Our Editor-in-Chief (and resident Grecophile) Michael returns from a 3-week family adventure to Crete, Rhodes and the tiny isle of Kastellorizo. Here he spills the beans on his favourite Cretan hideaways.
Fresh back from 3 weeks in Greece and the first question on everyone’s lips is: What’s happening? Are shops going bust and people stuffing dollars under their mattresses? Are public services falling apart?
I’m happy to report that the answers are no, no and no. It’s still as blissful, friendly and sunny as ever. Boats and buses are running normally; tavernas – outside Athens, at least – are doing brisk trade. In fact, we saw fewer boarded up shops than in our much-loved hometown of Bristol – partly, no doubt, because creditors are more forgiving there, and partly because many Greeks (as we now know) have several incomes at once. The big difference we did observe was fewer tourists, which meant emptier beaches and more space at our favourite hotels: all good news if you’re still looking for late sunshine.
We started on Crete – a popular island, easy to reach, with 300 days of sun per year, and a wildly indented coast tucked beneath soaring mountains. Giving a wide berth to the overdeveloped coastlines of Hersonisos and Malia, we hid away in a little village in the hills of western Crete, near Chania. Our base for the week was the gorgeous Olive Press, a newly refurbished villa for 6-10, with three super-stylish suites (each for a couple or a family) and an idyllic pool set amid exotic flowering gardens. Our 4-year-old son Oscar was in heaven, splashing around with his cousins while we lazed on sunloungers and cooked fresh papoutsakia and souvlakia with ingredients from the local markets.
We also made a couple of fortuitous discoveries (well – not strictly by chance: the fruit of several months’ research). The first was a smaller villa – sleeping 4-6 in three double rooms – in the nearby village of Gavalohori. Also new on the rental market, its airy Zen-white interiors make a blissful change from Crete’s many faux-rustic, gloomy-roomed cottages. A panoramic pool deck and superbly equipped kitchen complete the picture. We’re already pencilling in dates for next year.
The second discovery was a cosy townhouse hidden away in Chania’s atmospheric, pedestrianised Venetian quarter. It’s been cleverly and artfully refurbished by an old friend of mine called Tassos (also the manager of Crete’s coolest mountain retreat, Milia), to sleep 2-4 people over three cosy-but-chic levels. With so many attractions on your doorstep – bars, boutiques, beaches and boat trips – I could imagine spending an enchanted few days here (with or without kids) in the shoulder season.
But we didn’t spend the whole time looking at holiday houses. In a selfless spirit of public research, we also sought out the very best beaches and eateries in the area, as well as an extra little gem for the adventurous. Here they are.
After exploring the nearby bays of Almirida and Kalyves – pretty enough, but hardly a hidden gem – we headed onto the Akrotiri peninsula, past the port of Souda and the local airport, and found an unexpected paradise (and near solitude) on the sun-bleached sands of Marathi beach. Best of all was the freshly grilled catch of the day at Patrelantonis, probably one of Crete’s finest seaside fish restaurants. A little further on is the horseshoe bay of Stavros, whose sun-warmed shallows are perfect toddler-splashing territory. Here, too, brightly painted fishing boats sell their haul to a sprinkling of local tavernas.
But if you want to swim in total seclusion, and don’t mind a (pretty stunning) 1-hour hike to get there, drive up to the hilltop monastery of Gouvernetou, park the car and follow a well-laid trail downhill (east). It leads past a hermit’s cave and a cliffside chapel, then through a sheer walled gorge, to emerge at an azure sea-fjord where we could not resist plunging head first into the water. Take sandals for getting out, as there’s no beach at all.
On the way home, stop at Agia Triada monastery – having first donned long sleeves and trousers out of respect for the Orthodox monks who live there – and admire the glowing sienna walls and graceful architecture of this sublimely peaceful spot. If you’re struggling to find it, be aware that it’s sometimes written Ayia Triada (or Holy Trinity), and to complicate things further it also goes by its Venetian name of Tsangarolou (or Giagarolou or Zangaroli). Ah, if life in Greece were straightforward, it would have neither the charisma nor the crises which make it so maddeningly charming.