Rhodes boasts colossal appeal, intimate feel

On a visit to the tourist-saturated Greek island of Rhodes, Travel Weekly editor in chief Arnie Weissmann went searching for some authentic local flavor ... and found it. His report follows:

ulturally sensitive fellow that I am, when I travel in non-English-speaking countries I always learn how to say, "Do you speak English?" in the local tongue.

But I felt silly saying it in the walled city of Rhodes. Most shops had signs saying the proprietors not only spoke English, but also French, German, Spanish and Italian.

This island is dedicated to its visitors.

Shops and restaurants are scaled for mass tourism, and although most shopkeepers and waiters are friendly, the atmosphere, by and large, is impersonal.

It's still possible, however, for travelers to return home from Rhodes feeling as if they had been guests in the home of a Greek family.

And they don't need a working knowledge of Greek -- nor, for that matter, do they need to stray too far off the main tourist streets -- to have these experiences.

The only prerequisite is that they have at least one meal at Taverna Kostas, 62 Pythagora St. When they eat at this small, family-run restaurant, they're likely to meet three generations of the Kostas family: Grandfather and father are in the kitchen cooking, and the identical twin sons are serving.

Likely as not, a significant portion of the other patrons will be tourists who "discovered" Taverna Kostas on a previous visit and have been repeat diners for years (one Canadian couple has returned every year for 15 years).

Not only is the service pleasant and personal, but the food is -- by far -- the best I tasted on the island. The restaurant is known for its moussaka (a lamb casserole), but everything I tried was exceptional.

I especially recommend the fried calamari to those who may have tried it at other places and found it to be greasy, tasteless and chewy. Prepared in the Kostas' kitchen, it's light and flavorful. Saganaki, a warm sheep's cheese appetizer, is another standout.

A parallel experience in the realm of shopping -- high-quality goods and warm, personal service -- can be found at Astero Antiques on Ippokratis St., off Sokratous (a major shopping road).

Although Rhodes is scaled for mass tourism, it's still possible to feel at home. Above, the island's Old Town. Most souvenirs in Rhodes are mass-produced, and they look it: plaster casts of "the Colossus of Rhodes" or ceramic reproductions of antiquities.

But in this antique store, run by the Asteros for 31 years, you'll find items that you'd see if you went into homes of the smaller villages on the island.

The Asteros spend December through February wandering little-visited islands and the rural areas of Rhodes hunting for their merchandise at church sales, or in some cases, going door to door in villages.

Most of the items have accumulated grime or need repair, so Mr. Astero mends and polishes in a shop across the road while his wife tends the store.

Among the one-of-a-kind items for sale on the day I visited were a 120-year-old pair of suspenders from the Macedonian national costume, a coffee roaster designed for the hearth, decorative ceramic roof tiles, hanging oil lamps, incense burners, several religious items, framed lithographs of Greek royalty and a huge set of copper scales.

Part of the pleasure of shopping there is getting to know the proprietors, who, during a lull, are likely to offer you a chair and a glass of ouzo and invite you to sit and chat.

When to visit Rhodes? Mrs. Astero recommends April, September and October, when "it's cooler, and there aren't so many young, loud people."

A shrewd businesswoman, she has an ulterior motive for recommending those months, as well: "And people aren't in such a hurry to get to the beach, so they can spend more time in the shop."

Doing the Greek isles hop

HOBOKEN, N.J. -- There are a number of ways to get to Rhodes. For example, Ulysses Tours in N.Y. pays 12% on land and 10% on air on three-night island-hopping packages priced from $290 per person, double. Roundtrip air from Athens, hotel, and some or all meals are included; call (800) 431-1424 or e-mail [email protected].

The 12-night Island Hopper from FreeGate Tourism, Garden City, N.Y., spends three nights on Rhodes and includes roundtrip air from the U.S., accommodations, some meals, sightseeing. Pricing starts at $1,759, with a $550 single supplement, and FreeGate pays agents 10%. To book, call (800) 223-0304 or send an e-mail to [email protected].

Cloud Tours, New York, offers the air-inclusive Alexander package: three nights on Rhodes and three on Santorini, priced from $1,349. Commission is 10% to 15%. To book, call (800) 223-7880 or e-mail [email protected]. -- Kenneth Kiesnoski

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