Crete: Brendan O'Connor finds the best of both worlds in Greece
The swim-up room was a stroke of genius. The key is not to think of it as a pool next to your room. The way to imagine it is this - it's as if they put your hotel room next to the swimming pool.
So basically the kids can be messing around in the pool and you can be there enjoying all the amenities of the room, once one of you is on the patio at any one time. In fact, if you organised it correctly, you could actually be lying on the bed while monitoring the pool. This was all aided and abetted by the fact that they put a few cans of beer into your fridge every day. It also means you don't have to deal with other people when you don't want to. You could essentially be on holidays without leaving the room.
But of course we had to leave the room a bit. The Atlantica Sensatori Resort in Crete is the usual TUI set up. Set in a picturesque beachside location with several pools, including a kids' one with slides and whatnot, so you can move around and get a change of scenery. There's a kids' club with competent young people whom you'd trust with your little ones. There's entertainment in the evening, where the elder daughter and myself enjoyed a night or two a deux, and lots of bars with incredible sea views of that special azure sea and sky you get in the Greek islands. So whatever about having to leave your room, you could have a great holiday without leaving the compound, where you also have food and drink on tap as part of the all-inclusive package.
The great thing about TUI is they don't just plonk the place there and obliterate the local texture. There was great Greek food every day and you could step outside the door and wander along the seafront and up to the quaint local village. And several towns were a cheap taxi ride away. The hustle and bustle of well-loved Hersonissos is only 5km away.
In our case, as the kids are getting a bit older, we are finding that the all-inclusive family resort is a great base, but it is possible to venture out occasionally and take in a bit of the flavours of Greece. We even went on an excursion this time. Though I'll admit you're usually glad to get back to the all-embracing hug of the resort after a few hours.
I was wandering around one day and idly looking at what was on offer at an excursions shop, when the girl from the shop came out. I was in relaxed holiday form so I chatted away idly with her. Then I explained I wouldn't be going on any excursions because I had two kids who would get bored too quickly in a hot bus and walking around looking at ruins or whatever. Within minutes she had convinced me that for a little over €100 we could have a half-day trip with a driver. We wouldn't have to go far she explained, suggesting driving north to the pretty port town of Agios Nikolaos and then a swim at the posh resort area of Elounda. The weather wasn't supposed to be great on Thursday so I decided why not.
I didn't realise that the girl from the shop was to be our tour guide until she rocked up to the hotel on Thursday in her hot pants and high heels. And we were off. Her tour guiding was unusual but to be honest it was my kind of tour guiding.
An Albanian married to a Cretan, she basically spent the first hour ranting at us about how religious Cretans are and how crazy it all was. She detailed her struggles to call her daughter a name that was not on the proscribed list of saints' names before segueing into how cheap it is to have a wedding in Greece - lots of detail on that one. She stopped whenever we felt like it, so when we spotted the Monastery of St George Selinari at the side of a mountain, she pulled in and said she'd stay in the car with the kids while we wandered up for a look around.
When we came back down and I casually said that you could see why these guys might choose to live in these beautiful places with no troubles at all, she got a bit cross with me. This woman did not like the church. Or maybe she just didn't like me talking when she could have been talking. Agios Nikolaos is a lovely pretty spot on the water, with a kind of Venetian aspect to it, but also with plenty of bars for the English tourists. But somehow the innate charm of Greece hasn't been eliminated here either.
She brought us on to Elounda then, a chic spot where the likes of Lady Gaga have villas, all the while pointing out the stuff you really want to see, like the amazing houses and the posh hotels. We ended up out at the edge of a causeway on a tiny little stone beach where we swam in what seemed like a weird lake until I thought I saw some kind of sea monster and we legged it. When I demanded that we go to the charming little town for a beer before heading home I could see she was getting impatient but she sucked it up. Having taken in a bit of local colour, it was nice to come home to the buffet and the free beer. The best of both worlds really.
Most of our other outings were walks up the seafront at Analipsi, stopping in to the tiny fishermen's chapels to light candles for various grandparents. Then we might visit the seafront bar with the mini playground, where we had a beer while they played.
The Cretans in general couldn't be more hospitable. One evening we walked up to Analipsi village and had a drink, and before long the kids from the bar had included our kids in the playing, and the owner was bringing us out raki. We were the only tourists there as the life of the little town went on around us. I almost wished I was on Instagram so I could show everyone how I was living like a local.
We took a wrong turn on the way home and stumbled on this van outside a church where a guy was making simple skewers of really spicy meat. You could get a bunch of them and some bread for a few euros. The crowd around it were dodgy-enough looking, but we sat down with them at the formica table and smiled and thumbs-upped each other as we all tucked in. They seemed happy that we were eating up with such relish.
I had started to wonder this year if we have outgrown family resorts. And should we start going a bit more off piste. But I think we found a new way of engaging with the holiday at Atlantica Sensatori, where we enjoyed the unique relaxation you get at an all-in resort, while also managing to have a few mini adventures.
We developed this lovely habit in the evenings after dinner just as the sun was going down of going out on to the beach, deserted at this time of day, in front of the hotel and having a little swim in the blue light of the dusk. I thought of it as a little stolen moment at the end of the day.
You could have been anywhere. But we were always glad to have our big fluffy hotel towels with us, and to walk back across the road into our home from home.
TUI SENSATORI Resort Crete by Atlantica: As the first Sensatori resort, this place paved the way for all the others. The luxurious rooms range from doubles to family rooms and suites, and most are available with sea views, private pools or swim-up entrances.
Where Sensatori Resort Crete really excels is in the entertainment. It's the best you'll find at any TUI hotel. See tuiholidays.ie/f/greece/crete/heraklion-area/lyttos-beach/hotels/tui-sensatori-resort-crete-by-atlantica.
Prices: All-inclusive from €1,297pp (2 sharing) (save €230pp); family deals from €3,168 (2+1) or €4,302 (2+2). Flights to Heraklion leave Dublin Airport every Saturday from May 20, 2018.
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