THE BIG FAT GREEK SE­CRET: CRETE!

The largest is­land in Greece of­fers two dis­tinct ex­pe­ri­ences on its Eastern and West­ern coasts, each worth dis­cov­er­ing on its own

Hindustan Times - Brunch - - NEWS - By Surabhi Damodaran-Grover

The most fa­mous mytho­log­i­cal tale com­ing out of the largest of Greek is­lands is also the most pop­u­lar. For it is here that the Mino­taur – the huge and hand­some half-man, half-bull is said to have been born af­ter Cre­tan queen Pasiphaë made love with a ma­jes­tic bull. King Mi­nos (hence the name Mino­taur, mean­ing ‘bull of Mi­nos’) built a huge maze called the Labyrinth to house the beast, one with a de­sign so com­plex even the ar­chi­tect failed to un­der­stand it!

Af­ter sev­eral failed at­tempts by many brave war­riors, it was Athe­nian boy prince Th­e­seus, all of 19, who, with the help of King Mi­nos’s daugh­ter, killed the Mino­taur and es­caped the maze. She slipped him a ball of wool, they say, which helped him re­trace his steps in the Labyrinth…

Th­e­seus went on to found the city of Athens, which is to­day the cap­i­tal of Greece and, as many

IF GREEK PEO­PLE ARE THE WARM­EST EURO­PEANS, CRETANS ARE THE WARM­EST OF THE GREEK!

would be­lieve, the birth­place of West­ern civil­i­sa­tion.

HERE COMES THE SUN

In­trigu­ing as these sto­ries can be, none of this was on our mind as we sat at the back of our com­fort­able S-Class, driv­ing to­wards the Eastern end of the is­land. Our chauf­feur had a playlist ti­tled ’80s For­ever, and it warmed the hearts of all of us push­ing 40. The fact that Her­ak­lion air­port, the big­ger one of the two on this is­land, was a dis­or­gan­ised mess, faded from our mem­o­ries as we lis­tened to San­tana and drove up the north­ern coast­line.

The East is the less dense, more exclusive part of the is­land,

UN­TIL A FEW DECADES AGO, LEP­ERS WERE BAN­ISHED BY THE SO­CI­ETY AND SENT TO SPINALONGA OR LEPER IS­LAND

and even be­fore we reached our re­sort, we dis­cov­ered a town called Agios Niko­laos. Framed by the blue Mediter­ranean and year­round sun­shine, this place is what post­cards are made of. Hos­pi­tals and schools lined the Main Street, and we found our­selves mo­telspot­ting; this was a city to come back to.

Our driver brought us back to re­al­ity. We’re just 10 min­utes from our des­ti­na­tion, he said, and it is the re­sort we’re all very proud of.

As it turned out, The Daios Cove Re­sort And Spa is one of the most lux­u­ri­ous prop­er­ties not just on Crete, but in all of Greece. Gulf roy­alty and Hol­ly­wood stars have vis­ited, but for them, no S-Class will do; a chop­per ser­vice from the air­port flies them in.

Built on a cres­cent-shaped la­goon, you en­ter the ho­tel lobby from the fifth level, then keep go­ing a level down to dis­cover the cof­fee shop, the spa, the two pool­sides, and even­tu­ally, the beach. Sev­eral fu­nic­u­lars are avail­able, but some­times, tak­ing the wind­ing stair­cases can lead to in­ter­est­ing dis­cov­er­ies.

Our villa had a sea view and a heated pool, and de­spite the in­dus­trial size of the re­sort, am­ple pri­vacy could be found, ex­cept per­haps, when scor­ing a ta­ble at the more pop­u­lar ones of the seven restau­rants. The mantra: book early!

Af­ter a fruit­ful day of laz­ing and veg­e­tat­ing at the spa, we de­cide to head out. A lit­tle past our beau­ti­ful Agios Niko­laos, we found a neigh­bour­hood called Plaka, which, we were dis­ap­pointed to learn, is as touristy as tourist traps come. Thank­fully, we es­caped by hop­ping onto a ferry to an is­land that’s also a fortress, called Leper Is­land, or of­fi­cially – Spinalonga.

Un­til just a few decades ago, lep­ers were be­lieved to be dis­eased and con­ta­gious by so­ci­ety, so they were ban­ished here. Over time, the lep­ers de­vel­oped a colony of their own: with homes, trade and busi­nesses, and proved they weren’t to be out­done.

The walk around Leper Is­land and fer­ry­ing in the hot sun may leave you ex­hausted. So it may be an idea to stop by at Tav­erna Gior­gos for lunch. The Ar­me­nian fam­ily who runs the restau­rant has reg­u­lar cus­tomers more loyal to them than they are to their coun­tries. The fresh­est seafood can be had here, and even though the restau­rant is “priced for tourists,” prices for food and drink in Crete can be less than half of what you’d pay on San­torini or Mykanos.

