A small 4-wheel Drive car-based SUV is the way to explore the parts of Greece that few tourists ever see. They are safe, comfortable, durable and won't cost you a fortune in gas. The Suzuki Grand Vitara is the best of the lot.
I have always taken a certain amount of pride in that every time I come to Greece, along with going to my favorite islands (Lesvos, Sifnos, Kea), I always visit at least one new island. Last year it was Milos. The year before was Rhodes. The year before was Naxos. I figure if I manage to live another 100 years I can see them all, at least the inhabited ones, though I may have to double up some summers. But this year for the first summer ever, I did not
visit a new island. (Well, actually I spent one night in Serifos on my way back from Sifnos, but that should not count since Serifos requires several days to visit all the beaches.)
However, I did manage to accomplish something that changed my perspective of Greece and will most likely change they way I write about the country and the places I visit. I bought a 2006 Suzuki Grand Vitara. Actually I bought it as a business venture. You see, I am not really an off-road, SUV kind of guy. Or at least I was not an off-road
SUV kind of guy before I bought the Grand Vitara. In fact in America I can't stand those giant SUVs drivin by corporate businessmen and their chain-smoking bleach blonde blond wives and then passed down to their sorority-girl daughters. It seems these gas-guzzling monsters are always in the way at the mall parking lot, where you can't see around them when backing out of your parking space. And they are so over-sized in America, and clean, like the only off-roading they do is when the driver swerves
onto the shoulder because he is talking on his cell phone just before he hits you and wipes out you and your family because his bumper is even with your window. You know... the safety issue. SUV drivers are safe but everyone else is in danger because of them.
But I needed a car in Greece so I could explore the mainland for my website and so my idea was to buy one and then let my friend Elias rent it when I was gone and get a commission. That way I could have a car I liked that cost more than I would normally pay and maybe not have to pay for it at all if enough people rented it. I spent weeks
reading up on Audi, BMW and eventually Honda CRV because Elias said Jeeps are easiest to rent in the winter
and my wife Andrea said that the roads in Kea, where we live, would destroy anything but a Jeep type vehicle. After reading about every car-based SUV available in Greece we decided on the new 2006 Grand Vitara. With a ladder style suspension, unlike Toyota RAV and Honda CRV this is a true off-road vehicle that can literally go anywhere. It also drives nicely on the highways and has 6 airbags to keep you safe from the notoriously bad Greek drivers. But the car is not cheap. Even the mid-based model which
about twenty thousand dollars in the USA came to 30,000 Euros because of the 18% VAT and the fact that cars are just plain expensive in Greece. Add the terrible rate of exchange and we had paid $36,000 for a $20,000 car. Ouch.
But it was worth it.
Buying a car in Greece is not as easy as it is in America where you can walk in with no money in your pocket and drive away and not even have to make a payment until the following year. In Greece you decide on the car you want, you pay for it, and then a couple weeks later you may get it, after all the paperwork has been taken care
of and the license plates have been issued. So after 2 weeks of driving around in Elias' old Hyundai Atos, the new Vitara was delivered to us at the Hotel Attalos, 2 hours before our ferry to Lesvos. The car was spotless and shining as Elias handed me the keys and tried to explain how everything worked. Well not everything, just the things he could figure out. He was not clear on the keyless ignition system and once he left us we discovered that the handbook was in Greek, so we had to pretty much wing it.
I was as nervous as I have ever been behind the wheel. The car was new and unfamiliar. We were in the middle of Athens during the afternoon rush, and we had to get to the ferry boat in Pireaus. It was indoctrination by fire. On the way down to the port, every bad driving experience one encounters in Greece made its appearance turning the trip into a gauntlet of terror. There was the guy who opens his door into traffic without looking while double parked. The guy driving across the median into my on-coming
lane. The truck backing out into the highway without looking. There were about a dozen close calls before we got to the ship and we had to ask my mother-in-law in the back seat to not speak until we got to the harbor. Then I had to drive the new car onto the ship into the garage and up a ramp with about 2 inches to spare on either side while the sailors shouted instructions so fast and so aggressively that I forgot the words for left and right. But I did it and afterwards felt such a feeling of accomplishment
that I wanted to do it again soon.
