bodyguards, travel via private boats, helicopters and jets are all standard practices for VIPs and VVIPs, while for active political leaders additional security protocols are employed.

But how possible is traveling incognito in the age of Twitter and Facebook? “Privacy is not something one can control 100%. Random photographs can go viral. I’ve had clients who have insisted that a confidentiality clause be signed, but I always say to them that they would be the ones who would break it first. The result was that I lost some of them,” Polis Ioannou says.

Of course, there are also the exceptional measures taken for certain clients. One small hotel in an Aegean island built an entire wall specifically for a certain guest, and redesigned a room’s interior for another. In the same establishment, a princess from the United Arab Emirates customarily books seven rooms, one of which is for her luggage. She also demands direct access to the lift, and her own personal chef in the kitchen who uses his own ingredients.

In search of experiences

Beyond discretion, security and privacy, many elite visitors are also increasingly seeking their own ‘stories’. Industry professionals are now going beyond just organizing trips, but curating entire experiences which can include elements of everything from traditional culture to contemporary art.

Today what is also changing is the very concept of luxury, with simpler pleasures taking center stage. The image of a bottle of champagne and two glasses next to a jacuzzi is now being replaced by olive picking and a picnic in an olive grove.

“Hoteliers are now including a little bit of ‘Greece’ and the Greek way of life in their concept of hospitality,” Ioannou says. “For many years the idea of luxury was connected with something that wasn’t Greek. Right now, Greece is fashionable.”

While VIP visitors are encouraged to switch off during their stays – something that is not always possible – the real ‘luxury’ could simply be quality time with their families.

Are they ‘difficult’ travelers? “They are demanding,” Ioannou says.

Contact with the Locals

“What they are looking for is peace and quiet,” he continues. “To not do anything and decompress. But straight away they ask me: ‘What can I learn from this experience?’ And something that comes up again and again is ‘Who can I meet?’ They like coming into contact with the locals. If I know that someone is an artist, a curator or has a gallery, for instance, I know that after a couple of days they will want to come in contact with other artists. A star chef will relax, eat at a taverna, but a couple of days later will ask to visit the kitchen. I have top chef clients who are inspired by Greek cuisine. They discover Greek products and ask where they can buy them in London, Paris or New York.”

Some choose to plan their trips outside of the high season, while business tourism is also on the rise with companies organizing retreats and brainstorming sessions for their executives. Prem Watsa, the Indian-born “Canadian Warren Buffet”, for example, joined his team at the resort of Costa Navarino.

Many visiting VIPs are also interested in the political and socioeconomic situation in the country, with some also expressing the desire to help in some way. “Not out of a sense of charity, but voluntarily,” Ioannou says. “Simple things, such as visiting a kindergarten or helping a library. Others help Greek products reach places they are connected to.”

Will we ever learn exactly which VIPs fell in love with Greece this year under a veil of secrecy? “All of this requires a lot of research and hard work and it isn’t something that translates to photographs on Instagram and Facebook, but to a pleasant note that includes the phrase ‘we’ll be back’ or the question ‘where shall we visit next time?’ Ioannou says.

“As long as we maintain this level of discretion, we will have many more such visitors. And for all those who want to publicize their presence, may they keep doing so – they’re doing us a favor. There is room for all.”

Where the Elite Summer in Greece

Destinations without airports are among those chosen by travelers with high expectations and exacting demands. Many VIPs opt for yachts and private villas for their stays in Greece while the desire for utmost secrecy led some to rent a private island in the northern Cyclades, close to the island of Evia.

Counterbalancing the recent popularity of Antiparos among VIPs – where, aside from Tom Hanks and Rita Wilson, celebrity homeowners include Paramount CEO, Jim Gianopoulos and L’Oreal CEO Jean-Paul Agon – are other Aegean islands such as Serifos (where designer Paola Navone owns a home), Nisyros, Kythira, Sifnos and Milos.

Even the heavily touristed island of Santorini can offer discreet holidays, while on neighboring Thirasia, Perivolas Hideaway – a hotel accessible only by sea or air – has hosted Angelina Jolie and Brad Pitt in the past before their separation.

In Mykonos the boutique hotel of Bill & Coo saw a number of ‘quiet’ arrivals. Patmos, remote and always popular, regularly attracts visitors from the world of the arts, while among those with villas on the islands is Prince Shah Karim Al Hussaini, Aga Khan IV.

A specialist in VIP arrivals is Amanzoe, close to Porto Heli, where the strategy of the luxury chain Aman is built around maintaining total secrecy. Meanwhile important figures – such as tennis star Novak Djokovic – have been hosted at Costa Navarino in Messinia.

Since the end of the 1950s when the Niarchos and Livanos families purchased the private islands of Spetsopoula and Koronida respectively, the wider region of Kranidi and Porto Heli in the Peloponnese have welcomed international members of the jet set. Since 2012, among those who own a home in the area are King Willem-Alexander of Holland and his wife, Queen Maxima.

In Athens, certain VIP visitors prefer a private residences underneath the Acropolis instead of a luxury hotel, while the Athens Riviera has also seen a rise in the number of luxury yacht arrivals. At the same time, some VIPs have also turned to the mountain villages of Zagorohoria in the west of Greece for jaunts outside of the summer season.


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