Eastern Crete, we learn, also has a thriv­ing party scene. But is that all that this is­land has to of­fer?

ROUGH AROUND THE EDGES

Ab­so­lutely not, an­nounces Stavros, our Cre­tan driver from across the is­land. He is en­trusted with the re­spon­si­bil­ity of pick­ing us up and driv­ing us west. He even buys us cof­fee along the way. “If Greek peo­ple are the warm­est Euro­peans you’ll find, Cretans are the warm­est of the Greek,” he tells us.

The music in the car to­day is Greek, and the con­ver­sa­tion is en­ter­tain­ing. Both air­ports are on the north­ern coast of the is­land, and the West­ern one is in Cha­nia, close to where we are headed, he says.

Our des­ti­na­tion here is a re­sort called Royal Blue Re­sort & Spa, an

Amer­i­can-sized XL re­sort. But wait, we’re told. The adults-only re­treat is now open­ing it­self up to fam­i­lies: there is a new kids’ cen­tre, a teenagers’ play area, be­sides adults-only pools and ac­tiv­i­ties. Run by a tra­di­tional Cre­tan fam­ily, it is here that one can ex­pe­ri­ence the na­ture of the is­landers, fan­tas­tic lo­cal food, and with some coax­ing, a free guide to ex­plor­ing the west­ern part of Crete. When we vis­ited, a pri­vate ma­rina was be­ing con­structed from where a visit to San­torini is just a two hour boat ride away. Just re­mem­ber: you’ll be pay­ing 10 euros for your mar­tini there, com­pared to 4 in Crete!

On our sec­ond day here, we’re headed by car fur­ther west. The driver de­posits us near a ma­rina in the town called Rethym­non. But to our dis­ap­point­ment, the en­tire old part of the set­tle­ment is pol­ished to touristy per­fec­tion. It’s only when you go beyond the ob­vi­ous streets of Rethym­non – call it the Labyrinth if you may – that you dis­cover tiny lo­cal bak­eries and doors to pri­vate homes that hold char­ac­ter and beauty.

Of course there are churches, Greek Ortho­dox mostly, with their cir­cu­lar domes, and sym­bol­ogy filled in­te­ri­ors that are a de­light to visit. But the restau­rants, shop­ping, even pub hop­ping will not make you feel like you’re in Greece; it could be any other tourist-friendly city in the world.

We strike up a con­ver­sa­tion with a proud old Cre­tan man who un­der­lines the dif­fer­ences. “The peo­ple in the West have lived a hard life, so we are tougher and have more rough edges,” he says. “The ones in the East are the del­i­cate ones of us all.”

OUT OF SEA­SON

Why does Crete fol­low the prac­tice of be­ing open just for ‘the sea­son’? Post Oc­to­ber, the is­land shuts down, flights go off and ho­tels start un­der­tak­ing re­pair work. It’s not un­til March that things liven up again.

We ask sev­eral hote­liers, but get no real an­swer. For a win­ter where tem­per­a­tures would only just drop to the mids­in­gle dig­its and even then, with the sun shin­ing on most days, why would the own­ers of prop­er­ties give up time that could earn them money?

Like many things Greek, this is a ques­tion with no an­swer. Just like the ar­chae­ol­o­gists can­not con­firm, nor deny the pres­ence of the Labyrinth, no mythol­o­gist worth his senses has ever doubted the tale about a king’s wife moth­er­ing the child of a gi­gan­tic bull!

Some sto­ries make for great hear­ing. And ev­ery tale has two sides, just like Crete, both of which de­serve at­ten­tion on their own.

IT’S ONLY WHEN YOU GO BEYOND THE STREETS OF RETHYM­NON THAT YOU DIS­COVER DOORS TO PRI­VATE HOMES THAT HOLD CHAR­AC­TER AND BEAUTY

A WELL-PRICED GRE­CIAN GEM Crete is the largest is­land in Greece, where your mar­tini would cost 4 euros, as op­posed to 10 in San­torini

PHoTo FiN­isH Agios Niko­las is a town on the Eastern end of Crete with well-laid out streets

OLD-WORLD CHARM Rethym­non’s Greek Ortho­dox churches are dis­tinc­tive in char­ac­ter

IS­LAND HOP­PING Take a walk around Leper Is­land, which is built with mon­u­ments like this fortress

blue la­goon ex­PE­Ri­EncE thE wESt­ERn PaRt of CREtE at thE royal BluE rE­SoRt and sPa

sin­ful stopover ThE town of rEthyM­non iS Ev­ERy con­fEc­tionERy lovER’S dE­light

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