Legends and luxury: Ronni Ancona in Crete

For actress and comedienne Ronni Ancona, the perfect holiday meant relaxing in style, sampling the local culture – and keeping her two-year-old happy. Luckily, Crete had it all
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The Independent Travel

Before my husband and I go on any holiday there is always what could politely be called a "dispute" between us about accommodation. He would opt for renting a self-catering villa every time. But where, I wonder, is the treat for me in that? Cooking and cleaning in a different house? Not my idea of a rest.

Then again, if the option is sharing a facility-free hotel room with a two-year-old – well, who can afford the constant flow of room service for the little darling's messy mealtimes, culinary whims and misdemeanours?

There's the privacy factor as well: having to share a pool when you're worried about disturbing the other guests (not because of my toddler's antics, but because of the sight of me, six months pregnant in swimwear with skin a shade of white only seen in Bela Lugosi films and a varicose vein up one leg that looks like a map of the M40 in Braille). So we needed a compromise. The Elounda Gulf Villas in Crete promised to provide the answer.

We flew into Crete's capital, Heraklion, at some ungodly hour and after some intense marital discourse over how to fit Lily's child seat into the rental car, drove 70km east to Elounda. I was, of course, aware that we wouldn't be able to conquer Crete in the couple of weeks we had at our disposal. There's an immense amount of history to get through, for a start – Minoan, Byzantine, Venetian and Ottoman – along with scenery, from mountain ranges to tiny, hidden beaches. Having said that, I do like a rest on holiday – and my exploring would be limited to that which a pregnant bump and a two-year-old grump would allow.

Elounda Gulf Villas would, we hoped, be exactly the right place to start our journey, as it was private and self-catering (happy husband) with hotel facilities attached (happy me) and was apparently extremely child-friendly (happy two-year-old).

They certainly knew how to make us feel welcome. Despite our arrival in the middle of the night, the manager was there to show us round. They had thought of everything: milk and other essentials were in the fridge and a delicious Cretan spread was laid out.

Despite their sleek appearance, the villas are still run as a family affair by owner Anna and her daughter Charitini – which probably accounts for the homely welcome. They are set out on hill overlooking the lagoon of Elounda, which lies between the coast and a small peninsula that serves as a breakwater. The "serviced villa" concept works brilliantly, with all the space, privacy, and feeling-at-home aspects of a villa, plus the facilities of a good hotel. The care and attention to detail given to the villas has also been given to the suites: they are all immaculately equipped.

On the first couple of days, the weather wasn't good. I was assured this was very unusual for that time of year (though not for me – I have such a facility for attracting bad weather that many friends won't go away with me. I have even toyed with renting myself out to drought-stricken nations as a rain machine). So instead of loafing round the pool-side, we opted to venture out and explore.

Elounda, a few kilometres north of the town of Agios Nikolaos, was once a fishing village. Now it's home to many luxury hotels and resorts that huddle together on the outskirts. Not unsurprisingly, it has a touristy feel. But Kritsa, a mountain village 9km inland, is beautiful. With its whitewashed walls, blue shutters and winding roads, it was the very essence of the Crete I had always imagined.

Over the next couple of days the weather picked up. We explored some of the local beaches, then caught the ferry from the fishing village of Plaka, just north of Elounda, to the island of Spinalonga.

The crossing was ideal for Lily's first maritime adventure: long enough to be a proper boat trip, but short enough that we could see our destination, thereby putting an end to the "Are we nearly there yet?" refrain.

Spinalonga, which sounded to me like a roller-blading club in Sheffield, is an island fortress originally built to protect Olous, once one of the most important towns on Crete (the archaeological site of Olous is part-submerged near Elounda's salt flats and is still visible today). The Venetians built a new fortress in the mid-16th century as a means of defending the approach to the gulf, until the Ottoman Empire took possession of it in 1715. But it has probably gained most notoriety for being the home of Europe's last leper colony – a time recalled in Victoria Hislop's novel The Island.

Lily adored Spinalonga. While I and most other adult visitors felt obliged to study the island's history (on information displays in some of the old houses), she tore around, displaying potentially alarming megalomaniacal tendencies by declaring herself queen of her new surroundings. Ah, if only conquests were that easy!

These days, Plaka, which once served as the colony's supply centre, consists of a cluster of fish restaurants overlooking the harbour. They give the village an enchanting, rustic look and the fish they serve is fresh – but their simple outward appearance masks how pricey they are.

