21 December, 2013

Afloat in an unchanging landscape, Sharon Feinstein meets up with some old friends to savour the enduring charms of Crete  
am eating fresh fish and lovely tomatoes, basking in the warm breeze with a German Shepherd named Marley curled at my feet. We have sailed here on Yanni’s yacht, the Jaquelina, and stopped for lunch at Spiro’s Taverna in the tiny village of Mochlos, eastern Crete.

The sun-drenched olive slopes are behind us, the air sweetened with eucalyptus and pine sap. This unchanging landscape is the same tableau on which the Minoans built their village 5,000 years ago, the walls and ruins still intact.

Greece is in trouble, but Cretans aren’t going hungry. Trees are laden with ripe figs and sweet pears, fishing boats bring in a full catch, and the cucumbers and tomatoes from Ierapetra – blessed with more sunny days than anywhere in Europe – are exquisite.

Time stands still here. The sea is translucent sapphire in the slanting sun. Generations eat together, toothless grandparents next to toddlers dipping their homemade breads into olive oil from their land.

This is a wild and compelling island and its fierce, proud people have fought off invaders – Turks, Venetians, Nazis – through the centuries, refusing to let any take root for long.

Crete was also home for centuries to a thriving Jewish community, The people worked mainly as tailors, silk weavers and dyers, lived around harbour towns and worshipped in four synagogues.

Sadly, by 1939, the community had dwindled to 400 but when the Nazis occupied Greece in 1941, many Greek Jews fled here.

When Crete in turn fell, the Jews were arrested and forced to board the ship Tanais, with 400 Greek hostages and 800 Italian prisoners of war.

At sea, the RAF identified it as a German boat and sank it without being aware of its human cargo. In the war as a whole, only seven Jews from Crete survived the Holocaust.

Today’s islanders are fiercely proud of their homeland and their warm welcome to visitors knows no bounds.

Out come the clean checked tablecloths, carafes of wine and mouth-watering dishes.

It is this warmth and intimacy that characterises the hotel to which I always return, the Elounda Mare, which stands apart from the crowd of other properties. It envelops you in its refined but authentic atmosphere, the vision of architect/owner Spiros Kokotos.

It’s all about style and Greek heritage but holds a strong sense of the landscape within its rooms and restaurants.

This is luxury with soul. If you travel to a lot to dream destinations, people inevitably ask about the hotel, and the Elounda Mare is on my shortlist of greats. Views from my room are over Mirabello Bay and the distant mountains dusted with white gypsum which is mined there and tinged pink when the sun sets. Utterly still, it resembles one of Monet’s finest paintings.

The Old Mill, Yacht Club and Calypso, the latter in Kokotos’ adjacent hotel, the Peninsula, are all Relais Chateaux restaurants, a rare award for Greece.

For me, the Old Mill is the special one, with an undeniably romantic atmosphere. It is set among landscaped gardens under a star-packed sky complete with a faint rustle of carob leaves, haunting pianist and wonderful foodie creations from the freshest produce. A meal here makes you feel elated.

If you want to sample the local tavernas, it’s an easy walk or taxi ride to the village of Elounda or bigger, sparkling Agios Nikolaus.

In Agios, start at Chez Georges for long cocktails in a bar high above the town with views over the deep, mysterious Lake Voulismeni, said to have deep channels leading all the way to Santorini. Legend has it that Artemis and her nymphs bathed in the lake’s clear, cold waters.

In Elounda, I like to eat by the sea’s edge at the homely Melissos, where the most delicious plates of fresh fish cost around 15 Euros. Along the coast road opposite the historic leper island of Spinalonga, Gorgogna in Plaka is the best for more fish, Cretan specialities

and warm service.

Driving round the island, I head to the Lasithi Plateau with its green fields and rich soil, where some family farms still use old windmills and tractors for their plots.

Goats scamper up the mountains and in the high villages the black-clad, bent old women ride sideways on their donkeys. You can lose your sense of time here.

Cretans cling to their traditions and mythology.

There are the vibrant costumes and dances, music from three-stringed lyres with their mournful lilt, wild gorges where the gods lived and Diktean Cave, where Zeus, the father of them all, was supposedly born.

This is the stuff of Crete, an ancient landscape half Mediterranean and half African. For me it’s the sea that counts most.

The Elounda Mare has the best watersports in Europe and I finally graduated from the bumpy banana boat to the slick, fast feeling of water-skis, pulled round the bay by Yanni’s matinee-idol son Alex.

After a lavish, leisurely breakfast I have a long swim, the water so translucent I could track the fish spiralling down in silvery shoals, the charcoal grey grasses swaying way below.

The well-spread-out hotel glistens in the Greek heat, cicadas sing and guests look utterly relaxed as they read, laugh and stretch out here. Most of the people I talk to have been coming for years.

The loyal staff remain, clientele return, and Crete never seems to lose its ancient enduring charm.

Waiting in my relaxed sleepy state at the airport for my flight home, I joined the wrong queue and found myself heading to the plane for Tel Aviv, just 600 miles away. Surrounded by friendly, sun-tanned Israelis, I suddenly just wanted to keep going.

That’s the real magic of Crete. It makes all things seem possible.

● For more details about the Elounda Mare Hotel see: www.eloundamare.com/en/home

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