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Why a trip to Crete was a Groundhog Day saviour

Despite discovering her quarantine fate while on the island, April Hutchinson says a trip to Crete was worth the ensuing 14-day isolation, and predicts that in these times of uncertainty, old favourites such as this could prove the most resilient options

TRFBLIWA
Abaton Island Resort & Spa in Crete
Abaton Island Resort & Spa in Crete

I must apologise to Crete, it seems to have become an island I only seem to visit at uncertain times. The first time I went there, it was 2016. June 24th, to be precise. I was asleep on a friend’s sofa, before our early start together to Gatwick. She shook me awake when it was still dark. “We’re leaving!” She said. “I know – I’m getting up now.” “No,” she replied. “We’re LEAVING – the EU!” Cue much crazed shaking of our heads as we realised we were waking up in a country that no longer wanted to be part of Europe.

 

We made our way to the airport anyway, wandered around staring at everyone. We speculated on the flight as to who around us had voted which way. “Leaver. Remainer,” we would nod every time someone walked past us. Later that night, over dinner at the beautiful hotel, we continued the activity. It seemed a “remain” kind of resort, we decided. But we were still in shock, yet despite feeling our earth had been shaken, we tried to act normal.

 

And now, there is no “normal” any more. In post-referendum 2016, we went down to the chi-chi town of Elounda in search of some taverna action, to eat out among locals, and more importantly, check ATMs still actually worked and we could get Euros out (they did, we could). Fast forward four years though, and these days, I’m worried about even touching the keypad of an ATM, not just in Crete, but anywhere.

 

Safe and secure

This time around, the resorts I’m headed to, Abaton Island Resort & Spa and Cayo Exclusive Resort & Spa will do everything in their power to quash any uncertainty, and have absolutely dotted the ‘i’s and crossed the ‘t’s when it comes to new Covid protocols.

 

My sister and I arrived at Abaton – which only made its debut in 2018 – at dusk, and our driver takes us through the gated entry point, where a chap leans into the car and takes our temperature; we’re fine so far. And with most staff wearing visors, instead of cloth face coverings, we can see all their reassuring smiles as we enter the hotel.

 

There’s an instant serenity in the lobby, with vast white marble spaces, a view behind reception of the resort and ocean beyond. And we’re whisked to a comfy seating area for a private check-in and a glass of bubbles – even better, news reaches us that we are to stay in a villa, complete with butler service; ours is Nole Zivkovic. He wears a cloth mask, but it’s still very clear he’s always smiling and he whisks us away in a golf buggy to our two-storey home for three nights. The villa has its own pool, and more than enough space for my sister and I to start spreading out our ridiculous amount of shoes, clothes and toiletries… what can I say; we may have got overexcited with the packing.

A deluxe sea-view room option at Abaton
A deluxe sea-view room option at Abaton

Although it may have the vibe of a beach resort – Abaton doesn’t have an endless sandy beach, more a rugged 364-metre shoreline, with one main inlet whose size changes at Mother Nature’s whim, but there are plenty of sun loungers sprinkled around that coastline where you can be lie and be lulled by the sound of the crashing waves of the Aegean.

 

A highlight for me was hanging out at Buddha-Bar Beach Crete, part of a global chain of bars and restaurants known for bold design, Asian-inspired cuisine and DJ-led atmosphere. I couldn’t get to Ibiza this year, so this was a great alternative, and having a Buddha Bar fits with the young, sociable vibe of the hotel.

 

Those kids love taking pictures “for the gram” – and this resort seems the perfect backdrop. Its many Instagrammable features include a kind of boat-like water feature up on the top level, which was destined to be posed against, as well as gorgeous beach cabanas – and of course, multi-hued sunsets.

 

My sister and I spotted after the visit that Love Island 2019 stars and influencers Molly-Mae Hague and Maura Higgins had been at Abaton a few weeks before us; if we’d seen their svelte snaps before we arrived I don’t think we’d have dared to venture out of our villa! The resort certainly did seem to attract a lot of beautiful people; little wonder it was even the scene of Celebs Go Dating last year.

