Cretans for a Week, a holiday in Greece

We are the type of family that likes to see as much as possible while traveling. If there’s a peak or tower we will climb it, or if there’s a UNESCO world heritage site we will visit it. We generally don’t leave a lot of time for lying in the sun as we want to make the most of our time in a new place. There’s so much to learn about different cultures through food, historical sites, and meeting local people that sitting still equals time wasted in our book. Nonetheless, every once in a while we feel the need to disconnect and have no schedule and no checklists. Crete was that sort of vacation for us. I’ve longed to see Greece for as far back as I can remember. The dreamy vision of a 1000 islands and turquoise waters has always filled my mind with the promise of an unforgettable adventure. When I think of the history alone I conjure a list of everything I hope to visit and that I could easily plan a month of travel for. On this holiday, though, we had only one week and we were all in such need of doing absolutely nothing. We required sunshine and peace, so we put aside our lists for another time.

After a very hectic two-week holiday to Eastern Europe (see Two Days in Latvia with Kids and Vilnius, Lithuania – A Challenging Family Christmas), we returned to London with thoughts of an easier and sunnier vacation. Literally our first night home we were scanning Expedia and Google for some fab holiday that would meet our budget and one which would have April sun. Finally, through Mr and Mrs Smith, I found a great deal on a luxury all suites and villas resort in Crete, just a three-and-a half-hour direct flight from London. It was called the Domes of Elounda (click here for our full review of the resort). The weather was not usually hot over the Easter holiday but it could be—and it was certain to be warmer than London. We chose to take the chance and hope that the weather Gods would be kind to us.

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We arrived in Heraklion on Easter Sunday with grey clouds and a 60 (16) degree temperature.  Not great but in two days the weather app said it would be 22 and sunny for the duration. Since the first two days were cooler we thought those were best spent sightseeing which left the remainder of our week for sunbathing and pool time.

So there we were out touring around although we promised each other we wouldn’t…it was hard to break free from our natural need to explore, even though we were tired. However, it was just two days until the sun would return which brought about a feeling of balance that combined a bit of culture with a lot of relaxation. It was a whole new country for the five of us so in those two days we planned to explore what we could.

Gournia, Lerapetra and Lato

On our first day out we ventured out to a monastery in the mountains called Faneromenis. The road was long and twisty with no one around but us and 200 sheep. We stopped to admire the view and our companions. They were chatty and had an earthy odour, but were friendly nonetheless. The dry and rocky mountains reminded me of California. The colours were also rich in browns, reds and greys. The air was incredibly fresh and cool, and the wind blew gently. Olive trees were everywhere—I read that there are 1.5 million of them on the island. We reached the monastery which was closed during the low season, which seemed to end around May in Greece. We stopped and got out of the car to admire the view from the mountain top. Crete is such a large island with so many mountains (some with snow) that it gave us the impression of being on the continent or somewhere with a larger landmass. Apparently the monastery came to be because a shepherd reported he found an icon of Mary on the walls of a cave here during the Byzantine era. The monastery was then built around the cave.

Nearby was the Minoan city of Gournia which we could see from the hill top so we meandered back down the mountain to the archaeological site for a walk around. Disappointment came again when we arrived to find it closed for the season. However, we were rewarded by a perfect sweeping view over the entire city as we left the site. We paused for a picture and a quick discussion with our children about the amazing remains of a civilisation that existed over 3500 years ago. It’s spectacular when you compare this with the historical sites in America from the 17 and 1800’s. I remember field trips while in primary school to places in New England that were no more than basic wooden cabins. It’s quite impressive to me that these ancient people were so advanced so long ago.

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Remains of the Minoan city of Gournia

There were several more hours of daylight and since we hadn’t really explored anything outside of our car we decided to hit one more city: Lerapetra.   It’s an old city facing the Libyan Sea referred to as a touch of Africa due to the winds that blow in dust from the Sahara and that it has the hottest climate in Crete. When we arrived we were reminded of towns in southern Spain. Streets with tiled sidewalks, stucco covered buildings and a long promenade facing the sea lined with tavernas. We stopped at one called L’angolo for lunch. The food was excellent and fresh with a mix of pastas, pizza (Mediterranean cuisine) with staple Greek dishes and salads. I enjoyed a Cretan salad of peppers, tomatoes, cucumbers, kalamata olives, capers and potatoes. The capers in Crete were out-of-this-world fantastic, they were of a larger variety and so flavourful.

