The approach road to Milia Mountain Retreat is not for the fainthearted. It involves a narrow 3km zigzagging track up through the mountains. The views if you look up are jaw-dropping. The views below are heart-stopping.
We’d had a long day driving from central Crete via a lunch stop in the harbour town of Rethymnon and as we rounded another hairpin bend I was starting to panic that our destination might not justify the length of time we’d pinned our children into the car for.
Hidden deep in Crete’s White Mountains, some 50km south west of Chania, Milia Mountain Retreat turned out to be the highlight of our family holiday. This magical retreat has created lasting memories for all of us.
Why was it so special? Well, the setting, particularly in spring, is quite spectacular. Milia is nestled amid lush mountain woodland; oak, chestnut and olive trees all thrive here along with carpets of wildflowers. Goats scatter as you rumble along the approaching track and in the morning you are greeted with birdsong. There are walking trails from Milia of varying lengths, leading to magnificent gorges, a tiny church or down to the village of Vlatos. We enjoyed walking through the ancient olive groves which are undergoing a restoration project similar to the medieval stone buildings of Milia itself.
Milia is a collection of 15th century stone houses, restored in the 1980s by two friends who wanted to create a sustainable tourism project at a time when other areas of Crete were embracing quite the opposite. Today there are 14 units which sleep between one and five people. We took a family apartment which has two separate bedrooms, an en-suite bathroom and an open fireplace.
The hub of Milia is without doubt the restaurant where breakfast, lunch and dinner are served. On Easter Sunday, people drove from as far afield as Heraklion (2.5 hours’ drive) to feast on the traditional spit-roasted lamb, such is Milia’s island-wide appeal.
There is great pride in the food here. In keeping with the low-impact philosophy at Milia (water comes from the mountain springs, heating is from solar energy), the produce is all locally grown or reared. Everything we consumed, from the cheese pies, bread and honey at breakfast, to the fresh salads, tender meats and the complimentary raki and desserts in the evening, was delicious.
Our children loved clambering around the rocky terrain of Milia. There was an arrangement of carved stones opposite the restaurant which one of the owners had collected. This little area kept our children entertained for quite some time, fuelling their imagination with ideas of what each slab might have been used for. There were sticks galore to collect on our mountain walks and endless trees, rocks, plants and creatures to explore and examine. The wildflowers came in every imaginable colour.
Although Milia feels remote, it’s easy to explore the region. We visited the famous beaches of Elafonisi and Falasarna on sunny days. Closer to home, we enjoyed taking in the views at the village of Topolia with its lovely cafes, bakery and wood art shop. We paid a visit to the atmospheric Agia Sofia Cave complete with tiny church, where Neolithic and Minoan artefacts have been discovered.
The roads in this region pass through many tiny villages, known as Innahorion (meaning nine villages) with stunning scenery all around. However, tourism is taking its toll on the region as it does on anywhere with such great natural beauty. In summer, tourists flock to the west coast, transported by coaches from Chania along the narrow village roads, creating a real strain on the area and its authentic character. A new road is currently being carved through the mountains; it might make reaching the beaches easier but it could also mean a loss of business which locals have come to rely on.
After our days out, it was incredibly gratifying to return to Milia for dinner. The candlelit dining room felt like a true mountain refuge, filled with walkers enjoying the hearty food. Although it was a peaceful setting, our two energetic children were warmly welcomed and the staff were incredibly kind and friendly towards them. It’s easy to trot out phrases like this but it felt like a genuinely hospitable place.
Although on Milia’s website it suggests a stay will be about returning “back to basics”, in terms of comfort it’s anything but. Sure, there’s no electricity points in the bedrooms and no WiFi (sadly there is a surprisingly good 4G signal), but the beds are very comfortable with good quality mattresses and duvets, there’s central heating in the rooms and the showers are pretty good too. It was just cool enough in the evenings for us to justify lighting a fire in our bedroom; what was once an essential means of survival for the previous inhabitants of these houses was definitely a luxury for my little family.
A family apartment in high season (25th March-9th November for 2018) costs 145 Euros per night including breakfast, based on four sharing.