My first travel article. I really plunged in at the deep end – exploring the remote and hard-to-reach holiday resorts of Crete.
I’d never been on a package holiday. In fact, I used to be a bit of a package holiday snob. Lie in the sun while someone else organises your fun for you? Nothing to do but apply suntan lotion? Pah! A holiday should involve trudging up a mountain, camping on a bed made of porcupines and stroking your chin while looking at shards of ancient pottery.
“Would you like another beer sir?” The barman’s voice breaks into my thoughts. I’m lying on a sun-lounger at the five-star Stella Palace Hotel in Analipsi on the north coast of Crete. My package prejudice is gone.
Since our arrival, we’ve settled into a happy routine. Get Up. Marvel at the clear blue skies and 28-degree heat. Dip in the pool. Overeat at the breakfast buffet. Lounge at pool. Overeat at the lunch buffet. Recommence lounging. Overeat at the dinner buffet. Bar. Bed. Repeat.
Now and then we vary our routine a little by spending some time in OUR OWN PRIVATE POOL. Yes. For seven days of my life, I stayed in a suite which had its own pool. And I jumped into it in my underpants. Just like in the films.
By day four of our week-long stay, the eery white glow from our bodies – which made us look like we were in an Actimel ad – has disappeared. Cabin-fever sets in and an old fear resurfaces. When we tell people we spent a week on an island said to be the birthplace of European civilisation without stirring from the pool, will we ever be invited to another pesto-based dinner party again?
Crete is old. 10,000 years ago, farmers were building towns in the plateaux in the centre of the island. From these settlements, the Minoan civilisation was born. The Minoans built Knossos, a 35,000 square metre palace about five miles from the modern-day capital Heraklion. One of the most popular tourist destinations on Crete, Knossos can feel crowded and dusty but it’s well worth a visit. The sophistication of what the ancient Minoans achieved is incredible. They built aquaducts from mountains to the palace to bring clean water to every resident (Galway County Council take note) and developed sophisticated drainage to channel torrential rain away from the site and prevent flooding (ahem, Cork County Council…).
Visitor information is available but in order to fully bring Knossus’ story to life, it’s a good idea to pay a tenner and join a guided tour. Our guide was Popy, who knew her Minoans. She was a woman not to be trifled with. Occasionally a stray tourist would drift towards the back of our group – trying to sneakily listen in for free. They were spotted straight away and quickly sent packing. When she wasn’t fighting off scroungers, Popy was telling us about everything from the Queen’s indoor toilet to the legend of the Minotaur. The Minotaur was a bloodthirsty half-man, half bull who was said to live in a labyrinth underneath the palace. Every nine years, the people of Athens had to send seven youths and seven maidens to be devoured by the monster in repayment of a blood debt. If he were alive today, the Minotaur would be one of Anglo Irish Bank’s Bondholders.
Back in the resort, once we’ve lain in the sun for a while to recover, we resolve to explore more of this fascinating island. The next morning we climb into the back of a Landrover Defender for a day-long tour run by a company called Safari Club. The €74 price tag felt a little steep but it’s an enjoyable day nonetheless.
Over the course of 200 miles or so, the tour does a scenic loop of eastern Crete. From Analipsi the tour heads for the plateau of Katharo. Soon we are about 1000 metres above sea level, winding our way through tiny villages which don’t appear to have changed in hundreds of years. And olive trees. Lots of olive trees.“The best olive oil in Europe comes from Crete. 35 million olive trees in total” says Peter, our driver. We see no reason to disagree, having not kept count.
We go off road as we criss-cross the mountain side. Peter keeps up an entertaining commentary on everything from tree-climbing goats to tales from Crete’s turbulent history. The tour halts in Lassithi for an enormous barbecued lunch and unlimited wine. This proves to be slightly debilitating later in the day as we struggle up the 800 steps to the mouth of Dictaion Andro, the cave said to be the birthplace of Zeus. By the end of the day we are a little stiff but we’ve gotten our cultural bearings now.