 

To further cement its lifestyle credentials, this year, the resort collaborated with swimwear brand Orlebar Brown to create an exclusive men’s swim short (the Abaton Crete, for around £400); and if shopping is your thing, there is an irresistible boutique at the hotel and a brilliant little jewellery shop. You could also treat yourself to a candle with the resort’s signature scent, or some of its delicious own-brand olive oil, which we couldn’t get enough of at every meal.

The pool area at Abaton sits between two stylish restaurants
The pool area at Abaton sits between two stylish restaurants

As well as Buddha-Bar, there are four other restaurants at the resort, including Elemes for Cretan cuisine; seafood restaurant Bony Fish; Wow Steak House; and F-Zin Ivy League, the main restaurant at the top of the resort, serving a mix of Cretan dishes, fresh grills of the day, and familiar international favourites. Dinner there forms the crux of the half-board plan, and we enjoyed a couple of great evening meals with Cretan wine there; if half board guests do want to try one of the a la carte restaurants, a €25 per person allowance entices them to do so.

 

There is also an Elemis spa, with a full list of treatments, an indoor spa pool, and a good-sized fitness room that had been operating on a reservation-only basis; other changes as well as wearing of masks by staff at the resort, had included digital menus read by scanning a QR code, banishing of buffets and emptying of in-room mini-bars. Alas, as a more serious side effect of Covid-19, the resort felt compelled to close much earlier for the season than usual, not long after the quarantine announcement for Crete started to affect UK travellers.

 

Countdown to quarantine

I was on the island when the news came through around transport secretary Grant Shapps’ U-turn on travel policy, with the government making it possible to banish specific islands, and not whole countries, from the travel corridors list.

 

Cue the quarantine sprint to get back to the UK – but that dash was not for me. My flight home was booked for the Thursday night after the Monday announcement, so I was well and truly caught by the sudden and very specific change, but a quick look at easyJet’s app for flights on the Tuesday or Wednesday showed zero results, so I resigned myself to the fate. Not unhappily, I have to say, as a few more days in Crete is never a chore, and my usual weeks at home don’t exactly require much going out; they have just become a series of Groundhog Days.

 

My sister however had a pretty full schedule of activities she needed to suddenly change or cancel. As she did so, it felt ironic that I was watching all the news unfold on my laptop sat on a balcony overlooking Spinalonga, an island known as a place of isolation and banishment.

 

In 1913, anyone with the cruel disease of leprosy was sent to see out their days on the island among its horrible conditions; once diagnosed, the victims even had their property and assets seized and citizenship rights revoked. These days a candidate for the Unesco list of World Heritage Sites, it seems a somewhat macabre tourism attraction, but it is a place many thousands of visitors head to, to explore the deserted streets and buildings and of course, a rich archaeological heritage prior to those darker days.

The island of Spinalonga
The island of Spinalonga

My last days of freedom would be spent at Cayo Exclusive Resort and Spa, which bravely opened this summer in the little village of Plaka, in one of the worst years for travel the world has ever seen.

 

There’s both a humour and a seriousness to the resort, combining quirky branding and design with dedicated eco-friendly features and bioclimatic architecture. Conceptualized by Italian designer Gian Paolo Veniers, the resort is set on a hillside, an ambitious experiment that must also have necessitated one of its very unique properties – a funicular! Who’d have thought it, tucked away in a Greek resort, rather than – as I’ve seen before – in the Alps or the steep streets of Lisbon.

 

This cute little machine – a concept originally developed in Switzerland – is not even the only one on the island, there is another at the swanky Blue Palace resort down the road, but it didn’t lessen its novelty for me. And I definitely let that cute little machine take the strain, as I travelled from our “pinch-me” pool villa high at the top level of the resort down to the restaurants, and main hotel areas.

 

If you can – do try and upgrade clients as high up the resort as possible to really make the most of those views, views you could stare peacefully at for days; or four in my case. Inside the angular buildings are softer, playful touches and imagery harking back to Plaka as a 1950s playground. Elsewhere, it’s a palette of soothing moss, sage and earthy tones, punctuated by fun patterns, such as the soft furnishings on chairs.