We then headed west along the coast, to Rethymnon. Although Crete's third-largest city, Rethymnon has more of a provincial atmosphere than Agios Nikolaos. Despite the many little bars and cafés on the palm-fringed promenade, it still retains much of its Venetian and Turkish atmosphere. In fact, an enormous Venetian fortress dominates the town. Lily had a wonderful time running around the little minarets that surround it. She had now promoted herself from queen to empress and I was starting to get a horrible feeling that she did, indeed, have armies gathering in the North. We stayed at the Mythos suites – charming self-catering apartments and hotel rooms that surroundu o a pretty courtyard – where the helpful manageress served a simple but delicious breakfast of yoghurt, honey and fresh bread.

By this point, we had developed a taste for Cretan honey dribbled on Greek yoghurt, often with nuts or fruit, for breakfast. There is nothing like telling yourself that you simply have to sample the culture as an excuse for pure piggery!

From Rethymnon we turned south to traverse the White Mountains. This is a breathtaking region, with a scattering of verdant valleys and limestone gorges, the most celebrated of which is the Samaria Gorge, which descends from the heart of the range to the coast. It was an exhilarating area to drive through, or, as my husband rather bitterly said, "be driven through", as he negotiated the twists and bends in the winding roads while I oohed and aahed at the vista.

Our destination was Paleochora, a hippyish beach town surrounded by mountains. Like many parts of Crete, it also has strong Venetian influences. Unsurprising, given that the Venetians took control of Crete in the early-13th century and stayed on the island for more than four centuries. The ruins of a Venetian castle are still visible at the end of the headland.

Nowadays, Paleochora is a coastal resort with a laid-back atmosphere that my wistful husband associated with travelling around the Greek islands 20 years ago. On being questioned further about these travels, a faraway, dreamy look came into his eyes that I don't think was purely down to the memory of geographical sights. I decided to pry no further.

Paleochora boasts two stretches of beaches, with the majority of the little town sandwiched between. It was a great place for adults and Lily alike, with a decent number of good restaurants. Sadly, after a perfect first day we fell victim to a hot but fierce coastal wind that blew over the region for a couple of days, which made visiting the beaches rather difficult. The Ronni Ancona weather curse had struck again.

On leaving Paleochora for Chania, we took a route inland along a rather breathtaking but somewhat hairy road, stopping off at the restored village of Milia – once inhabited by farmers and shepherds but abandoned about a century ago. Milia lies in a remote valley in the White Mountains, surrounded by oaks and chestnuts. The houses of this tiny medieval town were restored about 20 years ago by a co-operative of the villagers' descendants and converted into guesthouses. The settlement is powered by solar energy (supplemented by natural gas) and even the water is from the village's own spring. Guests are encouraged to work within the co-operative as much or as little as they wish.

The lunch we sampled was a delicious array of rustic Cretan dishes all lovingly prepared using products organically grown or raised on the premises. Lily found her own piece of heaven as she successfully lured a bevy of little blond Norwegian boys away from their lunch in order to sample a smorgasbord of Scandinavian kisses.

Chania is like the more obviously glamorous blonde sister to the more reserved, brunette Rethymnon. One of the longest continuously inhabited cities in the world, it contains vestiges of Roman, Venetian, Turkish and Minoan cultures: an architectural treasure trove. The old seafront is postcard-pretty and the little streets in the old town are enchanting, but the town was overrun with our fellow tourists; dozens of harbourside cafés and restaurants jostling for trade. Yet it was hard not to be seduced by Chania's obvious charms, particularly as we were staying at a converted merchant's house, the Pandora Suites, where we could enjoy one of the best possible views of the city.

From Chania we headed up to Knossos, the best known – and busiest – tourist attraction in Crete. Excavated by Sir Arthur Evans, whose controversial, and many say clumsy restorations have caused much debate among archaeologists, the Minoan palace, a place of myths and legends, is a sight not to be missed ... in principle. In reality, with a hyperactive Scandinavian-kissing two-year-old in tow, the extraordinary remains of a Minoan princess's shower room are reduced to a hiding place where a toddler can terrorise her parents by disappearing from view in a nanosecond.

Just north of Elounda, the Blue Palace Resort has a simply stunning view. Situated across from the island of Spinalonga, it has made a successful effort to blend in with the surrounding countryside, albeit in a contemporary fashion, and mirror the sandy aesthetic of the island's fortified buildings. It is a large resort comprising six restaurants, its own private beach, various bars and a serious spa.

I say "serious spa" because there seems to be a bit of a trend for glorified beauty salons with insipid pools and over-made-up girls in white coats (who prod you gently and call it "massage") to think of themselves as spas. They may be chic, but have no substance. I've always visualised a treatment at a proper spa entailing being led down a no-nonsense, tiled corridor to be met by a plump Russian lady who rubs you down to within an inch of your life.

