My trip to Crete was one I’d been planning to make for the past two years. I flew into Chania on the north-west corner of the island and spent a week there. Although I was there primarily for research for my novel (which I’ll talk about in detail in my posts to follow) the beauty and charm of Crete wasn’t lost on me. I thought I’d take the time to share some of my off-duty highlights from this beautiful island.
My stay on this trip was in a small family run villa in the village of Kalathas, about a 15-minute drive from Chania. I’d chosen somewhere out of town by the beach so that I could relax. My host Maria was studying in Germany and her mother Kathy greeted me with exceptional warmth and hospitality. The villa itself was a gorgeous Spanish-style hacienda, full of character and oozing charm – black cast iron window frames, old wooden doors and blue slate floors.
The internet reception wasn’t the best and I had to burn insect repellent tablets to ward off ravenous mosquitoes (a battle I later lost). However, the room was self-contained, clean and comfortable. And the peacefulness and the spectacular views all made my stay memorable.
There are, of course, a lot of beaches in Crete. I managed to make my way to Stavros Beach, which is famous for being the place where they filmed Zorba the Greek with legendary actor Anthony Quinn. Admittedly it’s on the kitsch side. There’s a big sign with a photo of Quinn on the beachfront and the taverna across the road is named Zorba’s. Also, if you want to sit on a deck chair, it will cost you 8 euros. That said the beach is protected and quiet and the water clear.
Another beach that rates a mention is Elafanossi beach. I wasn’t able to make it there on this trip as it’s a long drive o the other side of the island but Elafanossi is consistently voted one of Europe’s top beaches. A well-travelled Dutch guest staying in my villa told me that Elafanossi was the most beautiful beach that she had ever seen. It’s relatively untouched by tourism and reports of pink and white sand and turquoise water put it onto my visit list for my next trip.
Old Venetian Port
“Make sure you visit the Old Venetian Port”, was the advice I received from Kathy back at the villa. She wasn’t wrong the old port is well and truly worth a visit. It’s a hub for tourists. Souvenir shops line the cobblestone streets and you can enjoy a horse and carriage ride along the harbour, but the area is so picturesque that you’re immediately taken in by it. If you look, you’ll also find locally made products including Raki, olive oil and handmade leather goods. I picked up a pair of hand made sandals from a woman whose business had started with her cobbler father. The tavernas are also worth visiting. I enjoyed my best meal of my entire trip here.
I mentioned the incredible hospitality I received. On my arrival at my villa, Kathy presented me with a plate of fresh biscuits (still warm) which were flour, butter and sugar-free! They were made from almonds, Cretan olive oil and Cretan wine and were DELICIOUS. In fact, I ate them all on my first night. I also stocked up on some local produce including soft sheep’s milk cheese and fresh bread. No need for butter, as the local olive oil was divine.
Many areas of the Mediterranean have been over-fished, but smaller locally caught fish are easier to get. My favourite meal was a plate of freshly barbequed sardines at a tavern in the Old Venetian Port. The secret, my waiter revealed, was to cook them slowly. And boy was the wait worth it. It was true Mediterranean style fare- not fancy or complicated, just simple, fresh and full of flavour. On my last day on the island, I enjoyed a hearty meal of small fried smelts, Cretan greens (similar to NZ puha or sour thistle) and taramasalata. The Greek mama cooking at the tavern was so impressed by efforts that she came over to my table and cheerfully patted my shoulder. I’m not sure what she said but I’m sure it was along the lines of, “Good girl, you have the appetite of a man”, or something like that.
My local friends also introduced me to Raki; a local liquor made from grapes. Raki is the same as grappa, which my Italian school friends fathers would brew illegally in their garage. Let me tell you that the raki went down very well, in fact too well if I’m to be honest. Best of all I found a honey flavoured version that has become my favourite.
The easiest way to get around Crete is by car. And despite the hilly and mountainous terrain they favour tiny hatchbacks. I hired a manual drive Kia Sportage from Horofakia, a rental company recommended to me by my host. I’d overlooked the fact that I would be driving a left-hand drive vehicle, and it took me about a day of bunny hopping up and down the island before I was relatively safe on the road. At first I was dubious about such a little car’s ability to climb the hills, but it did a monumental job. I was even sorry to say goodbye to my faithful little buggy at the end.
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