Crete – charm without pretence.
In 1972, I took a ferry from Piraeus to Heraklion in Crete. We were on the hunt for my high school pal and travel companion, David, whom we had left in Amsterdam. A hostel mate we met by chance on the docks had seen him and knew he was heading for a particular village on Crete’s south coast to escape the cold and snow of Northern Europe. We chased him down and lived there for two glorious months.
It seemed important to show my Crete to Ellen, as it was a defining moment in my travel history. However, searching the web found little had changed on the south coast. No resorts, nothing beyond a few plain 3 star hotels added to the tiny villages I knew so well. The north coast was another matter entirely. Given it has all the larger towns on Crete and the more touristy ruins such as Knossos, there are a lot of swish places to choose from.
The fast ferry from Santorini to Crete covers the 160 KM’s in an afternoon. Far more time than it took for the massive tsunami that resulted from the volcanic eruption on Santorini which occurred in about 1500 BC. One of the largest eruptions in history, it supposedly created a tsunami wave between 100 and 500 feet high that ravaged Crete and may have led to the downfall of Minoan civilization. The highly recommended Santorini Palace's upper deck/VIP class on the ferry had us arriving in the port of Heraklion at a much more comfortable and leisurely pace.
We had chosen the village of Agios Nikolaos on the north east coast and the St. Nicolas Bay Resort. Not cheap, but not killer expensive like the Elounda Bay resorts close by. It was a small suite with a terrace and a view of the pure blue waters that Crete is known for.
After a day settling in, we kept passing the Byron Car rental office and kept eyeing an Audi convertible on their lot. We were not loving the bright royal blue POLO I booked and drove in to see what we could get. The lovely manager advised the Audi was booked but she had something else I might like. Around the corner was a Fiat 500, brand new in steel grey with a red fold back roof. By fold back, I mean all the way to the trunk lid. We loved it! It turned out to be one of the worst cars I’ve ever driven and…. we still loved it! It had no power, took seconds to change gears but cute hardly does it justice. We learned to stay off the highway and had a ball honing around side roads, through valleys and villages we might not have ever seen. I have to say The Byron Rental Car Company, which only operates on Crete, is the nicest, easiest most customer friendly rental company I have ever used. They are a travel agent too.
On one road a few miles inland we saw a small sign that simply said 'Golf Course'. We pulled in and were charmed by a gorgeous clubhouse facing an immaculate 18th fairway that was a deep, luscious green in contrast to the usual scrubby Crete landscape. We arranged to play the next morning and headed south to Matala.
Matala - in 1972, we walked the beach from our village Agia Gallini to Matala. It took six hours. On arrival this time, we found the hand dug caves that once held tombs, Christians and then hippies in 1971 (until locals blew them out with fire hoses) were still there, full of kids jumping into the bays blue waters. In 1971, Joni Mitchell lived in the caves and her song ‘Carey' references her time there. We had arrived on the eve of the Matala Beach Festival, a two-day extravaganza that had attracted as many as 80,000 people in past years. Stages were set up on the beach, sound checks were being done, fields had been cleared for parking and tent cities were being erected. The Festivals motto was, appropriately, “Today is life. Tomorrow never comes“. That seemed to suit the dozens of Willie Nelson look a likes in their tie-dyed t-shirts and silver braided hair. Now we know where all the hippies wound up. We lunched on the cliffside across the bay from the caves, out of the heat enjoying ice-cold Mythos beers. We then moved on to my old village - Agia Gallini.
I could wax on about my 1972 stay in Gallini. Suffice to say it was one of life’s perfect moments where time really did stand still. At least for a while. What was a six-hour walk on the beach from Matala was just a 20-minute drive in the fast Fiat. It looked almost the same: the harbour, the steps up to the one main car free street but it had changed. I couldn’t find Pop and Milo’s hotel where David and I paid 60 Drachma (about a dollar) a night for a room with a balcony and shower (hot water, 5 Drachma). The hollowed out little mountain beside the harbour wall that had been used for German gun emplacements has lost its giant steel door with the rusted Swastika on it. The path past that to the beach where we used to carry wooden cases of FIX beer to our beach parties is now an inlaid stone walkway and our beach is now a resort replete with umbrellas and lounge chairs. We had a beer and left as I found it all a bit sad.