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The kids enjoying Lerapetra’s waterfront

After lunch we strolled around looking for a market to supply our room with snacks for the week. We came across an organic market and bought some olives,  almonds and popcorn to make for movie night. We saw the Turkish mosque but decided not to visit as the kids were ready to head back to the resort and our pool.

On our drive home we saw an incredible rocky beach leading to the most breath-taking blue water and quickly stopped for a walk. I love being spontaneous like this as it almost always leads to something special. We wandered to the cliff edge and admired the crashing force of the waves on the shore. We hobbled down a hillside of stone and across a valley and then up the next hill. There were shells and stones that the kids stopped to peruse and, after some decision making, stuff into their pockets. We rambled out at sea level onto some green mossy stone, giddy with delight that only wild nature brings while waves crashed all around us.

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Breathtaking scene

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Playing near the water

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Stephen at the point

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Fiona at the point

I had read about one more mountain village on our way back called Kritsa. We made our way there but did not find the cute tavernas and shops that the guidebook mentioned; however, we followed instinct and some signage, which landed us at Lato Archaological site. It, too, was closed (do you sense a theme?)! A little perturbed by yet another “closed for the season sign” the kids and I decided that we would jump the locked gates and have a look around. What harm could there be in that? There seemed to be no one around for miles in any direction and no British CCTV in sight. A quick hop over the fence and we were immediately invigorated by our rule breaking. We laughed and giggled as we ran through the very tiny overlook to a plaque and map that explained the location. It was another ancient civilisation—this time the Latians. A valley full of foundations and history and, if you listened carefully, you could just make out their story whispered on the breeze.

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Heraklion / Knossos

On our second day in Crete the kids were desperate to swim, but the water was still cool and uninviting. So we dragged them to our car with the promise of gelato and afternoon swimming. The only real historical site that I had on my radar for that week was Knossos,  the palace of Minos that dates back to 3500BC, in an area of Heraklion that was inhabited from 7000BC. Some of the palace’s 1400 rooms have been reconstructed as they are believed to have looked although there are no written records to prove it. For me to be able to walk on earth that has been walked upon by so many generations is thrilling. I could picture just how it must have looked.

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I overheard a Greek family share with their children information about Knossos, the father said that the palace was a holy site. He pointed to large holes in the ground that were thought to contain the remains of sacrifices…He added that they were never human sacrifices, only animals.

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I couldn’t help but feel my blood flow, my heartbeat quicken and my adrenalin soar. In my mind it’s as if I had travelled back in time and that I was in Ancient Greece. I felt completely satisfied with our destination. The kids did too, as they had lots of fun climbing across the foundations and up the craggy walls of the palace remains. For them, it was less about history and more about adventure.

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Agios Nikolaos

We read about Stella’s ice cream in Heraklion. It’s homemade and they only use all natural ingredients—we were sold. We took the kids for their promised treat before we planned to head home. After 25 minutes in traffic across the city we found that Stella’s, too, was closed for the season. Disappointment loomed for a few minutes until we refocused and decided to head in the direction of our resort determined we would find something en route.

An hour later and we were entering Agios Nikolaos. A large city near to our base in Elounda. It is by the sea and densely populated. On our way into town I read a review of a great taverna by the sea with many healthy options. Guess what? Closed for the season!

Determined to not fuss about our luck and off-season travel choice, we parked and walked to the harbour. It was so cute with several tavernas to choose from. We decided upon La Casa for no particular reason but that we were delighted by the view. The resident kitties kept us company and the food looked fresh and tasty. Stephen tried Moussaka and reported that it was a tasty Greek version of shepherd’s pie. I ordered boiled greens and was ecstatic to taste bitter dandelion. I had no idea this was a traditional Greek dish but thereafter found it in every restaurant. I also ordered baked fava beans in tomato sauce. It was all very warm and savoury for the cooler evening.

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Stephen and Caroline in Agios Nikolaos

Elounda

Our next day we took a short drive into Elounda for lunch at one of the many restaurants in town. This city definitely reminded me of touristy Spanish sea side towns with lots of cafes and tourist shops, but nothing particularly special. We had lunch at Leonida’s which offered traditional Greek fare. The waitress (who I believe was also the owner) was very nice. She told me about her children and asked about ours. As we expected, the Greek people had been incredibly warm and kind to our children wherever we were.

