Updated: Aug 10, 2021
Paradise, noun: life adorned with abundant love; waist deep, untracked champagne powder on Alta’s High Rustler; existential moments of grace; the island of Crete.
Yes, Crete shares features exquisite enough that “paradise” is an abundantly apt descriptor. To begin the experience, our accommodation was a gift, wrapped in the vacation package we’d bought. Upon arrival, the Blue Palace, a jewel among Marriott’s Luxury Collection, enveloped us in service that went beyond simply excellent. From check in to check out, our treatment was thoughtfully personalized and delivered with understated aplomb. Once, for example, as we lounged on the Blue Palace beach a waiter brought Cynthia a beverage. The waiter also had items for others, one of which was a cup of ice.
“Is that for me?” she asked casually. No - it was for another guest and Cynthia said nothing else about it. Not more than 2 or 3 minutes later another waiter arrived with a glass full of ice for her.
“Well,” Cynthia said looking at me with a smile, you did say it’s a first class establishment!”
The physical property itself is the very definition of elegance; stone arches sheltering
stone and hardwood flooring, sound attenuation and interior guest-routing so well executed that the place felt as if we had it mostly to ourselves despite it being nearly full. Several of the guest rooms have private pools projecting out from their balconies. Ours did not, but we perceived no inconvenience at all where pool access was concerned.
Breakfast is among the property’s more dazzling features. I believe they call it “continental,” but among the great many continental breakfasts I’ve experienced in my life this one is unique. There’s a saying about people visiting New York City that if they can’t find adventure and enjoyment there, it’s their own fault. Similarly, anyone unable to find gourmet quality repast according to personal preference would either be in too great a hurry to peruse everything on offer, or too shy to ask about something desired but absent from the array. Based on our experience I have every confidence such a request would be cheerfully, promptly fulfilled. The scrupulously gracious host knew our names after day 1. The omelet and crepe chef weathered the crush of orders coming her way with unflappable and orderly execution. Other waiters supplied juice and coffee mere moments after we took our table.
Speaking of tables, the seating is spread across a wide veranda that merges indoor and outdoor options with seamlessness so fluid that no sense of transition accompanies the selection. Our choice was uniformly for the outdoor option.
The Blue Palace occupies space on a decidedly steep slope, and so is terraced into sections joined to an extent by stairs, but more completely by a single car funicular. Maximum capacity on the funicular is 16 people, but we never shared the space with more than three or four others. For us, the three stops central to our activities were the first and last, which both gave access to the hotel’s beautiful, expansive swimming pools and the last, to the broad beachfront. The third was stop two, which provided a convenient exit to the street taking us, in one direction, to Plaka and in the other, Elounda and beyond.
To back up just a bit, two towns flank the hotel on either side. The smaller one, Plaka, takes no more (for us) than ten minutes to reach on foot. The larger, Elounda, takes roughly an hour to reach (again, on foot). I suspect one of the hotel’s very capable concierges is unaccustomed to guests fond of walking longer distances. His advice? “Take a cab – it’s a long walk.” We chose to walk anyway and reaped quite a reward for our trouble. More about that later.
Plaka is a delightful collection of oceanside (or nearly oceanside) restaurants, gift shops and a supermarket. Tourism is, quite obviously, Plaka’s most serious business. Restaurateurs, shopkeepers and clerks of all sorts greet visitors warmly and enthusiastically. English speakers are by no means the only tourists about, so the service providers must ply their trades with multi-lingual skills I both admire and envy. Restaurant menus are printed in multiple languages arranged in neat, side by side columns. Bonhomie flows generously and with unpretentious sincerity. Although menu items span a host of options, the area’s hallmark is fresh seafood. Upon entering any of the eateries, a manager approaches to relate and show off the day’s catch. One evening Cynthia and I shared a sea bass (roughly the size/weight of a bowling pin) and Cretan salad (after having eaten our first they became a staple of our dining adventures). The next day as we strolled past the same restaurant on an afternoon walk, the manager (probably the owner/partner) invited us in to enjoy snacks and wine on the house. Following virtually every meal in any restaurant the waiter brings gratis a plate or two of watermelon, honeydew and/or cantaloupe. Greece, as they say (who is they? Never mind…) is the cradle of western civilization. Despite the fact that Crete was an independent country until the early 1900s, Grecian practices of civilized behavior are everywhere embedded as if grown and nurtured locally.
Some random thoughts about Crete worth noting: Terrain is quite varied and ranges from sea level to a bit higher than 8000’. The higher elevations get snow in winter. At lower elevations no such hazard threatens, which allows roads and driveways to be constructed without wasting time and material on techniques to moderate steepness. Indeed, pitches I’d estimate at 10% - 12% are plentiful. On one of our walks we witnessed a newly arrived traveler, obviously unaccustomed to driving a standard transmission, struggling with the formidable grade his resort’s driveway imposed. The problem yielded to his backing into position, then taking the hill with a running start.
As is true everywhere, no parking signs are posted in various places along Crete’s roads. The relationship between where people park and the placement of no parking signs, however, is tenuous at best, a condition that reminded me of smokers in France when no smoking areas were first introduced there.
There is a pronounced concern about ecologically sound beaches. Beaches that meet prescribed standards are awarded a Blue Flag and Blue Flag awards are proudly on display at beaches so distinguished. We were very pleased to see that sort of orientation so seriously in evidence.
