Crete September 2020

Day 1: Getting to the sun

Travel abroad has been a challenge this year and we have been very lucky to manage to get to both Iceland and Greece this summer. The new travel normal is making sure you can cancel with as short a notice as possible, be prepared to change flight dates or airlines and a lot of form filling. Our one week, two centre trip to Crete had been booked 9 months ago and we were happy the British Airways flight was still on. We did our Greek arrival form and awaited our QR codes.

As it happened, we only needed to show one form on arrival as we were on each other’s. The form was barely glanced at and we were waved through to collect our luggage and be off on our way. Off with the fleeces and on with the hats and sunglasses.

We collected our usual under-powered hire car and headed off to find a late lunch with a sea view. It was great to see the blue sky, calm, warm waters of the Mediterranean, and the heat and light of Greece mid-summer (34 degrees). We stopped at the Bali resort area and ate at Mambo Beach bar so it was possible to fit in the first sea swim of the summer after the gyros, chips and salad meal.

A further drive along the scenic coast and mountains to Kapsaliana Village Hotel which was especially exciting with google taking us up into the hills on dirt tracks. We passed a hunter with a silenced hunting rifle about a metre long who eyed us suspiciously.

Day 2 – Exploring the Amari Valley

The hotel, Kapasaliana Village, is a converted olive mill estate and is very beautiful with honey coloured glowing stone. We had breakfast on the restaurant terrace. It is a quiet place with an upmarket feel and is in the middle of the countryside above Rethymno.

We went on a road trip around the Amari valley, loosely following the plan and the map in the Crete Lonely Planet guidebook.

This brought us to the fascinating Arkadi Monastery. Interesting history during Ottoman occupation about locals blowing themselves up to save the monastery. Well preserved/rebuilt.

Then on through the Amari valley to Thronos where we picked up some local honey. There’s a Byzantine church with icons from 11th and 14th century which were shown to us by the man from whom we had bought honey and other local products.

Then the small town of Amari. We walked up bell tower which has a significant amount of pigeon shit. Good views all around.  We stopped for a lunch in taverna in the square below which cost a whole €8 for 2 soft drinks, 2 coffees, a big Greek salad and fresh local bread.

Monastariki. We wound through very narrow streets down to some Minoan ruins which cost €6 to enter and no photos allowed. Worst €6 ever. Car struggled back up the hills to the smell of a burning clutch. Note to self – don’t hire a 1.3l 100bhp hire car in a hilly country.

Meronas had a mountain spring from which the locals where filling up large water containers. Interesting  church. The small towns of the valley looked like they would make good bases for off season walking holidays as there seemed to be inns promising log fires and slow cooked lamb dinners.

 

Having had enough driving, we headed back for a refreshing swim in the empty hotel pool. Empty except for the swallows who would swoop to drink from it. Tried to capture them on the camera but they are very nifty.

Following a G&T on our terrace we had our dinner pre-paid as a perk of booking via Mr & Mrs Smith website. Fine al fresco dining and a good bottle of a local wine using a rare grape and aged in pine barrels called “The Tear of the Pine”.

Day 3 – South coast beaches

We went to Kalypso Beach, a.k.a Pirate Fjord. This is normally packed and an Instagram favourite but it was almost deserted, even though it was August. In fact, it looked rather shabby and not as idyllic as in the photos we had seen.

The water was clear but very deep and not that inviting so we moved on to Damnoni Beach which is a kilometre or so of sand with widely spaced beach loungers at €6 for two. We love being able to order food and drink delivered to our loungers. So civilised.

As the afternoon cooled, we got ready and took a €25 from our country hotel to Reythmno Old Town. We walked around the town which was quite busy with locals and tourists.

We stopped in the Lemonokipas restaurant near the old mosque for a cocktail under the shade of lemon trees and grape vines. A young woman was taking pictures of food and had admired my camera so asked if she wouldn’t mind taking some pictures of us so she could try it out. She was obviously a wedding photographer by the way she had us pose. Nice to have the occasional picture together as I don’t often appear on our holidays.  In return we bought her a glass of wine which she was very pleased with and the restaurant then treated us to some ice cream. Very friendly staff and we would have eaten there.

After a little more exploration we found Avli which had various tiers of tables in a pretty courtyard. The staff  were chatty and we swapped stories of covid and the government response plus people’s feelings about it all.

We walked around the very busy port area – loads of bars and clubs. The locals said that they had to close by midnight the effect of which was to push all the youngsters to come out early making the situation worse. Unintended consequences.

