As satisfying as it is to wrap up in your scarf and gloves and experience a good rustle about in the Autumn leaves, a damn good whet of winter sun cannot be beaten. When that winter sun comes on the back of a hectic couple of months at home, then get me on that plane now…wherever we are bloody going! As it happened, we had booked, back in January, a visit to Crete and the Anastasia Hotel for what was to become an increasingly well-earned October half-term break.
At the blunt end of their season (we weren’t quite prepared for how blunt in places!) and with temperatures scheduled for the low 20’s, it sounded perfect for our young family, their alabaster skin and the two of us seemingly rapidly aging parents who these days just want to have a couple of quiet drinks after dinner – onesie and slippers optional!
The day of our flight approached and anticipation reached boiling point among the adults of the family and much jumping up and down at 4am was frowned upon by weary, disapproving, tiny eyes. A look that I’m sure will be perfected before their teenage years! Mind you, it’s easy to scoff at holiday excitement when your school day involves Pritt-sticking leaves onto paper apparently randomly until evidence of an Autumn wonderland appears. I could go for that most days.
Come back when the mortgage payments kick in and the dodgy knee starts giving you jip during the colder month’s kids; then you’ll know holiday excitement! It will surpass the excitement over pink milk, trust me!
Settled down with their iPods and all the drawing implements we could carry, the kids were ready for the 4 hour flight. Being seasoned flyers, we are lucky that they take everything in their stride even if they do still argue who is going to sit next to the window. Speaking of taking things in their stride, Mrs Hangry was doing the same in her own inimitable way, by sleeping through 90% of the flight! That 4am excitement obviously caught up with her, bless.
Unseasonal Cretan heat hit us as we stepped off the plane as the kids tried to frantically shed their hoodies. The early morning wake-up only eventually catching up with them on the hour long transfer to our hotel, falling asleep and missing the sometimes stunning views of both seashore and mountain ranges as they did. This being our first visit to Crete, we were a little uncertain what to expect, despite all the internet information that we consumed beforehand. That first coach trip to the hotel was of quiet delight, our flight into Heraklion and subsequent trip to a mid-point between Stalis and Malia giving us ample time to admire the rugged Northern coastline – sprawling terracotta roofs giving way to sporadic farmsteads, quaint tavernas and bustling towns in equal measure on one side, a backdrop of seemingly endless Cretan mountains on the other.
Our admiration of a view around each corner and the kids sleeping soundly were both jolted by a hasty exit from the coach at the side of a busy dual carriageway. The coach thoughtfully stopping at a break in the metal barrier so as our journey through it with two half asleep children and four large suitcases was much more manageable. How kind.
Just one of those situations that makes you wonder exactly when this chap started giving very little shits about his job!
The Hotel Anastasia itself is perched at the foothills of the aforementioned Cretan mountains, 900m away from the beach and whilst unassuming in it’s appearance from the road at least, the views around the site and the hospitality on offer make for a very pleasant welcome. Intricate little paved pathways illuminated by blooming gardens and colourful flowers led from reception to each family room which never seemed to overlook your neighbor – our own pathway leading us adjacent to citrus trees of oranges and limes, their colour a wonderful contrast to the imposing rocky backdrop.
In slight contrast to this serenity at first glance, the central area with wide screen TV, timetable of televised sport and well stocked bar could have indicated a very different type of hotel. As it was, especially during our end of season stay, the area was always very civilized with the televised sport generally frequented by the older boys and girls who were mad keen on football. Our kids weren’t so enamored – a particular highlight being Freddie trying to get his head around the fact that the Manchester derby was not being played by Derby and was in fact played by two teams that were both from Manchester!
Settled in beside the pool for the first two days of sunshine, it wasn’t long before my itchy exploration feet were ready to get out and about (a sun worshiper, I am not!).
With slightly reluctant kids in tow (think 5 year old Kevin from Kevin & Perry and we’re halfway there) we set off for Stalis. A main street full of neon signs, supermarkets, souverniers and curios may have perked up the mood of the little ones somewhat but was a long way from the vision of bright white buildings, terracotta roofs and tavernas hidden amongst steadily creeping vines that us adults had hoped for. Don’t get me wrong, there were still pockets of rustic charm in Stalis, but you had to go looking for them; a coffee shop that sold the biggest donuts I’ve ever seen, traditional Greek takeaways that sell a brilliant Gyros (think meat/chips/salad all wrapped up in a pitta) and when the sea came into view between the plentiful seafront shops there were extensive views on offer of Northern Crete’s rugged coastline. I guess my point is, despite the late season nature of our trip, that you wouldn’t have to search nearly as hard for a pint in the ‘Rovers Return’ or 2 for 1 deal on a cocktail – the likes of which remind us too much of the parts of home that we still try an avoid!
