Looked at one way, Rethymnon could almost be an eastern sheikdom; from another angle, it's more Miami. But head out of town, in to the hills, and it could only be Crete
Minarets, mosques and palm trees – can we be in the exotic Middle East? Not quite. A looming Venetian fortress, strings of octopus drying outside harbour taverns, and an archaeological museum stuffed with Minoan relics give the game away.
Rethymnon is Crete’s third largest town and like its rival, Chania, it combines old-world charm with beaches, outstanding scenery, and just enough culture to add interest without making you feel guilty for staying on the beach. For foodies and lovers of chic boutique hotels, it’s the business, with some of the best restaurants in Crete and a plethora of stylish places to stay in cleverly restored townhouses dating from its medieval Venetian heyday.
Rethymnon scores over Chania because it has its own beach right in town – and for a town beach, it’s outstanding, with a broad sweep of adequately clean sand and plenty of loungers and umbrellas to rent. It starts just east of the fishing harbour and behind it runs a long esplanade that’s one solid row of restaurants, café-bars and ice cream shops, lined with palm trees and, towards its eastern end, big resort hotels. On summer evenings, you can join four generations of locals – babes in arms, too-cool teens, black-dressed grannies and aged patriarchs – for the sunset volta (stroll) along this promenade.
The palms look appropriate, but they were replanted quite recently. In the 1930s, the ‘modernising’ military dictator General Ioannis Metaxas decided that the palm trees that graced the boulevards of most Greek towns were an unacceptable relic of the Turkocratia (the Ottoman occupation) and had them all cut down. Here, and elsewhere, they were replanted in the 1990s.
Metaxas also banned the nargileh (hubble-bubble water-pipe) for similar reasons, but it, too, is making a comeback. Sample a puff of fruit-flavoured tobacco at one of the trendy cafes around the Rimondi Fountain, a landmark at the hub of the old Turko-Venetian quarter.
But before you do that, you’ll need a place to stay. The Mythos Suites Hotel is tricky to find, hiding behind ancient walls on a tiny square at the corner of Karaoli and Dimitriou, a minute’s walk from the waterfront, but this miniature haven is well worth seeking out. ‘Like staying in a doll’s house,’ is how one guest describes it - but it’s a very stylish doll's house. The rooms, carved out of a clutch of age-old buildings, have beamed ceilings and stone arches, and surround an inner courtyard with a plunge pool that is incredibly appealing in the summer heat. All the rooms have mini-kitchens, which is a boon, and at around €100, it’s well priced.
In a similar price bracket, Palazzo Rimondi is almost too style-conscious, going for an Elle Deco look behind the walls of a 15th-century townhouse, also with a pocket-sized courtyard pool. Just a few steps away, seven colour-coded luxury suites make up the AVLI Lounge Apartments, above the finest restaurant in Crete (also called AVLI, with a marvellous locally-sourced menu and a stupendous wine list). A suite here starts at €200, and the service is immaculate. No pool, though.
If you do need big-hotel frills such as a pool, spa and room service, Aquila Porto Rethymno is the city’s top-ranking resort property, a complex of 200-plus rooms overlooking the beach. With easy access to the old quarter, the beach, and out-of-town sightseeing, it offers the best of all worlds. Shop for off-season rates in spring and autumn, when you can sometimes pick up a double here for as little as €80 (high season rates jump to around €180).