Think you know Crete? Think again. Stylist’s editor-in-chief Lisa Smosarski is captivated by the island’s charms at the picture-perfect Domes of Elounda resort
“There are two hot tubs!” I shouted across the suite. “We have two hot tubs in our hotel room!” I ran from the bathroom to the balcony, where my husband stood, smiling. “There are more hot tubs than toilets,” he whispered. We laughed. We like hot tubs.
This glut of hot tubs (indoor and outdoor) was the finishing touch to our suite in Domes of Elounda, a luxurious resort hotel on the eastern edge of Crete, the largest of the Greek islands. I’d never been excited by the prospect of Crete, put off by its reputation as an Eighties resort, eclipsed by the glitzy reputations of the smaller isles. Forty minutes into our drive from the airport, I realised just how wrong I’d been. As we approached the resort of Elounda (every one of the villages the town is made up of has 10 different spellings, a sat-nav challenge), I was in awe. Olive tree-flanked beaches curved around a gulf of turquoise water, and alongside this paradise was our hotel, a village of terracotta domed suites, dotted over the hills.
With 80 suites and 40 villas set over 10 acres, Domes of Elounda is expansive, and golf buggies ferry guests from the original part of the property to the more recent development. On the ‘old side’, domed suites overlook the sea and sit beside the spa, adults-only pool and three of the five restaurants; this is honeymoon territory. The newer side of the resort is dominated by a huge freshwater pool (and two smaller kids’ pools), a bar and stylish restaurant, and a different vibe –contemporary design with primary-coloured basket chairs, daybeds and squishy pillows; chill-out music and large suites with kitchenettes, catering more to families.
A hill and helipad divide the two areas. This graceful segregation enables the resort to cater to both families and couples without either party treading on the other’s toes.
Our suite was on the ‘old’ side – a plush sitting room and cosy bedroom which opened on to a large balcony. But the most stunning thing about our room was the view. Smooth terracotta domes sharply contrasting against the intense blue sea and, in the distance, the lush green island of Spinalonga. It was like staring at a postcard day and night.
There is a lot to do in Crete, from trekking the Samaria Gorge, and exploring the beaches (Vai, two hours away, once starred in a Bounty advert), to the archeological ruins of Knossos, thought to be the oldest European city. We, I’m ashamed to say, did none of this, such was the appeal of our hotel and its beautiful private sandy beach. We did make it to Agios Nikolaos, a pretty town 20 minutes drive away, and neighbouring Spinalonga. Now uninhabited, the island houses the haunting remains of a leper colony (1903-1957), and the ruins of a fortress which saw centuries of battles. More recently it has inspired authors such as Victoria Hislop and Ali Smith, so we took a £35 speedboat from our hotel beach and went exploring.
After the excitement of leaving our resort, we retreated to the spa, where my husband and I had a Cretan Couple’s Massage. I could have done without seeing him in a paper g-string, but the 90 minutes of exfoliation, facial, hamam and massage were utterly relaxing.
When we weren’t lounging in Elounda, we were eating. Half-board is a good deal, a feast morning and night in one of the two buffet restaurants. Mesoyios was our favourite, with themed evening menus (Mexican, Greek and Arabian). Breakfast was huge and enticing – creamy Greek yogurt with thyme, honey and fresh fruit, eggs every way, pancakes and piles of cakes. At lunch the same restaurant served pizza and huge salads, and the hotel’s beachside seafood taverna, Topos 1910, offered fresh fish, baked feta and warm bread. The nearby villages of Plaka and Elounda are lined with charming tavernas too, serving freshly caught octopus and cheese pies, kalitsounia, which I became a bit too addicted to. The local wine is worth a mention too. We tucked into rather a lot of the genuinely good Cretan organic rosé.
Every night, heading back to our suite, slightly tipsy and full of food, we reflected on what an amazing short-haul destination this is. Stunning beaches, warm seawater, great design, good wine, plentiful food – and more hot tubs than you could possibly need.
Doubles at Domes of Elounda (mrandmrssmith.com) start from £470 per night
Greek island Airbnbs to soak up the sun, not your budget
Patitiri Cave House, Santorini
Tucked into a maze of tiny alleyways in the heart of Santorini, this is a rustic but charming base for exploring this stunning island. Cave houses are traditional Santorinian dwellings carved into volcanic rock and this quirky two-roomed house (the dining room is outside) has a double bedroom accessed via step ladder. It’s precarious but fun, with access to a stunning rooftop pool, bar and barbecue. A 10-minute drive from the town of Fira and the caldera sunset, it’s an affordable way to stay on the pricey island of Santorini.
Airbnb.co.uk/rooms/3973281; from £112 per night
Iris Villa, Rethymno, Crete
This sleek, modern three-bedroom apartment is a great base for a family or group of friends, located near the city of Rethymno. The garden backs onto a pretty pebble beach, but you can also lounge by your private pool, before stoking the barbecue. Rethymno is all weaving alleyways lined with restaurants, shops and gelaterias, and the old fort is beautiful at sunset. But the best restaurants are closer to the villa – foodies travel for miles to Prima Plora (primaplora.gr). Don’t miss trekking the Kourtaliotis River gorge, Samaria Gorge and Elafonissi beach.
Airbnb.co.uk/rooms/3859121; from £153 per night