Three Not to be Missed Experiences in and around Chania, Crete.
Visiting Crete? If you are based in or around Chania, as I was last year when I stayed at the Mistral Hotel, Maleme, you have a great opportunity to explore the surrounding countryside and coastline. Of course, you’ll need to spend time in Chania – shopping, eating and drinking in the beautiful Venetian Harbour.
Perhaps the best thing about Chania though is that it’s very easy to get out of the town into the beautiful and unspoilt countryside or to make your way to peaceful beaches where you can sunbathe and swim. The Mistral Hotel is just 16 km from Chania itself and right on the beach at Maleme. That in itself makes a good starting point for exploring this part of Crete. Having spent a short time in this beautiful part of Crete, there are three experiences which you simply shouldn’t miss out on if you are visiting the island.
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Feast on Local Food and Wine from Crete
If, like me, you love the Mediterranean cuisine – and Greek food, in particular, you’ll be spoilt in Crete. Starting with their own olive oil (there are over 1.5 million olive trees in Crete. Cretans use around 25 litres of olive oil per person – that’s about 25 times as much as the average Brit!
The commonest olive in Crete is the Koroneiki, with small fruit, extremely resistant to heat and wind. They also eat the largest quantities of fruit and vegetables in the Western World and cultivate a vast number of different types of green vegetables and herbs. Food in many of the restaurants is genuinely field to fork – at Mistral Hotel, there was a massive fruit and vegetable garden which supplied most of what was served on our table. And, while you won’t find local beef or cows milk cheese, there’s plenty of lamb and goat – and a wealth of wonderful fresh fish. Finally, Crete is home to some very special honey which helps makes their cakes and desserts really delicious.
There are several dishes you need to try while you are visiting Chania, starting with the famous Kakavia – a local fish soup which is made with whatever fish your hosts have managed to catch. I managed to enjoy two different versions of Kakavia – one at the hotel, cooked for us by our host’s mother and one in Sfinari, where the Baladakis family made their own version for us. Kakavia uses a mixture of fish, potatoes, celery, onion, and tomato with olive oil and lemon juice.
It’s cooked quickly – from start to finish in just 30 minutes – over a hot stove so that the oil and fat from the fish emulsifies in the water. And, although it’s often listed as a soup, it’s actually a meal in itself.
Boureki is another dish you’ll find throughout Greece.
In Crete, it’s made with potato, courgettes, local soft goats cheese, olive oil, mint, pastry and sesame seeds and served warm. It’s like a kind of courgette and potato gratin with a pastry topping – totally indulgent and really delicious.
Cretan style snails – Hohlioi Boubouristoi – a dish that I really didn’t expect to find on the menu! Apparently they are considered a delicacy by most island people and are eaten most often before Greek Orthodox Easter.
Yes I did try them – and they were delicious cooked with olive oil rather than butter and seasoned with red wine vinegar
A dish I didn’t try but am quite intrigued by is pork with celery and avgolemono sauce which is made with the local Cretan celery, so strong it needs to be parboiled before being stewed!
Cretan barley rusks were originally made to help prolong the shelf life of bread. The best-known dish made using them is dakos, where the rusks are topped with fresh vine tomatoes, plenty of soft Cretan cheese (mizithra, feta or similar), a drizzle of olive oil and a little oregano together with a Kalamata olive on top.
Then there are little cheese and herb pies – Kalitsounia which are stuffed with spinach, herbs and mizithra served with mizithra and drizzled with honey for a sweet dish. They are unique to Crete and served everywhere on the island, with regional variations for the fillings.
I rather like the recipe I was given by Vassilis from Mistral for stuffed vegetables, which lists three herbs (dill, parsley and mint) and notes that you need ‘loads’ of them. It does help that much of the part of Crete grows their own vegetables. I’m going to try making these ‘Gemista’ and will share the recipe if I can make them work with our local produce here in the UK.
You’ll find great food in all the little cafes and restaurants along the seafront. Mistral Hotel in Maleme where I stayed has a Cretan Cuisine certification and if you are looking for authentic food made from local ingredients it’s worth looking out for the Cretan Cuisine badge or checking the Incredible Crete website where you will find a list of all the certified restaurants with addresses and contact details.
