BLUE & INTO THE HILLS

June 17, 2011 in GREECE | Comments (0)

Tags: , ,

Picture 1 of 6

Spinalonga view

A few more images from Crete – see previous blog


CRETE – NEW LUXURY & PAST

June 15, 2011 in GREECE | Comments (0)

Tags: , , ,

PLAKA

Picture 1 of 14

Plaka restaurants - pretty waterfront

Past Knossos and the Minoan Palaces of the past – one hour beyond Heraklion – you come to what is marketed as the St Tropez of Crete.

This luxury mile  or two is centred on Elounda – once a poor fishing village on the site where an ancient city sank into the sea. Here luxury hotels have upped the ante on luxury in Greece ever since the 1980s. Here you have Minoan Royalty suites and Palace suites and Royal villas to attract old style Royalty and pop queens and kings. Here you have private pools galore…and Lady Gaga herself might see the horizon of her pool run into the sea and sky.

So (nudge nudge) what is it like? Times have been hard for Greece and prices have been forced to drop a little with 10-30% early booking discounts and other ploys in this once uncompromisingly expensive area. But luxury lingers on, albeit with free half board and buffets that keep guests in the hotels – so there is less of the dining out among waterfront tavernas type of thing.

We enjoyed a week staying at three hotels in and near Elounda and Agios Nikolaos (Elounda Mare, Blue Palace and Daios Cove). No time to get back to Knossos, but we did linger in Plaka, the small fishing village facing Spinalonga island (“The Island”). Invited to enjoy raki, guitars and grilled vegetables. And we did enjoy the ambience of Agios Nikolaos with its long waterfront and authentic Greek feel – modern Greek with wifi and sofas by the sea. It was in Agios Nikolaos that we found what we had been looking for.

We were seeking vegetarian moussaka. First we tried Elounda.  We shopped till we dropped from hunger – instead finding 6 euro sunglasses with distinctly borrowed design  – thanks so much …

The unusual moussaka was a long time finding. “Moussaka is a meat dish,” they would say patiently. But we had eaten it before on Crete several times. This time we almost got eaten ourselves as we searched, or so it felt, by the men lurking in front of restaurants with the job of catching clientele from passers-by. Used a guilt trip style to get you in…(you dont trust me – you dont think I got good vegetarian food?) whereupon I was presented with halloumi from lunchtime totally drenched – I mean inky with balsamic vinegar – surrounded by chips that seem to froth from old age. But later we found a really nice couple of restaurants via our hotels. Diaos Cove had even prepared for our visit by ordering vegetarian moussaka for us from the chef .  And returning to Pacifae in Agios Nikolaos  – the very restaurant where we ate the world’s best veggie moussaka at the full moon 6 years ago – we managed to order an equally lucious dish for the next night.   Actually Crete has a long tradition of mainly  vegetable diet with a little fish – meat was a rare treat and only tourism has made it a necessity, or so we were told.

Meanwhile behind Elounda and the “riviera” the mountains brooded with rich colours and mystery.  Couldn’t resist driving up into mountains behind the tourist crush, where you need a lot of cold nerve not to mind the drops and the cars that head át you rather than put their wheels too close. I still remembered the black arm bands.

My first visit to Crete was a long time ago. We caught local buses – and lived on a pound a day. It was rich experience though a little hazardous, especially the buses that did some kind of slalom down mountain slopes. In those days many men were wearing black arm bands. If you asked them what they were for, it was a relative that died in a traffic accident.

Now we had an Avis hire car to roam in. Both at the well advertised traditional village of Kritsi (where I so wished I wanted to buy a beautiful lace tablecloth to support the women) and behind touristy Elounda we saw signs that the passed live on still. Very old ladies were herding goats along the mountain roads. In 20 years they will all be gone…

That is the Greece I most remember.


ALL ROOMS WITH PRIVATE POOL

June 12, 2011 in GREECE | Comments (9)

Tags: , , , ,

Picture 1 of 14

Beach at Porto Elounda

ELOUNDA PENINSULA ALL-SUITE HOTEL

Pride and Joy of the Kokotos family – but very different from Elounda Mare  described in previous blogs. 