The next morning we were up for our 9:00AM golf game at the creatively named 'Crete Golf Club'. On the way we realized it was Saturday morning and thought we might only be able to get in 9 holes if it was too busy. To our great delight and surprise we were the only people on the course. After 9, we stopped in to ask why and were told June, July and August were low season as it was too hot. Ha! Play in Malaysia we said as we booked to play the back 9. It was a perfect golf morning on an immaculate course made even better by my score of 86, the best score in my golf history! Lunch on their lovely terrace with a decent cheeseburger and more ice-cold Mythos beers.
They are going to build condos. I want one.
We drove into Agios Nicholas for dinner twice. Just 10 minutes away from the hotel, it is a cute little harbour with a few streets running off it. The harbour restaurants looked nice enough but we drove up to the top of the village above the harbour to a perfect little place called Gioma Meze. Great dinner and a crisp, cold Cretan wine called Ovilos; a little like a Sauvignon Blanc but made from the local Assyrtiko grape. Their Greek salad doesn’t use traditional Feta cheese but a cream cheese variant that was fantastic. The food, the breeze, the view. Perfect. Another time, we ate at Pelagos, a traditional Cretan restaurant with a large outside patio and friendly service.
As our days on Crete wound down we needed a road trip. Crete is long and thin: less than an hour north to south but at least 8 hours East to West. We headed for Chania, an ancient Venetian port, driving almost 5 hours on a coast road all the way. As it was Sunday, we weren’t sure what was open but the little harbour was busy with it’s centre point the old lighthouse at the harbour entrance built in the 1600’s. Knocked down many times by earthquakes and war only the base is now original. In ancient times they used to pull a giant chain from the lighthouse to the opposite breakwater to close the harbour off. Now, too shallow for big ships, it is just yachts and fishing boats. Another Mythos or two and we were off to Heraklion.
This is the main port city of Crete, the biggest harbour, the airport and close to the ruins of Knossos. Nice town and in a lively central square we settled in to a terrace bar to watch the French Grand Prix only to have it bumped mid race by World Cup Soccer. Well, it is Europe and there are priorities. Ellen found a drop dead pretty little taverna, Peskesi, that served delicious sausages with hot mustard, roast lamb accompanied by a gorgeous Syrah called Lyrarakis. Delicious.
And, that was Crete. We loved it. It isn’t ‘gentrified’ like Tuscany or Provence. It isn’t lush and green, more scrubby and raw. But, the waters are crystal clear tinted azure blue to match the sky. The food and wine are wonderful, the people friendly and it is a whole lot cheaper. There are hundreds of other islands to try, some big and some very small. We will be back.
OVERVIEW OF WHAT & WHERE
St. Nicolas Bay Resort - touted as a unique luxury private beach Resort Hotel on the way from Agios Nikolaos to Elounda, this bungalow style resort overlooks both the spectacular Gulf of Mirabello Bay and the old cosmopolitan fishing village of Agios Nikolaos.
Byron Car Rental - only operates on Crete, is the nicest, easiest most customer friendly rental company we have ever used. A company rep met us upon our departure from the boat, signed the paperwork in the car and that it's. Off we went.
Minoan Lines - Santorini Palace. Book the upper deck, VIP seats.
Crete Golf Club - Crete's only golf course with wide fairways so you don't waste time hunting for balls.
Gioma Meze - traditional meze with great view of city of Agios Nikolaos.
Pelagos - tucked away in an Agios Nikolaos side street. The setting is lovely with a green courtyard, serving Cretan dishes and fresh fish.
Peskesi - authentic Cretan cuisine in Heraklion using pure and natural products of the Cretan land. Rustic yet stylish decor, with great service and wine, all at very reasonable price.