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
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