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Exploring ruins and beers by the pool – why this European island is perfect for an ‘inbetweeners’ holiday

With her teenage sons about to fly the nest, Tracey MacLeod faces the challenge of balancing an upscale adult getaway with a raucous lads’ holiday for one last family-friendly break

Friday 24 May 2024 15:08 BST
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Follow Crete’s coastline or head high into the hills
Follow Crete’s coastline or head high into the hills (Getty)

Have you come on a lads’ holiday by mistake? We haven’t come halfway round the world to look at some boring Greek ruins...”

That exchange from The Inbetweeners Movie perfectly captures the tensions underpinning a Cretan holiday. On the one hand, it’s the cradle of European civilisation, birthplace of Zeus and home to any number of Minoan ruins and antiquities. On the other hand: paaarty! There’s the nightclubs, foam fights and general reputation for off-your-tits mayhem associated with Malia, prime destination for teenage debauchery.

The arrival of mass tourism in the 1980s, with the construction of a new road opening up a stretch of coastline to the east of Heraklion, has made it possible to have two wildly different holiday experiences on Greece’s largest island. There’s the Crete of upscale villa rentals, designer hotels on turquoise beaches and breathtaking mountain trails. And there’s the budget option – fly to Heraklion, dump your bags and start raving.

But what if you want something, well, in between? For what might be our last family holiday before the children fledge into gigantic adults, we need to lure them out of their man-caves with breadcrumb promises of fun and action. A house in the hills above Crete’s notorious party strip, picked from luxury villa rental specialists Oliver’s Travels, offers the best of both worlds. For the olds, a zen-influenced villa and pool, a white cube of Mykonos-style minimalism beamed down into the dusty backstreets of a mountainside village – but within striking distance (or certainly driven-by-mum distance), the coastal fleshpots of Hersonissos port and Malia, a few kilometres and a couple of centuries away down the hill.

Hersonissos is a popular spot for tourists
Hersonissos is a popular spot for tourists (Getty)

Read more on Greece travel:

Like the cats that congregate on every street corner, our village, Koutouloufari, seems to be unfurling after a long cold winter and stretching itself out in the April sunshine. There’s a feeling of renewal as owners spruce up their shops and tavernas in readiness for the tourist season, and the air hums with birdsong and the gentle rattle of nailing and drilling.

Our home for the week, Villa Ying, is a swift 25-minute drive from Heraklion airport. The village’s shops and restaurants are within easy walking distance, but our vine-shaded backyard is secluded enough to feel like an oasis. A small saltwater pool with a slide and hammock, a terrace with huge swinging day bed, and an open plan interior of minimalist calm, filled with artworks made from stones and bleached driftwood. With four double bedrooms, the villa is big enough for us to spread out. A balcony offers panoramic views of the Aegean, perfect for sunrise salutations. The villa’s yoga mats, however, remain furled.

April is a great time to visit Crete if you want to avoid fierce heat and other tourists, and we get lucky. The temperature remains a balmy mid-twenties through the week, easily warm enough for daytime sunbathing and evening dinners al fresco. Everything is still gloriously green, and wild flowers are abundant. Relaxing in our garden, we’re all hit by one thing – the unmistakeable reek of weed hanging in the air. We eye each other suspiciously. Could it be some builders working nearby? The smell follows us around, and we eventually trace it to a yellow-flowered, sticky-leaved bush that grows abundantly around Crete. Panic over.

Pool time: the private terrace at Villa Ying
Pool time: the private terrace at Villa Ying (Tracey MacLeod)

There’s something bittersweet about going on holiday with your kids just at the point they are about to leave home. It’s like a break-up holiday, without the drunken recriminations and with no expectation they will offer to split the bill. We always used to do villa holidays when the boys were younger, but started to realise we were coming home from a week of domestic drudgery more frazzled than when we left. Now that they can look after themselves – in theory, anyway – the whole villa thing is much more relaxing. “We’ve cracked it,” we gloat, lounging by the pool while they trudge up to the nearest shop for fresh supplies of Mythos beer.

And it’s great to be able to stroll to the excellent family-run restaurant Nikos the Fisherman to eat fresh seafood at the same time as the locals, instead of desperately searching for anywhere that serves pizza at 6pm. One thing our sons (or indeed their father) don’t yet do for themselves is drive a car. There’s a perceptible eyebrow-raise from the Oliver’s Travels concierge who meets us at the airport to match us with our rental car when three enormous men settle themselves into the passenger seats and I take the wheel.

Greek motoring etiquette (“it’s like Grand Theft Auto driving”, as one of the boys observes) livens up our short journey to the ruins at Knossos (fascinating, and surely worth a couple of lines on younger son’s Ucas personal statement). Another day trip takes us east through the mountains to the elegant port town of Agios Nikolaos, arranged around an inshore lake, which offers boat trips to Spinalonga, the former leper colony made famous by Victoria Hislop’s The Island.

Spinalonga, a jewel in the Gulf of Elounda
Spinalonga, a jewel in the Gulf of Elounda (Getty/iStock)

Nearer home, the clubs and beach resorts of Malia are gearing up for the season, but we swerve them for the string of white-sand coves to the west of Hersonissos. We find one at Saradari, which ticks all the fantasy Greek island boxes – deserted white sand, sparkling emerald sea – and are settling down for a photo shoot when a paunchy naked man strolls around the headland, from what turns out to be a naturist beach in the next cove. It’s embarrassing enough watching a sex scene on TV with your kids. Try staring fixedly out to sea while a German willy bobs around in your peripheral vision. “Do you want to go somewhere... not decadent?” – to quote The Inbetweeners Movie again.

The highlight of our week was a day at nearby Potamos, just north of Malia. Here, the clubs and bars tail off into a golden sweep of pristine beach, almost empty at this time of year and lined with a regiment of sunbeds and parasols waiting to be claimed. We lunch on fish fried in tempura-crisp batter at a roadside taverna overlooking the ocean then walk to the Palace of Malia, a Minoan ruin astonishing both in its scale and the fact that you can stroll around it unattended.

The boys are soon scrambling to decipher the scanty signage and staring awe-struck into the ghostly outlines of sunken chambers. Our “inbetweeners” may be young adults, but Crete turns out to be the ideal place to turn them into kids again, for one last precious family holiday.

How to do it

A 2024 seven-night stay at Villa Ying for six people starts from £3,529; it can sleep up to eight guests. To book, phone 03338880205 or visit oliverstravels.com.

Tracey and family stayed at Villa Ying as a guest of villa specialists Oliver’s Travel

Read more: Greece travel guide – everything you need to know before you go

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