Suspended geographically between Europe and Africa — and to a great degree suspended in time, too — Crete is not your ordinary Greek island. It’s the biggest one, for starters, and its mysterious Minoan civilization flourished a very long time ago, from about 2700-1420 BC. This elongated island is also traditionally home to the most powerful god in the ancient Greek pantheon: Zeus. It is a touristic island but not a resort one — It feels authentic in a way that Mykonos never could. It’s big. And fans of the Mediterranean diet should note that the best olive oil and produce in Greece comes, not from the mainland, but from here (even the Greeks admit this).
There are regular flights between Athens and the two Cretan cities of Heraklion and Chania, and they typically take just a half-hour or so. On my most recent visit, I flew to Chania on the island’s north coast, then took a modern bus 40 miles east to the historic seaside town of Rethymno. If you want to rent a car, choose Voyager for the best prices and service (voyagerincrete.gr). Without much luggage, I could have explored Rethymno’s old Venetian harbor and twisting lanes right away, but the mood board called for something breezy, beachy and sweet: So I took a short taxi ride to the Caramel Grecotel Boutique Resort. Comfortably ensconced on a curvilinear green velvet canapé, I was offered a Cretan iced tea and caramel pop. “We want to switch on the holiday mood right at check-in,” dapper rooms divisions manager Yiannis Katsogridakis explained.
One of the best places to stay anywhere in Crete, the resort is designed like an island village in characteristic Mediterranean white, with individually decorated rooms, suites and villas, many with fetching sea views. During my too-brief stay in May, I had as my neighbor Greek pop singer Natasha Theodoridou — and, as usual, the place where the “locals” check in, too, is where you want to be.
I missed Theodoridou’s concert in Rethymno because by the time I had dashed into town to take some photos of the old Venetian architecture (the whole of Crete once belonged to Venice) and savor some chocolate-dipped baklava, I barely had time to make it back to the property for my revitalizing facial treatment in the excellent spa, the Caramel Wellness Centre, followed by a swim at the nice beach. But the best was yet to come because when you are in Crete, you are at the epicenter, not only of the core of Western civilization, but of Greek gastronomy, too. And, unlike any other hotel or resort in Crete, this one has its own farm — you can’t get any more locally sourced than that. Agreco Farm is set on 100 ocean-view acres in the lush hills above Rethymno. Up there, under the sybaritic Cretan sun, Manager Nikos Lyronis showed me how to pick a wild artichoke right from the field and eat it. He also introduced me to a kri-kri, the wild goat of Crete. I fed the goat before sitting down for a six-course organic Cretan feast with Charalabos Gialtakis, the Grecotel Caramel hotel manager. It was the perfect opportunity to sample Agreco’s delicious olive oil, wines and cheeses along with more full-bodied Cretan fare. This kind of farm-to-table dining experience, at the farm itself, is a rarity in travel today and gives you a new perspective on the Greek palate.
The restaurants at the Caramel use ingredients from Agreco Farm in their menus, too. I celebrated my 34th (alternative fact? Well, it’s an island of myths after all) birthday at the Caramel restaurant, which was a treat from start to sweet finish. Special mention should also be made of the daily (included) breakfast: You have never seen a spread of abundance and unadulterated deliciousness as decadent as this. Freshly squeezed juices, fresh baked goods, terrific coffee is just the start to what I would christen the best hotel breakfast in Europe right now. You can enjoy it inside or al fresco.
Grecotel was one of the pioneers of Greek tourism in the post-war era, so it’s no surprise that standards here are high, and nothing feels like formula. With its mix of beachfront villas and family-friendly junior suites, you will get that personalized, five-star feeling whether you are Brad Pitt or a family of four. (Did I mention free kids’ dining in the Tasty Corner?) I could go on, but will direct readers instead to the fine website, caramel.grecotel.com, before moving on, as I sadly had to do, to Heraklion. Before you catch your flight back to Athens, overnight at the new Veneziano Boutique Hotel (veneziano.gr). The two-story house was built in 1510 and is typical of the Venetian and Ottoman designs of old with a wooden roof and interior courtyard. But it’s been totally refurbished with a modern design as enchanting as bustling Heraklion is itself.