F Zeen hotel review: wine and wellness on Kefalonia
Unwind at a yoga retreat that captures the essence of this eccentric outpost of the Ionian Islands
As our car weaves through rolling hills and valleys on the road from Kefalonia Airport to our hotel, it quickly becomes clear that I’ve underestimated the range of landscapes that Greek islands may offer.
Indeed, this little slice of paradise in the Ionian Sea presents an astonishing variety of faces. In contrast to the cut-and-paste beach resorts of Corfu and the stag-do destinations of Zakynthos, Kefalonia is largely devoid of tourist crowds, multistorey hotel resorts and overpriced cocktail bars.
Instead, we discover a rugged bubble of authentic Hellas - of olive trees perched atop towering sandstone cliffs and dense rainforests hedging private beaches that feel a world away from the neighbouring island of Zante.
Few places offer a better vantage point from which to enjoy this sweeping natural beauty than F Zeen, one of Greece's most ambitious wellness resorts.
Set between Lourdata’s pebble-flecked beaches and the slopes of Mount Ainos, F Zeen had its first full season in 2016, and is the brainchild of the industrious Anglo-Greek Koumoudos family, comprising Suzanne and Dennis and their grown-up children Ivan and Anastasia.
Upon arriving we are greeted at the gates by Ivan, a smiling, barefoot guy built like he lifts boulders in his spare time, who whisks us off for a tour of this vast complex buried deep in the island's thick woodland.
Although “F Zeen” may not be a name that rolls of the tongue of the average English speaker, it is definitely apt, as a transliterated form of an Ancient Greek phrase meaning, approximately, “a good life in terms of balance and health”. From the impressive range of infinity pools to the serene yoga and meditation terraces, this hotel is the epitome of good living.
At the centre of the retreat’s many attractions sits the new Raw Wing - a chic development housing a total of 26 rooms in small beige-stone houses perched aside a winding cobblestone walkway.
Each house in the new wing, which opened in May, is split into two floors. Upstairs, the 30-square-metre Superior Raw Retreats feature spacious balconies overlooking the nearby village of Lourdata, while the lucky guests downstairs get their own private infinity pool and secluded sun terrace with spectacular views over the Ionian Sea.
Each retreat has its own special identity; with one based on woodland, the next on the ocean. The decorative flourishes in my room, I learn, were inspired by the sun-bleached local cats that spend their days mingling with staff and patrons at F Zeen.
The Raw Wing also features a new spa area, which offers a series of treatments and massages using organic, locally sourced cosmetic products by Voya and Bioaroma.
On our first evening, after a dip in our respective infinity pools, my fellow travellers and I are summoned to another new addition to the resort, the Selini Restaurant and Bar. Designed to complement the F Zeen’s other eaterie – the Instagrammer’s heaven that is Gaia Restaurant – Selini is a laidback but orderly dining space where amiable waiters serve up modern Greek cuisine amid a backdrop of water features and palm trees.
This is undoubtedly the bustling heart of the hotel, with the owners stopping by to chat with guests over a glass of the wonderful wine from the local Gentilini vineyard, or delicious kombucha teas.
The culinary offerings are equally impressive, from classic Greek salads and succulent beef fillet with stewed mushroom yaichni, to a sea bass fillet so delicious that I couldn’t resist having it two nights in a row.
Our second day opens with a barefoot trek through the resort’s twisting paths, flanked on either side by wildflowers and scented by lavender, to the Armonia Yoga Deck, a thatch-roofed pagoda in the forest, where the loudest sound is the gentle lapping of waves in the distance.
Here we meet Bianca, one of the resort’s wellness experts, who instructs us in Vinyasa flow yoga, consisting of a series of poses and asanas both old and new that leave us feeling well stretched and refreshed, if surprisingly sweaty.
This is just one of a wide selection of yoga classes taught in a weekly cycle at F Zeen to fit all levels and ages.
After a post-stretch workout at one of the site’s open-air gyms – complete with state-of-the-art equipment and views over the beach – we head out of the resort with hotel owner Ivan for one of the many boat tours that can be booked at reception.
A steep lane takes us down to the ocean's edge, where we watch as an RIB speedboat skips across the surf and anchors about 20 metres off shore.
Standing in our only semi-waterproof clothing, we stare as the boat's captain scrambles to the end of the boat, drops a small ladder down into the water and gave us a “what are you waiting for?” wave. Ivan immediately speeds ahead, and after kicking our shoes off and removing the less waterproof gadgets from our pockets, we follow. When in Rome, as they say.
Once we’re all safely aboard, our boat sets off, giving us a great vantage point of the island's fearsome geological features as we race around its southern cape at upwards of 50mph. The peaks in the centre of the island are shrouded in a mid-morning haze as we cruise past beige cliffs dotted with holiday homes ranging from modest cottages to helipad-topped supermansions.
Arriving at the east of the island, we moor at Antisamos, a remote, thin strip of pristine white sand flanked by miles of forest in all directions. Here, tucked away from the promenade, we sample the delights of the local Antisamos Beach Bar, an unassuming family-run restaurant that packs a surprising culinary punch.
As seems to be tradition on this island, we order “one of everything”, and are duly presented with, well, everything from grilled fresh octopus to roasted aubergine grown at the allotment just behind us. My highlight is the Greek classic tirokafteri – also known as htipiti – a dipping sauce of feta cheese, roasted red pepper, spicy chilli, lemon juice and olive oil, blended into a smooth, tangy paste.
We lounge for a few hours sipping homemade strawberry mojitos as we look out from the cove and enjoy a cooling breeze whipped up from the ancient island of Ithaka just across the water – famous as the legendary home of Odysseus in Homer’s near-3,000-year-old epic The Odyssey.
After a windswept journey back to F Zeen and another wonderful evening of fresh fish, local wine and glorious views, we begrudingly check out the next morning and head to Kefalonia’s airport, with a brief pit stop in the island’s major cosmopolitan centre, Argostoli.
A surprisingly bustling town considering its limited size and remoteness, Argostoli has everything a modern holidaymaker might need, from supermarkets to opulent superyachts.
Argostoli is definitely worth a visit, but for me, the must-go destination on this must-see island has to be F Zeen. This mini paradise is a celebration of the simplest but best of human pleasures: health, community and a joy for life.
British Airways is operating flights from London Heathrow direct to Kefalonia for the summer season, which runs until 6 October, 2018. Flights depart on Tuesday and Saturdays, with return fares starting from £118 in Euro Traveller and £398 in Club Euro.
Raw Wing room prices start at €209 (£185) per night b&b. Luxury transfer from Kefalonia airport, boat excursions and yoga classes available on request. For more information, see Fzeenretreat.com.