“Boro na eho nero?” my daughter says, trying out one of her go-to Greek phrases on the man behind the small lobby bar of the Athens Gate Hotel. Can I have water? She’s asking for the same thing every other tourist wants on this 96-degree July afternoon, but she gets a little language lesson on the side. “Ena boukali,” he says slowly and deliberately as he hands it over. “Bottle.”
She accepts the water and the new vocabulary word with a grateful smile. This is serious business to my three kids who, at 9, 11 and 13, set out on our two-week trip to Greece eager to immerse themselves in the history and culture of the country two of their grandparents once called home.
Since birth, they’ve been spoon-fed a steady diet of Greek culture, history and mythology — not to mention lots of garlic- and lemon-infused food — but they haven’t been to Greece since they were babies, so they’re excited to experience the real thing for what amounts to the first time. Joined by four other families — all with kids — we’ve decided on a few days in Athens and then a trip to Crete, Greece’s largest island.
To prepare, the kids and I spend some time with a Greek language CD, cheerfully parroting phrases and bouncing our clumsy Greek off my in-laws and my Greek-speaking husband, Spiro. By the time we depart we’re able to ask where the bathroom is, order a few items off a menu and declare, “No sir, I do not speak Greek,” a phrase we hope to not actually employ.
It’s the trip that almost wasn’t. In the weeks before our departure, Greece’s fiscal nearmeltdown mesmerized the world and had us wondering whether we should cancel. Spiro and I spent days feverishly following news reports about empty ATMs and possible food and medicine shortages. The kids, sensing their dream vacation would go up in smoke, pestered us for updates, and we all traded high-fives when a last-minute bailout allowed Greece to reopen its banks. With assurances from our hotels and from friends in Greece that the scene on the ground was “business as usual,” our trip was on.
We arrive in Athens in the midst of a minor heat wave, carrying enough cash to cover food, cabs and other expenses for two weeks. Over the next three days we climb to the top of the Acropolis to marvel at the awe-inspiring Parthenon, endure a sweltering hop-on, hop-off bus ride for an overview of the city, and hike Mount Lycabettus, where we’re rewarded with a stunning view of the city. We visit the first-rate Acropolis Museum, and at the National Archaeological Museum of Athens we dig deeper into the country’s history.
Just a short walk from our hotel is the uber-touristy Plaka neighborhood, where we prowl for trinkets and the Greek soccer jersey my son is pining for. It’s here that we find the one air-conditioned restaurant of our trip. It’s actually a patio with an outdoor air conditioner that feels more like a fan, but we’re grateful nonetheless, and as we’re downing the last bites of souvlaki and feta-heaped salad, we happily shoo the kids along when a waiter beckons them toward the edge of the seating area. We had somehow missed the sign out front that promised “plate breaking” (they had us at “air conditioning”), but we soon clue in to the old custom, now mostly reserved for tourists, and the kids gleefully shatter plates on the pavement.
Other than a few restaurants that required payment in cash, we’ve seen no signs of fiscal crisis, and by Day Four we’re off to Crete, catching an early-morning flight to the island’s biggest city, Iraklion (also spelled Heraklion), where we pick up our rental car. At more than 160 miles from end to end, Crete is too big to explore fully on this trip, but we’ve compiled a bucket list we hope will offer a sample of its bounty: rugged mountains, gorgeous beaches, simple villages, historic cities and archaeological sites that offer a peek into early civilization.
We start with Knossos, an elaborate Minoan palace whose history dates to about 2000 B.C. With mythical connections to the stories of King Minos, Theseus and the Minotaur, and Daedalus and Icarus, it’s a must-see for my mythology-loving kids.
As we amble through the palace remains, I’m grateful we arrived early — another hour and the heat would have been unbearable — but kicking myself for skipping the guided tour. One of the adults in our group pulls out her smartphone in a valiant effort to play Internet-assisted tour guide, but we’re all a little punchy from our early start, so before long Spiro is countering the official dialogue with his own tour, which involves aliens and a dance party. The kids, of course, love it.
By lunchtime, we’re zipping westward along Crete’s north coast. On a whim we stop at Taverna Synolakis, a family-run restaurant with a sublime view of the Sea of Crete far below. By now my kids are boldly ordering all their meals in Greek — an effort met with delighted smiles — and my son, who in his early years rejected any food that wasn’t breaded, fried and presented in nugget form, is devouring grilled octopus, suction cups and all.
As we leave we discover our car won’t start. But one of the restaurant owners hops into the driver’s seat to troubleshoot, while our waitress entertains the kids by catching a cicada and gently cupping it in her hands for them to see. The car is soon running and with hearty waves and thank-yous, we’re off to our hotel, which sits on a long stretch of beach just west of the city of Chania.
The area, a favorite with package tours and sun-seekers, is a tightly packed scrum of mid-range hotels, bars and souvenir shops. Though it’s a bit too touristy for our tastes, our group has chosen it as a jumping-off point to explore western Crete and because it can accommodate our large number. Still, we’re reminded as we weave our way down the crowded beachfront road that getting the best of Crete involves venturing out, well away from the resorts.
Our first effort is a traffic-clogged trip to Chania’s Venetian harbor. We park the car nearby, and as we’re muddling our way to the harbor, Spiro spots a restaurant with what he thinks are a bunch of Greek people feeding their kids. In short order we are seated under the trees, enjoying cold glasses of Mythos beer, baked lamb and roasted vegetables and listening to live bouzouki music. Here, as with almost every restaurant we visit, the meal ends with a complimentary plate of watermelon and, for the adults, a shot of raki, an alcoholic beverage that’s also known as tsikoudia. We’re all in a good mood as we stroll through the winding streets to the harbor front, which is magically aglow in the setting sun.