Visit Second World War Historic Sites
From Maleme, you can easily walk up the hill to the German Cemetery. The small town of Maleme has its place in the history books as the landing site for German paratroopers invading Crete in 1941. At the time, they captured the airstrip that was located just outside the town which allowed the Germans to airlift in reinforcements to capture the rest of the island. But, many paratroopers lost their lives in the battle for the airstrip. The cemetery, founded in 1974 by the former German commander Gericke, commemorates where 4,465 German soldiers who lost their lives on Crete during the second world war are buried.
It’s a beautiful and tranquil setting looking out over the bay of Chania. Carefully laid out to replicate the four main battlegrounds of Maleme, Chania, Rethymnon and Heraklion, it’s a poignant reminder of the human lives lost during the war.
To the east of Chania, in Souda Bay, you’ll find the Allied cemetery, the final resting place of 1,500 Commonwealth servicemen. Once the Germans had taken Maleme, Chania itself and Suda Bay quickly became indefensible and the allied forces withdrew across the island to Sfakion.
Finally, Sfakion itself on the southern coast of Crete was made famous because it was through the port of Hora Sfakion that the allied soldiers were evacuated to Alexandria, Egypt. On the way there from Chania, do take time to stop off at the War Museum of Askifou, the personal collection of the late Mr George A Hatzidakis who witnessed and was wounded during the allied retreat. Throughout his life, he collected and labelled everything he could find that had to do with Crete during the World War. The collection includes German and British helmets, machine guns, pistols, uniforms, and even an anti-aircraft gun, a motorcycle and a collection of medals.
Sfakion today is a small village with a quiet local beach. From Sfakion you can get a boat to the nearby coastal town of Loutro and to Gavdos. The inaccessibility of this part of Crete is what made it the perfect escape route for the Allied Forces – and also what protected the local people from both Venetian and Turkish invaders in the past.
Beaches, Beaches and More Beaches.
The Chania region of Crete is blessed with beautiful beaches and picturesque harbours. Staying at the Mistral Hotel in Maleme, it was too easy to get up in the morning and wander along the beach, stop for a coffee and then take in the sunshine. Although Maleme is a popular destination there always seemed to be quiet spots on the beach – and plenty of bars and cafes where you could eat and drink al-fresco.
But, there are plenty of stunning beaches within a short drive of Chania. I only had time to visit one, Falasarna, on the West Coast, but talked to some of the other guests about their favourite excursions.
Falasarna is a popular but not over busy beach with a small cafe and showers so that you can swim and sunbathe all day. There are loungers and parasols to hire and it’s easy to swim in the sea without having to walk too far out to get a good depth of water. And there are pretty rockpools to clamber over or paddle in.
If you don’t want to stay on the beach all day, it’s not far to the Sunset Fish Restaurant in Sfinari, where we enjoyed something of a feast. The restaurant looks out over Sfinari beach, a very quiet space perhaps because it’s a pebbly , almost rocky beach where you’ll need shoes to walk.
Other beaches to explore near Chania include Stavros, where Zorba the Greek was filmed in 1963, Elafonissi and Gramvousa, a pirate island with a Venetian Fortress. You reach Gramvousa by boat and can easily enjoy the nearby paradise of Balos Lagoon where Prince Charles and Princess Diana spent their honeymoon.
Whatever you choose to focus on, there’s plenty to see and do in and around Chania, Crete. If you are travelling alone, then please do check out Mistral, a unique family run singles hotel which will give you all the taste of authentic Crete without a singles supplement.
Mistral Fact Box.
The Mistral Hotel has 35 rooms with free wi-fi, a spa, two pools and a restaurant serving the finest traditional Cretan cuisine. The hotel also organises a range of excursions, cultural events and themed weeks. Located at Maleme near Chania in western Crete, the cost of a standard hotel stay starts from 874 euro for a week, half board and not including flights. Discounts of 15% are available for stays of 14 nights or more. For more information visit www.singlesincrete.com or email email@example.com