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Trip Report Trip Report: What can you say about Greece?

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I mean, really. What can you say about Greece that hasn’t been said a thousand times? As I tried in vain to come up with a catchy title for this report, I could not think of a single original idea. Lost in the Goat Paths of Crete – was a possible subtitle – or Knossos Defense Techniques or Perusing Plastic Plaka . . . but nothing really came to mind that captured the essence of the whole trip. It would seem that Greece has been overdone for so long, that it is almost generic travel in the minds of the independent traveler. Well, this independent traveler, anyways . . . Who hasn’t been to a museum to see endless cases filled with kraters & vases & other Greek artifacts? Or who hasn’t read books about Greece or studied the Greek myths in school? Or seen the heroic movies or the weepy romantic ones . . . cue Captain Corelli's Mandolin . . . And then, do I even have to mention the Zorba theme that many of us have been hearing for much of our lives? And in our cities we have Greek “Towns” or neighborhoods - the Danforth here in Toronto springs immediately to mind. And last but not least, we have some really awesome greasy Greek burger places with great gyros - which are sadly disappearing in places as cities change.

Anyways, my ego demands that I write a report about our travels in Greece. And so it starts. Of course, there is also a practical side . . . when we are old and cranky and can’t travel anymore; we will always be able to read the essay of our own travels. While the stories will not go down through the ages like the great myths of the Gods, these belong to us, which makes them very special. And I am happy to invite you along.

But on the topic of my report . . .

We arrived back from Morocco last year on a travel high. It was an absolutely amazing trip. I wrote my trip report and edited and Flickr’d the pictures. I brought it all together on my travel site and shared all of the above on Fodors. And I did all of my reviews on Trip Advisor. And then . . . nothing. Après vacation depression. We had absolutely nothing booked for the future. Our next travel destination was a blank folder on my computer . . .

And then came the idea: What about Greece?

As a consummate travel planner, I dove in. I read all of the Trip Reports. I swept the net for info. I mapped the list of cities & sites of interest. Bang. I booked a direct Air Canada reward flight to Athens for June 1. Fifteen in-country nights.

Then my research kicked in in earnest. I had a mainland itinerary. Delphi. Ancient Olympus. Meteora. Ancient Pella. Mycenae. I had an island itinerary. Mykonos, Naxos, Delos, Santorini. And I couldn’t ignore Crete. So then I applied the vacation filters. Beach? No. City? As little as necessary. Small town? Sure. But make it interesting. Driving? Yeah sure, but not too much. And it has to be a convertible. 18 km Gorge Hike? Ha ha ha ha ha ha ha ha. Ancient sites? Yes. But just enough of them with no mountain climbing involved. Museums? Yes, but only the big ones with the real stuff. Food? Make it good. I want to eat really well! And good local wine as well. Balcony? Yes, mandatory. As my wife says: We rent balconies & bathrooms with a living room attached.

And the final itinerary:

Fly Air Canada Rouge to Athens – 2 nights
Aegean Flight to Chania, Crete – 3 nights
Rental car to Zaros, Crete (southern Heraklia Prefecture) – 3 nights
Heraklion – 1 night for convenience to port
Ferry to Santorini – 4 nights in Imerovigli
Aegean Flight to Athens – 2 nights

So two locales in Crete & a leisurely stay on an island are boxed between two bouts of Athens.

As a departure from the usual order, here are my pictures from Athens to whet your appetite.

A Flickr set: https://flic.kr/s/aHsjZ3qwng

The report will take a while to write because my business is getting in the way. ;) ;) We only returned from Athens last Tuesday & I am off to Salisbury UK tomorrow via Heathrow for work with a promised ‘just us’ tour day on Friday to that big rock circle, Amesbury & Bath. Then a free half day in London on Saturday. And that is just the start of my summer travel . . . so I will update as I can.

Ian

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    That would be Artemis Villas. White Suite (83 steps down)on the caldera - with a front & center view of Skaros. I can not recommend them highly enough. Truly great service - not at all like the 'hand-out-for-a-tip' variety. Angela & Chris. I will delve in deeper later. And Imerovigli is the place to be if you want a tranquil Santorini vacation away from the cruise hordes that takes your breath away every time you walk out onto your veranda. imho of course.

    Ian

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    I'm back . . . sorry for the delay.

    As noted above, I am a serious travel planner. I travel frequently for business in North America with occasion trips to France or England. I like to know the where/how/what before I leave home. I am quite used to booking things 3 months out for business. For vacations, I extend this as available. To secure just the right room in just the right hotel, I will usually book 10 – 9 months out. This is often necessary for the small, popular hotels that sell out long before the summer months arrive. Fodor’s and Trip Advisor are used for research as well as general Internet searches on all properties of interest. Internal flights and ferries are booked as soon as they become available 3 – 6 months before. I will even pre-book a popular restaurant or two a month out. Yes, I am organized. The hotspots of the world are brimming with other travelers vying for those same rooms and those same special tables and I prefer to be on the winning side of that equation.

    We left Toronto on a Monday afternoon with a direct flight to Athens. Air Canada Rouge is a new ‘discount’ airline that bridges the gap between the cheap junket airlines and normal AC service. It gets you there with smaller seat spaces in cattle class (economy) and premium seats that aren’t worth a premium. And the whole cabin was chilly for the entire flight despite our – and others – pleas to the staff. We arrived 2 hours late due to a late departure caused by 25 pre-board wheelchairs (!) and some minor cockpit problem on the ground. Passport control and baggage recovery were a breeze and our driver from George’s Taxis was waiting with a sign for us. I had toyed with a subway ride into Athens but my wife’s large bag was not conducive to hauling very far. It worked for us. The run in from the airport took just under an hour and gave us a chance to see the city from the back seat of a comfortable Benz with a pleasant driver.

    Hotel: Hilton Athens

    http://www3.hilton.com/en/hotels/greece/hilton-athens-ATHHITW/index.html

    Despite our midday arrival, our room was ready offering an eighth floor view of downtown Athens with the Acropolis front and center from our balcony. A big WOW for that! The room was a pretty standard anywhere-in-the-world Hilton King room. I had booked enough ‘alternate’ rooms later in the trip for local flavor, and this worked well for jetlagged bodies. After a bit of cleanup and unpacking, we dove into Athens. The Evangelismos subway station was easy to find - across a busy intersection in a little parkette. €1.60 each with a train transfer at Syntagma station and we popped out at the Akropoli station in the tourist zone at the foot of the Acropolis. The subway was quite busy mid-afternoon and we were glad we hadn’t tried a trudge in with our baggage. While most stations had nice escalators to negotiate the different levels, some of them were not functional.

    Neither of us was particularly hungry so eschewing the many restaurants, we entered the Acropolis grounds at the 1st entrance near the Theatre of Dionysus – a short walk from the subway station. This route offers a slower climb up and a chance to see the two theaters up-close. My wife had been leery of the walk up on our aging bodies but it was a big non-issue. The main route up – where we exited – was diffidently a steeper climb via those ‘slippery’ marble stairs as oft reported. Since we entered the actual Acropolis hill at around 3:30pm the crowds were very light and it was a pleasant experience to ooh and aah at the monuments and the views offered from this ancient perch. The temperature was in the high-20Cs so we had a refreshing lemon drink at the bottom before slugging it back to the subway and our hotel to rest before dinner.

