The Aegean: In search of a perfect holiday on Crete

It takes a lot to impress a jaded travel writer. Adrian Mourby finds Heaven in the Aegean
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The Independent Travel

Occasionally, travelling round the globe and growing heartily tired of hotel welcome packs, the weary journalist encounters Heaven. You know it is Heaven because all critical faculties fly out the window. Like Leonardo DiCaprio arriving at his beach, one offers up a prayer and exclaims: "This is why I travel."

Come off it. You just want to get invited back

Well, I'd go back like a shot, yes. But I can honestly say I've only ever found perfection twice on my travels. Once was back in the 1980s, crossing a moonlit lake in India and arriving at the luminescent glory of Udaipur's marbled Palace Hotel. And Elounda was the other.

Does it involve another boat trip?

No, a very sticky car ride across Crete. I spent a morning taking in the pseudo-Venetian delights of Chania and an afternoon around the famous dolphin frescoes at Knossos. I even bought a reproduction clay Minotaur en route, but now I was zooming towards the Spinalogka Peninsula and a place called Elounda, or Elounta, depending on how your guide book transliterates.

Once upon a BC, this land was all part of ancient Olous. But then the east end of Crete decided to nose down into the Aegean and Olous disappeared. Only the surrounding hillsides were left and, as BC turned to AD, the Oloundians made new homes up on those scraggy hills and transliterated themselves into Eloundians.

Don't tell me – they built a hotel?

No, it was left to a young architect called Spiros Kokotos to come up with the idea. In the 1960s Kokotos went diving in Elounda. In those days, he says, the peninsula was a desert. Kokotos was already a successful designer of hotels and he began buying up land around this barren shoreline. He wanted to create his own vision of a Cretan holiday village complete with shops, village square, art gallery and church.

"I had in mind the demanding guest who wants to escape from the town," he told me. "He wants a small house by the sea and no noise. And he wants the best. What I knew from myself was that people are willing to spend a fortune if they find what they want. Elounda Mare was going to be the Cretan way of living but in a luxurious environment."

Fleecing the gullible foreigner?

No, no. Not content with creating his dream village Kokotos decided that he would live there too.

Isn't it a bit dangerous to have the proprietor living on the premises?

Kokotos has an answer for that. "I don't think of myself as the owner. I like to think of myself as this hotel's most demanding guest." Sitting in his villa overlooking Elounda Bay, Spiros Kokotos admits: "I have a guilty conscience for destroying this area." He need not. He hasn't just made the desert bloom; he has created the most perfect human environment since Adam and Eve had serpent problems.

So he's created Paradise? That's quite a claim. Is he at all divine?

Actually, he's very modest. Scion of a long line of fierce Cretan patriots and parliamentarians, Spiros Kokotos is a small, affable man with a charming staff standing by to top up the guests' glasses. He does have one curious eccentricity. During our conversation my host intermittently lined up shots on a small artificial tee that he's had built next to his swimming pool. His enthusiasm has also caused him to construct Crete's only golf course at Elounda, which guests are welcome to use under the tutelage of resident professional Jon Grundy, PGA. Truly, as Scott Fitzgerald once remarked, the rich are different from us.

But it's nice rubbing shoulders with them, isn't it?

To be honest, I was much more interested in the place than the people. Elounda Mare is Greece's only entry in Relais Châteaux and, by Zeus, it deserves to be there.

Catering for only 80 guests, the fantasy village affords privacy. There are several fine open-air restaurants plus a breakfast room that serves champagne for those who bother to rise in the morning, but the real delight of Elounda Mare is what Kokotos has done with his guest rooms. Each is fashioned like a small whitewashed cottage with a tiny garden that has its own swimming pool, olive trees and bougainvillea. These "rooms" are not linked by corridors but by narrow winding streets.

There must be something wrong with it

I have never known a resort run so well. Kokotos and his wife expect the best service and so they bring their staff in from all over the world and train them in situ. Many have been with the hotel since it opened in 1983. "Robotic hotels do not exist and never will," says Kokotos. "Good service is essential." He never knowingly spares expense. He has sea water pumped to each swimming pool and actually imported a whole beachload of sand because he felt the one thing the resort lacked was somewhere to build sandcastles.

What about water sports?

Of course, you can do all those but, to be honest, the pleasure of Elounda lies in waking up, opening the doors of your cottage and being greeted by sun, sea and cicadas. Everything is perfect blue; the sky above, the sea beyond and the pool just in front of you (heated to remain at body temperature). An ambitious guest might dress and set off for breakfast, even wander through olive groves down to the shore or watch a wedding at one of the two churches, but this is a hotel built for serious sybarites. Those of us who have truly embraced the cult of self-indulgence just stay by the pool, soak up the sun and let breakfast come to them on a silver tray.

I have absolutely no idea how long I stayed. Time stood still. All I know is that when I slid back into my sweaty little hire car it was like the expulsion from Eden. I really wanted to find a serpent to kick.

I'm convinced. How do I get there?

A week at Elounda Mare can be booked on request through The Greek Islands Club (020-8232 9780) from £762 per person, based on two sharing, including return flights to Heraklion.

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