Architect Spyros Kokotos & CEO Eliana Kokotos helped to launch Elounda area as Crete’s luxury mile with Elounda Mare and its romantic pool bungalows. Next to be built was nearby Porto Elounda with large shared pools, more activities and easier prices  – appealing to families. Then in the mid 1990s Elounda SA Resorts launched their most luxurious resort – Elounda Peninsula All-Suite.

It is all suite accommodation, all with pools. It was far more urban in feel and attracted lots of newly moneyed people who felt comfortable with everything brand new and contemporary. The intention was to draw people who wanted to be seen. But it ended up being even more of a hideaway than Elounda Mare – albeit without the maze of paths in flowery gardens.  A really attractive breakfast room with view over the water is hardly used. People like to dine in suite. Guests seem to have a habit of moving in to this home from home and can stay months. Husband jet-sets on business and wife and kids bury themselves in the Peninsula and its luxuries.

The property has only 66 suites. The Club area includes a wine cellar, a home movie theatre where, for example, the British Royal wedding was watched by guests.

WHERE TO STAY

The presidential suites along the waterfront appeal. All with sizable waterfront pools and private sea access, albeit rather adventurous  access as far as I could see. From stone platforms with sunbeds above the waves a ladder drops onto the turbulence of waves slapping on rocks. Some do offer access to the beach and no doubt a less adventurous descent.

Décor is attractive with blue and green giving a fresh spring and water feel. Built on different levels – dining area looking down on lounge and its huge windows, light and views.

But surprisingly the gardens on the terraces seemed a bit austere, unlike the perfect gardens at Elounda Mare. No doubt a signal that this hotel is more for citytypes.

Unfortunately I didn’t see the spacious junior suites with pools on the beach front. Not did I see the Peninsula Palace suite …. a “Royal Grand Suite” and the “Peninsula Residence” can be combined into this vast waterfront hotel suite.

The top accommodation I saw was the Royal Grande Suite (costing a sum afforded by celebrities). This is vast, with contemporary modern simplicity of uncomplicated space and hi tech features: lift (elevator), hammam, sauna, indoor pool with tropical garden – as well as the large outdoor pool and terrace. The living room brings church like awe with its very high roof and tall windows – and tall chimney. The dining room with long table is on a higher level and looks dizzingly down on the lounge. The nice surprise was the indoor pool with tropical banana palms – the worst surprise was the body’s guard’s room with separate entrance – Why did it have to be so small – to stop him getting uppity?

The lead-in type – “Collection” suites (1, 2 and 3 bedrooms) – also have blue and green décor. Built on two levels – all have distant sea view looking down and over the presidential and other suites. They all have pools in front but tall walls to give privacy makes them feel very compact compared with the Presidential.

PORTO ELOUNDA

A resort for people who want to meet other people, be active and enjoy children’s facilities. Spa is vast and impressive. There is also a super high tech conference facility for 5000 people. Beach is a sandy crescent around the inner edge of the yacht harbour backed by grassy area with sunbeds. Pools.

Facilities shared by all three Elounda SA Resorts include: Kid’s area, dive club, tennis courts, two yachts for charter, 9-hole golf course, and yet another Greek Orthodox chapel and shopping centre. 

Altogether there are 7 restaurants between 3 resorts, and 5 bars.

The lobby at Port Elounda is kind of empty and echoing, as if one doesn’t want anything in the way of the children.  Actually very relaxing for parents – less public property for them to destroy. 42 deluxe rooms have been newly renovated and were clean and bright with wide sea views – balconies have been given glass walls to improve the view. The Executive suites are most livable, with plenty space and big decks and big pools. The tall khaki coloured walls create privacy cutting you off from other pools. I was also shown a junior suite interconnecting with a suite, and sharing the same pool.

