And, rather regretfully, we’re back. What an incredibly reinvigorating time we’ve had Greek Island Hopping. I knew the work would have piled up for our return and so I wouldn’t have much time to write about it but so many of you have asked for tips and information that I’ve been putting notes together as we’ve gone along. It means that this post might be a little less lyrical than I’d like it to be and I’ll have to spilt our trip into three parts over the next few Tuesdays but at least it will give you a few ideas so let’s go – a midlife guide to Greek Island Hopping.
Midlife Greek Island Hopping – how it all came about
As you know, this has been a seminal summer for us. When your last child is preparing to fledge you have more time to focus on them than you did with the others and it all made me think back to my own final summer at home. My pre-university summer was a wonderful one. I went to Lancaster Girls’ Grammar School, he’s been at the boys’ and as we emerged from lockdown, he was able to spend long, heady days with his close knit group of friends from both schools. His summer mirrored mine so closely that I felt I could almost reach out and touch my youth. The difference of course has been that they weren’t able to travel. As soon as my A Levels were over I headed off on an interrailing adventure with three of my closest friends for a month. We still laugh at the adventures we had and as mothers ourselves gasp at how naive we were and the many near misses that helped us to go off to university a little more streetwise than we were before.
We travelled through France, Switzerland, Italy, across to Greece and its islands, then up through Yugoslavia before heading back to France again and home. This was back in 1985 and innocents that we were, we’d planned budgets of £5 a day each which had to cover accommodation, food and anything else. To save money we slept in all kinds of places – on harbours and station platforms, on the terraces of closed cafes and ferry decks. On the 52 hour trip from Athens to Venice we survived on a watermelon and a bag of tomatoes. As you can imagine we were starving by the time we hit St Mark’s Square so we ordered fancy gelatos at the first cafe we saw because surely ice cream couldn’t be expensive? Of course it took our whole budget for two days so, like something out of Dickens, we spent the rest of our time coasting round the canalside restaurants, seizing on any bread leftover on tables before the waiters could take it away.
There are so many stories that I could go on forever but as I’ve thought back to it all this summer, I couldn’t help dwelling on our favourite bit which we always agree was Greek Island Hopping. And then, checking my emails one morning when we were over in Newcastle I saw an invitation for a press trip – a Greek Island cruise. Excitedly nudging Mr MC awake I started to read through the details… everything would be paid for… all I had to give in return was an honest review. And then my heart sank. The dates were 7th – 14th August, a week which held both the middle boy’s birthday and the youngest’s 18th but also A Level results day. I’m proud of myself when I say that I didn’t even hesitate to turn it down (despite initial vehement protestations from Mr MC) and I was rewarded when the usually nonchalant youngest said to his dad rather plaintively, “but surely I’m better than a free cruise?” (Mr MC tactfully stifled his instinctive response!).
Even so, in my head it confirmed that the Greek Islands were calling me and it was the right time to make a trip there if we possibly could. But how? Covid rates were surging, the red and amber lists were switching around like ever changing traffic lights and even though I had a rough idea of what we’d like to do, having just taken two weeks off work I really didn’t have time to start planning a complex journey like that. So I sent out a few enquiries to travel agents who claim to specialise in Greek Island trips… people like Sunvil and Neilson along with a few others. Lots of them didn’t even bother to reply, others came back and insisted that we’d have to go on one of their pre-arranged itineraries, Trailfinders came up with exactly what we wanted but at a cost of almost £4,000 and then along came a little company with exactly what we wanted and at the right price too. At the moment I’m hoping they might offer a discount to Midlifechic readers so I’ll tell you about them in the last of this series of posts.
So let’s just quickly flash back to us leaving home because we’d had a busy time. August was unusually hectic for me because there’s been a lot of real-time analysis and reporting to be done as we’ve come out of lockdown. The zeitgeist is changing constantly and I’m having to work out what the national appetite is for retail but also overlay the context of shortages, inflation, distribution issues etc. It meant that not only was I catching up after our Newcastle stay but having put another 17 days away in the diary, I had to work forward as well.
