“Yamas!” It is my second “cheers!” of the day – and it’s not even 12pm. Thus is the tradition of Cretan hospitality, and what I have come to expect from Blue Palace, a Luxury Collection Resort & Spa, having spent two dreamy days eating ripe tomatoes and fruit platters poolside, watching geckos scrambling up dusty stone walls, gazing out at mountain ranges and olive groves, the beach lapped by cerulean waters, soaking up the slow pace of life and days that move gently. Here, the Greek heat hangs heavily, yet is caressed by a revitalising sea breeze. It is the sort of place where tapas arrives in baskets and brightly coloured locally-made pottery, and if you ask what fish is on the menu they’ll say, “freshly caught this morning”.
I am aboard ‘Meraki’ a traditional Greek caique fishing boat, sailing around the glittering Gulf of Elounda, being introduced to a new generation of Cretan wines paired with local cheeses, as part of a bespoke open-air tasting; a special excursion courtesy of the resort. The table in front of me is littered with disused wine glasses containing remnants from prominent producers in the word of Greek wine, to unknown gems blending old traditions with new techniques: Semeli, Okto, Kir Yianni, Thymiopoulos Xinomavro and Blue Palace’s home grown varieties (their rose is divine).Two Sommeliers (both named George) are hosting, “It’s not a very common name in Crete,” jokes George One. “But if you know a George, it will bring you good fortune,” finishes George Two.
Both Greek, they proudly wear gold name badges, signifying they have worked with the hotel from the very beginning since it opened in 2003. Most of the hotel staff are local too. Such characters, these two not only work together at the resort; they travel together too. Honing their craft and knowledge on global wines, they soak up cultural insights, trends, adventure and wine along the way, pocketing fresh recommendations to take back to the resort’s team and chefs, which translates to guest’s taste buds.
The home of the first wine press, Crete is the origin of a serious volume of Greek vino, and the mountain foothills of Heraklion are the country’s second-largest wine-producing region. The Peza district is the heartland of Crete wine, harvesting four varieties. “Vineyards in Greece are doing amazing things, cultivating ancient grapes that need to be preserved, as well as local varieties. We encourage guests to try Greek wines. Well, when in Greece, it makes sense, no?” says George One.
Individual insights, experiences and an appetite for travel are encouraged here among staff, “We work closely with the chefs to show guests our reverence for the gift of Dionysus (the son of Zeus). The myths and tradition of winemaking in Crete can be traced back 4,000 years. Crete is responsible for 20% of Greek wines.”
Based in the handsome harbour town of Agios Nikolaos, in the middle of the picture perfect Mirabello Bay, the isle of Spinalonga doses quietly. As it’s the middle of the day, the island throngs with visitors who pour off the tourist boats to visit the abandoned former leprosy colony. The island receives around 2,000 visitors a day in peak season. Go early evening when the trippers have finished for the day and you will have the place to yourselves in peace and quiet.
We moor up, disembark, and step onto a stony quayside to meet our private tour guide Irene, dressed head to toe in canary yellow, floppy sunhat, her tanned skin, passionately kissed from years in the sun. She is Cretan through and through, she tells me, as we take a slow thirty minute stroll around the perimeter of the island. Do I know much about Spinalonga she asks? I tell her only because I have read the famous novel, The Island, by author Victoria Hislop, who was inspired by a visit. “It is fiction but it has shone a light on a story of sadness with generations who otherwise may never have known about it, and the history needs to be cherished. Crete is home to many ancient treasures and Spinalonga is one of them.”
Like Hislop, I am fascinated and saddened by its ghost past between 1913-1957 where hundreds of lepers lived and died, separated from ‘normal life’, their friends, their family, by a strip of deep water. At its peak, the colony comprised nearly 400 inhabitants who lived in exile.
This teeny island is host to a combination of medieval Venetian and Turkish buildings and turn of the century Greek residences. There is a sadness in the air as we walk past the buildings that had once been shops, rows of small houses (many have now crumbled), and the tiny church of St. Panteleimon. There are traces of blue paint on doors and windows on hinges, old water wells, and weeds and Cretan rose climbing over walls and balconies.
“One of the most important rules was a ban on mirrors; no-one wished to see themselves”, says Irene as we stand and absorb the small cemetery littered with gravestones, which demands your respect for the souls buried. I feel tears begin to well and have to take a moment as I look out at the Bay of Mirabello and inhale the salty sea scent, wistfully thinking they have at least found peace at last.
Few changes have been made in order to not detract from the real history. Necessary restoration work naturally has taken place, fresh licks of colourful paint on storefront shutters and some former shops have been converted into a small museum and gift shop. On a small scale, its poignant history and architecture, marked by subsequent invasion, reflects the history of the island of Crete itself and has been a considerable influence in the design of Blue Palace – which looks straight out at the former colony.
