Sunday, June 19, 2011

WE HAVE JUST BEEN TO: Crete, part 3, Blue Palace

This is a blue and dazzling world. By the iconic arches and infinity pool, the terraces of Blue Palace stretch out with sofas and endless sunbeds. Distinguishing, memorable. The international set chill out here in serenity induced by views. Communing with laptops via wifi – which is free on the terraces and by Arsenali bar.

Way down below is the turquoise sea – very rich and startling turquoise. Like a dollop in the blue you see the hump of Spinalonga island and muse upon mysteries. It is 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 enjoy blissful privacy, sun and views…from early in the morning.

Or you could take the funicular down to the sea. Startlingly beautiful turquoise sea because the water laps onto white pebbles. Wooden walkways on the beach keep your feet comfortably off the stones and there are plenty of sunbeds with towel service. You enter the water from a bathing pier.

Mesmerizing to hear the water lapping, and stare across at Spinalonga with its castle that once protected an ancient city at nearby Elounda. And another castle built by the Venetians when they ruled Crete in the 1500s. Much later the island became a leper colony and even later won fame in Victoria Hislop’s bestseller “The Island”.

By the beach is yet another infinity pool. Nearby is the resort's thalassotherapy spa, beach restaurant, and 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…

And then – you can dine at 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 colourless liquid they make locally all over Crete. “Come back and have a party…play the guitar,” he urged.

Fresh fish and Greek traditional fare are nicely presented along the Plaka waterfront in simple but chic restaurants that have kept a traditional feel. Not too many pizza signs in Plaka. Plenty of all that and whatever you want to eat in Elounda, 4km away.

Elounda is a lively tourist town with a pretty harbor full of painted fishing boats. Some call it the St Tropez of Crete. Lots of five star hotels on the fringes. Designer shops. Others that sell copies. Curio shops and even more restaurants competing to urge you in. Some very reasonable prices these days…

But it is a joy to return to the serenity and beauty of our hotel. Now it is evening. We have new “designer” sunglasses. New panama hats. And we head for the wonderful terraces.

On a warm starry night you sit or lie out there and stare at the sky. Or 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.

Magical evening on the terrace

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.

Superior Bungalow pool luxury

Bungalow accommodations are side by side in blocks with natural stone walls dividing the terraces – classic stonework is one of the signatures of the famous architect who created Blue Palace 10 years ago. Our party had two interleading superior bungalow rooms – each a generous size of 40sqm. We shared a pool and our terraces were connected by double doors, making a spacious terrace that was hard to leave. Other rooms in our block did not have shared pools, but they were smaller.

D├ęcor is very comfortable and classical with some sunbleached earthy colours, and marble bathrooms with bathtub and shower cabinet. In the South Wing built a few years later there are also bungalow rooms – of a similar size but with more contemporary features.

We were shown over a few rooms to see how the other half lived. Mediterranean maisonettes had a bright feel – with and without pools (higher category than our bungalow).

Junior suite

Royal Blue Villa - many a celebrity has had this view from their pool

Villas are few and prized by those who can afford them – among which are some famous names. Top of the line with best position is the Royal Blue Villa. The only things blue there are the infinity pool meeting the sky and some intricate tiles. Otherwise it is mostly white with white drapes on the four poster bed and pristine white lounge.

All in all there are 251 rooms, suites and private villas, 142 with private pools. All have terraces or balconies. With only delightful Plaka as a neighbor, Blue Palace has a magnificent position tiered down the slope with a backdrop of unspoilt mountains. Most rooms have great sea views.

Service is a good standard, and friendly. The omelet lady at breakfast looked a little somber but when we returned the next day to order one of her Mediterranean omelets full of chopped tomato and herbs her face broke into a blush of pleasure – so happy to be liked. Car valet service excellent… (we had a hire car which was very neat and handy).

For kids there is a private kids club, kids pool, kids menus and babysitting service. Other facilities include tennis, gym and water sports.

With a paper from the excellent concierge service at Blue Palace in hand we visited some interesting spots. We could have taken boat trips to Spinalonga and other islands, had picnics. Bathed romantically among rose petals. Or headed off for the hills. More about that later…

1 hour by car from Heraklion International Airport. Helicopter transfers possible as the resort has a helipad.