Malia too (what little of it was still open for business at this end of the season) seemed even more Anglicised; more than likely a result of its prominent party scene and the requirements of the revelers – sun, sea, booze and music. The strip itself was desolate and grim; even more so than we imagined. Don’t get me wrong, we would find it horrendous at peak season too but with the wall to wall shutters covering each bar/club complete with faded images of that seasons must-have Z-lister and a McDonalds which not only had closed for the year, but whose exterior had been bubble wrapped to within an inch of its life – presumably for its own safety – it had something of a Creamfields Armageddon look about it, a bleak notion indeed.
The old town was a little better with sporadic Greek churches, traditional coffee shops and bakeries frequented by the locals enjoying the televised sport but their close vicinity to the strip meant it was still dispersed with a fair share of friendship bracelets and phallic bottle openers. they like a good phallic, wooden bottle opener in Malia!
Whilst we weren’t disillusioned by our travels (we were still just actually enjoying our island exploration), but we were hoping to see a slice of island life that hadn’t been tainted by amorous, binging Brits. Happily, a bus trip to Agios Nikolaus provided just that. A beautiful coastal town approximately 30 minutes bus ride east of our location, complete with a quaint man-made beach, marina and comfortable deli’s from which to watch the world go by. A short walk from the bus station through the bustling area of town toward the marina led us toward the small beach adjacent to the boats. Dotted with sunbeds and parasols, it was clear that in busier periods, this looked like the place to go. Glancing out from the sand toward the sea, it was easy to see why. A tranquil bay with a backdrop of those wonderful Cretan mountain ranges toward the right which seemed to flow endlessly into the distance, even branching out behind the number of boats and yachts as your eyes wandered to the left. Nearer still, the clear blue water at our feet was filled with fish and sealife of all description, something that wasn’t lost on the kids – they loved to watch the fish swim and revel around their legs trying to snap an image of them with their under water cameras.
After a morning of sea, fish, shell collecting and becoming enamored with the aura of Agios Nikolaus, we headed off for our first bite to eat outside of the hotel. A small deli on the hill overlooking the marina and surrounding countryside was the perfect spot. As it turned out, the souvlaki and coffee on offer too made it a very memorable lunchtime indeed. Souvlaki, in its simplest term could be classed as a chicken kebab but the unique blend of herbs and the warm, fluffy home-made pittas that accompany it in areas such as this seem to make it into so much more. The particular chicken souvlaki that us adults ordered came with the aforementioned fluffy bread but with a side of salad and fresh tomatoes (the sweetest available it would seem) and a wonderful mustard sauce – not to mention proper home cooked chips (Yes…the ones I yearn for during every visit to a chain pub in the UK). The kids too had their souvlaki of chicken and pitta and ate it as though their lives depended on it. Add in a couple of milkshakes and latte macchiato’s and that view over the bay and we were very, very happy indeed.
It felt as though we had found the real Crete; a thought only compounded during our leisurely stroll through the undulating streets afterwards. As if by accident, we happened upon what apparently locals just call, ‘The Lake’. Awash with small, colourful fishing boats and enclosed by cliffside foliage, restaurants and coffee shops, Lake Voulismeni is a focal point of the town and although formerly sweetwater, is now connected to the sea. The bustle and activity that surrounds the lake lends a wonderful atmosphere, even at this time of year and even though still full with tourists, it appeared a much more rounded view of what Crete had to offer.
Soon after, as quickly as our October holiday had begun, it was over. Crete is a beautiful, rugged, friendly country but to sink it all in and make the most of it, I would suggest staying away from the familiarly British tourist areas. The Hotel Anatasia we stayed in, whilst unassuming and at first glance, oddly located, has some stunning views of the surrounding countryside. Couple this with hosts who are willing to go above and beyond for their guests, good food and an abundance of things for the kids to do despite their relatively small size and it was a great base for us to enjoy our first taste of Crete. We will more than likely be back again – now if somebody can uproot Hotel Anastasia and move it to Agios Nikolaus, we would already have our next holiday sorted!