“Well, it’s been at least 20 minutes since we’ve had anything to eat or drink…” An oft-repeated conversation starter during our trip to the Caramel Resort, a shiny new boutique resort set along the Cretan Riviera on the fringes of Rethymnon and right on the island’s longest stretch of beach. Such is Cretan hospitality that it’s hard to go more than a few steps or minutes without having locally-produced treats proffered and of course, it would be rude not to accept…
Part of the uber-elegant Grecotel family of luxury resorts, Caramel opened last year and is among the most intimate of the group’s hotels with just 69 rooms, suites and villas. Each room is individually decorated with a chic mix of antiques and designer furniture for stylish touches, alongside modern comforts including everything from Nespresso machines to well-stocked mini bars, ensuring that you want for nothing during your stay.
In typical local style, floors are tiled in cobalt blue and bright white ceramics, embellished with decorative floral designed and accented by the sun’s rays, beautifully set off by crisp white linen bedding and dark wood accents. Our luxurious beachside suite for four came in the form of a two-storey apartment, complete with kitchenette, two bathrooms, dressing areas and living space that dwarfs my London flat. You’ll also get a personal gazebo area or private pool. And no, I definitely don’t have one of those in London either.
Even though the beach resort was almost full when we stayed, we genuinely felt that there was ample space and peace. Caramel’s inspired layout is such that you can have the most tranquil time by the beach where the only sound is the waves lapping the shore, or opt for a bit of buzzy activity at the pool, where there’s music and canopied day beds to lounge on. The beautiful circular pool features vast wicker leaves submerged around the edges to lie on, plus plenty of plush seating areas with oversized cushions too, as well as a balcony with elegant sofas. Back at the beach, the sea is rocky to clamber into but clear and warm once you’re immersed – even at its coolest in April, when the snow on the mountains has melted and flows into the Aegean Sea.
Our first breakfast at the Caramel Boutique Resort gave us an inkling as to what was ahead, noticing they had upped the ante on the usual buffet by also offering some exquisite local specialities such as fennel pie, a delicious kind of filled pancake. Another must-try served everywhere at mealtimes is dakos, chopped tomato and xinomyzithra (a tangy salted white cheese) sprinkled with oregano and sitting on a thick Cretan barley rusk liberally doused with extra virgin olive oil. Somehow the combination of crunchy, creamy, and juicy wakes up your palate and never fails to please.
The lunchtime menu (because, yes, we wanted to eat more) featured plenty of tasty bar snacks – the burgers in particular are heavenly. And later on, after a visit to the Panther Piano Bar for a cocktail, we had a difficult choice between the terrace for fine dining and evening buffet or the more laidback bistro, where the delicious fish dishes offer the best locally-caught fare each day. They also overlook the pool, which is illuminated with soft pastel lights after sunset, and features singers most evenings – a blessing as we were barely able to move by then.
It quickly became clear that Cretans are very proud of their food and of its benefits, which is proven to be one of the healthiest as due to the emphasis on seasonal fare, low in fat and rich in fresh vegetables and local produce. As a simple test, eating one of the their tomatoes will remind you exactly how they are supposed to taste in comparison to a watery supermarket one. Understandably then, meal times on the Greek island are lengthy and if you’re a guest in a Cretan home, you’re invited to “come for a table” rather than at a specified hour, as these gastronomic affairs can last most of the day.
During our stay, we drove ten minutes along the winding roads into the mountains to visit Agreco Farm: an expansive local farm also owned by the Grecotel group. The focus here is on environmentally-friendly methods of farming and producing food from olives to wine to meat, and Agreco has been feeding hotel guests and locals their organically-cultivated produce for 15 years. Now open to visitors too, Agreco offers farm tours culminating in a 30-course dinner on the terrace – all for an incredible €45. Quite apart from the price, it’s a complete treat for the senses, from the view of the sun setting over the sea, to the peaceful (lack of) noise, to the scent of aromatic herbs that surround you. We suggest finishing with a spot of highly uncoordinated Greek dancing – best done post a couple of shots of local raki…
Aside from Agreco, if you can drag your soporific self beyond the hotel gates of Caramel’s paradise, make a trip down into the picturesque old fishing village of Rethymnon, which is rich in an eclectic mix of Venetian and Turkish cultural influences. There’s also the Holy Monastery of Agia Irini, a pretty convent that’s home to nine nuns around 15 minutes drive into the mountains where you can pick up hand-woven linens and or pretty prayer bracelets. Zeta, the God of hospitality, was born on a mountain in Crete and I can see why. Although if he had any sense, he wouldn’t have make it past the road running between Caramel and Agreco…
Double rooms at Caramel Grecotel Boutique Resort start at €245 on a B&B basis, and Aegean Airlines operate direct flights to Heraklion from London Gatwick from £96. For more information, see the Caramel Grecotel Boutique Resort website.