Trendy traditional restaurant in Agios Nikolaos - 12 km from Blue Palace
Pacifae restaurant on mythical "The Lake"

Buying sunglasses - familiar design

Back at the beach - sparkling blue and white

Plaka - old stone fishing village offers dining and a teeny bit of shopping

Traditional fishing boats in the harbour at Elounda

An ancient olive in the hills behind

And an Orthodox church - with flower garden

Wednesday, June 8, 2011

WE HAVE JUST BEEN TO CRETE, part 2, Elounda Mare

Bungalows with private pools, lost in beautiful gardens among a labyrinth of paths and stone walls. Rocks and flowers creating a hidden world along a turquoise sea. The main building of this boutique hotel lies behind with bar, restaurant and further tasteful and distinctive accommodation.

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

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

Winding paths lead along the water, and under the arches of trees. You find two more rustic restaurants in the gardens and by the sea, a dainty chapel, and a small shopping gallery with designer boutiques. There is also a sandy private beach on the property and other secluded sunbathing spots on stone platforms by the turquoise water.

Secluded Beach and Yacht Club restaurant
Further restaurants and facilities lie at two sister hotels a walk or free shuttle ride away, 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 Elounda. The maitre d’s face showed plain relief when we asked him the way to the lobby and he realized he didn’t have to tell us that jeans and T-shirts would not do at dinner.

Large seawater pool and main building with bar and main restaurant

Lunch is more casual. Hotel Manager Harry Maranghides went so far as to take off his jacket and tie when he lead us to lunch at the Yacht Club, just to make a younger member of our party feel at ease. Classy - but friendly and not stuffy - that is Elounda Mare.

It was May and we didn’t see any children. But children are welcome and families can make good use of the facilities at Porto Elounda – a family hotel also owned by the Kokotos family.


There are 36 bungalows with one, two or three bedrooms hidden away in the gardens and 46 rooms and suites in the main building. Our favourite was our very own Superior Bungalow – with heated seawater pool and perfect sea view. Lounge and two bedrooms en suite all had views of the pool and the sea. The master bedroom sported a Jacuzzi bath, rain shower with all sorts of adventurous water surprises, 2 separate toilets adjoining the main bathroom (toilet also in the second bathroom).

Lashings of marble in our bungalow bathrooms

The pool and patio 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. Over Mirabello Bay lay the mountains, bathed in the orange light of the setting sun, rugged and alluring. In the mornings hazy ...

Our pool was heated making possible early morning refreshers and moonlight swims.

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 and our views were perfect.

Minoan Royalty 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. Others have own gym and sauna.

The interior of all rooms has a similar charm. Typical Cretan cottage style with rippled white walls, warm colours 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.

In the main building we liked the views from a one-bedroom suite on the top floor. Two balconies and the same attractive Cretan decor.

Still, for the best of Elounda Mare's hideaway feel - we insist you take a bungalow...

Welcome to our hideaway - superior bungalow no. 2

Paths and gardens by turquoise sea

The stone walkway - with secluded bathing spots

Magic of moonlit night emerges - from our terrace

Arches, flowers and natural stone - maze where you find your bungalow

View from a one-bedroom suite looking over the gardens to Elounda Peninsula

Serene, homely, delicious breakfast - combination a la carte & buffet
We enjoyed a perfect vegetarian meal with Harry at the Yacht Club restaurant overlooking the private beach - under an ancient Carob tree. Behind is the real Greek Orthodox church built by architect owner Mr Kokotos. Over the years Spyros Kokotos has designed some 40 hotels in Greece.

“Mr Kokotos 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.) Grandchildren of Mrs Eliana Kokotos (CEO) have been christened in these chapels. It is popular with British guests in particular to have a civil marriage at Elounda Mare, 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.

Crete has a way with vegetables - reaching perfection at the Yacht Club

Death by chocolate - melting wonder at the Yacht Club

Harry and Alona Johnson-Ferguson say goodbye at the reception


50 minutes by car from Heraklion International Airport. Helicopter transfer available

Note: Snaphots during our stay by Select team and Aleah Stanbridge. Click for larger versions