At the same the youngest was showing no enthusiasm for packing for uni, it wasn’t that he didn’t want to go, more that he was having a great time here and living in the moment so he required a lot of chivvying and urging on. All of this meant that I didn’t have time to think about the holiday at all – none of the usual researching places to go, build up of anticipation or even wardrobe planning (unheard of as you know). I was chained to my desk for endless hours while Mr MC did everything: ordering the PCR tests, checking through all of the plans, sorting the pets out, emptying the fridge and at one point, as I despaired about what I was going to put in my suitcase, he even offered to pack for me but at that I drew the line!
We dropped the boy off at uni on the Sunday and felt utterly miserable so still couldn’t dredge up any excitement for our break. Because we had an early flight we left home the night before and stayed at The Bulls Head in Hale Barns which is a lovely pub just a five minute drive away from Manchester Airport. I haven’t got time to say much about it but I 100% recommend it if you’re flying from Manchester, it’s now our preferred place for a pre-flight stay.
Midlife guide to Greek Island Hopping Part 1 – Crete
So, we arrived at the airport at 5am, bleary eyed and a lot of people have asked about the airport experience post-lockdown – it was efficient and seamless, much easier than usual. The problem I had was that there were shadows of family holidays at every corner. It was the first time I’d really had a chance to feel it all and all I could think was that the boys were missing. I really wanted to enjoy the usual airport excitement, especially after lockdown but it wasn’t there and as our gate was announced I felt almost reluctant to go. The flight was straightforward and one of my favourite holiday moments is always the first breath of foreign air as the doors open but this time it just felt alien.
As you know, we usually book our own villa and a hire car to collect at the airport but this time we’d opted for hotels and transfers all the way. It was very strange to sit on a coach with other people and have to tour round various resorts. We were some of the last to be dropped off and as we approached our destination the hair on the back of my neck rose because we drove through Heronissos, a drag that would give Magaluf a run for its money.
Fortunately the coach turned right and headed up the mountain into a village, dropping us and our bags in a square with a vague wave up a dusty track in the direction of our hotel. The weather was grey, in fact it was colder than it had been at home. As we dragged our bags into reception my heart sank because there were big boards for Jet2 and Tui advertising events and day trips. We were taken to our room which was fine – clean but very shabby and outdated. The rest of the complex felt the same so, top tip on booking accommodation when you’re Greek Island Hopping, make sure it isn’t servicing the big tour operators. They tend to focus so much on yield and turnaround that the places are worn to the ground and most of the soul has been standardised out of them.
Anyway we began to unpack and of course it took Mr MC no time at all. I had a system worked out with different packing cubes for different parts of the trip but as I dug through my suitcase my pulse started to race. Even when I’d taken everything out, my bag of HRT was nowhere to be seen. And at the back of my mind lurked a memory of putting it in the bathroom before we left so that I wouldn’t forget it! Mr MC’s face turned grey and I, who am usually so calm in a crisis, just couldn’t think what to do.
I looked at my NHS app but ever since I went to the Newson Clinic I’ve had an endless battle trying to get my GP to put my prescription on repeat and they still haven’t done it so there was nothing I could show a Greek doctor. Sifting through my emails I found a Newson Clinic letter and so we rushed to reception only to be told there was no doctor or pharmacy in the village, we’d have to walk down to the main tourist drag we’d travelled through. Suddenly we were glad of the cold grey weather as we practically sprinted down the hill.
In the first pharmacy we were met by a grim faced midlife woman who told us that HRT was made unavailable in Greece two years ago. There was nothing she could do to help and I sensed a definite moment of schadenfreude as she watched my face fall. So we went outside and I sent an urgent message off to Newson Health to see if they would be able to help, figuring that I can’t have been the only befuddled midlife woman to have found herself in this predicament. The autoreply told me that they would be back to me within 72 hours – which took us beyond the weekend and into the following week so I needed to think of something else.