    I hadn’t really intended this trip to be a foodie vacation but it ended up that way. I had done extensive research about restaurants that were only walking distances from each of our hotels and I had a nice list with lots of options. A pleasant surprise was that one of my choices – Milos Estiatorio – was actually attached to the Hilton.

    http://milos.ca/restaurants/athens

    My review: I have dined at the Montreal & the Las Vegas versions of this very good restaurant. We were jet lagged so we just shared a couple of appetizers including the incredible Milo's Special of thin fried eggplant & zucchini slices with tzatziki. Very yummy. Our 2nd app was calamari which was tasty but tough. The efficient waiter claimed that is was from a bigger squid . . . We washed it down with a couple of glasses of local wine while dining in the pleasant garden outdoor area in a near-empty restaurant.

    Clunk: our bodies hitting the bed.

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    Btw the light dinner at Milos clocked in at €60. Great food is usually not cheap food.

    And my hotel review: We had a great room with a balcony facing the Acropolis. From our 8th floor room we could even see Piraeus & mountains disappearing into the haze. The staff was efficient & very accommodating. We were on a reward stay so I can't really complain. As mentioned, Internet was a crazy €20 per day & my status was not high enough for free service. Likewise the breakfast buffet is €35 (€20 if you pre-book at check-in). Luckily there are several inexpensive cafés & a Starbucks around the corner to fill the gap. The Evangelismos subway stop is a minute away across the very busy road to easily connect with anywhere in Athens. As a bonus, the wonderful Milos Restaurant is attached to the hotel.

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    We woke up at 6am to overcast skies, mild temps and light showers. Well, that kind of sucks. It was June 3. We avoided the extortion-like Hilton buffet and walked around the corner. There was a Starbucks and several coffee shops. One yielded coffee and a ham and cheese pastry for just €4.80. Breakfast solved.

    Manned with our umbrella – we had seen the forecast before we left home – we set our sights on the Archeological Museum of Athens via the busy Omonia hub. Still with a light rain falling, we made our way up a busy store-lined avenue – oh, and did I mention rather ugly? – to the museum. A few tour buses were in evidence but the mild crowds – solos and tours including school groups – were never a real problem. I would rank this museum very high on my ‘the must-sees’ list. Well laid out with great displays and some of the world’s finest ancient treasures. You are truly a history-Neanderthal if you miss it.

    The rain was finally tapering off as we exited, and we were entertained by a gaggle of Greek pre-teen girls in the forecourt imitating their coffee-drinking/cigarette puffing male teacher. They obviously liked him a lot and he took it all in stride.

    We subway’d to Syntagma Square and off down Mitropoleos St for lunch of some tasty toasts at Café Duomo. €12. It rained fairly heavily while we ate but the substantial awning allowed us to peacefully watch the mix of tourists and locals scurry by for shelter into the Hondos Center across the alley.

    With the weather finally clearing and the sun peeking out, we dove into the Monastiraki area, walking by the Roman agora on our way to the Ancient Greek one. The large park-like setting was lightly touristed and was a very pleasant way to kill an hour or so. I even made a visit to the foundations of the State Prison – now labelled btw – which houses the cells where Socrates drank his cup of death. The agora museum – in the re-constructed Stoa was small but had some nice pieces so it is also worthy of a diversion. Along the way, we noticed some of the same tourists we had seen in the Acropolis the day before – yes, the crowds were that light! A stop in a tourist den for an espresso/cappuccino fredo yielded a nice conversation with the talkative waiter about the economy and tourism. His view: independent tourism is way down while the cruise groups are increasing – except for the growing Chinese independents many of whom favor winter travel. Unfortunately for him, neither of these demographic segments stop in his restaurant, they walk right by.

    Then it was back to the hotel to prepare for our ‘treat’ restaurant. We justified it many ways, but it was still a big extravagance: The Funky Gourmet

    http://www.funkygourmet.com/en/

    From the moment we found the website and the reviews, we wanted to make this an Athens' highlight for us. It was.

    My review: This was our 'treat' restaurant. It has been recently awarded its 2nd Michelin Star & the price, presentation & service reflected this accolade. We had the Degustation Menu #2 with wine pairing. The food was all exceptional even though some of the ingredients were not in our normal rotation. The presentations were the real star here with incredibly inventive plating. Service was efficient & friendly albeit not quite as special as a Parisian equivalent. The wine choices (one was actually beer) were perfect for the dishes served. A must if you are a foodie. Georgianna (co-chef/co-owner) was happy to meet us to share a photo. As others have mentioned, the area was slightly sketchy & we taxied both ways from our hotel.

    See pictures of our Funky dishes in the Athens pictures from the link above and repeated here:

    https://flic.kr/s/aHsjZ3qwng

    Next Up: Chania, Crete

    Ian

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    I loved looking at your pictures of Athens. I was there nine years ago and would go back in a heartbeat. Must be a history Neanderthal as I missed the archeological museum. Have to go back.

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    I neglected to mention the wonderful lightening display that the Greek Gods put on for us. Perched on our balcony with late night duty-free cocktails in hand, we had an incredible view of the awesomeness of nature as multiple lightening forks lit up the hills of Athens. And . . . taxis to/from Funky were €8/€10.80 respectively so cabbing is not cheap in Athens.

    The next morning I treated my spouse to breakfast in the room after a run to the local café again. With hours to spare before our flight to Chania, we walked to the Benaki Museum for a quick breeze through. A nice collection that spans the years but it still pales next to the stunning art displayed at the biggun in town. We taxi’d to the airport for a short hop to Chania via Aegean Air €35. Despite the animal boarding onto the loading bus, the flight was on time and painless. Again, a pre-arranged driver was waiting for us but he obviously was not a friendly fellow. More of a gold-chain-in–a-Mercedes-guy that was making ends meet in this sucky job . . . We received a very warm welcome from the Alcanea Boutique Hotel after a short walk through the maze of the old town.

    --

    My review of Alcanea: I know that this review might sound phony but it was a perfect stay. A small boutique hotel with just 8 rooms, it is right on the harbor next to the attached Maritime Museum. Their small restaurant is on the ground level & as guests we received free breakfast (huge portions complete with eggs cooked the way you want them!). The staff were wonderful - Helen & Evi (sp?) in particular - expertly accommodating our every request. Rooms I & VII (our room) have small balconies that fit 2 chairs nicely with great harbor views - although you will feel like a rock star since EVERYBODY takes photos as they walk by. It is a creaky 400 year old building so the rooms are all different but you will have to climb stairs (49 to our room!). The harbor starts to come alive at 5am, so if you are a light sleeper, make sure that you close your windows - that nicely stops all of the noise from the late night locals staggering home. An unreserved recommendation!

    --

    Since we arrived in town just before dinner, we had a balcony cocktail admiring the view and then made our way to atmospheric Portes Restaurant that Helen from the hotel suggested and reserved for us. It was on my shortlist and very busy so our reservations were wise.

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    Portes: Located in the alley beside the old city wall, we chose this on the recommendation of our hotel because they are good friends. It was a good choice. A wide selection with emphasis on 4 legged fare. Bread, dips & our mains were all very good. The waiters were very friendly, bantering with patrons - especially when a surprise downpour required some rearranging.

    --

    After a hearty breakfast on the terrace in front of the Alcanea (included of course), we set out to explore the town using a route that I found on the net somewhere. It took us all around the old town to the market and encircled back to the fortress. The old walled town area is certainly gentrified compared to the graffiti’d concrete wasteland of much of Athens. Cafes, restaurants, ice cream, clothing, leather, knives, and tourist stores galore . . . this area would certainly appeal to anyone that likes shopping and eating for days on end . . . I found it a little too packaged. Pretty, but packaged.

    For the next two days, we just pretty much slummed around so there is no point to a day by day account. Both days were perfect: sunny with temps in the high 20s. We ate a tourist lunch in one of the harbor restaurants – Zepos – not great but it had the most comfortable seats of the bunch of eateries that faced the sea. The waiter told us that he works here for 7 months of the year and then returns home to mainland Greece to live with his parents during the winter months to save money. His brother, who moved back to their parent’s house, can’t afford to live alone on his €1000 per month policeman’s wage.