Michelin moments

Michelin moments

Cayo’s menus are designed by chef Lefteris Lazarou, the first Greek chef ever to be awarded a Michelin Star. Dining at Kelari was a highlight – we ate outside on a quiet evening, and were treated to a brilliant tasting menu and the service of one of the most amiable waitresses I’ve ever encountered; she was cheery, humble and knowledgeable about the food, having tasted all of it even though she told us she was mainly vegetarian, just so she could explain everything properly.

 

From gazpacho soup, through to the chocolate cremeux in a hazelnut base with Greek coffee cream and raspberry sorbet, via sea bream, her explanations and recommendations were spot-on.

 

Another option at Cayo is Sage & Thyme for poolside lunches, next to the bar hang-out, Enastron, with live music at nights, while the main restaurant of Ambrosia is a buffet set-up for breakfast and dinner; there’s lots of choice, so it can take a while for the staff to serve it for guests as they ponder selections.

 

All 74 rooms and villas have their own pools, but there are also two pools that meander their way down a terrace and twinkling LED lighting at night creates a magical atmosphere. There’s also a small spa, where you can drift off with a massage, but sadly its sauna and indoor pool have not been able to open due to Covid restrictions.

Therapy sessions

Therapy sessions

No matter – for most people, their therapy will come from hanging out by the sea. Overlooked by looming hills, Plaka bay is just a 10-minute (or brief mini-van shuttle) away and has crystal clear waters and a crescent of large-pebbled beach.

 

The resort has set up shop on a section of beach with loungers and daybeds reserved for guests, perfect for zoning out on after lunch at its taverna, Stone Beach House (Greek salad, anchovies in breadcrumbs, Fanta Limon – what more could you ask for).

 

I did just that, lounging for a while as I watched people tentatively make their way over the stones and into the magnetic sea, and then laugh at themselves as they scrabbled to get back out again; some things, like a dip in Evian-clear water, are worth the struggle.

 

As well as being the de facto jumping off point for Spinalonga, and of course, having a quiet beach, Plaka itself is a pretty little village with blue and white buildings and is well versed in the needs of tourism, from seafood tavernas, to ice cream stop-offs, and shops selling everything from lilos to Cretan pottery and floaty summer dresses.

Beach-side bliss

Beach-side bliss

There were people populating the cafes, and a few tourists and earnest tour groups off on boat trips to Spinalonga, but I got the sense Plaka was quiet compared to how a normal week in September would look. The bigger, more well-known town just around the bay, Elounda, was also fairly busy, but not how I recalled from those days of my pre-Brexit visit.

 

The hotel’s team can advise on ideas for those with more ambition for their stay, whether heading to the cosmopolitan town of Agios Nikolaos; one of Crete’s oldest and largest villages Kritsa; or the archaeological site of Knossos – but for me, just to be somewhere warm and relaxed was enough.

 

The island may have fallen foul of a sudden quarantine change in our government’s rules when I was there, but I wouldn’t have changed my retreat for the world, with the chance to relax, change my monotonous backyard scenery and hang out with my sister, while enveloped in stylish resorts with warm Cretan hospitality. And while the world is a huge place, it could well be the case that these ‘tried and tested’ favourites that “do” tourism so well may be key choices as people look to book 2021.

 

How to book it

Abaton Island Resort & Spa: 00 30 2897 026410, abaton.gr Carrier (0161 492 1357, carrier.co.uk) offers seven nights from £1,485pp, including breakfast, British Airways flights from Gatwick and private transfers; price based on 1 May departure, book by 31 December.

 

Cayo Exclusive Resort & Spa: 00 30 2841 044700, cayoresort.com Exsus Travel (020 7563 1303, exsus.com) offers a seven-night stay from £1,105pp, including breakfast, flights, private transfers and €50 spa voucher per room.

 

• Holiday Extras offers UK airport parking, hotels, lounges and transfers, with average savings of £100 if booked ahead. Meet and greet parking at Gatwick starts from £43.12 for three days. Tel: 0800 316 5678, holidayextras.com

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