Luxury London soaks up the views of the island of Spinalonga at the Blue Palace Resort & Spa in Crete
“The island lay directly ahead, and as the boat approached the great Venetian fortification which fronted the sea, she felt both the pull of its past and an overpowering sense of what it still meant in the present.” I turn this phrase over in my head – it’s from Victoria Hislop’s award-winning novel The Island that I’m re-reading from my sun lounger, by my private plunge pool – as I look out at the island she’s describing: Spinalonga.
Dominated by a colossal fortress that lies in the mouth of the natural harbour of Elounda, the monument acts as a powerful backdrop to my long-weekend sojourn at the Blue Palace Resort & Spa in Crete. Spinalonga was seized by the Ottoman Turks in the 18th century. When Crete was later declared independent in 1898, many of the Ottomans were forced to leave in the face of sectarian violence, but Spinalonga remained a refuge. The island’s Muslim Turks refused to give up their home, and only left in 1903 when the island was turned into a leper colony. Interestingly, although Crete was invaded by the Germans and occupied until 1945, the presence of lepers meant Spinalonga was left alone, and it wasn’t until 1957 that it was abandoned altogether. But as well as Hislop’s novel bringing attention to the now barren islet, it was also awarded UNESCO recognition a couple of years ago, and is now a firm fixture on the Greek tourist trail.
And so its silhouette looms large: from our private, pool-fronted terrace; while dining at the authentic in-house taverna, Blue Door; onboard the hotel’s traditional caïque (a wooden Greek boat) ‘Meraki’, which circles the Elounda bay and the island itself as we sample an array of local wines and cheeses. But there is also a lot more to be said about Blue Palace. Having received a number of accolades (including a smattering of Condé Nast Traveler Readers’ Choice awards), it’s a behemoth of a resort, with a mixture of clientele, rooms and services to cater for varying tastes and pockets.
Spread over an enormous section of land, even the most basic rooms here are magnificently spacious with a stunning bay view. My husband and I are staying in the next step up from entry-level: a superior bungalow with a private pool, which given the price, is one of the most generous rooms I have ever come across. Décor-wise, it’s all calming white wash and splashes of pretty signature blue to ward off the evil eye; very rustic, unpretentious, and above all, really quite comfortable. Our private balcony and pool hosts the late morning sun until around lunchtime – impressive and tan-friendly in the high 20-degree range, which come mid-October, isn’t easy to find in Europe – and we choose to have our breakfast here most days. While the American-style buffet at restaurant Olea is certainly grander in size, we find the bay a more peaceful backdrop to enjoy our Greek yogurt with local honey.
As you might expect, the local fare is the best. Championing the resort’s signature colour, the aforementioned Blue Door is a converted old fisherman’s stone house serving typical Greek delicacies, set in a dazzling beachfront location (if the same could be found in London, it would be booked out for the rest of the year). We enjoy a faultless, simple mixed meze platter of traditional dips, breads, salads, meatballs and skewers, followed by delicious shrimp souvlaki and lobster from the open grill. Flame, the hotel’s elegant steak restaurant, also serves up a memorable meal come nightfall (both a sirloin and a rib-eye are cooked to perfection), and we particularly enjoy making our own drizzle with the accompanying pestle and mortar from an array of herbs and oils.
As it’s late in the season when we visit, not every restaurant is open for lunch and dinner, but by day we flit between the inviting pool bar Isola Beach Club for light wraps and salads, and Isola, a beautiful Mediterranean outdoor dining space, complete with the best lamb cutlets you’ll ever taste and a sea breeze that feels like it’s coming straight from Spinalonga. The nearby picturesque town of Plaka also has a great selection of tavernas, and there are a number of dining options to be explored either under the stars or in your private villa, as well as a few other secret bars dotted around.
The service at Blue Palace is impeccable, and the attitude of the staff is very much can-do, so share what it is you’re after and the answer will most likely be naí (which incidentally means yes, not no).
The spa here is the main attraction. Set by the beach, which you can reach by panoramic cable car from the higher reception level or golf buggy, there are 24 treatment rooms, and it seems almost everyone staying at the resort will visit at least once during their trip. I melt into my full body massage, which I top and tail with a dip in all three of the thalasso pools, as well as the luminous relaxation pool, hammam, Jacuzzi and fitness centre. Other hotel activities include Cretan wine tasting, Greek cooking lessons, sunrise yoga and varying experiences sailing the clear waters of the Mirabello Gulf.
Each day ends with a magazine and a cocktail, courtesy of our personalised hamper, as we look out from our VIP section of the invitingly wild, stony beach, wrapped in a towel as the temperature dips with the sun. I return to read about Spinalonga on the page before me. “This, she speculated, might be a place where history was still warm...”