We carried on walking and eventually came to another pharmacy… it was worth trying again I thought… even if they had some old stock left over I’d take it. We were served by a smiling young man with very good English who agreed that HRT wasn’t prescribed in Greece and that it was very unfair. “I used to work in Boots in Wandsworth,” he told us, “and it was one of our high volume prescriptions, I could see what it did for the women there.” He looked at Mr MC’s anxious face, scratched his head, read my Newson prescription again and said he had an idea… and that he’d email me if he could pull it off.
And so we hiked back up to our village to wait – a glass of wine seemed in order. I was feeling scruffy and unwashed because having seen the sudden change in weather in Crete before we left I hadn’t chanced my nice airport outfit and was still wearing what I’d had on for hoovering and throwing bleach down the loos before we left home. It wasn’t feeling like a good start to the holiday…
Hush jumper SS18
… but then, an email dropped in. I opened it anxiously. Our sympathetic pharmacist had somehow managed to get my prescription fulfilled in Italy – to arrive in Crete at 3pm the following day! We were back on track. I’ve no idea how it would have affected me not to have it for almost three weeks but of course it’s never a good idea to stop any kind of medication suddenly and this certainly wasn’t the time I wanted to send my hormone levels crashing. And even though I’m usually a big fan of the Newson Clinic I can only say that they were absolutely useless in this situation; without reading my desperate email properly they issued a new prescription to be sent to our house in the UK at great cost and when I finally got through to someone, they simply shrugged and said there was nothing they could do.
The following day we arrived at the pharmacy at our allotted time, ready to thank my HRT hero but he wasn’t there. Instead there were two stony faced midlife ladies who demanded to know know where my prescription had come from. When I showed that it was a private English clinic they reluctantly handed over the goods (at a cost of almost 200 Euros but I was happy to pay it) and we left before they could change their minds. I so hope I haven’t got that helpful young pharmacist into trouble – HRT is clearly a big issue in Greece. Anyway, I’m running out of time so I must crack on with my Midlife guide to Greek Island Hopping Part 1 – Crete.
Midlife guide to Greek Island Hopping Part 1 – Crete
The reason I wanted to stay in Crete first was for the culture. I knew we were going to be feeling a bit odd so I figured it would be good to be busy while our minds and hearts settled. We were staying in the east, in a village called Koutouloufari and I’ve already said a little about the hotel, Galaxy Villas. So would I recommend it as a location? Actually yes – if you’re going to be out and about and busy during the day because it’s well located and the village has a choice of about thirty good restaurants to choose from. We realised at breakfast that even though there was a pool with nice gardens we weren’t going to want to spend our days at the hotel. The other guests seemed to be there on two week packages, alliances had been made, sunbeds reserved and they were already ordering large beers with their breakfast. So we quickly made a plan to go straight out and hire a car, we were keen to explore after all – and off we went.
Over the five days that we were there, we explored as much of the eastern end of the island as as we could – the south and north coasts as well as the interior. In the end though Crete wasn’t what we’d hoped it would be. We have so many friends who rave about it that I think our expectations were perhaps too high. It’s a large island, two thirds the size of the UK and some parts of it are quite industrial, others are very touristy. We found we had to work quite hard and drive a lot of miles to find the Crete of our dreams but I’ll bring you the best bits.
Eastern Crete – Highlights
The Lasithi Plateau
Our first day was spent up in the mountains in the heart of the island. As someone who is ornophobic it was a bit scary driving higher and higher around the hairpin bends towards the bearded vultures who were whirling and swooping over the peaks. We passed the cave where Zeus is supposed to have been born and saw Crete’s famous windmills…
We love mountains but even this interior part of Crete was commercialised and most villages had a calculating eye for tourists which wasn’t surprising because they were there by the coach-load. In the end we stopped for lunch in beautiful Mohos and were glad we had, the town square was quiet and we could feel ourselves slowly beginning to unwind.
I’m not sure why Mohos wasn’t as touristy as the other villages we passed through, perhaps because it comes at the end of the circular tour round the plateau – we noticed that buses were slowing for people to take photos through the windows but not stopping there.
