n his 1941 travelogue, The Colossus of Maroussi, Henry Millar wrote that ‘Crete can hush the mind, still the bubble of thought’. The American writer travelled extensively throughout Greece, lyrically chronicling his experiences. Indeed, Crete has long been a place of solace, self-discovery and inspiration for artists and writers, rich with ancient ruins, rugged landscapes, rustic tavernas and unspoiled beaches. But a glamorous destination for the beau monde? Not so much.
Things are changing, however, on the largest of the Greek islands. Sift through the package holidays and discover a growing collection of design-led hotels with smart spas, private beaches and gourmet restaurants. Greece was also one of the few countries to consistently welcome Brits during the coronavirus pandemic, leading to a surge in holidaymakers discovering a newfound appreciation for its domed architecture, laidback attitude and seemingly endless ocean views.
Modern hotels in Crete boast chic interiors, spacious rooms with private pools and a surprisingly contemporary offering of fine cuisine and natural wines, as well as farm-to-table restaurant models that put sustainability at the fore.
For luxury villas: Blue Palace Elounda
Positioned between Mirabello Bay and the port of Elounda, the beachfront Blue Palace Eluonda Resort and Spa is one of Crete’s most notable high-end resorts. The hotel honours traditional Greek architecture, with travertine tiled floors, mosaic walls and minimalist furnishings in shades of white and blue. Guests are met on arrival by soaring stone arches, which dramatically tower over the hotel’s vast pool.
Reminiscent of an amphitheatre, grass-topped buildings sink into the hillside, housing some 520 rooms and suites, as well as 16 two-storey family apartments. These are tastefully decorated in classic shades and the majority boast private infinity pools, with enthralling views of the historic island of Spinalonga.
The private Haven Villas, however, have the edge at Elounda, boasting sun-drenched terraces, swimming pools with adjustable temperature controls and exclusive access to the Beach Haven – a private stretch of sand with dedicated butler service.
For suite and villa guests, an intimate VIP Haven breakfast is served at Anthós, the hotel’s serene fine dining restaurant. It overlooks the Blue Palace’s vegetable garden, where many of its ingredients are carefully grown for a thoughtful farm-to-table model. At night, candlelit dinners at Anthós are served with live music against a twinkling landscape for an undeniably romantic experience. The restaurant excels in cutting-edge Greek cuisine and regularly hosts chef residencies.
The rustic Blue Door restaurant captures the spirit of a traditional Greek taverna. Begin with a warm welcome and a shot of raki, followed by a generous spread of Greek mezze, freshly caught seafood, moussaka and lots of local wine.
IIn the thalassotherapy spa, work through a menu of massages, body wraps and facials, rich with local honey, herbs and olive oil. There are also tennis courts, several swimming pools and a convivial beach bar. The delightful seaside fishing village of Plaka is a ten-minute stroll away and is thick with authentic, laidback seafood restaurants. Try Gorgios, which boasts Lady Gaga and Rihanna as former patrons, and Maria’s Tavern.
Haven Suites are priced from £549 per night; bluepalaceresort.
For families: Cretan Malia Park
Cretan Malia Park is a family-friendly resort that doesn’t scrimp on style. The open-plan reception and bar area has a louche bohemian charm, with velvet furnishings, trailing greenery and plenty of mid-century touches, such as rattan chairs, terrazzo flooring and low slung sofas. Rooms are equally stylish, with geometric wall tiles and handpainted murals. These can be on the small side so for those with a young brood, book a more spacious family room or suite, which offers separate living areas and terraces.
Mouries is the resort’s courtyard restaurant, where food is cooked in an open woodfire oven. Laidback, natural furnishings are flanked by towering Mulberry trees, with plenty of cushion-covered shaded spots. Breakfast at Mouries is really special: a gorgeous array of Greek specialties, including cheeses, Cretan mountain honey, grape mist jelly, fresh bread and homemade sweet bites. At night, sizzling Greek cuisine is accompanied by an extensive list of local and natural wines, which will satisfy even the fussiest oenophile.
The hotel’s other restaurant, Almyra, is equally delightful and focuses on coastal Italian flavours. Listen to the faint sound of crashing waves and chirping birds as you tuck into calamari, pizza and pasta, made from local produce sourced by chef Athinagoras Kostakos.
The kitchens at Cretan Malia Park work hard to ensure a low-waste, circular model. This is a green-fingered resort that takes sustainability seriously: it employs solar energy and shuns chemical fertilizers in its gardens, where many of its ingredients are grown.
The large heated pool is especially welcoming for little ones but still maintains an air of serenity, with secluded cabanas and surrounding greenery. A pretty flower-strewn path leads to the beach, where there is a lively restaurant and juice bar. The resort also has a yoga studio and a small spa, which is ideal for tired parents seeking a child-free moment.
Signature rooms from €133 per night, cretanmaliapark.gr
For wellness & architecture: Acro Suites
This luxurious, adults-only newcomer puts wellness to the fore, with a smart spa, fitness centre, daily yoga and meditation classes. The intimate resort is made up of private villas and suites, etched into the cliffs of Crete. Each one is cooly furnished with raw, natural materials and has its own saltwater pool. The Instagram-ready, tucked-away Cave Suites are literally carved into the rocks, with vertiginous views over the island’s rugged, rippling landscape.
Swathed in stone and marble, the serene Bath House features a hammam, dry sauna and treatment rooms. The restaurant uses local fare for a sustainable farm-to-table model, served against dazzling views of the Agean sea. Superfood-charged salads are as delicious as they are health-conscious, while cocktails are mixed herbs and plants with medicinal qualities, for a guilt-free aperitif.
£354 per night on a B&B basis, acrosuites.com
For glamour: Abaton Island Resort & Spa
Positioned on Crete’s northern coastline close to Hersonissos, Abaton Island Resort & Spa is a high-glamour retreat that buzzes throughout the summer with DJs and events. Reflecting traditional Cycladic style, the cavernous resort is a labyrinth of white sugar-cube buildings with luxurious, minimalist interiors. All-white rooms feature marble bathrooms, freestanding tubs, ornate headboards and snowy linen with a 300-thread-count. Almost half of the 152 rooms boast private terraces with heated plunge pools or, for the ultimate luxury, upgrade to a seafront guestroom with a private outdoor jacuzzi.
The resort boasts five restaurants, spanning seafood, steak and sushi, as well as traditional Cretan cuisine. There is a vast infinity pool with smart loungers and daybeds, which are perfectly positioned to watch the evening sunset. There is a small but perfectly formed spa, where you can enjoy Elemis facials and hot stone massages. In the nearby town of Hersonissos, meander from one taverna to the next and pick up trinkets and jewellery in the charming boutiques.
From £250 per night, abaton.gr