    One afternoon, we took a fairly useless 1 ½ hour boat cruise with a nice Scottish couple from a cruise ship. As a weird coincidence, his ancestors came from the same patch of Scotland – Tullich Farms near Inveraray – that my ancestors left behind for Canada in 1842.

    We walked over to the beach west of the old town in Chania proper (mush grittier than the old town btw). It was not a pretty beach but a lot of people were there sunning and cooling off and we both went for a quick dip in the Med. On our third night in Chania, there was a DJ and a major local town party over by the boat moorings that we walked through on our way back from the restaurant.

    Just lazy relaxing days . . . but we felt that we had exhausted all of the fun possibilities for us in Chania. If we had stayed any longer we would have had to bug out for day trips. And no . . . the Samaria Gorge trek was not in the cards for us. The downhill part would have destroyed my trick knees and for my wife . . . a big resounding NO WAY. Nor were any beaches particularly appealing. So, despite the wonderful hospitality and comfort of the Alcanea Hotel, we were ready to leave after three nights in town.

    --

    For our other dinners, we dipped into my researched list:

    Taman - In the alley just steps from the harbor & very busy so I was glad that we had a reservation. Very good mains (grilled lamb chops & veal in tomato sauce) & truly wonderful baked feta. The servers were good but a bit brusque although the crowds were keeping them hopping. In the busier times, reservations are a must. We sat in the alley tables feeding a friendly but fussy cat that would only eat meat.

    Chrisostomos - Obviously trying to be more upmarket than most (if not all) in this restaurant filled town. It was also harder to find in an out-of-the-way location near the lighthouse pier at the far end of the enclosed harbor. We were warned that this is a meat-centric eatery & the menu had lamb, rabbit, sheep, wild boar etc. Salads & appetizers were all huge so plan to share. Meats were tender & very good although the accompanying sauces were a tad greasy - of course that's why they were so tender. Probably more authentic Cretan cuisine as opposed to standard Greek. The restaurant was full & turning people away so a reservation might be necessary.

    --

    Chania pictures: http://tinyurl.com/nh5v3ap

    Ian

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    You may have assumed from my lackadaisical report for Chania, that it wasn’t a fast and furious part of the report. You would be right. You may have also assumed that it wasn’t a terribly interesting part of our vacation. You would be right again. Maybe we are spoiled or maybe we are just getting travel jaded, but another cute town jammed with tourists and tourist restaurants and tourists stores is . . . well . . . dare I say it? Yes . . . it’s boring.

    Now, sometimes boring holidays are a good thing. It allows you to relax and unwind away from the stresses of daily life. But when you are thousands of miles away from home, in a place that is begging to be explored, sitting on your butt all day with your face buried in a Kindle just seems wrong. Well, I know for certain that we can’t seem to manage it yet . . . maybe in a few years . . .

    Anyways, it was road trip day. Yes, that’s right: ROAD TRIP DAY! I admit it. I am a road trip junkie. I love being on the move exploring new places – especially if I am behind the wheel.

    After the usual ritual of breakfast and packing we were ready when the guy from Anna Cars (http://www.annacars.gr/) arrived on time at 10 am. We negotiated the alleys with our bags to the large parking lot behind the fortress. There our steed awaited. A white 2014 Audi A3 Cabriolet 6spd manual. Yum! And since you asked, no, it wasn’t cheap but Heraklion-based Anna Cars was competitive and a good recommendation from the forums. €400 cash all inclusive. With the luggage stored and the top down we headed off into the beautiful sunny morning.

    The roads were good, the traffic was fairly light and the car was magnificent. I fed it €50 of gasoline which was 1/2 of a tank and this lasted for our entire rental period. We crossed the island to Rethymnon and then cut south to a pass through the mountains that form Crete’s backbone. Just bypassing Agia Galini, we dropped to the plain at Timbaki (and it’s a pretty plain town too). We detoured slightly to Phaistos for a visit. Then a drive through the very provincial town of Mires and a hard left took us back north into the foothills to Zaros. Non-stop would have been about 2 hours.

    The whole drive was great and the mountains – in particular - were jaw-droppingly beautiful. Much greener than we expected but the summer months would change that I am sure. My TomTom performed well easily keeping us on track but my chosen voice – a German Rastaman is the best description – did receive from weird looks from passerby who heard it with the open top.

    I should mention a wee bit about driving in Crete. The roads are narrow so you will spend a lot of time going around things. You are expected to ride in the paved shoulder or to pull over to drive in it to allow people behind you to pass. Which they will do in most places – over double lines etc. And of course, the cars you meet are doing the same thing . . . so ride the shoulder. It all works and it seemed safe enough. You should also get a car with a real engine if you plan to drive into the mountains where you always seem to need more peddle. The cities are more challenging with the herds of motorcycles and the inventive parking but if you take your time and keep your cool, all will be fine.

    As I said above, we visited Phaistos on the way. Or Fastos? Or is it Faistos? Mr TomTom appeared to think it was the latter. Turn south and it is down a lane and up some switchbacks to the parking lot. By this time – midday – the temperature had risen to 1000 degrees. We hadn’t noticed it while the car was in motion but as soon as we stopped, it was relentless. OK, it was actually only 30C but it felt much worse on the barren Phaistos hilltop. The sun was brutal and it was just still just early June! Many of the few people on the site were huddled under the trees on the perimeter where the shade and a slight breeze offered some relief. We baked as we scampered over the stones and eventually crawled back to the car in near-collapse.

    Without some pre-study, Phaistos isn’t terribly exciting as the overlapping palaces leave a confusing footprint. But at least it did not suffer an Evans-style reconstruction so it is real. So read up a bit and take a good map. The views are pretty spectacular in all directions.

    After Phaistos it was an easy fifteen minute drive east through the cruddy town of Mires to the turn north. Then the farms and the hills enveloped the road with the high mountains looming in the distance. After negotiating the last few tight turns through Zaros and a bit of a pitifully paved road, we pulled into the Eleonas Traditional Cottages around 2pm. The owner – Manolis – breezed through the check-in formalities and had us sitting in the dining room with a cool drink and some toasts in no time at all.

    http://www.eleonas.gr/

    My review: Folks, The great reviews don’t lie . . . This is a special place. Not just your average B&B, it is actually a resort at the foot of a mountain pass. Family owned & run it is a wonderful oasis in the near wilderness of Southern Crete. Manolis is the owner (along with his brother). His father tends the wide variety of trees, herbs & plants that are literally everywhere around the cottages & lining the paths etc. And his mother does preserves that they serve in the restaurant. They even have a small farm to grow some produce & chickens for eggs etc. A very nice pool, an exercise area, a tennis court, a kid's play area, numerous hiking options nearby & on & on & on. Breakfasts are bountiful & the optional lunches & dinners are varied & great. Every night they have a meat & a veggie main with a wide selection of appetizers. And they even have potable water flowing from the taps thanks to the Zaros waterworks down the road. There are some basic tavernas in Zaros if you want to break out for some variety.

    --

    After the light lunch, a staff member led us to our cabin. It was a stand-alone two level wood building with a kitchenette, bathroom and living area on the main level and a bedroom up the stairs with a walkout veranda. There was also a patio at the entrance. Both outdoor areas offered some privacy and stunning mountain views. There are a total of 21 cabins spread over three acres climbing the hill from the main building and the pool area beside it. Lushly planted it was a wonderful oasis. We spent the afternoon relaxing and enjoying the view as the sun set early behind the encircling mountains.