Boden dress SS21
We’d heard a lot about Agios Nikolaos because it’s a key destination in Crete. It’s a large, pretty town although quite commercial and it was expensive compared with most of the other places we visited. However we really enjoyed Kitroplatis beach which is lined with tavernas and it was here on our second day that we had our first simple fresh fish lunch by the sea…
… it came with Cretan Dakos, a dry rusk soaked with fresh tomatoes and topped with feta…
… followed by a free glass of Tsipouro which is distilled from grape must at harvest time. It’s a bit like grappa… this was my first taste but I soon got used to it!
Agios Nikolaos has pretty harbours and inlets that are fun to wander around.
… later on we walked into the centre and this is where the daft fun started. As we stopped for a drink in the square, a band was setting up for the evening. They had a very self-important manager dressed in a white and gold shellsuit who clearly saw himself as Simon Cowell and Mr MC was so transfixed by his tantrums as they were tuning up that we ended up crying with laughter.
And just like that the sadness lifted and we didn’t look back from there. Laughing hysterically at things that would have the boys rolling their eyes at us is going to be one of my primary memories of this holiday. It’s reminded me of who we are when we’re not parents or business partners and how much fun we have.
A stunning village on a rocky part of the coast, restaurants hug the seashore and it would be a great place to say as long as you had a pool because there isn’t really a beach to speak of…
…we were there for breakfast but it must be absolutely magical at night. I imagine that it’s the sort of place you’d retreat to if you were writing a book or doing an important piece of research.
We were actually heading to the south of the island that day so this was a bit of a detour on the recommendation of a waiter we’d been chatting to and we were glad we’d taken it because otherwise we’d have been driving right through the epicentre of the big earthquake you’ll have heard about just as it happened. We passed it on the way back and although it wasn’t total devastation, lots of people sadly lost their homes and their businesses. Nature can be swift and cruel.
I know a few of you have said that this is your favourite spot in Crete and I think it’s probably lovely even in high season. It lies on the south side of the island and it has a slightly gritty grey beach but that didn’t matter, in some ways it was a nice change from the golden sand of the north that gets everywhere.
Pitusa beach dress (gifted by Cleverly Wrapped SS18); Sandals
Like everywhere else in Crete it was very quiet…
… onion season they told us, as they hung them out to dry.
I’ll come on to my favourite place in a minute, the one that made it absolutely worth going to Crete, but first a couple of outfits from the evenings spent in Koutouloufari at one or other of the very good restaurants that line the tiny streets. We ate there so that we could have a glass of wine without having to drive and it was a relaxed, easy place to be – touristy though… mostly English and Germans. It was pretty and the food was authentically good but you didn’t have much of a sense of the real Crete.
Boden blouse (SS21 sold out); Hush jeans (SS21 sold out); Espadrilles (now in the sale, gifted SS21)
Boden dress (SS20); Espadrilles (now in the sale, gifted SS21)
Plaka & Spinalonga
By far my favourite day in Crete was the one we spent exploring Spinalonga. This will divide us into two camps – those who have read Victoria Hislop’s book ‘The Island‘ and those who haven’t (and if you haven’t, just do). It’s one of the very few books that I’ve ever read twice and it was the main reason for me choosing Crete as the starting point for our trip. If you’ve read it you’ll know that Spinalonga island was the place where lepers were sent in the first half of the 20th century. You don’t need to go on an organised tour, in fact that would ruin it, you can easily reach it by driving to Plaka (which was the main village in the book) and taking a ten minute boat trip across to the island (10 Euros each return).
You then walk down the same tunnel as Eleni, where all lepers were told to abandon hope and it’s incredibly atmospheric as you travel in their footsteps.
When the lepers were first sent here, it was a ruined Ottoman settlement but they worked together to build it into a new home. Each one used their skills and before too long they had doctors, nurses, teachers, musicians and craftspeople among the residents. Everybody had something to give except, apparently, the rich and the bankers who came in from Athens and struggled to understand that their money had no value. Instead each resident had the same small government weekly subsidy for limited rations that were sent over from Plaka by boat.
