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Holidays in Greece: why Crete is just perfect

If you are done with staycations and want to be enchanted by warmer climes again, there is nowhere more glorious than Crete. I fell in love with the island and defy anyone not to do the same. This is paradise – a haven of beauty and space.

It’s also a big island, nearly 160 miles east to west, almost the size of Cyprus, with thrilling winding roads carved into the forbidden mountainous terrain, as well as large swaths of vineyard countryside as verdant and beautiful as Tuscany. .

Crete has resorts and beaches, ports, fishing villages, famous sites that bring the island’s tremendous ancient history to life and, of course, wonderful swimming in the cobalt blue Aegean Sea that dazzles and dazzles. reflects the cloudless sky.

Sandra Howard of the Mail on Sunday stayed at Aldemar Royal Mare, which is an “ideal base for a week or two”. Pictured is a dining terrace

We stayed at Aldemar Royal Mare, a laid-back spa resort well spread over grounds and gardens that slope down to the beach. It’s perfect if you’re after a few relaxing days, as we were, but it’s also a great base for a week or two.

Facilities include tennis, water sports, and entertainment for all ages, plus free yoga and Pilates. There are smoothie corners and bars, as well as delicious and varied self-service meals. Among the fanciest dining spots, the open-air Asian restaurant was very atmospheric – don’t miss its Peking duck or fish in a delicious sweet and sour sauce.

While cruising in our rental car, we drove to the east coast town of Agios Nikolaos and had the best holiday meal I can remember at a tavern called Basilico. Hungry and driving nervously through the steep streets of the town, we stumbled upon it – the first of a small row of outdoor pizzeria cafes next to a small, unattractive beach.

Basilico seemed to specialize in pasta, although fish was also on the menu and was there to see, in a tank of ice under an awning. It reminded me of restaurants with similar tanks where the bill, when counting, was as big as a decent lottery win.

Enchanting: Sandra visited the east coast town of Agios Nikolaos, above, where she enjoyed a meal at a tavern called Basilico

Enchanting: Sandra visited the east coast town of Agios Nikolaos, above, where she enjoyed a meal at a tavern called Basilico

The sea bass we had was straight out of the sea, cooked to perfection, the service friendly and the bill a pleasant surprise. Have the grilled sardines or octopus to start and follow with a whole fish – ours was filleted next to the table – to share with a generous Greek salad.

Having declined everything after, a plate of refreshing watermelon appeared which was on the house, as were the bites of taramasalata and hummus which had kept us hanging on while the fish was being prepared.

If you’d rather go without a car, there are excellent coach trips to Knossos, the Archaeological Museum of Heraklion, the tiny leper island of Spinalonga and the extraordinary Samaria Gorge, which is an adventure in itself. Coaches pick you up and take you back to your hotel, but there’s no denying the freedom of having your own wheels.

Visitors can take a short boat trip from Agios Nikolaos to the small leper island of Spinalonga (pictured)

Visitors can take a short boat trip from Agios Nikolaos to the small leper island of Spinalonga (pictured)

A leper house in Spinalonga

A leper house in Spinalonga

A 20 minute boat trip from Agios Nikolaos to Spinalonga was tempting, but we decided to go along the coast. A wrong turn took us up the side of a dangerous mountain, but we arrived at Plaka, the small fishing village opposite Spinalonga where regular ferries make the short crossing.

It seems strange that having been a leper colony until 1957, the last outpost of the disease in Europe, Spinalonga has become such a vibrant tourist attraction, but it is well worth a visit and far from the dark and depressing as one would expect.

In Venetian times it was a military fortress, then an Ottoman stronghold. When the leper colony was established in 1903, people with the disease were exiled to Spinalonga to die there, but they made their living and eventually, fortunately, a cure was found. There is now a shop and a cafe to welcome visitors, but no accommodation.

Walking the trail around the perimeter of the island takes less than an hour, giving you plenty of time to enjoy the unexpected beauty as a breeze picks up from the Aegean Sea before catching a ferry back .

Crete had a Bronze Age king, King Minos, and his seat was the vast, labyrinthine palace of Knossos. It must have been glorious at its height in 2000 BC with incredible scale, over two stories high, and magnificent frescoes of which fragments still remain.

Then came an earthquake and later a terrible fire, and the most splendid of palaces finally fell into ruin.