It’s a month later. We’re back home, the tan has faded, the decking and pool are replaced by gravel and bins. We’re wistful. We want sun, a breakfast buffet as far as the eye can see, a rep to organise our day, a drink with an umbrella. All neatly packaged.
Sunworld Holidays has recently announced Crete, Gran Canaria and Egypt as new destinations from Cork for its summer 2011 programme.These will join existing direct flights from Cork to the Algarve, Salou, Lanzarote, Turkey and Majorca. Flights will depart from Cork every Friday direct to Crete between May and September 2011. Packages include free child places. Call 0818 200 400, visit your local travel agent or log onto Sunworld.ie for more information.
Your Questions Answered:
I’ve got a family of small children who I can only tolerate for short periods of time– Is there something for them to do in these resorts?
The Stella Palace seems to be one of the better places to bring families. Their entertainment team are busy during the day organising activities and discos for children.
Now I’m jealous of my small children. It’s my hard-earned cash that’s paying for all of this– what’s there for me?
During the day, draining the all inclusive bar proves the most popular activity but if you want to stretch your muscles, there is water polo, football and other team sports. By night there is a variety show followed by a disco. Each night has a different theme – Dance, Carnival, Bollywood and Comedy. However if your comedy idols are Lenny Bruce or Dylan Moran, this may be the place to smirk knowingly into your umbrella’d drink. At the Comedy night I witnessed, the sketch called ‘Reactions Of Men From Different Countries When They Find Their Wife In Bed With Another Man’ proved the biggest hit with the crowd. The French husband was gay, the Russian husband was drunk on vodka, the Chinese husband was a ninja. As Adel, the Tunisian-born leader of the troupe points out – “You have to keep it simple when the audience is from ten different countries and don’t speak English.”
I’m the kind of person who likes to flash their bits if I see the TV3 cameras around filming Boozed Up Irish Abroad – is Crete the place for me?
It depends on where you go. Small villages like Analipsi and Gouves seem to be oriented towards families and couples. There are plenty of tavernae and restaurants but as we passed them, people seemed to be just talking and relaxing. (I know; the losers) Hersonissos is more of a party town. In September when we visited it was lively but no-one got sick on our shoes. Malia is the place that makes the Daily Mail foam at the mouth about sex and violence – where no holds are barred and all bars are holes. However, according to Peter, our driver from the Land Rover safari, the new sheriff in town is clamping down so it may be a little calmer now.
I’m a travel snob whose last holiday was inside a volcano eating nothing but moss, is there any point in me going?
Yes, scenery and culture combine to make Crete an enjoyable destination for even the most independent of travellers. Note: if you want a guide book, bring one with you. The local offerings tend to be dull scholarly affairs whose chief selling point is the quixotic translations. Ours promised to tell us about the “knownest Cretan attractions”.
I think Lasagne is exotic – will I go hungry because there’s nothing to eat except foreign muck?
No, the Stella Palace and hotels all along that coast are well used to catering for no-nonsense palates and offer a wide range of choices from Cretan cuisine to chips.
When I go on holidays I want to spend all my time with Irish people – will we all be singing The Fields of Athenry and rabbitting on about NAMA in the Stella Palace?
Unlikely – we counted two other Irish in the Stella Palace when we were there but neighbouring Hersonissos is very popular with the Irish during the summer. Georgiu, the owner of El Paradiso Club who manhandled us in for cocktails asked us where we were from. “Ireland” we said. He replied in flawless Dublinese “Aroiw buddy, storee”
I’ve seen Spartacus: Blood and Sand – what are the native Greeks like?
Spartacus was a Thracian and a gladiator. By contrast, Cretans are friendly people and many speak very good English. There is no danger of you being attacked with a mace. Unless it’s by someone celebrating their Leaving Cert results.