Owner and co-CEO Agapi Sbokou of Sbokos Hotel Group explains later that evening, “The overall inspiration is old influences. East and West; all blending together. It feels very natural with the mountains and surrounding landscape. Everything is soothing, calming to the eye and reflective. The colours are chosen from hues in the country’s natural stone. The pink hue terracotta tiles are because of the Venetians. The Moroccan lounges are tributes to our Arabic past.”
The adventure began when her mother and father met and the land became available for sale. “He bought it fifty years ago and kept it for twenty years; he waited for the right time. My sister is an architect and has overseen all the developments.”
Curvaceous arches frame the scene and terraced infinity pools appear to float. A particularly stunning example is the 11-meter-high Venetian Arsenali, or shipyard, that has been authentically reconstructed in the hotel lobby. Based on nearby Heraklion Harbor, it showcases the resort’s ongoing commitment to involve guests in the region’s history. The hotel spills down a hillside – there’s a glass lift that takes guests down to the 200 metre long, private pebble beach and wooden deck dotted with loungers and parasols.
The bedrooms here are neutral and elegant with wooden four posters, plush bedding, splashes of blue accessories and a balcony or terrace, depending on your room category. Make the most of the view and opt for one of the bungalows with a private plunge pool or a heated pool.
I’m staying in the newly refurbished Island Luxury Suites with heated private pool, each are named after a Greek island and are beautiful in design. A separate living room and luxe bathroom offer gorgeous views courtesy of floor to ceiling windows. Do order breakfast of poached eggs on freshly made bread with avocado spread and local apaki smoked ham and traditional kalitsounia (sweet pastries of honey and orange) in your room and soak up the sunrise in tranquil privacy from the comfort of a patio lounger. The brilliant blue of the Gulf of Mirabello, Spinalonga (an 800 metre swim from hotel) and birdsong – your morning wakeup call. Come early evening, the sunset torches the horizon and the sea shimmers with reflections.
The Isola Beach Club set among olive trees is a bohemian haunt away from the scorching sun and the place for DJ beats, shade and light snacks of Greek quinoa salad of lime, broccoli, and almonds with copper leaves and fresh calamari. It’s a chilled place to cool down; Cretan raki is the go-to refresher. “The nectar of Crete,” the waiter had said – he could have told me that before I mistakenly tossed it back, thinking it was water.
“The notion of luxury is overused. Luxury is all in the details – opening your eyes, ears, nose and mouth. We simply just pick ingredients from the trees and take from the ground. Cheese comes from local farms and herbs and vegetables from the resort’s own gardens. We are constantly seeking to accentuate our connection to our surrounding environment,” Agapi had explained the night before.
Top à la carte dining of steaks, Asian fusion and Italian cuisine are available, and there’s a charmingly traditional tavern, the Blue Door (a lovingly restored fisherman’s house), serving catch of the day cooked over an open grill. Think sky blue painted wooden tables and chairs, blue and white checked table cloths, a gentle sea breeze and scrummy meze starters.
Order the signature Blue Door Tray with jars of tzatziki with fresh mint, garlic and grated courgette; grilled aubergine with molasses, parsley and soft feta cheese; and marinated anchovies with herbs, local vinegars, among other Cretan delights. One by one, dishes begin to arrive at the table – bulging stuffed peppers, tomato and olives and hummus dip variations. It is a feast of overwhelming portions – from salads and olive oil to meat, herbs, bread and cheese. The courses just keep coming prior to the main fish dish. Come four o’clock in the afternoon and you’ll have no doubt finished a bottle of chilled local blush before waddling back to your sun lounger for a much needed afternoon nap.
We take a late dinner on the candlelit terrace at Flame, live piano twinkles in the background. Steak lovers will rejoice. “I pick ideas and mix it up as I travel. People today travel a lot and they have a choice, they want to try the best – and they compare. Our villa design focus on reconnecting people together – groups of friends and families who cherish quality time. On the other hand, America’s Next Top Model was filmed here a few years ago. We’ve had Tara Banks, Rihanna and Lady Gaga staying. Guests want something fantastic, to feel inspired. We offer diversity and discretion. It’s important not to tire people.”
You’re only a short walk from the traditional fishing village of Plaka where you’ll find local bars and boutiques – I like that the shops are all low-rise boutiques, old, white-painted buildings with real character, and the locals are warm and welcoming.
Helicopter rides to Athens, sea therapy spa treatments and traditional olive oil massages at their award-winning beachfront haven of tranquility, sunrise yoga, romantic evening cruises, picnics on an isolated beach with private chef, days spent snorkelling – even planting an olive tree as a symbol if you’re a guest getting married here. It’s very easy to do a lot – or absolutely nothing at all.
Zeus – who is believed to have been born in Crete – was the god of hospitality. His influence still remains strong, evidently. Dionysius awaits you at Blue Palace, glass in hand.
Rooms from €235 per night night including breakfast and taxes. For reservations: firstname.lastname@example.org
For more, visit bluepalace.gr