    We ‘settled’ for the Eleonas after another rural boutique hotel in the south had a policy change and went to a totally non-smoking property. As luck would have it, this was a very fortunate turn of events. I had been leery of a self-contained property that didn’t really offer any dining alternatives to those of us that like to suck in a bottle of wine with dinner. In its half-board option, the Eleonas serves up a bountiful dinner. You chose an app from a sheet of many options and they have pre-set meat and vegetarian mains. Of course, you can also eat a-la-carte but I don’t think anybody did except for lunch.

    And why did we want the south, you may ask? After researching the whole of Crete, with its concentration of popular beach resorts marring its north coast, we wanted something a bit less cluttered and the southern half of Heraklia Prefecture was a perfect option for this.

    The clientele at the Eleonas was a mix of solo couples and small family units with babies. English, French, German, Dutch, Greek. Everybody was friendly in a quiet reserved fashion. A very efficient and friendly server brought our tasty meal while Manolis worked the crowd, stopping at every table for a chat. Well done!

    A good day.

    Zaros & area pictures: http://tinyurl.com/lbnfbs5

    Ian

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    Thanks for your candid opinions and vivid writing! I was particularly interested in your reactions to Chania and Phaistos, which we're planning to visit next spring. The beach in your photos looks like something out of The Odyssey.

    We rented an Audi A3 diesel in the UK a few years back -- loved it and got great mileage.

    Looking forward to more, though as I mentioned to latedaytraveler, between the two of you I'll be spending more time than I should reading reports!

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    I woke up before sunrise to the sound of a distant rooster. That is always a good thing imho. I went out on our patio with a mug of hot & enjoyed the mountains waking up. Now THIS is what I wanted. In Athens, early mornings on the patio meant a cacophony of traffic and horns. In Chania, it was the teens staggering home from partying @ 5am and the garbage pickup and delivery trucks in the pedestrian area. Eleonas in Zaros – on the other hand - was perfect with just the sounds of nature . . . ahhhhh . . .

    After a hearty breakfast we started to think about an activity. I had promised my spouse a no driving day. She finds mountain driving – with switchbacks and no guardrails in particular – to be a very harrowing experience. To the point that she often gets very vocal as I am negotiating the same. And yes, I have threatened to stuff her in the trunk . . . anyways . . . this was a no driving day.

    What to do? Laze by the pool? Walk to the nearby trout lake? Dive into the Kindle? No. Let’s go for a hike! Just a short one . . .

    Just to explain . . . Eleonas is just 1km from the tiny town of Zaros. They sit at the gateway to the Rouvas Forest preserve and its E4 European Walking Path through the Rouvas Gorge. Manolis handed out a map on check-in that includes a whole mess of adventures in Southern Crete to keep his clients occupied. We zoomed in on an easy one. A 3.something km walk to a 14th Century monastery with a medieval fountain. Easy, right? Remember the subtitle I mentioned above? Lost in the Goat Paths of Crete.

    We started off well. We were enthusiastic and armed with bottled water, a rough map, sunscreen and sensible shoes. We asked Manolis about the trail and he said it was easy: “Go down the road and when you get to the paved road and you jog 90m to pick up the trail. Then, just follow the R2 trail signs” And we did. The trail was a winding track through the trees, olive groves and fields of the foothills of Mount Psiloritis. Note: This should read foot-HILLS.

    First of all, we neglected to calculate that that 3.something was EACH way. And then we also neglected to think that this was the foot-HILLS. As in up and down. Remember that scene with Peter O’Toole crossing the desert after the kid gets sucked into the quicksand in Lawrence of Arabia? Well, I swear that we resembled that after 45 minutes of walking. Admittedly, the vistas were incredible. The kind of vistas that you can never capture with a camera. The trail was marked on rocks at each crossroads so it was easy to follow. Goat paths crisscrossed the road and bedding areas lay beside it – you could smell them as you walked by. It was great. Until the physical exertion plus the relentless, merciless anvil of the sun took its toll. Yes, the same brutal sun that we had encountered at Phaistos the day before. Add in the up and down part to complete the torture. Then the trek became a quest. I had to beat it because we had gone too far to turn back. And my wife kept trudging for the same reason and to humor me. Praying that the monastery was around every bend or just over that next hill, we soldiered on. Finally, when we were almost ready to drop to a crawl, we arrived.

    And it was a bit anti-climactic to be honest. The plane tree-shaded outer courtyard was the highlight because it had shade. And nice cold spring water spewing from its rather decrepit 15th Century fountain. Some locals arrived in a car while we were recovering on a bench to the side of the courtyard to fill some bottles for home. And yes, there was also the quaint old church of St Anthony in the courtyard with some xxth Century frescoes and paintings but it was the shade that was the most appealing thing.

    But then we had to go back. Well, at least it would be downhill and we knew the way. Right? Wrong. Remember that this was the foot-HILLS. And someone apparently stole all of the markings at the intersections after we passed by. I swear! All of the marked rocks were gone.

    There were roads and goat tracks everywhere. We passed by some beehives that we hadn’t seen on the way. And then a herd of sheep with their clanging bells. We could see roads in the distance up the hill. And we could see them below. We could even see the paved road to Zaros way off in the distance. But the road we were on just went on and on curling off in the wrong direction. And why were there rubber shoe heels randomly strew on this road in the middle of nowhere? Heels from women’s shoes and heels from work boots – all shapes and sizes. I dubbed that section the Lair of the Cretan Shoe Bandit. We walked by it four times as I ‘got my bearings’. I voted for cross-country because I could see an obvious route down below but that was overruled as my wife resolutely refused to leave the road. We said some choice words to each other as our tempers frayed . . . under the relentless, merciless anvil of the sun. We finally gave up and turned back to our last known position. Thankfully, I remembered the route to backtrack and we avoided the need to test the efficiency of the Cretan Search and Rescue Teams. Back past the sheep herd and back past the beehives to the intersection where it had all gone wrong. I even confirmed it with our footprints in the dusty track - as my spouse was seriously losing faith in my guiding abilities by this time. Each hill had become an Everest. Each spot of shade a refuge. We trudged on and on and on. Finally, as the last reserves of energy were ebbing from our overheated bodies, we reached the paved road and its 90m jog and we knew that we were almost home. We had survived. Needless to say, we slummed by the pool for the rest of the afternoon.

    We told our tale at dinner to an English couple we befriended the night before. They sympathized and we all got a good laugh. And then they extolled the virtues of their day’s adventure walking the Agiafarago gorge. We didn’t want another trek but they claimed that it was a really easy walk. They claimed that there was lots of shade and that it was actually nicely cool in the gorge with the high rock walls. And that the beach was pure heaven. And I was itching for a road trip so I was all ears . . .

    So the next morning, throwing caution to the wind, we set out for another adventure . . .

    (Previously Posted as Minor Trip Report: Crete - Agiafarago Gorge & Beach)

    Sometimes I read reviews of a place or activity & I wonder if the reporter even went to the same place. It would seem that a vacation 'high' or amnesia boosts people's enthusiasm & they tend to overlook the bad. Of course, the the polar opposite is true as well, with people bitterly complaining about some negative aspect. Visiting the Sistine Chapel comes to mind . . . but I digress. Anyways, the reviews of this activity don't seem to jive with reality - as we discovered.

    Aside from the northern beach sprawl & visiting archeological sites, gorge trekking is a prime activity of a visit to Crete. The Samaria Gorge has almost become a 'must do' for visitors. Well, I read a lot of reviews about this adventure & it quickly became apparent that this strenuous all day walk was not a good fit for us. With trick knees, 60 year old out-of-shape bodies & with one of us exhibiting a terror of slipping & sliding down a mountainside, there was just no point. I know, I know, some of you will pipe in that 80 year old grandmothers in walkers can do it backwards with blindfolds on but we weren't going to.