We spend the next day exploring the peninsula to the east of Chania by boat with our group of friends. It’s just us and another family the next day as we road-trip to Elafonissi, whose turquoise waters and pink-tinged sand often land it on lists of the “world’s best beaches.” Getting there involves a 90-minute white-knuckle drive on a two-lane road that wends its way through the mountains and down to the southwestern coast. Though remote, Elafonissi is known to draw crowds, so we decide to set off in late afternoon and are delighted to see coaches full of day-trippers on their way home. The combination of big buses and blind curves makes for a few hairy moments, but the payoff is a few blissful hours at a not-terribly-crowded world-class beach.
A day later, Spiro and our two oldest kids rise early and board a bus for another mountain adventure: hiking the 10-mile-long Samaria Gorge. The temperature is slated to top out in the high 90s, so my 9-year-old and I stay at the hotel. We don’t hear from Spiro until late in the evening when he texts to say: “We survived . . . just barely.” It isn’t until the next morning that I get to hear the details of the all-day trek: their search for the elusive kri-kri (mountain goat), the ankle-turning boulder-strewn path, the relief of fresh spring water collected in moss-covered stone fountains, and finally, the race across a piping-hot pebble beach for a merciful dunk in the Libyan Sea.
After breakfast we set out with two of the families from our group, cutting across central Crete through scrubby limestone mountains, past tiny villages with taverna tables planted hopefully beside the road, and miles of olive trees squatting in crooked rows. Our goal is Matala, a beach town tucked along the south-central coast — in part because it’s near the home town of my sister-in-law’s family but also because it’s a distinctive beach, surrounded by strikingly pretty cliffs with caves probably first dug out in the Neolithic Age, then used as Roman tombs and later as hippie hangouts (they’re now an archaeological site). A funky carved tree at the town’s entrance and colorfully painted central square attest to the bohemian vibe. At night, the cliffs are brilliantly lit, giving the town an air of enchantment. It’s nowhere near as developed as the resorts of Chania — hotels here are decidedly low-frills, with rates about $50 per night — but even so it’s still more tourist haunt than fishing village. That actually works well for us. We have a host of restaurants to choose from, a Blue Flag beach (certified clean and safe) and our favorite morning stop, Bakery Zouridakis, whose long glass cases are stacked with spanakopita, tiropita and more variations of baklava than I knew existed.
To beat the heat and the crowds we spend the early morning hours exploring, with a hike to the secluded Red Beach, where we find soft sand and refreshingly cold, clear-blue water, and a short drive to the similarly gorgeous Kommos Beach. (Both beaches happen to be nudist-friendly, but suited swimmers were by far the majority on our visits.)
We’ve mostly had a typical tourist experience up to this point, so we’re thrilled when my sister-in-law’s family invites our group to dinner at their village, Pombia. When we arrive the kids gather oranges in the courtyard and then tag along for a tour of a trio of family homes, including the more-than-100-year-old original. They get a history lesson with a personal twist as the family recounts tales of the German soldiers who bunked there during World War II — long enough to paint a picture of their own home town on the wall — and of 19th-century Cretan hero Michail Korakas, who famously fought against the Ottoman Empire and whose family home is next door.
We can’t leave the area without a visit to the archaeological site of Phaistos, where we find no tour guides but surprisingly informative plaques that help us imagine the Minoan palace in its heyday. Phaistos’s best artifacts aren’t housed here, though, so before we leave Crete we make a quick visit to the Archaeological Museum of Heraklion, home to a host of Crete’s noteworthy finds, including the Phaistos disk, an enigmatic circle whose symbols remain undeciphered to this day.
Back in Athens for one last night, we stroll the ancient agora and ask the kids their most memorable moments of the trip. The list is fairly predictable: the Parthenon, the beach, Phaistos and Knossos, the hikes. But as they reel off their favorites I’m a little surprised, though I shouldn’t be, when my son throws in a conversation he had in halting Greek with a woman at work in Bakery Zouridakis. It wasn’t much: She asked whether he was Greek, what his name was, where he was from. But as he recounts that simple moment of connection, I can tell it’s one he won’t forget.
And he can’t wait to share it with his grandparents.
More from Travel:
The Athens Gate Hotel
10 Syngrou Ave., Athens
A stellar view of the Acropolis, which is a short walk away. Clean, quiet comfortable rooms start at $168 with outstanding buffet breakfast included.
National Rd. Rethymnon, Iraklion, Crete
Simple but delicious Cretan cuisine at about $6 to $15.
O Mylos tou Kerata
Platanias, Chania, Crete
Traditional Cretan and Mediterranean fare in an authentic setting, including a 14th- century water mill in the courtyard. Entrees $10 to $34.
Crete’s Samaria Gorge hike
Entry to the 10-mile gorge is $6 ($3 students). Bus from Chania to the starting point of the hike, the Omalos Plateau, is $15 round-trip. At the far end of the hike, Agia Roumeli, on the Libyan Sea, you have the option of taking a boat to Sougia or Hora Sfakion ($11) and driving or taking a bus back to Chania. Private coach tours can be booked at many resorts, $33 to $45.
Palace of Knossos
Knossos Ave., Iraklion, Crete
Bronze Age archaeological site. Open 8 a.m.-8 p.m., daily. Around $6, free for children. Joint ticket for Knossos and nearby Heraklion Archaeological Museum, around $12.