I can see that Porto Elounda is great for families on a budget. Elounda Mare is still my favourite – and I am not alone. Elounda Mare was fondly voted in again in 2010 onto Conde Nast Gold List, among the top 20 in Europe according to Conde Nast USA.

See my previous blogs and pix by myself and Aleah.


ROOMS TO FOOD – NO PIZZA

May 30, 2011 in GREECE | Comments (1)

Tags: , , , ,

Picture 1 of 17

Wandering along Elounda Mare's private waterfront

Above – a small gallery of images of Elounda Mare. This hotel presents one of the early examples of luxury on Crete. And one of the best. Its hard to beat your own pool when it gazes over that view. Not to mention marble galore, jacuzzi, rain showers…and plenty of loving detail. It’s old established luxury in wholesome style. This is your hideaway – if you can find it. Indeed hidden in a maze of stone pathways.

The rooms in the main building were nice. On the top floor the suite had amazing view, looking over the intricate puzzle of the flat bungalow rooftops and beyond over the sea.  Rooms were decorated much like the bungalow rooms. But they are just not the same thing. If you have the money dont consider anything but a bungalow at Elounda Mare…

The images also give a glimpse of what we ate under the ancient carob tree. No pizza…

More info about Elounda Mare in my earlier posts.

Images (c) Aleah / Binah Creative Arts, except for the swimming and walking snapshots


MORE OF THAT MAGIC PLACE

May 29, 2011 in GREECE | Comments (1)

Tags: , , ,

Picture 1 of 19

Welcome to our superior bungalow no. 2

Elounda Mare seen through the delicate eye of a lens .

The gallery above takes us into the delightful superior bungalow no 2, with heated pool and view of the sea. We explore among natural stone walls and maze of stone paths in gardens full of flowers and other surprises. Find a private beach within the walls of Elounda Mare overlooked by its Yacht Club restaurant. Then comes night and moonlight on our terrace. Breakfast…a la carte and buffet picturequely placed, all with style and quality.

– pix by Aleah / Binah Creative Arts


ELOUNDA MARE – SECRETS & CLASS

in GREECE | Comments (0)

Tags: , , , ,

Picture 1 of 20

Yacht on the blue - seen from our terrace

On the breakfast terrace. The mood is leisurely and serene – with quiet guests and attentive service.

They have rolled back the roof to bring in the sun. Birds twitter. We gaze over gardens and misty sea to hazy mountains on the other side of Mirabello Bay. 

Breakfast is perfect – my style. You order a la carte and they listen carefully to get your café latte  and omelet just right (all items included in the price). There is also a buffet covering cold items. Not vast. But everything you (or I) need – quality ingredients, laid out in style. Müsli and cereals  in ceramic containers engraved with type of food. A huge container of natural yoghurt …

Like the hotel itself this is Select, quality.

It’s an old elegance you feel…before the explosion of “five star” hotels. Before restless people had so much (new) money and expected hotels to refurbish every year just for them.

Elounda Mare has the feel of a classy home, away from home. It’s a hideaway of bungalows with private pools, lost in beautiful gardens with a labyrinth of paths and stone walls. Greenery, rocks and flowers create a hidden world along a turquoise sea. The main building of this Relais & Châteaux boutique hotel lies behind with bar, restaurant and further tasteful and distinctive accommodation.

Two more restaurants lie in the gardens, along with church, fashion shops and big pool. There is also a private beach on the property.

On top of that you get a free ride to the restaurants and facilities at two nearby sister hotels, including an extensive Six Senses spa, 9-hole golf course and kid’s club. Altogether there are 7 restaurants apart from the plethora of restaurants in Elounda town.

Elounda Mare is much loved by couples (40% repeaters), and a favourite destination for wedding anniversaries. The mood in the main building at Elounda Mare is smart and dress codes prevail.  We had to pass by the main restaurant with its elegantly dressed clientele as we left for a meal sortie in Plaka. I saw a look of friendly relief on the maitre d’s face when I asked him the way to the lobby and he realized he didn’t have to tell us to get our dress coding in order.