    Anyways . . . the setting of the beach at Agiafarago (aka Agia Farago or Agiafaraggo) is gorgeous, snuggled in a magical high rock wall cove with the blue waters of the Med (actually the Libya Sea at this point, I believe) lapping peacefully on a pebbled shore. It is located near Matala in the SW corner of the Heraklion prefecture.

    The drive in starts south of Sivas from the Odigitria Monastery. The winding dirt road is narrow (1 1/2 lanes) & it is very bumpy with lots of ruts & washboard sections. The switchbacks are easy going in but they can be challenging on the way out (going up). There are no guard rails. After several kms you will reach the 1st parking area which is a 45 minute walk from the last parking area - which is a 30 minute walk from the actual beach. Of course we didn't know most of this before we started. There are no signs except for a small one on a blind curve that seems to tell you to turn right into a yawing precipice. I had to get out of the car to ensure that there was an actual road. Once confirmed, we turned down an even narrower track that swung down to parking lot # 1 after a kilometer. This is just a wider rocky area with numerous cars pulled to both sides of the road. Be aware that your car rental is NOT insured for off-road so decide what risk factor you are comfortable with. I was very hesitant about the clearance on our low slung Audi A3 convertible, so we parked & walked from here. It was a hot & dusty trudge up & down, following the oleander-lined river in the bottom of the gradually narrowing alley. We passed a house - still occupied - and a small deserted farm on the way. While this last section of the one lane road to the final large parking area is mostly fine, there are a couple of nasty rocks in areas which could easily take out a muffler or a diff. Cars were pulled over at numerous spots with other people obviously thinking enough was enough as well. You exit this last parking area at a very narrow gate. I heard two German guys ahead of us laughing about Americans not being able to fit through it. There might be some truth to this. The final gorge walk is quite nice, with multiple paths winding through the oleanders & the stony river bed, passing an abandoned chapel in the last stretch, all the while with cave-adorned towering rock walls narrowing on both sides. A herd of goats were grazing off in the brush with their clanging bells adding to the spell. In the wet season this area would be challenging - if not impossible btw.

    Your reward at the end is the beach. Of course, the cold hard reality is that the actual beach is stone & tidal mud with a bit of sand mixed in. And the sea-rounded black stones are very, very hot in the midday sun & quite painful to walk on & exceedingly uncomfortable to get in/out of the water without water boots. But it was still pretty special.

    The walk out was cruel with that relentless, merciless anvil of the sun (again) beating down on our weakening bodies. When we regained the car, we sat in it with the AC on full blast for 15 minutes to recover. And we skipped a visit to the monastery because we had simply run out of the energy to do so.

    Warnings: Take water - there are no facilities whatsoever. And don't park under the trees because the goats are known to climb on cars to graze on the leaves above. We saw 2 goats circling a Suzuki Vitera neatly parked under a tree.

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    For a late lunch, we stopped in Zaros on the drive back for some very good souvlaki with fries and a fresh salad at the Oasis Taverna on the main street. As we sat there refueled and refreshed, we felt a true sense of accomplishment at our activities of the last two days. We had trekked a scenic goat track to a quaint monastery and we had trekked to an idyllic pocket beach. Not too shabby for two older out-of-shape Canadians. And the countryside had been truly gorgeous.

    At dinner that night we talked with a nice Dutch couple who were on a terracotta buying mission around Crete. They were smart and did it by car – no trekking for them! And we talked with the UK couple again and found out that it had been cloudy and it had rained during their gorge excursion the day before so that kind of explains the lack of sun and pain on their gorge trek . . . and besides, they lied.

    Ian

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    We had a great time at the Eleonas. It was like going to a cottage resort – but one in the mountains of Crete. How cool is that? The lodging, the people, the food, the vistas – all were great. Manolis told me that typically 40% of his cabins are rented by repeat customers and I can see why. Highly recommended.

    But it was time to move on once more. We hit the road around 10am with the sun blazing overhead. The convertible top was down, the Palace of Knossos programmed on the TomTom and backup map in hand, we were ready for the road. The first 20 minutes of the drive was quite spectacular. From the moment I turned off of the known road in Zaros a mile from the Eleonas, it was a twisty, turning arm exercise until we got to the main road north in the village of Agia Vavara. We wound through the mountains and through the villages that clung precariously to them. Spectacular. Once again, photos were useless to capture the awesome scenery and the road was too narrow for pulling over anyway until one spot at the end. We picked up the main highway and with dramatically increased traffic, it was a fast straightish run north (down the mountain) to Heraklion. After the first set of lights on the outskirts, city driving mania kicked in and all that that entails. The TomTom did its thing and led us right to the entrance of the site of Knossos. It lies in a country setting just to the southeast of the city proper. A large free parking is on the left – just south of the palace grounds. I knew we were in trouble as I pulled into this very busy lot with 20 or more tour buses and a gaggle of cars in evidence. This meant a busy site. And it was. And it was also getting very hot once again.

    I know I should have walked through the gate at opening or an hour before closing at this major site but our timing for this visit was non-negotiable because I had to drop the car at 4pm at the port. The entrance way was slammed with people shuffling to get in but the queue for tickets was only 2 minutes. It appeared that one or more tour groups lining up behind their particular umbrella woman had consumed all of the space in the entrance way. One gate attendant was taking non-tour singles in another line but you had to push your way through the crowd to get to him. Now it wasn’t just the sun that was making me simmer.

    In the spirit of honesty, I will admit that I have a serious issue with tour groups. I know that they have an expectation to enjoy their trip as much as I do ours. I don’t personally see how they could possibly enjoy the experience but who am I to judge? And rather than debate that issue, I will just say IMHO that it is utterly useless to visit any important site that is within an hour of a cruise port during the prime middle hours of the day in season. I will never attempt it again. We saw it at Ephesus. And at Hagia Sophia in Istanbul. I saw it on our 2nd visit to Athens which I will touch on later. And most definitely in Fira on Santorini. At Knossos, the herd-like crowds smothered the site making the visit pointless. I snapped some decent photos but we only saw about ½ the area before we gave up. The mob scene around the entrance to the throne room killed any desire to wade through that mess. The most disheartening thing however, was that at one point during our retreat, I had to carve a path through a tour horde that was five abreast on a walkway. They would not give way. I told them I was coming through – and I did – with my wife following in my wake.

    Out of the front gates, we stopped for lunch at one of the restaurants across the road – the open one right across from the local bus stop and it wasn’t bad for a snack. Then it was back into the car for the drive to the port. I called Anna Cars and arranged for a 2pm early pickup which gave us an hour to find our way to the hotel and then on to the port to meet them at “the building on the right.” This only involved a moderate bit of mania – including a blown red light (whoops) and a mad bus driver who didn’t like the place where I attempted to pull over near the hotel. Since there was zero parking in the immediate area we skipped the hotel for now and just drove to the port and waited for ½ an hour for the guys to arrive. They were overjoyed that I called early because the car was needed at Chania airport for a long-term rental at 5pm and I saved them a car swap etc. They happily dropped us at our hotel. Anna Cars - http://www.annacars.gr/ - highly recommended.

    Our hotel – Marin Dream – was just across and down the road from the port. We could see all of the ferries from our balcony. The popular Lato Hotel was on the corner of the next block. Both hotels were very convenient if you have a morning ferry to catch. The hotel was OK and the room was a basic OK. At the price, I wasn’t expecting the Ritz. The counter lady kindly comp’d us a coffee while we waited 15 minutes for our room to be readied. They also had free Raki for guests in the lobby . . .

