Crete in springtime has warm days and cool evenings. Roads wend their way through tiny villages and cling to mountainsides through deep gorges. Beaches are peaceful, spring flowers are plentiful, cultural sites are devoid of visitors. There is tender stewed lamb in the mountains and freshly caught fish in the harbours, and there is always complimentary dessert and raki after each meal. Crete truly, and unexpectedly, stole my heart.
Travel in Crete with kids is easy: the roads may be narrow and potholed in places, mopeds may zip past without warning, but on the whole there is little traffic and the pace is slow. Tap water is drinkable, sweet treats such as cakes, biscuits and ice cream are sold everywhere and the cuisine is surprisingly child-friendly even for reluctant little gourmets like mine.
The first day of our holiday was rather a long one involving a 4am start and a three hour drive once we arrived in Crete (we flew to Chania rather than Heraklion as the flight times suited us better), but it made our first destination all the more rewarding. Eleonas Country Village is located in the foothills of Mount Psiloritis, Crete’s highest peak, an hour south of Heraklion. We arrived in late afternoon and the children immediately tore off to the hotel’s little play area while my husband and I collapsed at a table in the tranquil courtyard.
Consisting of 20 stone cottages dotted along the hillside, Eleonas has been expertly thought out by Manolis, the ever-present owner. There’s a fabulous heated pool and a taverna, popular with locals, which has a playroom attached to it. With brilliant blue skies, bees buzzing amid the herb gardens and happy children, it was the perfect antidote to the long, cold, English winter.
We found the two hour time difference between Greece and the UK a real benefit at mealtimes. Our children’s body clocks have a fierce resistance to change so we were able to trick these internal dictators and feed them at 7pm Greek time, something we can’t get away with yet in the UK. We enjoyed leisurely dinners; meat baked for hours in a traditional wood oven, tasty salads and local wine, while our children wolfed down their meals and dashed off to play. A meal in Crete is always followed by complimentary raki and dessert. I’ve yet to discover why the local spirit is so palatable in its home nation but almost undrinkable if I’m foolish enough to bring some home in my suitcase.
From Eleonas, there are various walking trails through the mountains to impressive gorges, ancient monasteries and peaceful villages. One track through the olive groves leads down to Zaros, a town famed for its spring water which supplies many of the hotels and restaurants across the island. We had a brilliant introduction to Cretan cuisine at Vegera, a simple mother and daughter-run restaurant offering incredible quality and value. Tasty vegetable soup, fresh bread and local trout from nearby Lake Votomos (where the spring water is stored), were washed down with a carafe of wine, followed by dessert and raki, meaning we had little option but to retire to the sunbeds around the hotel pool for the rest of the afternoon.
My older son is a budding historian so I was determined to drag the whole family to Knossos, the capital of Minoan civilisation, located just outside Heraklion. It’s essential to read up on a bit of Greek mythology if you’re taking kids to Knossos, or sites like it, otherwise the visit can be as dry as the piles of stones you’re examining. So, armed with our knowledge of Theseus and the Minotaur, we enjoyed an hour or so of exploration before the less enthusiastic members of the family insisted it was time for ice cream. In between an animated discussion about Liverpool football club, a gift shop owner explained that in the height of summer when the temperatures soar towards 40 degrees, Knossos sees some 6,000 visitors per day, there must have been just a couple of hundred during our visit.
One evening, we managed to tear ourselves away from the taverna at Eleonas and drove south to the seaside resort of Matala for dinner. Here, hippies in the 1960s set up a new life for themselves, rather incongruously, in caves which were originally used as tombs by the Romans some two thousand years ago.
From Eleonas we had a long drive to our next destination but it gave us a chance to really take in the contrasts of the island. We wound our way out of the mountains to Rethymnon on the north coast. It was the Greek Good Friday and Rethymnon’s Venetian harbour, very cosmopolitan after the sleepy mountain villages we’d spent the last four days in, was vibrant and full of people shopping and enjoying a glass of ubiquitous coffee frappe in the spring sunshine.
The north coast road is fast so it didn’t take long to reach Chania from Rethymnon (although there are some very well hidden speed cameras), but from there our progress slowed as we drove into the White Mountains of western Crete. The drive, along ever narrower roads, through sleepy villages and the stunning Topolia Gorge, culminated in a terrifying set of hairpin bends. As I gazed down at the sheer drop from my window, I silently hoped that the drive would be worth it.