I should add that the people who work there are generally kind and friendly. Hotel Manager Harry Maranghides even went so far as to take off his jacket and tie when he lead us to lunch at the Yacht Club, to make a younger member of our party feel at ease in his Katatonia T shirt.

It was May and we didn’t see any children. Of course, children are welcome, declared Harry.  “We like well behaved children ,” he added. It somehow works when children are used to five star hotels. Of course families can make good use of the Porto Elounda facilities – as Porto Elounda is a family hotel (more at the four star level).

But one sure way to enjoy children at Elounda Mare is to command your own private pool and garden terrace in a roomy 2-bedroom bungalow, hidden away amid the gardens. Children would love those gardens and exciting labyrinth of stone walls, arches and pathways. I felt like a child myself discovering them. There are magic spots for staring into pastel turquoise water. All along the rocky shoreline they have built little stone platforms where you can lie on sunbeds close to the water. 

“I got lost”, is something guests often say after turning up at reception.

“Good”, says Harry. “That means you are learning our secrets.”

We were enjoying a perfect vegetarian meal with him at the Yacht Club restaurant overlooking the private beach –  under an ancient Carob tree. Behind is the real Greek Orthodox church built by CEO Mrs Eliana Kokotos and a small chic designer shopping centre.

“Mrs Kokotos always  builds a chapel in each hotel,” says Harry.  These authentic Orthodox chapels are used for weddings and christenings – “small weddings” with “only 100-150 guests”. (Average Greek wedding is 500 people.) It is popular with British guests to have a civil marriage on Crete, dress up, take photos, have cocktails and dinner.

The Yacht Club restaurant is open lunchtimes only usually but has theme evenings in the summer – sophisticated, but with the simple charm of a beach taverna. The Old Mill gourmet restaurant hidden in the gardens opens twice a week. Cuisine has many Greek dishes adapted to international clientele.

ROOMS

Our favourite was our very own Superior Bungalow – with pool and perfect sea view.

Lounge and two bedrooms en suite all with views of the pool and the sea. Master bedroom with Jacuzzi bath, rain shower with all sorts of adventurous water surprises, 2 separate toilets adjoining the main bathroom (toilet also in the second bathroom).

Best part was the pool and patio. Everything felt so intimate and so perfect. Our own olive tree, green grass, glistening water, a round wooden table….and not two but six wooden sunbeds. On top of that a view of the sea, glistening, dancing and skittering blue.  A yacht was anchored just in front. Beyond lay the mountains bathed in the orange light of the setting sun, rugged and alluring. In the mornings soft and misty.

Our pool was heated making possible early morning refreshers and moonlight swims. The moon made pathways on the water.

Deluxe bungalows have pools too and the same facilities as superior bungalows. The only difference is that the superior have better views of the sea and better position generally. We (number 2) were one minute from of the breakfast room.

Minoan royal suites are the top category – with pools of course – but even closer to the sea, and more space and features. The one we looked over had its own stairs down to the sea, and fireplaces dating back to the days Elounda Mare stayed open in the winter.  

Décor in all rooms has a similar classic charm.

With rippled white walls (typical Cretan cottage style), and desks, nooks and crannies built onto the walls to hold videos TVs etc. Décor has an ethnic slant that could be dated if it wasn’t so Cretan, authentic and perfectly coordinated. Definitely more like a good wine than grape juice. Touches of maroon in woven mats, cloths and tapestries. Black and white etchings elegantly framed and placed. All uplifted by woodwork that is perfectly finished, with curved edges and artistic flair. 

Aircon visible as a box on the wall, the only real sign that this hotel has been around some 30 years.

Harry showed us two lower category accommodations too – a suite and a double room – located in the main building (four to six storeys) – all similarly decorated and finished. But (to my way of thinking) missing the garden setting and the pools. The suite made up for it with a view far and wide over the entire gardens of Elounda Mare and beyond.