The Blue Palace Spa did not disappoint. The treatments were vigorous, effective – and designed to cater for men as much as women. The spa was also fantastically equipped with proper spa amenities. There was a huge thermo-pool for all hotel residents to enjoy – whether you'd booked a treatment or not – featuring a cacophony of overhead water jets that seemed to spurt with all the power of Niagara Falls. They didn't so much massage as pulverise you in the most delightful way, with the result that the water looked like the type of frothy whirlpool that Captain Kirk might frequent with a bevy of toga-clad beauties on one of his extraterrestrial jaunts.

Crete seemed to have that other-worldly quality, particularly after a satisfying rub down. By this point, I was definitely the calmest I had ever been while on holiday: even Lily's quest for world domination (and her desire to kiss Norwegian boys) no longer concerned me. Our "disputes" had reached the perfect conclusion.

Knossos: legend has it...
By Ben Ross

A visit to Knossos, Crete's foremost archaeological site, is an exercise in prising reality from the grip of myth. Indeed, until it was uncovered and partially restored at the turn of the 20th century, the very existence of this bronze-age palace was the subject of dispute. Legend insists that it was at Knossos that Pasiphaë, the wife of King Midos, gave birth to a creature that was half-bull, half-man, known as the Minotaur. Half-bull, half-man wasn't a good look even in ancient times, so the Minotaur was imprisoned in a labyrinth and fed human sacrifices until plucky Theseus arrived, armed with a primitive version of GPS (i.e. a very long piece of string) to navigate the maze and slay the beast.

So much for the myth: the reality of a present-day visit to Knossos is equally intriguing. The palace lies in a peaceful, pine-scented vale a few kilometres south of Crete's capital, Heraklion, which is stuffed with tourists even early in the day, all gawping at the impressive five-storey stonework. But what, exactly, are they all looking at? The area was developed by Sir Arthur Evans, a gentleman-amateur archaeologist who bought the site in 1900 and spent the rest of his life excavating and restoring the Minoan palace according to his own theories of how the ancient structure might once have looked. Many of his ideas have since been disputed, and plaques throughout the site applaud Sir Arthur's enthusiasm while gently questioning the varacity of his reconstructions.

Nevertheless, Knossos is certainly a marvel of late-Minoan engineering. Although there's no sign of a labyrinth, 1,300 rooms make up the extensive complex, the exposed remains of which are accessible to tourists via walkways. The royal apartments are visible, as are the storerooms, where vast clay vases ("pithoi") would once have held the palace's provisions.

Even today, archaeologists disagree as to whether Knossos was a centre for Minoan administration or religion, how the chaotic complex came to be built, and what the structures described by Sir Arthur as the "throne room" and "Piano Nobile" (or "floor of nobles") were used for. It seems that at Knossos reality will never properly be separated from myth.

Knossos (00 30 281 023 1940) is open daily 8.30am-3pm, admission €€6 (£5)

Traveller's Guide

Getting there

Heraklion is served direct by easyJet (0905 820 0905; www.easyjet.com), XL.com (0871 911 4220; www.xl.com), Thomsonfly (0870 190 0737; www.thomsonfly.com), First Choice (0871 200 7799; www.firstchoice.co.uk/flights) and Fly Thomas Cook (0901 576 0576; www.flythomascook.com).Olympic Airlines (0870 606 0460; www.olympicairlines.com) and Aegean Airlines (00 30 210 626 1000; www.aegeanair.com) via Athens. The writer travelled with Seasons in Style (01244 202 000; www.seasons instyle.com), which offers 14 nights in Crete from £4,285 per person, based on two sharing. The price includes seven nights' self-catering at the Elounda Gulf Villas and seven nights at the Blue Palace Resort, return flights from Gatwick and transfers.

Staying there

Elounda Gulf Villas, Elounda (0871 990 3010; www.eloundavillas.com). Mythos Suites, Rethymnon (00 30 2831 053917; www.mythos-crete.gr). Villa Anna, Paleochora (00 30 2810 346248; www. villaanna-paleochora.com). One-bedroom apartments start at €42 (£35), self-catered. Pandora Suites, Chania (00 30 2821 043589; www.pandorahotel.gr); doubles start at €90 (£75), suites sleeping four from €140 (£117), room only. Milia Traditional Settlement, Vlatos (00 30 2821 046774; www.milia.gr); doubles start at €75 (£63), including breakfast. Blue Palace Resort, Elounda (00 30 2841 065500; www.blue palace.gr).

More information

www.gnto.co.uk; 020-7495 9300