CRETE, GREECE — On a terrace overlooking the moonlit Sea of Crete, a man strokes a bow across a delicate, pear-shaped lyra, deftly coaxing a song from its strings. Accompanied by his deep baritone, the ballad is borne on a breeze that carries with it the scent of wood smoke and flowers, perfuming the night. Although the musician’s lips form words I do not know, he weaves an invisible tapestry that transcends language, conjuring images of faraway places where dark-eyed beauties undulate like a mirage over hot sands.
Drawn by the melody, a troop of dancers emerge from the shadows. The women sway in long scarlet skirts, while the men kick their tall black boots high in the air, leaping like billy goats and slapping their heels. Eventually, the group forms a whirling circle, recruiting me and other audience members to join them as their winding steps grow faster and faster, building to a joyful crescendo.
Their energetic performance, complemented by a mountainous Greek buffet, lures a crowd every Thursday evening to the Tavern Restaurant at Daios Cove Luxury Resort and Villas. It’s a perfect introduction to my first night on Crete, where I’ve come to experience the customs of Greece’s largest isle.
Above: Crete is actually older than Greece itself.
Crete, once the centre of Minoan civilization, possesses its own culture, which is distinct — and even older — than that of mainland Greece.
“The rising of Greece, it was in Crete,” explains Dimitri Frangoulis, a skipper aboard Daios Cove’s CataMara catamaran, as we ply the turquoise waters off the coast one morning. “And like all the big islands, we are a little bit autonomous from the continent.”
“Crete is to Greece what Sicily is to Italy, or Corsica is to France,” he continues, revealing a white crescent of a smile. “We have our own history and our own atmosphere. For example, the traditional instrument in Greece is the bouzouki. In Crete, it’s the lyra. We have our own dialect, as well. For instance, what do you call a cat? In Greek, it’s ‘gata.’ In Cretan, it’s ‘kat-SOO-lee.’” Crete even claims its own native dishes, like small snails fried with oregano, rosemary and onions, which you won’t typically find on mainland Greece.
“So you see?” Frangoulis grins. “Over all this time, we have kept our roots.”
And those roots are deep. Knossos, an hour south of Daios Cove, is home to an excavated Bronze Age palace where, according to Greek mythology, the fearsome Minotaur once roamed. The town of Agios Nikolaos, 15 minutes north of the resort, is renowned for the 7th-century Byzantine chapel of St. Nicholas.
Crete is also blessed with rambling fortresses, quaint fishing villages, and picturesque hilltop towns like Kritsa. Here, I discover a selection of brightly painted ceramics, gauzy white dresses and elaborately embroidered linens spilling out onto a main street blooming with bougainvillea. If you want to take home a taste of Crete, there’s also an array of local olive oil, honey and the fire water known as ouzo … if you dare.
Left: Boat captain Dimitri Frangoulis shows people a good time. Right: Dancers entertain.
Sightseeing aside, for many guests of Daios Cove, the 5-star resort’s enviable location is sufficient enticement to return year-after-year. Sprawled across 35 hectares on Crete’s northeast coast, the resort rises up over a private beach, hewn into the cove’s rocky embrace like a Greek amphitheatre with a decidedly modern twist.
The main building is a sleek, minimalist structure comprised of local stone, housing three restaurants, three bars, a heated saltwater infinity pool, and a 27,000-square-feet Anne Semonin spa with two indoor swimming pools. A pair of glass funiculars ferry guests between its multiple levels, each of which offer panoramic views over the cove.
A third funicular ascends to the resort’s 251 rooms and suites and 39 villas, arranged along terraced streets flanked by fragrant shrubs, where you might just encounter a wayward goat. Last season, the resort debuted 10 new family-friendly, 900-square-feet, two-bathroom Premium Sea View Suites, featuring a master bedroom and open plan living and dining room separated by a soundproof door. For the full experience, book The Mansion, introduced last August. This three-bedroom Mediterranean manor boasts a spacious swimming pool, dining room, lounge with a fireplace, spa, fitness room, kitchen, and, oh yes, staff quarters.
Every room at the resort has either a balcony or a balcony with its own swimming pool. My room falls into the latter category, so I only need to step out my sliding glass doors for a dip, bobbing in my own private saltwater sanctuary as I take in a sweeping vista of humpbacked hills sloping down to the glittering sapphire sea.
If I could summon the energy, Daios Cove offers a range of activities, from waterskiing to scuba diving, paddle boarding, and tennis. I do rise early enough one morning for a yoga session with fitness instructor Vagelis Askoxilakis, although I’m sorry to report that my cobra more closely resembles an arthritic inchworm, and five seconds into the tree pose, I’m swaying like a willow in a hurricane. At least I feel less guilty about my gluttonous lunch of grilled lamb on a tzatziki-slathered pita and an order of dakos, a hearty Cretan dish of tomatoes, crumbled feta and olives served atop crisply-baked bread dressed with olive oil.
Above: Great accommodation and food and lovely local villages await on Crete.
Beyond the food, the music, and the dancing, the highlight of my trip is my day aboard the CataMara. Reclining in a hammock-like net at the bow of the boat, I marvel at the clarity and ever-changing colours of the sea below me. The scene on the horizon is equally dynamic, with coastal villages giving way to vast stretches of unpopulated hills and isolated caves pockmarking golden cliffs.
Too soon, my destination slides into view — Spinalonga Island, crowned by a round tower and sinuous stone walls. The Venetians converted it into a defensive fortress in the late 16th century, destroying the land bridge that once linked Spinalonga to Crete and erecting the impressive structures that provide the island’s imposing silhouette. After a stint under the Ottomans, Spinalonga served as one of the last leper colonies in Europe from 1903 until 1957. Fans of Victoria Hislop will recall it as the setting of her novel The Island, in which the heroine explores her family’s connection to this outpost of a once-incurable disease.
Although the island has been unoccupied for decades, that doesn’t mean that it’s devoid of life, or of hope. The laughter of rambunctious teenagers, perhaps here on a school tour, echoes along sunlit paths that thread past the fortress and walls, which remain steadfast and proud. While Spinalonga’s tiny, crumbling homes are slowly succumbing to the passing of time, wildflowers and long swaying grass have taken up residency in the ruins, framed like paintings by empty doorways and glassless windows. It is a wilderness, a haven of untamed nature, peacefully coexisting amid the footprints left by mankind.
Spinalonga is, in a sense, a perfect encapsulation of Crete itself: a place of history and mystery, with a multitude of tales to tell, adapting to its future as a tourist destination by embracing the richness of its past. •
Getting there: Daios Cove Luxury Resort and Villas is about an hour’s drive from Heraklion International Airport. The resort has its own helipad, as well.
Where to stay: Daios Cove Luxury Resort and Villas, www.daioscovecrete.com. Doubles from 285 Euros ($318) per night; closes for the season Nov. 4. The resort can arrange boat trips, including a visit to Spinalonga Island, and excursions to places like the Minoan palace of Knossos, Agios Nikolaos, and Kritsa village.