It occurred to me that all rooms felt warm, homely and welcoming.  Maybe because a bit older in design they escape the modern clichés of newly refurbished five star hotels. There is a huge insecurity hovering behind all image steered activities (from shopping to hotel décor)  – i.e. when it’s done just because you dare not be different from all the others. Individual things are somehow so much more comfortable.

At Elounda Mare rooms have their own original feel. Improvements, not changes are in process, Harry explains.

Owners of Elounda Mare are Eliana Kokotos and her husband Spyros – the architect and designer of some 40 hotels in Greece.

Elounda, which locals call the St Tropez of Crete, was a poor fishing village in the 1960s. “But in the late 1960s Minos Palace was created,” explains Harry.  Then Mr Kokotos designed Minos Beach – completed in 1971.

“Minos Beach was the most luxurious Hotel in Greece,” continues Harry. It created a demand for luxury on the east coast just north of Agios Nikolaos. With demand on the rise for super luxurious hotels on this coast, next project for Mr & Mrs Kokotos was Elounda Bay completed 1977, sold a year later.

Then a new dream was realized – Elounda Mare, completed 1982. This concept of a small exclusive hideaway with bungalows and private pools was a huge success and a trendsetter.

10 years later – 1992 – Porto Elounda was opened as a discreetly distanced neighbor. This  larger hotel complemented the hideaway Elounda Mare, offering extensive activities, 9-hole golf course, children’s club. It was a place for mixing and meeting people round the pool, on the beach at the beach bar.

Then  Mrs Kokotos decided to aim at a new generation of high profile people with a smaller, more contemporary resort – Elounda Peninsula All-Suite hotel. Different feeling, less gardens, concentrated on the suites and backing services. Expensive, very stylish. People come for privacy and hardly ever mix with other guests. There is a lot of private dining.

At Elounda Mare, with 40% of guests as repeaters, they suffered less from the latest recession than Peninsula, who thrived on guests with new money. 2008 was a good year for Elounda Mare. Last year was not so good, but the tide is turning. This year Elounda Mare hopes to come back with better statistics than 2009. Prices have been held down to compensate for the recession, so it will take a while for the revenue to come back to 2008 level.

Meanwhile – I wish them EVERY SUCCESS. Elounda Mare with its magical gardens and generous pool bungalows is one of the Mediterranean’s “paradise” spots and deserves to stay on top.


DAIOS COVE – STONE MAGIC

May 27, 2011 in GREECE | Comments (4)

Tags: , , ,

Picture 1 of 20

View from the path on the wild side

A place of beauty – aeons of stone and water.

Strange – but as the saying goes “it is a very ill wind that blows no good”, meaning most ill winds also blow good. So the metaphorical “ill wind” at Diaos Cove was an archaelogical find.

The Daios family own all this beautiful land around the once hidden cove. The original plan was to build the resort all round the cove. But when work began  with blasting and digging, they uncovered an ancient archaelogical site.

By law no one can build on a classical site. What is more they have to provide access to the public.

This hitch in the Diaos family project brought much despair and disappointment. The plans for the resort had to be redone with buildings only on one one side. Delays of course.

But in the end it was like a blessing. Because of this, the resort not only views a crystalline turquoise cove – but over it to a tall unspoilt hill, in the burnished colours and olive greens of Crete.

Down the hill is a zig zag paved path providing access to the archaelogical site.

It is a feature, not a problem any longer. The public can hardly be said to be streaming down that path. And it provides a challenging (nature) walk to guests who want a new angle on their little city.

At night it is lit, tracing a magical  wavy line in the dark. Joining a myriad of other little lights all over the place, in magic making.


BLUE WORLD – BLUE PALACE

May 22, 2011 in GREECE | Comments (16)

Tags: , , , ,

Picture 1 of 12

Turquoise water clear as crystal washes white stones on Blue Palace beach

By the iconized arches, the pool is as blue as all the pictures. So is the sky.  Even without Photoshop and all the image makers of Starwood, this is a blue and dazzling world. No point in taking a picture of the arches – they are on every tourist website.