In the morning, after our overnight ferry trip, I drove the car off the boat, which was much easier than driving it on. After my terrifying journey to Pireaus it felt great to have it on the open road, with the sea on my left, the mountains on my right, and to actually be able to take it out of 2nd gear and up to 3rd and then 4th.
But it was not until we reached the Gulf of Yera that I was able to take it on a dirt road and really feel that I was doing what the car was made to do. Of course my mother-in-law complained that it was bumpy and damaging her spine, though we had to explain that the car was bumping because the road was bumpy and we were riding on 17 inch tires and not a cushion of air like a hover-craft. (She later apologized after seeing that having shelled out 30k I was a little sensitive to any complaints about my new
car). Driving into the mountain village of Vatousa with inches to spare on either side of the road between houses, I was amazed at being able to drive through it at all (the alternative was to park at the bottom and carry all the luggage up so I risked it).
It did not take long to get my first dent and scratches. In Vatousa I had managed to drive through the narrow streets to a small parking lot just below the main square. But the next day on the way out I hit the corner of a building and heard the terrifying sound of stone on metal, something you don't hear that much when driving in
the USA. I was pretty annoyed with myself but then realized that it took a lot of the pressure off. I mean if you have an off-road vehicle it is only a matter of time before you have some kind of mishap. A falling boulder. Driving off a cliff. If you don't have scratches and dents on a 4-wheel-drive auto then you are not using it the way it is supposed to be used, right? Well actually I could not think of too many ways to mess up a car besides hitting another car, a tree or a building, as I had done. But
at least I did not have to worry about getting that first dent.
For the next 2 weeks on Lesvos and the next month on Kea we drove every dirt road to every deserted beach we could find. The shiny new car was covered in dust and the scratches and dent did not even show any more. Every day was a new experience and after awhile we became so confident in the car's ability that we didn't care if the
map showed a skinny line, dotted line or a donkey path. We would take it and see what was at the end of it. The more I drove it the more I realized that I was part of a revolution in Greek travel. For the last 50 years the focus of tourism has been on the islands while the mainland was known for a few popular places like Delphi, Meteora and the Argolis. While ferry companies got rich with their island destinations, the mainland has remained off the beaten path. Way off. Few people realized that in Greece you
have the varied physical beauty of all the National parks in the USA crammed into a country the size of North Carolina. With a 4-wheel drive vehicle the country opens up to you as you visit remote villages and secluded beaches that until now could only be reached by boat. Winter becomes a time of exploration too, visiting snow-capped mountains and cozy cafeneons in high villages at a time when most travelers are happy just to be exploring the museums, cafes and nightlife of Athens. For bird-watchers
the wetlands of Greece's many river deltas are a paradise in early spring and with a 4-wheel drive car they are accessible.
So if you are looking for something new to do in Greece, do what I did and get hold of a good jeep-type vehicle. Besides the Suzuki Grand Vitara there are several others of various sizes and capabilities. I like the Grand Vitara because it is tough, safe (6 air-bags) and because of its size those Greek drivers who think they
own their lane and half of yours, get out of the way when they see you coming. It rides like a car on the highway, almost like a sports car, and yet it can go places that cars and even other SUVs can't. The climate control air conditioning keeps the car cool and does not drain too much power on the highway. I could hardly tell the difference with it on or off. There is lots of luggage space and you can even fold down the seats and camp out in the back if you
can't find a hotel. Lots of campers use the car as a base for their living space, tying a tarp to the roof to make a sheltered shady area or tent. The 2.0 liter engine with manual transmission, like I have, gets 31mpg on the highway. The Low range four-wheel drive enables the
Grand Vitara to cope with some very difficult situations. The high-range 4x4 mode, a clutch locks the centre differential to eliminate any
speed difference between the front and rear wheels, providing better traction
through deep snow or mud.
As for my business venture with Elias at Swift renting my Suzuki Grand Vitara? Forget about it. I love this car and there is no way I am going to let a bunch of strangers use it, no matter how much they are willing to pay. But I figure if enough people ask, Elias may buy a few of his own.
For information on renting a Grand Vitara or another 4-wheel Drive vehicle contact Swift-Avanti Car Rentals in Athens.
For comments or more info on the Grand Vitara or where to drive it in Greece you can e-mail me.
See my Suzuki Grand Vitara Photos