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Crete draws visitors from all over with its food, history and beaches

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Washington Post Staff Writer
Sunday, April 11, 2010

It looked like a scene out of "Exodus" -- if the Jews making their way to Palestine had been wearing bikinis and carrying beach umbrellas. The ship opened its creaky steel doors and lowered the gangplank. And we stepped out onto the soft sand, blinking in the glare of the midday sun. The path to the promised land was a crystal pool of warm, ankle-deep water. In small groups, we splashed our way across to Balos Beach.

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The beach is a narrow strip of pink sand. On one side is a natural wading pool. On the other, the Sea of Crete, striped turquoise, emerald, then sapphire, and surrounded by a ring of dusty cliffs. The waves are gentle but just feisty enough to elicit a bubbly foam. It's like an amusement park wave pool as imagined by painter David Hockney.

Balos is the kind of beach you envision ucky tourists stumbling upon by accident. The kind of place you find when you get lost on a hike or if you're lucky enough to sail your own yacht. And so what's most miraculous about it is that you can easily get there on a cheap tourist day cruise. Also included in the price are several hours of smooth sailing and a steep but rewarding hike to a 16th-century Venetian fort that once served as a base for Greek pirates.

I had expected Crete to be full of sites as impressive as Balos. After all, it's Greece's most popular destination: A quarter of the country's visitors head to this mountainous island that's renowned for its food -- Crete is the birthplace of the Mediterranean diet -- its history and its beaches. The diversity is an attraction in itself. Guidebooks tout plenty to entertain travelers for a week or more, with no pesky inter-island ferries or flights.

Those were the reasons two friends and I had chosen Crete for a recent vacation. But the most hyped destinations didn't quite meet expectations. Knossos, reputed in Greek mythology to be the palace of King Minos and home to the Minotaur, was a series of re-imagined rooms and temples, many of which came with the disclaimer that they may not have actually looked like that. Hania, which is advertised as a Venetian town with a maze of streets populated with boutiques and elegant churches, was overrun by traffic and European chain stores.

I also had a bias. Previous travels to the Greek islands had taken me to picture-perfect blue-and-white villages decked with bougainvillea. Crete was more, well, real: The cities were modern; the beaches, many very beautiful, spoiled by tacky holiday developments. As a traveler, I'm all for seeing the real world. Most of the time. On this trip to Greece, I was seeking escape.

Crete's northwest corner, which includes Balos Beach, fit the bill. For three days, we made our headquarters in Falassarna, a sleepy but functional town. There's no town center per se, just a string of mid-priced hotels, a grocery/souvenir shop, a beach cafe and a restaurant. There are no high-end digs, no high-end anything, for that matter. (Luxury hotel chains: If you are looking for a new European beachfront property, this is it.)

We checked into the Plakures, a compound of whitewashed condos, neatly trimmed in Tiffany blue. Each room comes with a wrought-iron bed, a marble floor, functional Ikea-style furniture and a small, well-equipped kitchenette. Though the area is dry, the hotel property is lush. Gravel pathways that connect the rooms to the pool and restaurant are lined with palm, fig and pomegranate trees. The hotel is Greece just as you imagine it . . . if you were German.

Owned by a German family, Plakures caters almost exclusively to middle-aged Teutonic couples who want nothing more than to lie in the sun by day and drink beer -- lots of it -- at night. (The only other guests were my group and a few other young American women who also had been seduced by the hotel's sexy Web site.) The contrast between the cerulean sky and the pink, full-figured guests gave me a start at first. But we soon appreciated the bicultural aspect of the hotel, which seamlessly blends the good parts of Greece (the food, the weather) and Germany (intense efficiency and very large breakfast buffets).

With the exception of one (accidentally strenuous) hike, we spent most of our days lying on the beach. The approach is not encouraging -- a quarter-mile path down a scrubby hill -- but the reward is a stretch of soft white sand and placid, jewel-colored water. The sea is cool enough to be refreshing but warm enough that even a temperature wimp like me can walk right in. On either side are rocky coves, with smooth gray boulders that look as if they have been placed specifically for a high-fashion shoot. At sunset, the sand begins to glow hot pink, a result of crushed pink shells that have washed ashore. Lounge chairs are available for about $7 per day, but never once did anyone come by to collect money. (The Greeks, not the Germans, are clearly in charge of the waterfront.)

It was easy to fall into a rhythm of sunbathing, swimming and dinners at the hotel, including generous meze platters of feta cheese, grape leaves, lentils and garlicky tzatziki, pork souvlaki and a surprisingly delicious rendition of spaghetti Bolognese. (I thought I would never tire of Greek salads, but that turned out not to be true.) On our last day in Falassarna, though, we decided to risk being tourists once again with a cruise to Gramvousa Island and Balos Beach.

* * *

I'm skeptical of day cruises. Too often, what seems like an attractive itinerary turns out to be a string of third-rate "sights" and long stays at shops owned by the cruise operator's cousin. Our trip to Gramvousa did not start out auspiciously. The Kissamos ferry terminal, a few miles from Falassarna, has several operators. Ticket agents told us that the price for the eight-hour cruise was 30 euros per person (about $41), three times the price listed in our guidebook. When we feigned to "think about it," the price came down to 20, 15 and then, finally, 10 euros (about $13).

Once we were on the boat, however, everything was as advertised. The ferry cruises to the northwest tip of Crete, a lick of land called Cape Vouxa. The first stop is the island of Gramvousa. It's a forbidding-looking rock, though the "pirate" ship docked in front gives the place a slightly Disney feel. We considered a dip, but the thin strip of beach is rocky and there's little shade. So we headed up to the island's 16th-century ruined castle instead.

Good decision. The 25-minute hike is a little tricky in flip-flops but worth the effort. The fortress, built in 1579 by the Venetians, was used to fight the invading Turks until 1692, according to our Blue Guide. It was later used as a base for pirates (hence the pirate ship in the harbor). You can see why the spot was coveted. It offers 360-degree views of the sea and a prime view of ships crossing from Crete to the island of Antikythera. Today, the distressed walls and tumbledown arches make an ideal place for holiday snapshots.

Back on the ferry, there was just enough time for a quick lunch before arriving in Balos. Where an American ferry would serve unappealing hot dogs, chips and sodas at extortionate prices, the Greek equivalent offers a host of fresh, reasonably priced food: fresh Greek salads, chicken souvlaki with delicious roasted potatoes and bowls of fresh red grapes, which we wrapped up for a beachside snack. This is also the time when you can rent a beach umbrella for the upcoming three-hour stop at Balos. Don't. They are available for less, about $4 for an umbrella and two chairs, at the beach.

After such a successful day out, we decided to venture to a restaurant beyond the hotel. There aren't many to pick from, and most didn't look like anything special. But we got lucky at Spilios, a taverna on a hill above Falassarna. We had driven by several times and rejected it because it looked like the kind of place that survived because of its panoramic views, not the food. How sorry we were that we had prejudged it. This was the best food we had on the island. Everything was homemade, from the phyllo pies stacked with greens and a little fennel for brightness to the rich, cinnamon-laced moussaka and the boureki, a homey layered dish of potatoes, creamy local cheese called mizithira, and zucchini. It was also one of the most reasonable meals. The bill for three, including two rounds of beer, was about $47.

Yet another example of how the best of Crete is found in the most unexpected places.



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