    Hotel review: Good for A Night - We stayed here for one night in preparation for a ferry to Santorini. A smallish room with a balcony with harbor view. Rm 201. Two twin beds with individual coverings slammed together. A slight odor in the bathroom from the drain. It was good enough for one night. The staff were very friendly & helpful. Breakfast was not bad - not great. For €80 it is hard to be super critical. A €7 taxi got us to the port so we didn't have to schlep our bags over the rough sidewalks.

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    After a quick baggage dump, we hit the streets to pick up our ferry tickets. I had pre-booked months out through the Paleologos agency in Heraklion. Or is it Heraklia? Or Iraklion? Maybe Irákleio? Anyways, the agency was in the last block of 25th August St on the right-hand side closest to the harbor. Tickets in hand, we sauntered up the pedestrian only street. Accompanied by the contents of a French cruise ship (it would seem), we browsed (actually only she because he stayed on the sidewalk) up through the street’s tourist shops. Eventually, we spiked off – map in hand – to find the Heraklion Archaeological Museum. OK, this one gets a big WOW! It just re-opened in May and it was still a work in progress with empty rooms and a few unfinished displays. But the treasures displayed delivered the goods! The bits and pieces of the Minoan age are stunning to see. The frescoes alone make this museum a must. And around 4:30pm it was only lightly touristed. No museum guide was available so you have to remember to go up the unmarked stairs to find the frescoes. Sitting out front after our visit even I finally noticed that the columns that lined the front were painted Minoan red . . .

    A refreshing limone gelato in the busy main square gave us the energy to walk back through the dismal streets. Grey. Graffiti. Ugly. This is not a pretty town. A block from the tourist areas, the cracks show through. Every sidewalk is a multi-level challenge. Cars are sometimes parked so tight at street corners that you can’t wedge through to cross the street. And did I mention the graffiti?

    For dinner, we booked and greatly enjoyed the restaurant that is at the top of the Lato Hotel. It had a wonderful harbor view – on a higher level than our balcony. The meal was very tasty.

    http://www.lato.gr/dining-heraklion/herbs-garden

    My review: After walking a bit of Heraklion, our expectation level was not high. We were staying down the road & this was an easy option. Seated at a window table, the harbor view was very nice. Our waiter was a tad pretentious but the food quality & presentation & wine selection were all much better than we thought going in. Not cheap, but not crazy either.

    We had Greek salad and phyllo appetizers with a pasta and the sea bass as mains. All very good.

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    For Heraklion pics see http://tinyurl.com/k72nrap

    Ian

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    I don't think your fury at guided tour groups is misplaced, or class based. I recently visited the large Klimt exhibit in Milan and got stuck in a gallery with a tour group where the guide encouraged her group of 20 to crowd around Klimt's Salome while she lectured for 15 minutes, most of the time holding up large photos of OTHER paintings in front of Salome for the group to look at for comparison. It was impossible for anyone else in the Palazzo Reale to get an unobstructed look at this crucial painting, and most of us had been standing in line for 30 minutes just to get in. I tried visiting other rooms and returning but the group wouldn't budge, and by this time the tour guide was leaning against the wall to relax while several members asking questions and chatting her up. I finally glared at the tour guide so ferociously she blanched and led her group to park themselves at the next painting on the agenda.

    Only slightly worse is the tour guide on such a tight schedule they will bully their way through, elbowing everybody else aside to make space for their private horde, too bad if you are in the way. I very much wish curators would set aside 2 hours in the mornings and 2 hours in the afternoon for guided groups, but otherwise turn them away.

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    We breakfasted, packed and taxi’d to the ferry. We could have walked but the sidewalks in Heraklion were a wreck and the area just wasn’t conducive to walking with traffic whirling by (and a monster suitcase in tow). €7 well spent. I had booked VIP so we would be at the top of the ferry with a view. It was a Highspeed 5 with Hellenic Seaways btw. Oddly, we were seated with a couple from West Palm Beach, Florida despite the near-empty cabin. At least this gave us people to talk with during the 2 hour calm run to Santorini. The general area downstairs was quite crowded. And yes, you CAN see out of the windows easily in VIP but the salt residue made photos pointless. At the ferry terminal on Santorini, our driver was waiting with a sign for us – actually 2 drivers since I had booked one directly and the hotel had mistaken my inquiry for a booking. Whoops. Our driver bantered on about Santorini for the whole ½ hour to Imerovigli. That short drive convinced me to cancel our car rental in two days hence. I quickly decided that I didn’t need the aggravation and my wife didn’t need the stress. It was a good move!

    There is no question that the caldera view from almost anywhere in Santorini is stunning. It is rivalled only by the Amalfi coast amongst the notches on our travel belts. Every time I saw it again over the 4 nights that we stayed – coming out of our room onto our veranda or rounding a bend on the Fira-Imerovigli walk – it took my breath away anew. Absolutely incredible. Use whatever adjectives you like and they will still not be satisfactory.

    After a lot of research, I had chosen sleepy Imerovigli as our base. People seem to ignore it – or walk right through it – in favor of Fira or Oia. That’s just fine but let’s face it. Fira is a zoo anytime a cruise ship is in port – which was every day that we were there. Oia is quaint (which always means a major tourist zone to me) and a zoo at every sunset. Reputedly of course, because we never made it there. Imerovigli with its dearth of tourist shops – and just enough very good restaurants – suited us perfectly.

    We chose the White Suite at the Artemis Villas and we were glad that we did.

    http://www.artemisvillas.gr/

    My review: Perfection - We have stayed in a lot of hotels on our travels in North America & around the world. From high-end resorts, old Grande Dame hotels & luxury boutiques to endless business venues of the chain variety. I can say without hesitation that the Artemis Villas has bested them all!

    The location is superb – overlooking the incredible caldera of Santorini with the Skaros Rock front & center. Our room – the White Suite – was big & immediately very, very comfortable & it offered a quiet sleep with lots of room to spread out the way we like.

    And last but not least was the service. This is where owners Angela & Chris & their entire staff raised the bar to the ceiling. A welcome drink. Free coffee whenever you wanted it. Free cold water to offset the blazing heat. And this was all served anywhere & anytime. Indoors, outdoors, by the pool – whatever you needed promptly arrived – always with a friendly smile. The maids not only tended the room, they actually tided our strewn belongings – folding & hanging up our debris & they always left bed animals & flower petals & a surprise candy. I know that this all sounds like many other hotels but here it was done without fuss & often without asking. They even walked us out to local restaurants & to the driver they arranged for site-seeing & for our airport transfer. And the staff only accepted tips when we insisted.

    I should also note that we partook of their small tasty lunch menu a couple of times – once by the pool & another time on our veranda – and it arrived without the scary service charge that this usually entails elsewhere.

    So if you are looking for a hotel that offers over-the-top service & a stunning view away from the mass tourism of Fira & Oia, look no further.

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    Just as an addendum, it was not cheap – in fact, it was the most we have ever paid for a hotel room. And it was still worth it!

    For the rest of the day, we just wandered around starring with our mouths open, cameras in hand. We had coffee in the afternoon and free drinks at cocktail hour before dinner etc. I had emailed Angela several days in advance to make reservations at the highly-rated Anogi Restaurant. This was wise because there were several couples waiting for tables when we arrived.

    My review: A victim of its own success? - We went - with a reservation - at 8 pm. The restaurant was busy with people waiting. The service was friendly with at least 3 people serving us randomly but not efficiently. We saw other diners wait for ordering etc as well. The food was no better than standard taverna fare but more expensive than same. My sea bream was bony & not fun to eat & my wife's lamb was average at best. Wine choices were good & not expensive although we opted for a liter of house red. I truly can't give them a great review because they didn't deserve it based on our experience.

