Creating the perfect singles' spot in Crete
The Mistral provides 'sociable holidays for the independent traveller', where one can find love -- or great company and delicious food, says Gemma Fullam
It's not often you meet an Adonis at the airport, and a red-haired one at that. Adonis, the Titian-haired Cretan who greeted me warmly at Chania, was my transport to the Mistral Hotel in Maleme, a small village 20km west.
The Mistral is a hotel with an unusual USP: sociable holidays for the independent traveller. It's not necessarily exclusively for single people looking for love, although romantic attachments have been, and are, formed there; indeed, there have been several Mistral weddings.
To my mind, the big pluses of staying at the Mistral are the friendliness of the guests and the communal dinner in the evenings (half board is the normal arrangement). I lost my luggage en route and I hadn't been at the hotel for more than five minutes when not one, but three separate ladies came over with offers of clothing, suncream and toiletries; it's that kind of place.
The hotel is owned and run by the Gialamarakis family, which includes Vassilis and his brother, the aforementioned Adonis, both of whom are passionate about Crete, their hotel and the environment. Adonis also tends the hotel's large organic vegetable garden, part of the reason the food on offer is so delicious.
Nearby is the large town of Chania, which dates back to 69BC. Today, the most striking architectural influences are from the 13th-Century Venetian period of occupation. There is a wealth of natural and historical sites to be explored in this picturesque town -- the harbour is a must see -- while the alleyways reveal myriad tiny workshops that ply traditional crafts such as pottery, wood working, embroidery and weaving.
There are numerous day trips available; one, which everybody raved about, is the fish lunch: first, a trip to Falasarna beach -- there is currently an archaeological dig in the area -- and then on to Sfinari for lunch. I met several people who have returned to the Mistral seven or eight years running, and, so good is it, the fish lunch is the one trip they repeat year after year.
The dig at Falasarna is fascinating: the city of Falasarna itself was founded in the 6th Century BC, while its port, home to pirates, is the oldest known port in Crete.
Due to the biggest earthquake in the history of the Mediterranean in 365 AD, which lifted the entire landmass of western Crete -- nine metres higher above sea level today -- the port of Falasarna was transported inland. It's quite fascinating to gaze upon the large holes carved in rock where the pirates of long ago tied up their ships. The city was subsequently abandoned, so the ruins there are something of a time tunnel into the past.
Following a leisurely dip in the turquoise waters of the bay, it was on to the Sunset Taverna for the celebrated fish lunch. The taverna overlooks a small pebbly beach, and a large, long table had been laid, awaiting our arrival. The taverna, owned by Ioannis Baladakis, is supplied with fish by Ioannis's son, Nikos. Nikos is a largely self-taught freediver; he dives -- sans oxygen tank -- for up to three minutes at a time and, essentially, he's a fish whisperer. He has learnt to mimic the behaviour and sounds of the large, shy grouper fish, and, having charmed them, he then spears them through the brain, killing them instantly.
The meal at the Sunset was one piscatorial delight after another: barbecued cuttlefish stuffed with herbs and homemade feta; kakavia, a sublime fish soup, thick with chunks of black snapper; the aforementioned grouper fish; all of which was accompanied by pickled Cretan seaweed, organically grown salads, dollops of homemade yoghurt, and mounds of rustic bread, homegrown olives, and of course, vats of Greek wine. A delight.
Excursion wise, it's probably better to mix relaxing by one of the hotel's two pools, savouring the Mistral's convivial atmosphere, with the various trips available.
For activity lovers, snorkelling and diving can be arranged at the hotel with Fun Dive, which operates from nearby Platanias. I had a morning's snorkelling for €25, and, in addition to the expected fish, I also saw a submerged plane, shot down during the war. Indeed, there are reminders of the Second World War everywhere in Crete -- in transit from the airport, we passed the expansive Souda Bay, which played a strategic role in the Battle of Crete, the 70th anniversary of which was commemorated in May.
If you're a Second World War enthusiast, a little road behind the Mistral leads to the German Cemetery, where more than 4,000 men who fell in the Battle of Crete are buried. Walking among the graves is a moving experience; most of the soldiers were no more than 20.
A trip to Samaria Gorge, an area of outstanding beauty, leaves from the hotel daily. The walk is mostly downhill and in shade but, at 16km, it's not for the faint-hearted or unfit. Crete in the summer months is fiercely hot, and the gorge can be quite crowded at this time too, so spring or late autumn is probably a better time to go, both in terms of flora and fauna, and solitude.
Other trips include the former leper island of Spinalonga; a day cruise to the volcanic island of Santorini; Elafonisi and the cave of Saint Sophia; Heraklion and the Palace of Knossos; and a boat trip to Gramvousa and Balos lagoon, which is idyllic.
Speaking of idyllic, I passed a delightfully relaxing morning with Anne Edwards, who runs watercolour classes at the Mistral. I hadn't painted in years, but picked up several neat tips from the gregarious Anne.
Eight o'clock strikes. Dinner, the main event of the day, is served. Everyone sits at long communal tables, the food is sublime, the banter begins and friendships are forged. And, if you're lucky, you might even meet an Adonis.
Mistral Singles, Maleme, Chania, Crete, tel: (0030 28210) 62062, or see www.singlesincrete.com.
The Mistral runs various themed weeks during the year, including a photography week from October 18 to 25. If you're connecting through Gatwick, the Holiday Inn Express Gatwick -- Crawley is an ideal place to stay overnight. Tel (0044 1293) 523-523, or see www.hiexpresscrawley.co.uk. For Fun Dive details, Platanias, see www.fundive.gr.
Sunday Indo Living