CRETE – THE MAGICAL ISLAND OF THE GODS

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CRETE – THE MAGICAL ISLAND OF THE GODS

By Gabrielle Fagan.

Crete has suffered its fair share of conflict over the years with invasions, battles and even mythological duelling between the Gods, but most of these paled in comparison with the task of convincing my teenage daughter that we really ought to explore the history of this beautiful Greek island.

It’s a brave woman who attempts to prise a sun-worshipping 17-year-old away from a pool, and suggests instead a worthy programme of sightseeing and exploring a fascinating historical and archaeological location.

At the mere mention of the ‘C’ word – culture, not clubbing – she raised her sunglasses, stared in disbelief and uttered the dismissive words: “Err, hello, I thought this was supposed to be a holiday!”

Heated discussions ensued as we lazed in the glorious surroundings of five-star Aldemar Royal Mare Village in Hersonissos on the island’s north coast.

Suddenly, I could understand the stress suffered by Greece’s poor politicians negotiating with the EU to save the country from bankruptcy.

But, secretly, I could understand Sarah’s stubborn reluctance to leave this spot which is surprisingly idyllic despite being only a half an hour taxi ride from the airport and Crete’s capital, Heraklion.

The resort’s attractive blond brick and white washed buildings are arranged in the elegant style of a Greek village, and the effect is enhanced by decoratively tiled roads and tranquil landscaped gardens.

Our ground floor VIP suite – bedroom, lounge and luxury bathroom – opened onto a secluded, private pool shared with two other families.

Every morning we ate breakfast in the Candia restaurant with its huge open-air verandah overlooking two outdoor pools. Freshly cooked pancakes are a speciality, and there are also plentiful bowls of fresh fruit and low-carb treats for those on a healthy diet.

A visit to the three-floor spa is a must, and it boasts a huge seawater thalassotherapy pool and a wide range of treatments, although our therapists were rather brusque. Lunch afterwards included locally caught fish at the Albatros restaurant overlooking the beach.

While my daughter topped up her tan, I sampled the sports facilities which include squash, table tennis, mini-golf and volley ball. My tennis lessons (42 euros for 45 minutes) were held at the impressive clay court tennis centre which is regularly visited by international players.

In the evenings, a spacious main restaurant offered an extensive buffet menu, with a three-course meal around £25 a head, and wine £8 a glass. On a couple of evenings we took a 10 minute taxi ride to the local town Hersonissos, eating at tavernas and paying around £15 for three courses, and £7 for a bottle of wine.

Finally, I resorted to bribery to persuade my daughter to leave our relaxing sanctuary. She agreed to join three excursions in return for a shopping trip and a visit to nearby Malia, the clubbing capital of Crete and a mecca for British youngsters who flock there each summer for 24-hour partying.

Fortunately, our first outing was the Cretan antidote to a teenage sulk – a lively Jeep Safari trip up into the mountains. Our Liverpudlian guide, Robert regaled us and our fellow travellers – backpackers to pensioners – with ‘bite size’ history and humorous anecdotes.

The dramatic island landscape includes stunning mountain ranges, dotted with caves and gorges, which are home to an endangered species – vultures.

We spotted the rare bearded vulture which can fly at speed and use its 10ft wing span to kill a goat by knocking it off the hillside. Fortunately, it didn’t fancy a stroppy adolescent for lunch!

Inland, the island is said to include around 35 million olive trees, one of them possibly 5,000 years old. Extra virgin olive oil earns more for the island than tourism.

We drove along rugged roads, through carpets of wild flowers and breezes headily scented with aromatic herbs, fennel, sage and basil, all growing wild.

We partially escaped the heat in the largest forest on the island, following a winding route littered with roadside shrines honouring accident victims.

Luckily, we saw the extraordinary sight of a goat standing on top of a tree before lunch at a hillside cafe. Otherwise I might have blamed Raki, the famous Greek fermented wine that we had consumed!

Apparently, herds of wild goats ‘cri cri’ roam this area, part of the fertile Plateau of Lasithi, all of them agile enough to climb trees and nibble foliage.

It’s impossible to ignore the wealth of Greek mythology, and we descended hundreds of steps to go deep into an enormous and awe-inspiring cave hung with stalactites and stalagmites that legend relates is the birthplace of Zeus, father of all the Gods.

Our safari day – costing 70 euros per person – was a brilliant awakening to the natural beauty and legends of Crete, while a boat trip to the tiny, rocky island of Spinalonga,  Greece’s main leper colony for half a century to 1957, was a fascinating insight into social history.

A boat excursion, costing 62 euros, began from Agios Nikolaos, a port which also has a huge lake that was once deemed bottomless and where at the end of World War II  the occupying Germans dumped tanks and armaments before fleeing. Nowadays, streets lined with chic cafes, restaurants and shops make it a charming, cosmopolitan place to visit.

Once you’ve made the hour crossing, it’s six miles from the mainland, arriving at Spinalonga is eerily like stepping into the ghostly past.

Much of the settlement inhabited by the unfortunate lepers, around 1,000 were transported there over the years, still stands and some of house interiors are recreated in period.

A best-selling novel, The Island by Victoria Hislop, about the colony has made the ‘island of tears’, as it’s known locally, internationally famous and it now attracts around 30,000 tourists per year.

Visiting the cemetery and the tiny, candle-lit chapel is enormously moving. Even the noisiest tourist is hushed by the atmosphere.

Its poignant serenity was in complete contrast to Heraklion, the commercial heart of Crete, where we hunted ‘designer’ label bargains in heaving markets before visiting Knossos, three miles to the south.

This vast archaeological site is the village where Sir Arthur Evans, then director of Oxford’s Ashmolean Museum, found proof that the mythical ancient civilisation of Crete really existed. He named them Minoans after their well known king, Minos.

What remains today is a complex maze of rooms, ruins and intriguing glimpses of artefacts and frescos. Go early in the morning or late in the day to avoid heat and crowds.

The final part of our bargain remained – a visit to a culture-free zone – Malia, which certainly lived up to Sarah’s expectations with seemingly endless discos, ‘English’ bars, fast food and long, sandy beaches. Teenage bliss!

So mother and daughter found harmony at last. The two ‘C’s – culture and clubbing – seem an unlikely holiday cocktail, but they mixed together rather well!

KEY FACTS

:: BEST FOR: Taming teenagers, topping up your tan, and turning on to history

:: TIME TO GO: May-September. Generally, south coast is hotter and drier than north.

:: DON’T MISS: Spinalonga island, former leper colony made famous in The Island.

:: NEED TO KNOW: Cretans are proud of national identity – don’t call them Greeks!

:: DON’T FORGET: Leave beaches and explore, with history on the doorstep of most resorts.

TRAVEL FACTS

Gabrielle Fagan travelled to Crete with tour operator Classic Collection which offers seven nights’ half-board at the award-winning five-star Aldemar Royal Mare (visit www.aldemarhotels.com) in Anissaras on the outskirts of Hersonissos, a 25-minute transfer from Heraklion Airport, from £745 this summer, incl return flights ex-Gatwick and transfers.

Regional deps include Manchester ( from £777 ) and Glasgow (from £900). Others deps include Belfast, Birmingham, Bristol, Doncaster, Luton, Leeds Bradford, East Midlands, Newcastle and Norwich.

Classic Collection reservations: call 0800 008 7299 and visit www.classic-collection.co.uk

Thomas Cook publishing offers a range of travel guides, including Crete, from £4.99. For details call 01733 416477 and visit www.thomascookpublishing.com

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