Perth Now – This isn’t the me I used to be. I’m standing at the luggage carousel at Heraklion Airport on the Greek island of Crete.
A so-tired-he’s-somehow-hyperactive four-year-old is running circles around me while I squint down the line, praying our fourth and final piece of roller-luggage will soon appear. Two hiking backpacks slide off the conveyor on to the carousel instead.
I think about those halcyon days not so long ago when overseas travel for me meant a one-way ticket, a single rucksack and some rough plans that could change in an instant. In the wink of a sexy backpacker’s eye. Now it’s enough luggage to fill two trolleys, accommodation and flights booked months in advance, military-precision planning to ensure we have enough clothes, food, craft activities and charged portable devices to keep a child amused for days at 35,000 feet. And, please God, do not let us forget our son’s security blanket.
But this island – Greece’s largest – will take just 10 days to re-educate me; to teach me that overseas travel as a family can be sweet.
Say “Greece” to prospective Australian tourists and they usually think of Santorini’s spectacularly precipitous vistas, the religious significance of islands like Patmos or the heady indulgences of Mykonos, Ios and Corfu. More recently, they might furrow their brow and shake their head, citing the economic woes that have beset the Mediterranean nation.
Either way, it’s a shame Crete doesn’t get more of a look-in. It has the quaint, cobblestoned villages, the dramatic topography, the azure waters and astounding history of other islands in the Greek archipelago. The beauty here is they’re all on the one island, and if the economic crisis has touched its people, they do a great job of not letting on.
Our base for the next 10 days is Candia Park Village, a waterfront resort styled loosely on a traditional Greek village, between the tiny town of Elounda (holiday host to celebrities such as Leonardo Di Caprio and Lady Gaga) and the provincial capital of Agios Nikolaos.
Paths and stairs flow down from our hillside apartment, past abundances of bougainvillea and manicured lantana much prettier and more delicate than the variety that runs rampant in Australia. They wind past a restaurant, a bar and two enormous pools dotted with kids and parents wahooing in an assortment of languages, down timber stairs to a sandy beach and the wondrous Sea of Crete.
This is the kind of ocean blue that inspires poems and postcards – translucent turquoise at first, graduating to the deepest, richest, truest blue a photo can never match.
We soon lapse into the kind of lazy lifestyle typical of resorts across the globe: buffet breakfast, pool and beach play/swim, off-campus exploration, late lunch, more swimming, taverna dinner, bed. Any resort veterans will, however, acknowledge there’s also a slight Lord of the Flies element to the whole affair.
Day One, we stare wide-eyed as a German family a table across from us deftly poach an entire hillock of pastries and biscuits from the breakfast buffet. We shake our heads at another group who have reserved the best poolside loungers with their towels and bags, despite being nowhere in sight.
Day Three, we’re blooded. We pilfer fruit and snacks for lunch (“It’ll just go to waste anyway”, we convince ourselves). We build an elaborate lived-in look for a trio of loungers we want to reserve.
Such is the diversity of Crete’s landscape that within an hour’s drive of Agios Nikolaos, you can be in a major city, atop a mountain so tall that its villages get snowed in during winter or in a sun-baked seaside village where time appears to have stood still since the 1800s.
Katharo Plateau is a worthwhile meander skywards. The road up from the coast winds narrowly up the range of mountains forming the horizon behind Agios Nikolaos.
Flatter but no less scenic is the coastal drive southeast to a dramatic geological gash known as Ha Gorge. At its foot lie hundreds of olive groves, their twisted trunks giving the impression they have been growing here forever. With a civilised history spanning more than five millennia, they almost could have.
Proving the point, a few minutes closer to the coast we arrive at the ruins of the Bronze Age Minoan town of Gournia. Its cobbled streets and the foundations of more than 50 homes, a cemetery and palace are intact more than 3500 years after they were built.
Voulisma Beach, east from the town of Istro, is insanely beautiful. Its busier western end is lined with sun lounges and lazy tourists, but approaching the beach from a moderately steep path further up the hill lands visitors upon the quiet eastern end where the water is almost empty and the view is good enough to eat.
Further along the road lies a more challenging walk through Sarakinas Gorge. Its walls steeple up perhaps 75m, leaving a gap between them of just a few metres in parts.
Agios Nikolaos is a nice enough little town, though we’re glad not to be staying close to the centre where Euro tourists swarm the designer shops. A near-continuous strip of tavernas skirts the town’s pretty Lake Voulismeni, but only from higher up, where we end up on our final night in Crete, does its beauty really shine.
Chez Georges, a cocktail bar perched high above the lake, is about the best place in town to watch the distant mountains turn purple and the town light up and twinkle. We sit back, feeling content, relaxed and totally at peace with this new style of holiday.
And, take it from me, roller luggage is a hell of a lot easier to drag around than a sweaty old backpack.