Day 4 – Onward to Elounda

Our last morning in the converted olive mill before heading off to Elounda, an hour east of Heraklion in a sheltered bay. Our hotel, Elounda Heights, was up a hill so steep our car’s traction control kicked it as it struggled up in 1st gear. Going to be some good exercise up and down this on foot.

As our room wasn’t ready we had drinks by the pool and a light lunch looking over the vast bay. Una had booked a really nice deluxe room with a balcony with sea views, kitchen and bedroom. A lot of outside space.

After a swim in the cool pool and a cocktail on our balcony watching life around we went down to town to wander around the harbour and have a look at options.

In the end we picked Vritomartes Restaurant which is literally in the middle of the harbour and we had seat S9 which was practically floating in the sea. One false move with the chair or a plate and in you would go.

Day 5 – Local knowledge – one man and his inflatable dog

A local Brit who has lived the summers in Elounda for 25 years offers a sedate walk around the town with local historic highlights around the days of Imperial Airways and the 2nd world war.

This takes around 3hrs with a stop at a taverna in the true town called Elounda – the current town used to be just a few fishermen’s huts with people living further up the hill. Elounda today is the amalgamation of three villages and has grown extensively on tourism.

The walk was informative and interesting though pretty hot running up to early afternoon.

On the way to dinner, we stopped to see the old salt flats. They are now a fresh water lagoon used by migrating birds such as kingfishers. We had dinner at the Kanali restaurant looking out over the bay. Booking is advisable as even at 1920 we got one of the few unreserved seats left.

Day 6 – Island tours

This morning we wanted to see a beach across the bay called Kolokytha. It was about 100m long and 2m deep but was in a beautiful bay with water multiple shades of blue and soft sand as far as you could go.

We arrived around 10am and there were half a dozen people. By 1200 every cm was taken so we decided to go back.

After lunch by the pool, we planned to head to Krista, a mountain town and then possibly on to the ruined ancient city of Lato before passing back through Agios Nikolaos. It didn’t work out that way.

The car said the temperature was 44C and I could barely touch the steering wheel Once on our way the outside air temperature was a balmy 38C.

Kritsa was deserted and we wandered around the pretty streets of the old section before coming across the main street full of shops. Stopped in a taverna and bought a dress and some glassware. They town had more to offer than we’d expected, and we felt sorry for the local shop owners. Kritsa is normally full of visitors from coach trips and the Happy Train but neither were in operation. We felt particularly sad for the deaf leather worker who begged us to look in his shop via sign language.

Lato ruins were closed. I was also disappointed to find it a lot of the sites that photography wasn’t allowed – even though the public was actually funding the excavations though taxes and grants. And they were only rocks and stones  not works of art. Other countries are removing such restrictions for public/state owned goods and so they should.

We took a scenic mountain road back to the hotel stopping by a shop selling shells and puffer fish who looked surprised to see us.

Day 7 – Not going to the Leper Island

One of the couples here who has been to the hotel 25 times (!) advised us that we should drive to Plakis to get the boat to Spinalonga, the old leper colony as it was a shorter journey . We got there but changed our minds about the boat trip as there would be very little shade on the island, it was blistering hot and there was little if any in the way of museum or interpretation. So we looked at it from afar and imagined it as per the Victoria Hislop novel and tv series.

Instead we went to a wonderful beach called Voulisma which was about a 45 minute drive south. We arrived around 11am after some detours already the car park was beginning to fill. The loungers cost €15 but had a good bit of shade and a drinks service.

The beach was amazing: soft sand, blue, ultra- clear warm water and with fish for Una’s last snorkel of the holiday.

After a couple of hours the beach was rammed and we decided to take the old road home and relax by the pool after lunch.

Dinner was in the Elounda Heights hotel where the owner did a flight of local wines with four courses freshly prepared from local ingredients.

Day 8 – Homeward bound

Sunrise was fantastic.

The Greek government has tightened up the rules in the Herkalion area which means masks must be worn pretty much continuously even outside or in your own car which makes little sense. Then again our own government is pretty messed up in the messaging as well – with quarantine being worse than lock-down, bars on countries with rates lower than the UK, no acknowledgement of people with covid immunity and yet pumping multi-millions into vaccines which would be useless if there wasn’t immunity and so on.

We felt very lucky to have had our holiday in Crete just before it went on the quarantine list and feel very sorry for all in Crete who depend on tourism for their livelihood.