By Ryan Silverman
Among seasoned travellers, the Pink Palace Hotel on Corfu Island, Greece, is known as Club Med for backpackers. The sun is hot, the drinks are cheap and the party goes on forever.
It’s just past midnight on the Greek island of Corfu. In the nightclub of the Pink Palace Hotel, several hundred young, darkly-tanned men and women sit cross-legged on the floor. As dancers swirl around them, they dip plastic cups in a huge vat of Ouzo, the sugary, licorice flavoured liqueur popular in the Mediterranean. As the 40-proof alcohol starts to dull everyone’s senses, the pitch of the music intensifies, and hotel owner George Grammenos smashes plates over his guests’ heads.
The ritual is called the Ouzo Circle, and it’s highlight of the world’s most infamous backpacker hotel. “Plates must be smashed on people’s heads if they sit in the circle,” explains Pink Palace’s assistant manager Brian West. “That’s the deal. We give them free drinks, then we bash them with plates. It’s fun for everyone.” Opened over 20 years ago by Grammenos and his wife Wendy, the Pink Palace is known among seasoned travelers as Club Med for backpackers. For $32 Cdn. a day, guests get two meals and an ocean-view room. The resort has 13 buildings, employs 110 people, and can house 800 guests at a time. Guests can take advantage of countless bars, a night-club, car rentals, laundry facilities, and a pool-sized Jacuzzi than can hold more than 50 people.
West describes the place in one word: “It’s debauchery” he says. “Absolute debauchery.” And that’s why I made the trek to the Pink Palace, to find the place where sex and booze are rumored to be as plentiful as sunshine. Days at the Pink Palace are spent recuperating. Breakfast is served until 11 a.m., but many people sleep through it because of late nights at the bar. Those who do arrive look like zombies, shuffling around half-dead, their bloodshot eyes hidden behind sunglasses.
Some people start the daily drinking ritual bright and early. The hotel motto is: “We drink more Ouzo before 8 a.m. than most people do all day.” But most early risers stick to coffee and water and nurse hangovers as they hunch over plates of eggs and toast. A lull hangs over the resort for most of the day – the calm before the storm. The Pink Palace is open from March through November, and Greece’s extended summer sun is hot and unforgiving. Most guests sunbathe on the beach or lounge beside the massive jacuzzi until night falls.
For the sober and energetic, there are plenty of things to do during the day. The No.1 attraction is the resort’s boat tour down the coast. The boat can hold about 100 people ans – of course – has a bar on the deck. Dance music blasts from speakers and cold beer is sold for $2 a can. After an afternoon of cliff jumping and swimming at secluded beaches, guests stumble back on board the boat, which returns to the hotel at 5 p.m.
On Cofru, ethics and morals seem to evaporate in the day’s tropical heat. And so, each and every night when the sun sets, the real party kicks off. I arrive at the Pink Palace Night Club at 9 p.m. with my travel companion James. Inside it looks like any club on Toronto’s Richmond street: huge and modern, with DJs and flashing lights. But unlike Toronto, the drinks are cheap – around a dollar a shot – and by midnight I’m so drunk I can only use mono-syllable words.
The nightclub’s main room is packed with writhing, attractive Americans, Australians, Canadians and Europeans. They fill the dance floor, grinding against one another in skimpy outfits, attempting to kick-start the human mating ritual. After partaking in the Ouzo Circle, I lean against a pillar, holding a beer in each hand and trying to stay upright. While I enjoy a pocket of darkness where the disco lights don’t shine, my friend James takes full advantage of the sexually charged atmosphere.
He starts talking to a New York girl, and they’re soon making out. They leave the club around 4 a.m., and because James and I were sharing a room, I decide to stick around and try to pick up women. The night peaks just after 4, when it seems like everyone is on the dance floor. We all move and grind against one another,our nearly naked bodies bumping to the electric pace of the music.
All around me people were laughing, drinking and dancing, and I felt great, like a weight had been lifted. I’m in Greece at an amazing party with people from all over the world. I’m in Cofru with a view of the Mediterranean and hundreds of hot young travelers. I could die tomorrow with no regrets. At around 6 a.m. the club starts shutting down. Not wanting to go back to my room, I stumble around the compound and try to order more beer with the last of my change.
I arrive at the reception area as the sun begins to rise over the ocean. Amazingly, people are still there, drinking and smoking cigarettes. Wendy, the owner’s wife, sits with some friends, and looks at me as I stumble up the stairs. I order a beer, but the bartender suggests that maybe I’ve had enough for the night and should start sleeping it off. Heading back to my room, I realize I’ve lost my keys (later I found them on my bed). So I return once again to the reception desk, the final embarrassment of the evening. This time, as I arrive, I trip over the stairs. People watch me, thinking I’ve come back to try my luck at the bar, so i just smile and quietly ask for a replacement key. “I am Ryan Silverman,” I say “I’m staying in room AK-23.”
Expecting them to ask me for ID (which is standard procedure at the efficiently run establishment), I’m surprised when the receptionist apologizes for any inconvenience I might have had with my key, or earlier at the bar. At the Pink Palace, drunken behaviour is not just expected it’s politely excused. Back in my hotel room, I pass out instantly, exhausted by booze and unfulfilled expectations. An hour later, the door bangs open as James returns to the room. “I had to get out of there,” he says, his clothes bundled under his arms.
His evening exploits happened outside of the bar, in one of the hotel rooms where the real Pink Palace action takes place. While James had been repeating the physical benefits of the establishment, I drank with vigour I never experienced in Canada. Determined to down myself in Pink Palace oblivion before night was through, determined to numb my shattered expectations of a paradise lost.
My four days on Corfu were physically and emotionally exhausting. The constant pace of booze and bohemianism took it’s toll. Most hotel guests can only handle a few days, disappointing for young adventurers who never thought they’d get tired out by partying. But there’s also another breed of Cofru visitors, those who become hooked on the hedonistic atmosphere. They come to the Pink Palace from all over the world, and not surprisingly, they never want to go home. These people become volunteers, working as kitchen staff or desk clerks for $9 per hour and free room and board. They can stay and party as long as they want – as long as they get to work on time.
Even assistant manager Brian West started off as a volunteer. He left his home town in Indiana almost 10 years ago, and arrived at the Pink Palace during a stopover during his travels of Western Europe. He planned to stay only four days, but soon fell in love with that atmosphere and extended his stay to two weeks. Just before he was going to return home, he got a job as a roof scrapper and has been there ever since.
Like West, many guests have a hard time tearing themselves away. They come looking for refuge from the dingy accommodations of most travel hostel and get used to the house specialty of over-indulgence. At the Pink Palace there is too much of everything. Too much sun. Too much food. Too many beers and good-looking people. The atmosphere on Cofru is hard to explain. It’s like the best party you’ve ever been to stretched out indefinitely. It’s fun for a while, but it’s easy to get freaked out by the blatant disregard for health, hygiene and sobriety.
I met one guy at the Pink Palace who seemed to have it all figured out. I spotted him in the middle of the crowded nightclub and despite the staggering amount of alcohol he was ingesting, he seemed to have a relaxed Zen-like demeanor. I sat down beside him and explained how I’d been worrying about taking advantage of all the craziness the Pink Palace had to offer. Between sips of beer and shots of Ouzo, the young traveler from New Zealand explains that the island’s greatest appeal is the utter lack of consequence of anything that happens.
“When you’re here you have to realize that nothing matters, mate,” he said in this thick Down-Under drawl. “Nothing fuckin’ matters.”