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    And we missed the sunset! We were at the restaurant when it went down just after 8pm. Oh well, we would get another chance . . .

    Ian

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    I was up crazy early (not willingly though) to watch the moon glisten over the caldera and the cruise ships sneak into port at dawn. As the sunlight came over the rim, it lit up the outer islands and finally the tip of Skaros rock which was in front of us tempting me during our whole visit. But the 300 steps down plus 200 steps up just to get to it was enough to dissuade me from such folly. One morning I saw a bride in her long dress make the trek with her photographer. And another time it was a guy doing jumping jacks on the very top in the heat of the afternoon. Oh, to be young and foolish again . . .

    Breakfast arrived with a smile on our veranda promptly at 9am as pre-arranged. It was an incredible pleasure to sip our coffee starring out at the expanse of the caldera. Panoramic photos can give you a sense of the space but when it is yawning in front of you . . . The White Suite (and its adjoining Artemis Suite) were positioned a level down from the hotel’s office intertwined with another hotel. That seems to describe much of Imerovigli’s cliff face – with invisible borders between properties. We were in the hollow of a cove in the rim just to the right (west) of the center of Skaros and the church. And not quite ½ way down the habited part of the hill. Actually, 83 steps down from the street level of Imerovigli at this – its highest point. The closest bus stop - as we found out later in the day - was less than a 10 minute walk – much of it up or down of course. In our immediate vicinity there were several small groceries with staples and liquor, a number of visible restaurants and some less visible ones as well. No crowds, no hustle.

    While it was hard to tear ourselves away from the view, we decided to walk to Fira. We went down two levels to the path and set out. The walk was fabulous with an ever-changing view of the crater as we skirted around the Imerovigli headland and by Firostefani. Then the path dove inland for a bit to pop out once again on the outskirts of Fira. It was about a 30 minute pleasant stroll with lots of stops for pictures. The alleys of Fira are lined with stores, bars, restaurants and hotels and the volume of foot traffic went up exponentially as we neared the cable car exit from the cruise terminal. As well, the main Fira road was a constant drone of vehicles and not a pleasant place to be or even walk beside as we discovered. I had two goals in Fira: See the Museum of Prehistoric Thira and have a gyro at Lucky’s. The museum was surprisingly hard to find. Our driver had pointed it out on the way in the day before, so we knew it was a fair size. But every vendor we asked gave us a different answer. This is because there are two different museums: the Museum of Prehistoric Thira and the Archaeological Museum and they seem to confuse everybody. The former is for Akrotiri and the latter is from the Greek and later periods. There is also a further private display of copies of the Akrotiri frescoes – many of which aren’t even on the island anymore. The Prehistoric museum is at the south end of the main drag near the bus depot. I get the strong impression that it is seriously short of funds. We bought tickets, even though there was no one taking them. The washrooms were out of order and the plantings around the building are all brown and dead. They did have a few interesting pieces and some of the frescoes – although many of the best ones we had already seen in Athens. And it was nice and cool in the building so we got a break from the heat for a while.

    http://www.santorini.gr-santorini.com/museums/prehistoric_museum.htm

    And then Lucky’s. Which is actually just one door down from the small parking area beside the museum. And yes, Lucky’s gyros are the finest that I’ve had. Ridiculously cheap, it was the culinary bargain of our trip. Lucky mans the cash with a constant banter to entertain his customers and the food is fresh and very good.

    After some light shopping we trudged (yes, it was in the high 20s and sunny by early afternoon) to the bus depot to catch #23 to Imerovigli. Thankfully, this is just two stops – about 10 minutes – from busy Fira. Then it was up to the hotel pool – at the highest level – for a swim and some Kindle time and to gawk at the view. The staff brings alternating snacks/drinks/ice cream every hour throughout the afternoon to guests by the pool which was a really nice treat as we lazed around.

    I had arranged with Angela to eat at her family’s restaurant somewhere in Imerovigli. Angela’s husband Chris gave us a lift over with Angela’s mother – the family matriarch – riding shotgun. Now SHE is the real boss. She owns the Artemis Villas – which her daughter Angela runs, Anastasis Apartments – which another daughter manages and the To Steki tou Nikou restaurant which her son Artemis and his wife operate and where we were headed for dinner. The restaurant is situated on the Fira-Oia road with a great view of the backside of Santorini. Artemis’ wife is the genial host and chef and she cooks family style as opposed to gourmet. All of the standards plus local recipes but cooked as Mama would cook them. Very good food and very nice people. They insisted that we come back another night – but later - so we could dance as they have entertainment on some nights. At our request, Artemis gave us a lift home just in time to watch the sunset from our balcony. We sat out on our veranda sampling the remnants of our duty-free liquor and enjoying the sights and sounds as darkness fell. It was very quiet in Imerovigli without any discos or loud parties although we were treated to a small fireworks display by one of the lower hotels.

    Incredible!

    Ian

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    Oh, I forgot my formal review for To Steki tou Nikou: Like dining with the family - This restaurant is owned by the family that runs the Artemis Villas in Imerovigli. Angels & her Aussie husband run the Artemis & Vicki & her husband Artemis run the restaurant. It is located out of the way on the road to Oia with great views of the non-caldera side of the island. Vicki does the cooking & it is very affordable Greek family style. An extensive menu from gyros to misc casseroles. We dined early because we wanted to get back to the hotel for sunset @ 8:37. Chris gave us a lift there & Artemis gave us a ride back. A nice meal with very nice people. It felt as if we visited their home for dinner . . .

    We had baked feta and stuffed tomatoes for apps and pork souvlaki and mussels risotto for mains.

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    This was expedition day. Before we killed the car rental (Smart Cabrio for €50), I checked with Angela about a private driver. €25 per hour. Fair enough, so I canceled the car and booked the driver for 3pm to time ourselves for a late Akrotiri visit to miss the tour groups. We also toyed with the idea of Ancient Thera on the mountain but the thought of more climbing was not appealing as the stairs around the hotel were already becoming seriously daunting. And not to forget the anvil of the sun with temps in the heat of the afternoon in the high 20s again. We lounged by the pool until the allotted time – even having a tasty lunch of toasts and fresh salad poolside.

    Then it was off with our driver, a 20s something young man who spoke reasonable English. He worked with his father as a carpenter in the winter and was a private driver in the season. Just as we were starting my wife said: “So I hope that you’re a slow driver”. And he did. Drive slowly. Very slowly. Even my nervous wife thought that he was driving extraordinarily slowly. But he was a nice kid and he knew the island. We drove to Akrotiri. It was very hot by now and as we drew nearer to the site, we could see stragglers on the road hungering for a ride in a car with AC. Maybe sometimes the bus isn’t the best option . . . Our timing was good and there were only about 30 people in the site when we arrived. A single tour group with a typical loud guide and a few couples like us. As for the site itself . . . other than a few highlights, it is a difficult to visualize it as a living place. Like Pompeii, there are walls and doorways and windows on multi-storied buildings but it lacks the openness – both in the excavations themselves and overhead - that really helps to bring an ancient city to life. You tour much of the enclosure on a raised walkway that encircles the outside. You can finally go down to street level behind the West House and walk through the triangular square beside the two-storied West and the front of the Delta Complex – albeit you are still on a slightly raised walking area to protect the ruins. Yeah, you need a good map and some research ahead of time to get the most out of this complex ruin or you might want to consider hiring a local guide - they cluster by the ticket area. Time will tell what goodies they will discover in the future as they unbury more of the town.

