The Greek island that makes a surprising city break for winter sun


Thousands of lights shimmer and swirl on inky water around Chania’s ancient three-sided harbour. Bars and restaurants, set below honeyed Venetian walls, line its busy quayside. A lighthouse strikes a pose, close to the bubble domes of a former Ottoman-era mosque. The soundtrack is lounge music and lapping water; the whiff of charcoal ovens tickles noses. It’s a classic Mediterranean scene that has nothing to do with city breaks.

The beach holiday is king for Crete and every other Greek island, with hiking, history, sailing and foodie trips padding out the tourism numbers. With the thyme-scented White Mountains and Samaria gorge within reach of Chania (pronounced “Har-nee-ah”), longer trips here are tempting, of course, but this northwest coast city — a four-hour flight from the UK — works surprisingly well as a quick urban getaway. And in the case of my four-day jaunt last October, one that still features swims and a monastery.

Not that I stay in Chania itself. Like its international airport — which has direct flights from Birmingham, Gatwick, Heathrow, Luton, Manchester, Newcastle and Stansted — I’m out on the Akrotiri peninsula at Isla Brown Chania Resort & Spa, a chic 148-room hotel that opened in May 2023 and is 30 minutes’ drive from the city. Taxis into town are about £35; hiring a car might prove more cost-effective.

Gradually descending scrubby hillside to a rocky cove and boat launch, Isla Brown Chania is one of Brown Hotels’ 41-strong empire. Launched in 2010 by three ambitious Israelis, it already has numerous sub-brands, with the new Isla range — Chania follows one west of Athens — delivering a more resort-style, upmarket experience. Tending to be boutique-sized, most Brown outposts have been in Israel or Greece, though 2024 should bring a German addition. Every sub-brand espouses slick, locally orientated design and a youthful spirit; the latter seems to have translated to my fellow guests in Chania, with everyone seemingly under 50.

Isla Brown Chania

Isla Brown Chania

PYGMALION KARATZAS

You choose between earthy-toned bedrooms in its three-storey main edifice — a straight-lined vision of glass balconies, off-white walls and sleek timber columns. Or similarly airy alternatives inside a cluster of garden buildings that are a little quieter. Each option has its own ocean-facing pool — a two-tiered affair in the main building’s case, with drinks available from adjacent cocktail bars, and an extravagance of space and sky in which to slumber. Also at hand are a small spa and a Cretan restaurant; an Italian counterpart is due next year.

Most impressive, however, is the vast lobby. Flanking a circular island of greenery, this is a colossal, museum-like space. Scattered, modish armchairs and sofas orbit a central glass dome with a layered, gold-leaf pergola that filters lines of hot sunlight on to the marble floor.

Post check-in, some balcony-based sea gazing slows my heart rate to a pace not seen back home. Then it’s time for the two-mile journey to “Zorba’s beach”, as everyone calls a blue flag-certified stretch of butterscotch-coloured sand fringing a shallow, lagoon-esque inlet beside Stavros village. That’s because this is where, at the joyous conclusion of the 1964 film Zorba the Greek, Anthony Quinn’s titular peasant teaches Alan Bates’s reserved Basil a folk dance.

“Dammit boss, I like you too much not to say it,” Zorba says just beforehand. “You’ve got everything, except one thing: madness! A man needs a little madness.”

‘Zorba’s beach’ at Stavros

‘Zorba’s beach’ at Stavros

ALAMY

After we replicate Zorba and Basil’s leg-crossing moves for some madness of our own, I leave my friend to swim and take a stroll, admiring the camel-shaped Vardies mountain opposite. Past a mini-marina, right-angled holes in rough limestone rocks indicate quarries used by the Venetians to strengthen Chania’s defences.

Off season in October — as with May, when the hotel will reopen this year — you can expect lower rates, thinner crowds, emptier swimming pools and, if you’re as lucky as me, ample sunshine. Even if it’s overcast, the typical mid-twenties temperatures outside the July and August peak feel far more palatable after last summer’s Mediterranean heatwave.

