THINGS have changed since the last time I was in Crete more than 20 years ago – and it’s all due to the new “Russian Revolution“.
In the late 80s, visits to the beaches and centres of antiquity usually meant encounters with fellow Brits, or at the very least other holidaymakers from Western Europe.
The easing up of travel restrictions for Russians and other Eastern Europeans, however, has meant a big surge in visitors from that part of the world – and for the hotels it’s big business.
And with the Greek economy in such a troubled state it’s no bad thing. But it’s strange to hear ‘‘da’’ and ‘‘nyet’’ rather than ‘‘yes’’ and ‘‘no’’ in the tavernas.
It’s hardly surprising, however, that with the boost in package holidays in Eastern Europe and the relaxing of Russian visa restrictions that Crete is a popular choice.
The largest of the Greek islands has so much going for it. It’s one of those destinations with guaranteed sunshine that allows you to chill out and do absolutely nothing or, if you hire a car, occupy the whole of your summer holiday exploring some intriguing Greek mythology, excellent historical sites or some beautiful countryside.
If you haven’t been for some years you will also find that the small mopeds which used to buzz around like demented wasps and were so popular with young holidaymakers have all but gone.
The bad news is that they have been replaced by quad bikes which, while quieter, slow down the traffic even more.
But at least they allow tourists to explore. And that’s the nice thing about Crete. It’s so big there are plenty of places to explore. Turn off the beaten track towards the sea and the chances are you will find a superb beach or deserted cove.
Turn inland and it won’t be long before you find one of the many traditional villages where elderly ladies still dress completely in black and often use donkeys as their main form of transport, usually riding side-saddle.
We came across a number of them when we headed for one of the higher points of the island, the Lasithi Plateau, a fertile plain entirely ringed by mountains where apples and pears, potatoes and tomatoes, lettuce, artichokes, almonds and much more are grown.
There was a time when white-sailed windmills were in abundance on the plain, and although they are still there their numbers have definitely diminished.
After a drive around the entire plateau we stopped off at the Dikti Cave with its numerous stalactites and stalagmites. It’s allegedly the birthplace of Zeus. and there is a stone ‘cradle’ there. At least you might think it’s a cradle if you screw up your eyes tightly, have a vivid imagination and have sampled the local raki first.
We stayed at an impressive five-star beach-front hotel a 25-minutes drive from the island’s capital, Heraklion.
Royal Mare is not the easiest property to find because it’s set in a hideaway position reached by narrow country lanes. But in many ways that adds to its charm because it’s away from the main road and away from – although within easy reach of – the main tourist areas.
The low rise hotel is spread over a vast area and is more like a small village, all built in traditional Greek style but combined with ultra modern facilities.
And because it’s so spread out there is never a feeling of it being overcrowded. Our spacious junior suite shared a pool with some six or seven other rooms but because the property has its own stretch of beach – not to mention two vast swimming pools – there were days when we had it to ourselves.
Royal Mare boasts some 25 shared and private pools so the traditional scramble for sun loungers around the water doesn’t happen.
And on the subject of water, those of us lucky enough to be in junior suites had the advantage of being able to enjoy a superb buffet breakfast each morning at Candia, an open-sided restaurant built on stilts in the middle of a blue lagoon and looking – apart from the traditional Greek fishing boat – like a scene from somewhere in the South Pacific. Those blissfully warm relaxing mornings will stay with me for a long time.
There is a wide choice of restaurants for dinner, and if you are looking for something special you can sample the open-air Sushi bar, the excellent Albatros beach restaurant or push the boat out and eat a la carte at the El Greco.
But perhaps what also makes Royal Mare special – apart from these features and its award-winning Thalasso Centre – is the staff, who always seem to have a smile for you and are always prepared to go that extra mile.
The nearest main town to the hotel is Hersonissos, although it was far too touristy for my liking.