CRETE'S A TREAT; the Ancient Sun-Kissed Island Is Definitely in the Lap of the Gods

Article excerpt

Byline: VIVIENNE ALVES

IF it's good enough for a Greek god then it's probably good enough for the rest of us.

Legend has it the island of Crete was created as a playground for the young Greek god Zeus. The deities gave him mountains to climb, deep blue coves to splash about in and hillsides covered with aromatic herbs to explore.

Now Crete is our playground and there's so much on the island to remind you of its colourful and long history.

I started exploring in Heraklion, checking into the Royal Aldemar Royal Mare resort - a five-star hotel with a spa that's just what you need after a hard day on Mount Olympus (or transferring from the airport if you're a mere mortal).

The resort hotel in Heraklion is near ancient Minoan palaces, Roman antiquities, spectacular Byzantine churches from the Christian rule, Venetian fortresses and Ottoman (Turkish) buildings.

Just a few minutes' drive south of Heraklion is the remarkable Minoan palace of Knossos, one of the most visited archaeological sites in Greece.

The palace reveals fascinating legends, like the stories of the half-bull, half-human Minotaur, son of King Minos and a friend of god Zeus.

Significant findings from Knossos palace can be seen at the Archaeological Museum of Heraklion, in the centre of the city. Here you'll see figurines of the Snake Goddess and the double axes which used to be used as holy symbols of the Minoan civilisation.

The village of Arolithos (www.arolithosvillage.gr), on the old road 11km west of Heraklion, takes you back to the island's more recent past.

As you wander the narrow paths in the village you can see the traditional houses and find little Cretan shops to buy local products and handicrafts, perhaps try your hand at making mosaic tiles. Stop at the taverna for a glass of raki.

For a traditional Cretan dinner and dance visit Kato Karouzanos (www.karouzanos.gr).

Your evening meal is taken in the taverna, where you will watch a performance by traditional Cretan and Greek dancers in colourful costumes, the fire dance and Sirtaki Dance (like Zorba the Greek) are fabulous.

Prepare to be dragged up on the dance floor, to sweat and grind hips with the rather delectable dancers!

Try some of the traditional Cretan dishes like dakos or koukouvagia - round barley rusks soaked in olive oil with tomatoes, mizithra cheese and oregano on top. Seafood lovers won't be disappointed with dishes of cuttlefish and squid (tentacles, suckers and all). Then there are the plates of mussels and sea urchin - locally sourced and so fresh.

Cretan wine is plentiful and although it may not make f all over backwards the wine I enjoyed was smooth and drinkable.

Go for the Lefko/Villana white and the Kokkino/Latiko red wine. Raki, distilled from grape stems and pips left over from wine pressing, is served in carafes and is drunk by the locals to ease digestion. It has a smooth mellow taste and costs about pounds 3 for a mini-carafe.

My next stop on my Cretan holiday was Chania in the west, and arguably the most beautiful part of the island. Endless sandy beaches, wild landscape, mountains scattered with monasteries, towers, castles and archaeological sites.

Don't miss the archaelogical museum of Chania, a beautiful old church at 25 Halidon Street. The Minoan civilisation left behind a host of grand tombs, extraordinary ceramics and objects and these can be seen here.

Visit the town market of Chania for traditional Cretan buys such as herb-scented honey and eat at Karnagio, one of the best taverns at the centre of the Old Harbour.

Try and stay at the Milia Mountain retreat, an organic hotel created from a traditional settlement near the village of Vlatos.

It is built on a mountain slope which forms one side of a valley and is situated in an area unique for its expansive variety of plants and trees. …