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A potential downside of off-peak visits is illustrated by Stavros’s taverna scene: only one beachside option is open as we seek lunch. Luckily, that one is Almyriki, its name referring to the tamarisk tree that shelters its terrace. Where I found the hotel’s food a bit bland, every plate here sings with freshness and flavour. Sweetly arranged like a school of fish, the pickled anchovies with fish roe mousse and homemade tomato paste are sensational; so too are shrimps wrapped in wispy, baklava-like pastry (sharing plates from £4; instagram.com/almyriki).

Richard, left, and his friend recreating the dance from Zorba the Greek

Richard, left, and his friend recreating the dance from Zorba the Greek

Akrotiri is also home to the large, terracotta-coloured Agia Triada monastery. In residence since 1632, monks here have long made olive oils and wines using local grapes. Their wines are nice, I discover during a tasting in vaulted cellars, but nicer still is wandering the ramshackle complex below blood orange trees.

My next day belongs to Chania. Off that focal Venetian harbour extends a maze of undulating, stepped alleys between pastel-shade blocks. Kittens yawn on green-shuttered window ledges; beckoning boutiques sell handmade sculpture or jewellery. Along one side of the especially narrow Skridlof Street, every establishment once made trademark Cretan boots using local leather. All of Chania’s tanneries have closed (there’s still one elsewhere on Crete) and now only one shop, a tiny affair at No 28-30, still painstakingly hand-sews boots on site the traditional way (the others sell factory-made footwear).

“My children don’t want to do this after me,” its 58-year-old second-generation owner Giorgios Pirpinakis says phlegmatically. “Nobody wants to continue on this street.”

Not that Chania wants for heritage. Originally a Mycenaean settlement, it had already been under Roman, Saracen and Byzantine control when the Venetians arrived in 1204 and oversaw four prosperous centuries. Able to hold more than 40 galleys, its harbour became a Mediterranean powerhouse.

The Ottomans eventually elbowed in, with Crete remaining under Turkish control until 1897. An emblem of such history is the vanilla-yellow Church of St Nicholas, east of the Venetian harbour which, having had a spell as a mosque, possesses a minaret on one side and a Greek Orthodox bell tower opposite.

Not far away, on a quieter part of the seafront, something much newer awaits. Born in America to a Cretan father, Alexandra Manousakis relocated to the island in 2007 and now runs three informal Chania brasseries with her restaurateur husband, Afshin Molavi. One, the waterside Maiami, also serves as a venue in which to taste wines from the pair’s rural vineyard and hosts a shop showcasing Manousakis’s cheerful ceramics (mains from £8; maiamichania.com).

Maiami restaurant

Maiami restaurant

VICKY TSATSAMPA

“Chania is changing fast — there are many more young people now, starting businesses and causing a more creative outlook,” the thirtysomething Manousakis says.” Typifying that fresh mindset is the nearby Salis, another of the couple’s establishments. Using seasonal produce like yellow beetroot or cucumber melon grown from heirloom seeds by Molavi’s business partner, this farm-to-fork bistro majors in modern, mostly vegetarian mezze. Its avocado taramasalata rivals anything I had at Almyriki for quality, and for pretty presentation; half an aubergine topped with fermented fava beans and thyme honey exceeds it (mains from £12; salischania.com).

Two exceptional meals back-to-back? Such good fortune must always be toasted, so I make for another example of modern-day Chania’s penchant for cool.

Sinagogi is an indoor/outdoor bar occupying part of the city’s old synagogue. Twentysomethings cluster around candlelit tables as Latin beats play; abstract artworks overhang decrepit stone walls. There’s an echo of Budapest’s early ruin bars here — not a vibe I’d expected to encounter on a Greek island, and near the end of the season at that.
Richard Mellor was a guest of Brown Hotels, which has B&B doubles at Isla Brown Chania from £206 (brownhotels.com), and Alpine Travel (alpine.gr). Fly to Chania

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