The last time I went to Crete, I was 18. The destination of choice? Malia. The reason? Buckets of Blue Lagoon cocktails, UK garage music, and the kind of dubious sexual morals that make Geordie Shore look prudish. Our idea of sophistication was eating watermelon that hadn’t been soaked in vodka overnight, and dining at the Chinese restaurant – rather than the British pub – because the food there was more ‘exotic’.
We stayed in the authentic Ancient Greek establishment, the Kastro Beach Apartments, home to Charlie’s Bar – possibly the worst bar on the island. Which is saying something.
Perhaps it was for this reason that I hadn’t returned to the island in 16 years – I mean, how could I possibly top that?
Obviously, despite my desire to return to some of our favourite haunts – such as Babylon Bar, where they would routinely light the bar on fire with Zippo fuel to notify when it was time to grab a free watered-down shot – we bypassed Malia’s dubious allure and headed further afield.
Elounda is a charming seaside town with bars and beaches aplenty, about an hour from the airport. A mile or so down the coast, it’s also home to a trio of luxury hotels. Porto Elounda, Elounda Mare and Elounda Peninsula are all owned and run by the Kokotos family – the patriarch of which, Spyros, is a world-renowned hotel architect.
Where Porto is family-focused and Relais & Chateau Mare is aimed at couples, Peninsula is pitched as a suite-only hotel – and as such is all things to all (wealthy) people. Guests here have access to everything all three hotels have to offer, from the kids’ club complete with Arsenal Football Academy and waterpark to the eight restaurants dotted throughout the resort.
On arrival, a golf buggy will whisk you straight from reception to your room – in our case, a two-bedroom Grand villa, with a pool and garden. It’s a perfect amount of space when you have a three-year-old in tow.
Indeed, the buggy ride alone is a hoot when you’re three (or 33) – taking you through winding paths that pass by the nine-hole golf course, surrounded by lipstick-magenta bougainvillea draped over white walls, and villa roofs planted with grasses and wild flowers.
With two well-stocked mini bars, daybeds, and your own pool, it would be easy to lounge about your new crib all day. But then it would be a shame not to head down to one of the two beaches that recede into Mirabello Bay – a larger one for families, and a smaller cove that’s exclusive to guests of the Peninsula. Both have crystal-clear waters, only ruffled by schools of translucent fish, that lap the shores of perfect castle-making sand.
There’s a fresh-water pool – and more importantly its poolside bar, which will serve you drinks wherever you sit. For lunch, Aglio & Olio was our pick: the tables are positioned around a gnarled olive tree, which grows skyward, literally through the roof, providing a dappled shade. Eclectic lanterns dangle from the wooden rafters and swing, alongside grape vines, in the sea breeze. It’s a lovely spot from which to enjoy fresh salads and far less healthy things, all washed down with a glass (OK, bottle – who am I trying to kid?) of ice-cold rosé.
Our stand-out meal was at Koh – a pan-Asian affair with some of the best views on site: there are even glass floors so you can see the white water beneath you
For sundowners, grab a drink on the terrace at Porto, with impressive views across the whole resort. Beyond, the golden sunset toasts a terracotta mountain range, which climbs up from the sea from near-vertical cliffs. The only thing that beats the vistas are the cocktails, served up by a silver-fox charmer, Giorgos. With 30 years in the business – and recently voted the best bartender on the island (not sure by whom, but it’s deserved), Giorgos could work on Park Lane, let alone the Peninsula.
If you’re staying half-board then the neighbouring Nafiska is the place for dinner. A Mediterranean buffet gig, it isn’t overwhelming in its size or offering (as so many grand resorts can be these days) but rather consistent in its quality across the board. Instead of attempting every type of cuisine known to man and executing them all badly, it does what it does well, and with a heavy bias towards local dishes, all delicious and many almost healthy enough to justify you going to town on the deserts – including the help-yourself ice-cream counter.
Beyond Nafiska, you can use half-board vouchers to knock off €20 per head at any of the other restaurants. In one week, you probably won’t manage to get to all of them, but it’s certainly worth indulging in Monday’s ‘Crete night’. This could, if handled poorly, descend into the naff. Fortunately, in the shadow of the hotel’s quaint chapel, it feels rather more genuine – the food in particular is as authentic as it comes. The pea-cocking local dance is great to watch, but definitely not to attempt yourself. Unless you’re three years old, in which case you might just about be able to pull it off. At the end of the serving, head straight for the baklava table, offering a mountain of honey-drenched crispness that will have your gums aching in sugar-coated glee.
Our stand-out meal was at Koh – a pan-Asian affair with some of the best views on site: there are even glass floors so you can see the white water beneath you. Book a table by the ragged water’s edge where the sea crashes onto the rocks, only very occasionally giving you a light spray of refreshment.
At all of the restaurants, there is a decent cellar of both Cretan and Greek wine available. Put all preconceptions aside: the Papaioannou pinot noir, for example, would put any equivalently priced burgundy to shame. Crete is home to some 50 vineyards yet only 500,000 people: not a bad ratio, proving how serious they take their grape growing. It also happens that the man who built this hotel has a vineyard in central Greece, too – and his Kleftra Kissa rosé was a favourite of ours.
To work off all the calories, there are three gyms on site, as well as tennis courts, and a PADI-certified scuba diving centre. Although there isn’t any sailing or windsurfing here, there are plenty of petrol-powered water sports to enjoy – including the jetski-propelled propulsion device that allows you to fly in the air, Iron Man-style, but with less grace and fewer witty retorts.
For a proper sea journey, you can either hire out or join a group trip aboard the resort’s Rizzardi Posillipo Technema 58 power boat. As well as taking you to hidden bays away from the crowds, it’s also the most efficient way to see the local ruins – Spinalonga. This sea fort has become famous as the setting for Victoria Hislop’s The Island. Her award-winning book has been turned into Greece’s most expensive TV production in history. Hence, the crowds can be sizeable – and the heat unbearable. Far better, we thought, to see it from the sea. Well, it did use to be a leper colony, after all.
Back at base, there is one spot you have to visit during your stay. The 2,200sq m Six Senses Spa is an ethereal retreat positioned, not by accident, right at the very top of the resort. It has a river running through its sandstone centre, which feeds into a large pool kitted out with water sprays and air nozzles to help you relax before someone else takes over. A 90-minute deep-tissue massage with Elena is enough to dissolve any stresses from City life – and set you up for just the holiday you need.
Lying in the spa’s infinity pool, looking out across the cobalt Aegean, I’m glad I finally returned to Crete and had the chance to explore some blue lagoons of a very different nature.
For more info: eloundapeninsula.com