Excavations began in the 19th century and in the early 20th century British archaeologist Sir Arthur Evans carried out a long and extensive restoration programme.

Opinions differ on his restoration work – some say it’s overdone and the palace looks like a DIY hypermarket with pillars painted red – but I think Evans has done a phenomenal job.

Crete had a Bronze Age king, King Minos, and his seat was the vast palace of Knossos.  Pictured are the ancient ruins of the palace -

Crete had a Bronze Age king, King Minos, and his seat was the vast palace of Knossos. Pictured are the ancient ruins of the palace – “an experience not to be missed”

Knossos has suffered during the pandemic with a few closures, but it’s still an experience not to be missed. I couldn’t believe the beauty of the restored frescoes, the terracotta pots the size of a man, the immensity of the site and the sense of good living.

How fascinating to stand among these ancient stones and imagine the palace bustling with life, royal grandeur and glamour, sport, acrobats leaping over bulls, court flirtations and legend of the creepy minotaur monster, half-man, half-bull, who was supposed to devour young virgins.

King Minos built the palace maze as a means of containing the minotaur, but Theseus sailed from Athens, legend has it, entered the maze with a ball of string so he could find his way back and managed to kill the beast.

One of the highlights of Sandra's trip was exploring the Heraklion Archaeological Museum.  She writes:

One of the highlights of Sandra’s trip was exploring the Heraklion Archaeological Museum. She writes: “It’s cool, light, bright and simple”

The museum has some of the best examples of Minoan art in the world, like this bull's head from the palace of Knossos

The museum has some of the best examples of Minoan art in the world, like this bull’s head from the palace of Knossos

Another amazing place to visit is the recently rebuilt Archaeological Museum in nearby Heraklion. It’s cool, light, bright and simple, a triumph of airy architecture filled with magnificent fragments of ancient history and the best examples of Minoan art anywhere in the world. Air conditioning is also welcome after wandering the streets of Heraklion.

The city has many charms. The Visual Arts Museum in a former basilica is filled with works by Cretan artists, and 13th-century Venetian walls still guard the harbor. And to taste authentic Cretan cuisine, there is Peskesi.

The restaurant is hard to find, tucked away in a little cul-de-sac, but just ask because everyone knows where it is. I went vegetarian and had roasted vegetables but the meat dishes looked delicious and a plate of octopus impressive, if not for the faint hearted…

Pay attention to Cretan wines, which are far removed from the Greek Retsina: think of the blackberry/currant/citrus notes and hues that wine lovers write about and throw in a spoonful of scorching sunshine.

The vines are organically farmed, and the wines really good. In addition to the Cabernet Sauvignons and Merlots, there was a red liqueur wine called Liatiko that was as delicious as salted caramel chocolate, a perfect pudding wine or an equally good appetizer.

The Douloufakis winery is a family business that cultivates grapes in the vast fertile valleys of the interior and exports its nectar all over the world.

Owner Ireni Douloufakis took us to a mountain peak to admire the rolling valley below and explained to us how the vines are grown on small plots of land, often quite far apart because that’s the way things are. have always been. Cretan families have acquired pockets of farmland over time and are very reluctant to sell it, so harvesting involves a lot of extra work.

“Crete is steeped in legend and ancient history,” says Sandra.  Pictured is the port of Heraklion and the old Venetian fort

“Crete is steeped in legend and ancient history,” says Sandra. Pictured is the port of Heraklion and the old Venetian fort

If time had allowed me, I would have loved to go south, to the more isolated side of the island. The simplicity of life there seemed idyllic: the thyme-scented honey, the lute in the family taverns, the hidden beaches and the wilderness – so many things made me want to return.

Crete is steeped in legend and ancient history. There are little visited Minoan settlements dating back thousands of years BC, the island has its Venetian past and the scars of bloody wars. The stubborn bravery of his people gave Hitler considerable pause in the Battle of Crete in 1941.

But above all, I yearn to rediscover the meaning of this multi-faceted and proudly independent island as a place where body and mind can find inner balance and be restored.

TRAVEL INFORMATION

Sandra Howard flew BA from Gatwick to Heraklion (britishairways.com). Return flights in mid-May cost from £218. A five-night all-inclusive stay at the Aldemar Royal Mare costs from £1,536 for two adults sharing a VIP Double Room with Pool (aldemar-resorts.gr). For more information about Crete, visit incrediblecrete.gr.