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After lunch I popped into an olive oil shop on the main drag. The woman who worked there was incredibly informative on the different oils of Crete and Greece. I learnt more than I expected about acidity and flavour and decided on two different oils to bring home with me.

Plaka

On Wednesday we drove a couple of minutes from our resort in the opposite direction of Elounda to discover the town of Plaka. It immediately felt more laid back and local with nicer restaurant offerings than Elounda.

Located just off the main street, we stopped for lunch at a gorgeous outdoor taverna called the Carob Tree, with bamboo roof top that provided us some shade. Happy, fat cats strolled about and visited us while we dined. We were told there were 15 all together and that the lady that owned the restaurant cared for them all. The menu had many traditional and modern Greek dishes from moussaka to Greek salad. We ordered several to share with our family including chicken souvlaki, hummus, freshly baked bread, a warm yellow split pea purée with olive oil drizzled over the top and chopped onions, and the carob tree salad: a pile of chopped greens, sliced avocado, shredded cabbage and walnuts, drizzled with a thick balsamic vinegar. The food was the freshest we’d tasted while on Crete. We visited again three days later because it was simply divine.

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View from a short drive up from Plaka

Spinalonga

On Friday we hired a boat with the expectation of cruising out to the island of Spinalonga which is in the bay just adjacent to Plaka. It was an old leper colony and a fortification site for many years. It was finally closed in 1957 and now it’s open to tourists.

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Spinalonga

We rented the boat for two hours allowing us time to cruise and hike around; however, when we arrived at the water sports hut we were disappointed to hear that only large tour boats were allowed to dock at the island. It was unfortunate since that was the main reason we decided to rent the boat in the first place. We went anyway, determined to not let it ruin our outing. We decided to drive around Spinalonga for a better view, then to the other side of the larger island, Kalydon, and then to a small beach at which we had been told we could anchor and swim. The water was a gorgeous blue and the kids excitedly took turns driving the boat with their dad. I was slightly nervous at this as my son loved turning the boat from side to side making us fish tail–not very relaxing. A bit anxious and tormented by visions of children overboard, I worked on my relaxed breathing technique.

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Back of Spinalonga

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Beautiful rock formation

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Fiona as captain

We found the small beach that was recommended to us but were afraid of venturing too close as it was quite rocky near to it. Fiona wanted an opportunity to throw the anchor so Stephen instructed her on dropping it overboard. He decided to brave the water first before sending the kids in. It was bloody freezing and he emerged gasping for breath. A group decision led us to choose to return the boat and head back to our villa for swimming in our heated pool. As the anchor line was drawing in we were met with resistance–it was wedged between two rocks on the sea floor. We tried many manoeuvres to free it but did not succeed. Luckily, the boatmen gave us a number to call in case we were to encounter any trouble. It must happen with some regularity, because after about thirty minutes a speedboat came to our rescue. The man decided he had to dive down to free the anchor. He was no fool and put his wetsuit on first. It really was very cold water – until around May, we were told.

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Our rescue diver

Once the anchor was free and hoisted back aboard, we headed back around the islands and gave the kids one more go at steering. We admitted that although it was not the ideal outing we set out for, we were met with adventure that could never have been planned. If we hadn’t sat there for 30 minutes we would never have noticed the many small but unique jellyfish that arrived to take a peek at our boat, the kids would never have seen the diver rescue us and we wouldn’t have had the opportunity of a half hour of family time graced with the baaah’s of mountain goats and the chirping of birds while we floated on the bluest of seas.

So we did get some culture during our “relaxed” island getaway. But there were many more hours spent lounging around enjoying each other’s company whether by the pool, playing cards in a café, or strolling around the resort. There were some bumps in the road while roaming about due to being in Greece at the end of the winter season but something positive usually came out of each experience.

My days were idyllic and basically went like this: mediate, yoga, brekkie, go for a run, swimming, lunch, swimming, dinner, movie night, sleep. Incredibly peaceful and just what the doctor ordered. I felt that I could never tire of the amazing view with layers of pool, sea and mountains. The fresh air made me long to stay far away from polluted London. The absolute quiet, save for the birds and the pool’s waterfall, made me forget all the noise of my everyday life. I sat and contemplated how to recreate this sense of well-being once returning home, but never really received an answer.  C’est la vie. Until next time…

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Morning meditation

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Relaxing in the pool

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Running path to Elounda

What was your family’s favourite do-nothing holiday?  Tweet us your answer at http://twitter.com/FiveAbroad.

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