Now then, about the reward our first walk to Elounda bestowed upon us. As we neared the town’s outskirts we chanced to pass a roadside, sandwich board type advertisement for Rofos boat tours. A four hour tour, the ad told us, would take us to surrounding islands, historical landmarks, spots for swimming, and feature traditional Greek fare - all for an inclusive price. When we returned to the hotel we asked the concierge on duty about Rofos. She’d never heard of the outfit (turns out it’s a franchise operation and the Crete chapter is new), but on our behalf called the number Cynthia had captured on her photo of the advertisement. Shortly afterward, “Katarina” returned the call and, apologizing for her spotty English, spoke with Cynthia. Two options, we learned, were available: a 10 am or 4 pm departure. As many as seven people could take the tour at one time, but we weren’t expected to recruit others for the trip. We reserved the next day’s 10 am departure.
After the next morning’s decadently self-indulgent breakfast, we decided we’d walk the hour or so to the point of departure for our cruise. When we arrived the only others present were Zon and Katarina, the Rofos crew/franchisees. As they looked after details on board, we waited ashore for other customers to join us. At roughly 09:30 Katarina motioned for us to board (yes, our tourist anticipation prompted us to arrive early). We did so, thinking we’d cool our heels talking to Zon and Katarina until 10:00, by which time others would have arrived. Um, no. Once we were aboard Katarina untied us and Zon backed us out onto Elounda Bay. Cynthia and I, it turned out, were embarking on a gloriously unexpected private cruise!
Among the first, most noticeable and remarkable features of the area’s water is its crystal
clarity. It truly must be seen to be believed. The blues and aquas dazzle with their brilliance. The clarity is such that the boat’s shadow is plainly visible on the seabed; the water depth is indeterminate.
At our first stop Katarina invited me to join Zon for a swim. We dived in and I followed him into a nearby limestone cave. Openings in the cave’s ceiling, Zon told me, created a brief but spectacular lightshow at particular times of day. I could see the openings and wished the time was right for our visit. It wasn’t. Still, the experience was bracing – I could grab convenient hand holds and pull myself out of the water to examine the heavily pock marked limestone more closely. A bird’s nest was nestled on one wall. Zon tried unsuccessfully (his English was extremely limited) to tell me what kind of bird had made its home there and I hoped in vain it would fly in before we left.
After another couple of stops it was time for lunch. Katarina disappeared below decks for 10 or 15 minutes, then emerged with a beautiful display of dolmades, hummus, pureed fava beans, olives and bread. Traditional indeed! The olives came from their own tree. Katarina and Zon made the bread. Katarina made the hummus, fava and dolmades. It was a feast to behold and even more so to consume!
Our four hour cruise, which stretched a bit longer due to our early departure, passed in a twinkling. We asked for and received fliers for the Rofos operation to give the Blue Palace concierge staff, who expressed keen interest in our experience and gratitude for the collateral material.
We sincerely hope Zon and Katarina see some extra business as a result.
Most of our sightseeing was self guided, but we did sign up for a tour to see the cave where, according to legend, Zeus was born. Getting there involved a long, fascinating drive through the mountains over roads unimproved enough that conversation was made mildly difficult as we jostled, sometimes violently, along. Our guide, Petra, was originally from the Netherlands, but when she and her new husband honeymooned on Crete they fell in love with the island and made it their home. The countryside we traversed was wild, as were the plentiful goats along the way. There were also, and this is something we saw elsewhere as well, small churches here and there. We learned that many of them hold services only once yearly. We stopped at one whose yearly event is devoted to offering blessings to the area goats.
The legendary cave, called the Psychro Cave or Diktaion Antron, is accessed via a steep path leading to its mouth. Petra warned us that it would be a circus with sightseers – she knew what she was talking about. From the mouth, a precipitous path leads down 250 meters or so through an incredible array of stalactites and stalagmites. Illumination is just bright enough to keep visitors from accidentally exiting the path, an objective further assisted by a welcome network of guardrails. As one descends the air becomes quite dank and chilly. When first discovered the cave was a rich source of ancient bronze and other artifacts, but they’ve since been removed to museums and universities; contemporaneous visitors have to take it on faith that this is the birthplace of Zeus and an important place of worship for centuries past.
An island immediately across from the Blue Palace, Spinalonga, is another popular site with rich history. Originally, it was a Venetian fortress/city that housed as many as 2000 people. The fortifications were substantial, so much so that the Venetians were able to hold Spinalonga even after Turks captured the rest of Crete. Eventually, Spinalonga became a leper colony, its proximity to
Crete yet isolation by water serving the purpose well. Anyone suspected of leprosy would be exiled to the island. Residents or visitors to Plaka could see, but not reach, relatives marooned there. Leprosy, it turns out, is not passed from mother to infant in childbirth, so newborns would be shuttled off the island straightaway. Once an effective treatment for the disease became available in the 1940s, the practice of banishing lepers ceased. In 1957 the last lepers on Spinalonga were moved to a hospital in Athens. Today, the island is uninhabited, but enjoys robust tourist interest and visitation. It has recently (2019) been added to UNESCO’s World Heritage list. On our last full day on Crete, Cynthia and I took advantage of a special Spinalonga tour arranged especially for Blue Palace guests. The formidable construction of ramparts, dwellings and streets has survived mostly intact.
As a base of operations for our visit to Crete, the Blue Palace was splendidly perfect. One afternoon as we lounged sea side, I asked Cynthia if, here, she felt like a jet setter. “No,” she said, “I’m not skinny enough for that,” to which I could only harrumph my utter, unalloyed disagreement.
If it isn’t there already, put Crete on your bucket list.