I thought about them as I walked around… about how by the whim of an infection their lives were changed forever as so many people’s have been since Covid. And yet, after a while, it’s said that most of them found a new happiness in a place where everyone was equal and valued either for their knowledge, their skill or their talent. It’s how society should be really. The whole cycle of life started anew on the island, marriages were made, children were born and in the end, when a cure was found, many of them didn’t want to leave but they still had to.
If you’ve read and enjoyed the book you’ll get a lot from a visit to Spinalonga. If you haven’t then maybe not because there’s very little information to bring it to life. It’s hard to understand why when the Cretans make a theme park out of even the smallest Minoan ruin but I was told later in Plaka that there is still a stigma attached to the island and that the government would prefer it to be forgotten.
In the end we spent about three hours wandering around and as we walked, I told Mr MC the story of the novel to bring it all to life. Knowing I wouldn’t go again, I found it hard to leave.
Pink City Prints Dress (SS20)
We spent the rest of the day in Plaka. We had a fabulous lunch in the Taverna Spinalonga which I’m sure inspired Fotini’s taverna in the book. It’s way past the spot where the tour buses stop and so we were surrounded by big Greek families enjoying an extended Sunday lunch. The food was fresh, reasonable and very, very good…
… and it even provided extra entertainment for Mr MC.
Plaka is such a pretty little town with a handful of lovely shops that have no doubt appeared to cater for Victoria Hislop followers because everything is exquisite. When I think of Crete, Spinalonga and Plaka are my abiding memories. I was worried that like places I’ve been to such as the Taj Mahal and the Statue of Liberty they’d be disappointing in real life… but they weren’t.
Autumn temperatures in Crete
It was a balmy 25°C most days and there was no wind. The evenings were cooler at about 14°C, you needed long sleeves as you’ll have seen from my photos or at least an outer layer – a cardigan or a denim jacket.
Dress style – what to pack for Crete
Crete isn’t especially chic apart from Plaka and Mohlos where there were well dressed French women in deep dyed loose linen with Ancient Greek sandals. Otherwise because it’s very touristy, anything goes and most people were wearing shorts and t-shirts or kaftans over beachwear. In the evenings it wasn’t dressy either, mostly jeans or maxi-dresses.
Would we go back to Crete?
Almost certainly not, even though I’m aware that it’s a huge island and we’ve only explored the east. We didn’t look into any of the Minoan heritage which is a shame in Europe’s ‘cradle of civilisation’ but everything we passed felt very pastiche. A lot of the sites have been poorly recreated over the years but I should add that we didn’t make it to Knossos so I can’t comment on that.
Crete does have its charms but looking for real Greek flavour, we felt we had to work hard to find it… harder than I want to on holiday. We found the landscape bleak; most of the trees are olives and tamarisks so the colours are faded and they only grow to a certain height. It meant we missed the splendour and fragrance of the deep green pines that we’re used to in Turkey. Architecturally it isn’t the prettiest of the Greek Islands by a long way. We were told by a historian that the reason for this is that it had to house a lot of refugees after the 1923 population exchange with Turkey and so properties had to be built rapidly and economically to home them.
Even so, Crete will always feel special to us; it had the scope to give us the distraction we wanted at a time in our lives when we needed our thoughts and hearts to settle. If I did go back I’d follow the advice of the editor of the travel magazines I worked on at the BBC. His view was that you should always stay as far away from the airport as you can because it becomes less profitable for the big tour operators to go there and so everything is less commercialised. My advice, if you’re thinking about it, would perhaps be to base yourself in Plaka so that you have the view of Spinalonga every day. From there you could pop in and out of Agios Nikolaos, you could easily visit the south of the island and you could also drive further east where the white sand beaches are wilder and quieter… and the palm trees start to grow.
It will be interesting to hear the views of those of you who have a deeper relationship with Crete though, I appreciate that it’s hard to do it justice in a five day visit. Next Tuesday I’ll move on to our next island, Ios, which was a completely different experience. For now I must crack on with some work but I’ll be back on Friday with more autumn fashion.
Disclosure: “Midlife guide to Greek Island Hopping Part 1 – Crete” is not a sponsored post
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