We discover the stunning hospitality of Crete's Blue Palace Luxury Collection Resort and Spa
Hunkered down in my tiny East London houseshare during the first throes of the coronavirus lockdown, my stay at Crete’s Blue Palace Luxury Collection Resort and Spa takes on something of a hallucinatory feel. Could it be possible that six short months before, I was waking up to the immaculate, glittering blue vista that incorporated the mysterious island of Spinalonga, the bright Aegean sea and my own private pool?
The view from the Deluxe Suite
Even before the outbreak of this disorientating pandemic, my time at the Blue Palace had taken on something of a dream-like glaze. As well as its outstanding beauty, delicious food and elevated accommodations, the resort was remarkable for its attentive staff, who watched out for your every need while never intruding. It was rather a surprise to return to drizzly London, and remember that it isn't normal to be met with a smile wherever you go.
The Blue Palace Resort resides on the northwest coast of Crete, and it takes around an hour’s drive from Heraklion airport along winding hillside roads to reach its large, airy atrium. As we approach the resort, Spinalonga island peeks into view. The Unesco-nominated site is so close to the resort that keen swimmers can reach it with ease, though Blue Palace has speedboats awaiting those who'd prefer to arrive at the island dry.
An evening of surprises
Historically, resort holidays have not been my thing. "Resort" conjured up the image of hours spent lounging at a nondescript poolside, never once experiencing the flavour of the country to which I had travelled. At Blue Palace, however, this couldn't have been further from the truth.
My first dinner was hosted at the resort's Blue Door Taverna. The restaurant building was originally an old fisherman's stone house. At the time of its construction, the wives of fishermen would paint their doors blue when their husbands were to be at sea for a prolonged time. This sent a message to other men in the community that they would welcome extra help and protection.
The Blue Door Taverna by day
Harris, the restaurant's beaming host, introduces himself as "the doctor". His alter ego is soon explained as he delivers rounds upon rounds of raki—the sweet aniseedy spirit that Crete is famous for—frequently pausing to share a shot and a toast with us. The chemistry between the staff is unbelievable, and what begins as a relaxed evening, gazing out at chefs preparing food on firepits along the shore, soon becomes something else entirely.
The Cretan feast
To start, we're served a selection of Cretan cheeses from regions across the island, served with traditional Cretan dakos. Then come the appetisers. Fried snails, salad, homemade pasta with anthotyros cheese and a trilogy of dolmadakia (vine leaves) served with fresh yoghurt. Perfectly full, I realise with a start that we have yet to begin the main course.
When it arrives, it is spectacular. Rock grouper slow-cooked with okra and fresh tomato. Cretan hortopita pie. Baked potatoes and greens. And the piste de resistance—the taverna's famous "antikristo" lamb with Cretan gruyere cheese, which is the most tender and flavoursome meat I have ever had.
Preparing food for the feast
As we drowsily enjoy pie, yogurt and fruit for dessert, a sense of deliciousness descends, and I become aware of building electricity in the taverna. When an older Cretan couple rises to enjoy the music of the live band, it spills over, and soon everybody is up to dance. Cries of "yamas" (cheers) flood the restaurant as we dance to the Cretan lyre together—the music, the food and the jug of raki now being passed around the dancing circle, lead the evening to a crescendo.
"A jug of raki is now being passed around the dancing circle"
I'm grateful to be stopped as I leave the restaurant by another member of staff, who offers me a ride on his golf buggy back to my rooms—assistance I'm supremely grateful for, having consumed the full doctor's prescription of raki and more besides.
A far more relaxed affair greets me the next day. After the sumptuous "Havenly" breakfast at the Anthós restaurant (above)—which I make light work of despite the countless courses enjoyed the day before—I wander down to the shore, enjoying the sea breeze in my hair.
There, I meet George, the head of food and drink at the resort. We climb aboard a speedboat and head out to the caique which awaits us further out to sea (below), offering a spectacular view of Spinalonga and Blue Palace itself.
George is hosting a wine tasting aboard the boat, where I'm surprised to learn that Crete is one of the world’s oldest winemaking regions. We sample wines from the Futouris project, which preserves ancient grape varieties from extinction and champions the Cretan wine industry. The weather conditions of the land in Crete produces various types of wine, mostly dry, middle-dry and naturally sweet.
Leaning back to enjoy the gentle sounds of the waves, I learn of George's world travels and watch swimmers on the shore of all shapes and sizes donning bright orange hats to prepare for a race to the island and back.
Inspired by the feast presented by the Blue Door Taverna, I arrive for my afternoon cooking class notebook in hand—I need to take these recipes home. Chef Kostas awaits, with a tantalising set up of ingredients underneath the shade of the restaurant's olive trees.
Chef Kostas leads the class. Image by Jenessa Williams
Looking out over the sea, he teaches us every step for producing a sumptuous Cretan meal. Large bowls of tzatziki, fresh Greek salad, delicious dolmadakia (stuffed vine leaves), dakos and a delicious traditional dish that showcases huge, plump tiger prawns (below).
We enjoy the fruits of our labour together, taking in the sea view as we eat, and observing the energised chit chat and friendly banter between passing colleagues.
Image by Jenessa Williams
Having gazed upon the sun-soaked stones of Spinalonga throughout my stay, it wouldn't have felt right to leave without taking the short speedboat ride to the island to discover more about its unique history.
The island is thoroughly enchanting, despite its troubled past. Between 1903 and 1957, Spinalonga was a leper colony—one of the last remaining in Europe. My guide Sofia guides me through the narrow pathways, pointing out abandoned shops, homes and even the chapel that once called Crete's lepers to prayer.
Spinalonga island. Images by Anna Walker
Spinalonga was the inspiration behind Victoria Hislop's popular novel, The Island, and Sofia hints that there was some truth to the stories it contains of couples swimming between the island and the shore to visit their banished spouses by night.
Gazing out through the walls of the tiny city to the mainland below, the sense of remoteness—despite being so close to the shore—isn't hard to imagine.
Today the island hosts boatloads of tourists, drawn to the strange romance of this abandoned world. Boats arrive every 30 minutes from the mainland, though our private resort tour means we escape the crowds and enjoy the island with the relative solitude required to reflect on its unique history.
Spinalonga's abandoned buildings
My final day is spent enjoying the full stretch of the resort's 143 acres of luxury. A 50 minute hot stone massage at the spa ensures that any stress that hadn't already been unwound during my time at the resort melted clean away from my body.
Cocktails at the Arsenali Lounge (above), which was designed to resemble Heraklion Harbour's Venetian shipping yard, are a spectacular end to the trip.
As the sun sets, reflecting off the pool, the white rooftops and the sea, there's an undeniable glow about the place. And glancing at my reflection as I climb into the car that will whizz me back to the airport, I can't help but notice that I've gained a glow of my own.
Blue Palace, A Luxury Collection Resort and Spa is delighted to announce its re-opening for the summer season on 15 July 2020, alongside the launch of its new Private Villa All-Inclusive Experience for summer 2020
Read more: How lockdown will change the way we travel
This article was made possible through a press trip to the resort in September 2019
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