Gazing across the Blue Aegean at the ancient isle of Spinalonga, the breezy Cycladic wind blowing my hair awry, I felt like I journeyed back in time to a mystical land. I had long heard about the wondrous ruins of Crete, but to stand among them and hear their stories, staggered the imagination.
Knossos, Crete’s renowned archaeological site with its colossal limestone Palace complex that served as the center of Minoan civilization, dates back to the Neolithic period. Exploring this ancient multilevel masterpiece of glamour and splendor, I marveled at the striking red columns, grand staircases, elegant frescoes in vivid hues of yellow, blue, green and crimson, royal residences, devotional shrines, the Throne Room’s alabaster seat flanked by two imposing griffins and more. The vast expanse of this elaborate labyrinth with corridors, chambers, hallways, courtyards, reflective pools and approximately 1400 rooms boggles the mind.
My guide Sophia, an anthropologist, explained that the Minoans were Europe’s first advanced civilization and our role models. Believed to be a matriarchal society where everything was based on equality, there were no wars, no armies and no slaves. Western civilization’s first bathtub, theater, air-cooling system and paved road are to be found in this vast open- air museum.
That they adored women and worshipped goddesses is evidenced in their art where females are depicted as the taller figures. Sculptors, painters and craftsmen were patronized by the royal court and provided high-quality materials. The illustrious Minoans flourished until the Mycenaean invasion in the mid fifteenth century B.C. There is much to learn from them today.
The lesser known but noteworthy ruins of Aptera perched on Paliokastro Hill near the city of Chania, offer vestiges of civilization as early as the 8th century B.C. The massive ancient theater where three thousand people once sat, with some seats still intact and the enormous preserved Roman Cisterns with two gigantic baths greatly impressed.
And Spinalonga, a tiny island with a fascinating past: a protector of the ancient port of Olous from 3000 -900 B.C., site of a still standing 16th century Venetian fortress and then a leper colony from 1903 until 1957. Today Spinalonga is a popular archaeological attraction with medieval, Venetian and Ottoman ruins. A short, scenic boat ride from Agios Nikolaos, Elounda or Plaka takes you across to the rocky islet at the entrance to the bay where you can wander the atmospheric isle.
Strolling the abandoned village evokes a picture of the community created by the exiled lepers. In addition to whitewashed stone homes with windows and colorful shutters, the town housed a café that became the center of activity, a theater where the residents put on their own productions, cinema, barbershop and a church.
Even a selfless priest, though not a leper himself, decided to spend his life there. The people looked after each other, fell in love and married on Spinalonga. They had children; some grew up there without ever catching the disease. Glancing across to the mainland, I thought about the isolated lepers, separated from the world by such a small body of water, but forbidden to leave.
You get glorious views of Spinalonga and the turquoise-blue Aegean from the posh suites with decks and private pools and also at the beach of Blue Palace, a Luxury Collection Resort & Spa. The oceanfront hotel also features the atmospheric taverna, Blue Door, perched atop a rocky promontory jutting out into the water. The wind, the wine, the music and the Greek cuisine including Crete’s famous wild greens, succulent lamb and seafood so sublime it was downright addictive. For even more indulgence the excellent Elounda Spa and Thalassotherapy does not disappoint.
I also visited Six Senses Spa at their outpost in the Porto Elounda Golf & Spa Resort after a long day walking amid the ruins. I’m a devotee of the brand. There, a Blissful Marma Massage with oils applied to rebalance chakras and align vital energy centers, left me feeling like a Greek Goddess.
In addition to historic sites and sun-drenched beaches, Crete also offers quaint towns and charming mountain villages like picturesque Kritsa, built on a rock hill and surrounded by olive groves. Rethymno, one of Greece’s best preserved medieval towns, captivates with its age-old houses bedecked with flowered wooden balconies and Venetian stone mansions with magnificent facades showcasing ornate door frames.
A warren of lanes with arches and alleyways leads to the eye catching fortress over the Venetian harbor. The cobbled paths of the old town, very bohemian chic, bustle with trendy shops selling leather handbags with the craftsman at work, jewelry by local designers, handmade sandals, stylish kaftans and bikinis. Here you’ll also find yoga studios, art galleries, music haunts and outdoor cafes filled with chatty locals eating, drinking and enjoying life.
Casa Vitae, an old Venetian castle house with a lovely courtyard is the perfect place to park yourself in Rethymno. Rooms and suites hewn from stone feature antiques, crystal chandeliers and fetching wall murals. I visited the famous Rimondi Fountain, its water running from lions' heads, my last night in town. Legend has it that those who drink the water will return. I took a sip and can’t wait to come back.
How to Get There: This spring Emirates Airline launched nonstop service from Newark to Athens making it the only carrier to fly this route year round, not just in season. Now travelers to Greece can enjoy the ease of direct flights and experience Emirates’ superior service onboard. The plush private suites in First Class Cabins take traveling in style to new heights. Premier amenities in business and first class include cushy, spacious seats that turn into supremely comfortable, lie flat beds, and most notably, impressive in flight cuisine. Greek dishes such as tastiest roast chicken filled with spinach and feta plus tzatziki are among the selections on the 5 course menus, in addition to creative International dishes, all paired with fine wine and champagne. Not to mention the impeccable service.
To Arrange: Mina Agnos and her team of consummate professionals at Athens-based Travelive are experts in arranging customized luxury travel in Greece. They provide top, personalized itineraries using private tours and master guides, the best hotels, gastronomic picks, transfers between islands and VIP services. If you want authentic Greece at its best, you will love Mina.
This was also published at bellanyc.com