They knew it was the perfect spot for a hotel. Atop a turn in a mountain road on the beautiful island of Amorgos
They knew it was the perfect spot for a hotel. Atop a turn in a mountain road on the beautiful island of Amorgos, overlooking the port of Aegialis, Irene Giannakopoulou and her husband Nikitas built the Aegialis Hotel and Spa. That was 26 years ago. Today, the elegant spot hosts hiking groups, weddings, yoga retreats, artistic courses, and cultural seminars— all the while operating with an environmental and cultural awareness, and actively protecting both the traditions and natural habitats of Amorgos island.
The family has a deep connection and long history with Amorgos— Irene was born and raised on the island at one of the first accommodations in Aegialis. When she was ten years old, her father “accidentally” started building Lakki Village. He constructed an extra room at their family home and farm in Aegialis to host his sister, which led to upgrades and additional units in the following years. The family eventually opened up the rooms to other visitors, and Lakki Village was born— an establishment that is still owned and operated by Irene’s four younger sisters. When Lakki first opened, visitors could pay 1,500 drachmas or 5 euros to stay an entire summer. That was in the mid-1960s when there was limited tourism on the island. Tourists were attracted by the ships that arrived at the bay once per week— the port of Aegialis had not even been built at this time.
“Most Greeks at that time planned to go to the U.S. to work for five years—we stayed for ten. But we did well and we were able to save,”
As the eldest daughter (at eleven years old), Irene played a significant role in the development of Lakki Village. Visitors used to walk all the way into the village to get coffee and food until Irene thought of providing their guests with breakfast. “I started collecting cups and plates from the house and making breakfast for the visitors,” she says. Irene hand-washed, line-dried, and pressed (with a coal-fueled iron) the hotel laundry; she was also designated with the task of picking up visitors from the bay. “I remember going with a donkey on the beach, even at night when there were no lights in Aegialis. There were only the lights from the ship. It is something I will always remember— taking the luggage on the donkey from the port to the hotel about 300 meters away. I would also load the side baskets with watermelons from the family farm to sell on the beach and in the town,” Irene recalls.
When Irene’s father received the first English-speaking guest, he offered her a room in exchange for English lessons. The visitor’s name was Carola Matthews; she continued to visit Lakki every summer, eventually teaching English to all of the sisters and then to the second generation of children. At 75, Carola is a published writer and a permanent resident of Amorgos. Thanks to the lessons, Irene was fluent in English when she married Nikitas and moved to the United States one month after finishing high school. “Most Greeks at that time planned to go to the U.S. to work for five years—we stayed for ten. But we did well and we were able to save,” says Irene. The couple lived in New Jersey for eight years and has since taken many trips back and forth from Greece. Their first business was a laundromat in Orange, New Jersey. The second was a delicatessen.
Irene enjoyed life in the United States, eventually becoming a citizen through naturalization. In addition to the businesses she ran with her husband, Irene worked as an interpreter for the court, was involved in the Greek church and it’s community, worked for a travel agency, and worked as a language teacher for Greek newcomers to the U.S. Irene and Nikitas eventually returned to Greece and had planned to split their time between Greece and the United States. One summer working at Lakki Village, Nikitas pointed out the kitchen window to a turn at the top of a mountain along the road that runs from Katapola to Aegialis and then north to Tholaria. “Look at that land!,” he said. “That is the perfect place for a beautiful hotel.”
We came very close to losing the hotel, to losing everything, because of the expenses.
The expenses of building Aegialis Hotel and Spa were huge because the land was a piece of mountain. “We spent a lot of money, actually all of our money, and quite a lot of it went to digging in order to make flat points in the land,” says Irene. “We came very close to losing the hotel, to losing everything, because of the expenses. We managed by working very hard and thinking creatively.” The couple put things in order, promoted the hotel, and gave it a good name on the Greek market. Because of its location, everyone talked about Aegialis Hotel.
The hotel is now 26 years old and is one of the modern highlights of Aegialis. The team has managed to keep it looking young. “People think it’s new! We do hospitality, not just business, and we have an excellent team working with us,” says Irene. Irene understands the drastic changes that have taken place on Amorgos over the past 50 years and emphasizes the importance of preserving the island’s cultural and natural assets. Although there are still few inhabitants on the island, its beauty attracts many tourists from Greece and abroad. The team at the Aegialis Hotel and Spa host visitors to the island in a way that strongly emphasizes sustainability, and aims to operate in a manner that minimally impacts the surrounding natural environment. For example, the water used for the beautiful garden at the hotel is recycled (water is a precious resource in Amorgos). The team also makes efforts to reserve electricity and volunteer with cleaning projects around the island.
Irene is also the President of the Women’s Cultural Association of Tholaria-Amorgos, an NGO that was established in 1993, that together with Aegialis hotel has been a regional promoter of culture and support for Amorgos island. In one of her books, Carola Matthews writes about how difficult it was to describe what ice cream was to her first Greek student. That student was Irene. At the time, ice cream was exotic because there was not even electricity on Aegialis to produce ice. “To make drinks cool, we used to put them in baskets in a well,” says Irene. After almost fifty years of working in hospitality on Amorgos, Irene Giannakopoulou and her family continue to care for the island in both regional and international platforms. Their intimate knowledge of the island and of tourism in Aegalis allow them to mediate the modern-day fascination of tourists, and the cultural, economic, and natural well-being of Amorgos.