Our destination was Milia Mountain Retreat. Originally a collection of medieval stone cottages, Milia is now a very special place to stay. Two locals decided to restore the landscape and the buildings using ecological means. With solar power and local spring water, along with local produce in its excellent restaurant, Milia is a brilliant example of low-impact tourism. I hope other people follow Giorgios and Tassos’s lead.
During our stay, we spent the mornings following the walking trails which lead off from Milia, some meandering through the wildflowers of the mountainside, others disappearing into the ancient olive groves which are still undergoing an extensive restoration process. Afternoons were spent exploring Crete’s west coast, surprisingly accessible from Milia despite its remote feel. The narrow mountain roads pass through tiny villages, known as Innahorion (meaning nine villages), which consist of little more than a scattering of stone houses, a church and a few tractors. When we stopped for coffee, shopkeepers pressed oranges into the children’s hands and in bakeries the boys were given fresh biscuits.
We enjoyed lunch at the famous pink-tinged Elafonisi beach in the south west of Crete. I’d read in my guidebook that come summer, the volume of visitors to Elafonisi puts a real strain on resources and the natural environment. The roads to the beach are narrow and there are few toilets to accommodate the high season crowds. A new road in being built in the region, whether this will bring fortune or further complications, only time will tell.
Further north, we built sandcastles on Falasarna beach and admired the feats of the local kite surfers. Closer to Milia, we explored the ancient cave of Agia Sofia, in which traces of Neolithic and Minoan pottery have been found. There is a tiny church built into the rocks of the cave, baptisms still take place there today.
On Easter Sunday we took part in cracking eggs, a Greek tradition symbolising the breaking open of Jesus’s tomb. Each player uses their egg to tap the top of their opponent’s. Fortunately the eggs, which are dyed red to symbolise the blood of Christ, are hard-boiled. Later on, we indulged in spit-roasted lamb for dinner, an Easter tradition I’m keen to adopt over the less traditional British habit of chocolate over-consumption.
After a final coffee in the village of Topolia, close to the dramatic gorge of the same name, we bade farewell to the mountains of Crete and headed north to Chania. We spent three nights at the family-friendly Ammos Hotel, somewhere I used to book frequently for families when I was a travel agent so it was good to finally visit and check out its child-friendly credentials for myself. There was a playroom which, despite the proximity of a sandy beach and a heated pool, my children loved. A brilliant lady was on hand for a couple of hours each day should families require some complimentary childcare, the perfect opportunity for parents to indulge in a peaceful morning coffee.
We drove into Chania each morning; our first visit was on Easter Monday, a public holiday in Greece. Every restaurant and cafe was packed with people enjoying the day off work. By comparison, the town felt almost empty for the rest of the week once everyone had returned to work. The tourist season, I was surprised to discover, was not yet in full swing so there were lots of waiters strutting up and down the harbour front trying to drum up business for their restaurants.
We enjoyed a trip around the harbour on something which was midway between a boat and a submarine. It didn’t take us very far but we did spot a turtle from below deck (along with an impressive array of rubbish which made for a useful lesson on waste disposal). On another morning we explored Chania’s Maritime Museum, an essential introduction to the island’s rich history. Packed with model ships, WWII memorabilia and a recreation of a torpedo boat bridge, the museum kept our boys absorbed for over an hour.
Chania is perfect for idle wandering; there’s a narrow path along the town’s fortifications leading to the Venetian lighthouse, while the network of paths leading away from the harbour are packed with shops, boutique hotels and enticing restaurants. We ambled back a few blocks and soon discovered where all of the inhabitants of Chania frequent; a less attractive but obviously more authentic neighbourhood where teens perch on their mopeds chatting and young families take an evening stroll to the shops.
Crete in spring is the perfect place to take a family holiday and yet there were relatively few tourists there during our visit. With the inhabitants of Chania being pushed out of the historic centre and the obvious high season strains on parts of the island, I hope that more can be done to encourage low season visits to the island. It seems a shame to keep this springtime holiday a secret.
Have you been to Crete? Let me know in the comments below.