In the southeastern corner of Crete lies a fabulous but little-known town called Makrigialos. Just don’t let the secret out...
As I write this story I’m looking over my shoulder. I expect there’s a small band of in-the-know holidaymakers and expats circulating my photo, panicked that someone has given away the secret of their favourite European hideaway. For Makrigialos is one of these special corners of the earth – a little-known gem of a place that is all the more charming because it is rather undiscovered and not overrun by the tourists who flock to the likes of Malia, Crete’s big party town.
I guess it’s a good job, then, that everyone I met in Makrigialos had that ‘mi casa es su casa’ friendliness. I discovered the town rather by accident, with internet chatter luring me in, and as it wrapped its warm Mediterranean arms around me, I was delighted I had. Makrigialos is total relaxation – a place where the term beach bum doesn’t apply because it would likely describe every visitor lapping up the rays on one of its sheltered shores.
The town’s not known for an array of attractions and cultural draws so it forced me to do something I’ve never done on a break before: slow down, relax and completely re-energise. This genuinely was a whole new experience for me, and perhaps, as holiday experiences go, it wasn’t the most remarkable. But I holiday like I work, broaching each new place with a mental timetable, a list of things to do, sights to see and activities to offer me a greater understanding of a place.
Don’t get me wrong: Makrigialos offers fabulous views and some culture (a Minoan villa, for example) – but it comes with a healthy dose of R&R. You notice it as soon as you arrive, the summer’s mid-30° temperatures soothing locals into slow but considered actions, and within minutes you’re released from the burden of life at home to contemplate people watching from a beachside cafe for just a few hours more.
Makrigialos’ highlights are its beaches and although most people head for the easy option – the sandy, Blue Flag Long Beach that runs parallel to the town – there are better, less crowded options like the peaceful shingle Kalamokania, on the other side of the pretty harbour, and Diaskari, a five-minute drive away or 15 hot minutes walking. The rewards on reaching Diaskari are a crowd-free slice of seaside heaven. It hosts a small taverna and fantastic beach cabanas, complete with sunloungers and hammocks that tempt you to stay a while longer in their relaxing sway.
The only serious contender for our beach time in Makrigialos was a daily pilgrimage to the local cake shop. We discovered Takis and Voula’s Patisserie on our second day and then decided to transport that quintessentially British of traditions, afternoon tea, to the sunny shores of the Libyan Sea. Takis and Voula serve up divine creations from their sweet palace; be it a humungous cream-filled baklava or their take on a Sachertorte, each were made to perfection and come highly recommended.
In fact there are a host of great eating places serving traditional Greek food, and even the odd English breakfast – but this isn’t the mainstay of Makrigialos’ fare. Instead three-cheese saganaki is one of many well-advised specialities at Stratos, on Kalamokania beach. Dolores and Vangelis – yes, Makrigialos is the sort of place where everybody knows your name and you know theirs – have been serving their take on Greek and international dishes for over 10 years to critical acclaim. Ask anyone in Makrigialos for a restaurant recommendation and inevitably Stratos will feature. But the town has many other great eateries, including Kastro, Zorbas and Gabbiano - so it’s no wonder it is considered to offer some of the best food in Crete.
It’s easy when in the deep relaxation of Makrigialos to ignore the rest of Crete, letting it pass you by as you spend another day on the beach, but the nearby towns of Ierapetra and Sitia offer some interest, with Sitia’s old town and Venetian fort a treat for anyone fascinated by history.
But the real interest in the area lies in the Lassithi Plateau. Around an hour and a half’s drive from Makrigialos, you arrive at the town of Neapolis – the start of a winding road through the Diktean Mountains. It’s here that you reach the very heart of Crete, where time drifts by slowly in centuries-old villages unaffected by the rush of modern life. Tiny, three-house hamlets hug the snaking road that runs for miles up and over scrubby, rugged landscape, grazed by mountain goats.
Then, as you head down the other side of the mountains, the plateau spreads out before you like an enormous patchwork quilt, dotted with small white churches and thousands of windmills, their white fabric sails blowing furiously on a hearty breeze. The bright sunshine dances off the yellows, greens and browns of the valley but the air is cool, with temperatures typically 10-15°C lower than in the rest of the island. At Psychro we paused to take in the village and were spellbound by its step-back-in-time serenity. Old ladies dressed in the traditional black of widows, faces revealing a life of hard work and country living, eyed us with interest, while an old man enjoyed an afternoon slumber at a café.
Continuing our journey another couple of miles, we came to the Diktean Cave, the mythological birthplace of Zeus. This was what I had come to see, but the fact was the dark, deep cave was far less exciting than the views it afforded of the spectacular plateau and arresting villages. There was nothing touristy or sugar-coated about life here on the wild, at times inhospitable, mountain ranges. This was where real people lived their lives among the patchwork of the plateau.
Heading back to Makrigialos I felt pleased to have ventured beyond its city limits to witness the real Crete, but after a long day’s driving I was equally happy to be back in its comforting embrace.
Olympic, easyJet and Thomas Cook fly to Heraklion, the nearest airport.
Where to stay
- Mikri Poli: 4-star all-inclusive hotel, which opened in 2008 on the outskirts of Makrigialos. It has 200 modern rooms facing onto a sandy bay between Long Beach and Diaskari.
- Villea Village: a comfortable homely resort with a huge swimming pool and very friendly staff; in the heart of Makrigialos.
- Apartments Maria Tsanakalioti's : clean rooms and fabulous Cretan hospitality are assured at Maria’s popular apartments, located right on the beach.