The  terraces of Blue Palace are magnificent with or without pictures. Distinguishing, memorable. The  international set chill out here in serenity induced by views – endless sunbeds and infinity pool. Communing with laptops via wifi – free, like the air.

Down below is the turquoise sea. A very rich and startling turquoise. Beyond is the hump of Spinalonga island. Brown and coppery –  traced with old walls – the colour of the land.

Mountains are a perfect backdrop. A burnished richness in the tones echoes the natural stone that distinguishes the hotel and its famous architect.

Hard to tear yourself away from the terraces. But there is so much to do…

Firstly you must enjoy your own pool. More than half of the rooms have pools. Here you feel ownership, blissful privacy …. gentle sun and cold May water…

Or you could take the funicular down to the sea. Startlingly beautiful sea because the water laps onto white stones that create the crystalline turquoise dappled effect you dream of. Wooden walkways on the beach keep your feet comfortably off the stones and there are plenty of sunbeds with towel service.

Mesmerizing to hear the water lapping, and stare across at Spinalonga  with its castle that once protected a city at nearby Elounda (4km). Later the island became a leper colony and even later won fame in Hislop’s bestseller. Wind swoops down out of a blue sky and lifts the hair…

Nearby is the spa, Blue Palace’s beach restaurant, and its Greek taverna. The main restaurant is way up to the top on the funicular, above the lobby. The gourmet restaurant is half way up the slope…

Restaurants at Blue Palace are not cheap – but we did try the  beach restaurant. Sadly service was quite surly. We came at 3pm (it closes at 4pm).

One of the best assets of Blue Palace is Plaka: just 5 or 10 minutes walk along the road. This is a really pleasant little fishing village, also built in natural stone, where in no time at all we met a man with a guitar once played by Jimmy Page; and were treated to raki, the pure and fiery cololourless liquid they make locally all over Crete. Come back and have a party, he urged. Play the guitar and the bazouki (?

The most magnificent thing about Blue Palace is its isolated position – with only delightful Plaka as a neighbour. Fresh fish and Greek traditional fare are nicely presented along the waterfront in simple but chic restaurants that have kept a traditional feel. Not too many tourist-hungry pizza signs in Plaka. Plenty of all that in Elounda…

Elounda is tourist town. Some call it the St Tropez of Crete. Lots of five star hotels. Designer shops. Lots of curio shops and even more restaurants competing to urge you in. Cheaper than Blue Palace. But not as relaxing.

Its a joy to return to our hotel. Now it is evening. We have new “designer” sunglasses. New hats. And we head for the wonderful terraces.

On a chillish night its best to retire to the Turkish nooks that line the bar area. They are intimate and magically lit with lanterns. Perfect spots for your wifi and evening mail.

But now it is time to retire, because morning in the superior bungalow with pool is simply wonderful, with sunlight streaming in and the terrace golden. We don’t want to sleep it away.

Our bungalow is actually a room in a long block. These traverse the slopes.  What is basically a long pool in front of a block is divided into private pools. Sunbeds on the floor of the terrace give privacy to your neighbours – but in some cases you see the pool rather than the sea from down there. Your own watery world.

The original hotel built in 2003 was added onto in 2006 with the south wing – among the flatroofed accomodations in terracotta or beige lies the Royal Blue Villa. Lady Gaga stayed there – or so I heard on the grape vine. Quite roomy, and quite stylishly simple with white furniture. Gone are the days when stars destroyed their hotels…

These days people destroy their hotels in Trip Advisor. Well, not pop stars – but ordinary people outraged by walls that block their views or not-so-honest marketing. We all mean well I think. We want to promote our products as we call hotels in the travel and hospitality business. We feel that pictures will CREATE reality. Perfect pictures. Perfect reality. Travel is all based on dreams…

That is the idea.

Managing expectations is quite another concept. If you dont promise too much they wont be disappointed.

That’s why I am grateful to Trip Advisor. So when I travel I will never expect too much…

I am only delighted, as I was with Blue Palace.

A magical place. Every moment perfect.