    After that, we drove to the monastery on the mountain, stopping at several places for pictures. As usual my wife was freaked by the narrow winding road – sans guardrails – that climbed the mountain. I reassured her that going up was the safest part. Then it was slow drive through some of the villages and lesser roads in Santorini. A nice enjoyable outing without the stress of driving on the narrow, twisty roads. Since renting quads is a popular option . . . when I was in the UK last week, a colleague was dealing with an accident in Mykonos involving his 20 year old daughter. A quad she was driving at 3am in the morning of the day she was to come home. And there aren’t any x-ray machines in Mykonos in case you were wondering . . . so be careful when you drive in foreign places! Just broken bones btw.

    For dinner, I had asked Angela to book the Kapari Wine Bar which was reputed to be a very small place hidden amongst the hotels of Imerovigli. Well, surprise, surprise, it was right beside our suite – just on the other side of our stairs – and if I stood up and looked to the left, I was staring right at their ‘downstairs’ diners. So I guess staggering home drunk wouldn’t be an issue tonight!

    With Angela’s help, we got an outside sunset view table. This was one of those nights when everything clicked. The service, the food, the wine, the view and the couple at the next table who we befriended. They were on their honeymoon from NYC and they admitted that we were the first people that they had really talked with for 10 days. The sunset was spectacular, Jupiter rose on cue in the southwest and it was even the night of the full moon. Perfect.

    Kapari review: Fine Dining Alert! - Yes, it is possible to dine - as opposed to just eat - in Imerovigli. This small restaurant was actually right beside our suite at Artemis Villas. The staff were excellent - especially our server Alexandra. A tiny bit of confusion over our reservation time was smoothed over & they seated us outdoors in the upper level for maximum sunset view. A good wine list - small but well thought out. The dishes - including some surprise courses - were tasty & inventive & a very nice change from the standard Greek fare that we had been eating during all of our stays outside Athens. Tasty steak & extraordinary lamb chops with a wonderful arugula salad to start. You can't go wrong with this restaurant choice. The only mild caveat: it is more expensive than many other choices, but it is also worth it!
    And a special call out to Chris & Kerri - exuberant honeymooners from NYC - who were at the table beside us & helped make the evening even better.

    --

    The next day was an even lazier day than the last. Yes, we walked to Fira again and bused back again. I would like to say that it was just for the views, but we had 2 missions again: Lucky’s for another gyro for me and to hit a specific shop where we had seen some interesting art for us. Yes, just like in Chania, amongst the wall to wall ticky-tacky there were always a few gems. Anyways, both tasks were accomplished efficiently.

    Then it was back to our hotel’s pool for more relaxation. One conclusion that dawned on me as I was sitting there: Santorini is one of the best places in the world to be bored.

    Dinner tonight was an outside table at La Maison – another highly rated restaurant.

    My review: Well, they got it half right - Our last night in Santorini. We set our sights on La Maison due to the glowing reviews on TA & elsewhere. Well, it was not a crash & burn, but it certainly doesn't deserve its lofty ratings. The food was mostly good. The nice welcome surprise dish was a promising start & the octopus appetizer was excellent. The main dishes were mixed. The beef filet was just a tad overdone but the truffle (oil obviously) sauce had the consistency of Elmer's white glue on the slate plate. And the moussaka was just another moussaka. The service was promising but plummeted after the arrival of the mains. Hello? Please don't ignore us . . . I shouldn't have an empty plate in front of me for 1/2 an hour . . . and the poor couple next to us stared at their app plates for an even longer length of time. Fail. The wait staff acted surprised when we finally had to ask for removal & our bill. They rushed a sweet wine closer to us but it was too late. Fail. So overall, La Maison got it only about half right . . . which ain't enough. And just FYI, the sun sets behind the hill of Imerovigli & not on the water. €100 bill with a €40 wine choice.

    --

    After a pleasant walk back with wonderful night views of Fira on the way, we kicked back with drinks on our veranda enjoying our last night in Santorini.

    And here are the pictures of Santorini again: http://tinyurl.com/mqa82ug

    Ian

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    We had an 11:45am Aegean Air flight to Athens arriving at 12:30pm. The kid who gave us the tour was waiting on time for the airport run. We arrived at the airport to discover a line up out the door. Thankfully it wasn’t our lineup, but some junket flight to somewhere. The airport was a zoo both outside in the ticketing area and in the small boarding area. Boarding was done in typical Euro fashion with an announcement and then a crush of people all trying to board the shuttle bus at the same time. But the flight went without a hitch. As we were taxiing in at ATH we noticed a mass of military in dress uniforms and a fleet of limos on the tarmac. Someone was in town. That someone – the President of Azerbaijan from the flags on the cars - got downtown to Syntagma Square at precisely the same time as our flat-rate taxi did because they closed the intersection briefly as the limos whipped in front of the Hotel Grande Bretagne. Our destination was close by: the Alice Inn.

    http://aliceinnathens.com/

    My review: The Alice Inn is a small B&B – just 4 rooms – in a side street in the middle of the Plaka. As usual, I had searched for an affordable hotel with a balcony. After our luxurious stay in Santorini, it was a bit of a shock. A flight of stairs and then a tiny circular staircase brought us to the top floor – the Belafonte Room. Yes, this place is eclectic. John is the affable owner and he helped haul up our major suitcase. The living area was quite big with a decent bedroom and but only a small basic bathroom. The patio area for the room – complete with cleaning supplies and sundry ‘junk’ - was on the rooftop with a somewhat view of the Acropolis. The phone was not usable and the WiFi died after the first day with some supplier problem. The room sufficed for a couple of nights. Location, location, location after all . . .

    The breakfast was a good make-yourself affair with more than enough on offer.

    --

    Yes, after the beauty of Santorini, Athens was a shock anew, especially on the fringes of the Plaka. Dirty. Noisy. Horrid sidewalks. And the ever-present ugly graffiti. We unpacked and set out for a late lunch to another place from my list. John gave us directions and he commented that my choice was a good one. Paradosiako, which was only 3 blocks from our B&B.

    My review: Don't pass this by - As other reviewers have noted, this place is small & easy to ignore on a busy, gritty street corner of the Plaka. Map-toting tourists didn't give it a second glance as they wandered by to the tourist eateries on the pedestrian streets nearby. We stopped for lunch & the near-surly waitress directed us to a dirty table in a manner that had my wife really questioning my choice. The table was quickly cleaned, the food ordered from a sparse lunch menu & our reward was a good basic cheap meal. Large portions of fried saganaki & stuffed burger were happily consumed.

    --

    After lunch we did a quick reconnoiter and I started to realize that the Plaka is a seriously confusing area when you are trying to get from point A to point B. I pride myself on my navigation skills but almost every time we set out for somewhere, we ended up blocks away. It was never a real problem but I can’t help thinking: If the streets were prettier, it would have been amazing.

    We walked to Hadrian’s Arch and couldn’t find a reason to pay to go into the Olympian Zeus area. With the heat of the afternoon on full and an ominous gathering of dark clouds overhead, we returned to the B&B for a siesta, walking in just seconds before it started to pour.

    You can certainly tell that we are at the end of our vacation by our waning enthusiasm level. Of course, we had covered the greatest hits on our first swing through at the top of the trip. Acropolis. Check. Museum. Check. Agora. Check. Benaki. Check. Funky Gourmet. Check. The only major that we had missed was the Acropolis Museum and it was placed on our strong possible list for tomorrow. And tomorrow was also a much-promised shopping time. And THAT was non-negotiable. For the duration of the trip - in fact, every trip – my wife’s spoken and unspoken request is always hovering in the background: for shopping time to buy some touristic gifts with taste (I know, I know - an oxymoron) to take back for miscellaneous people back home. For this trip, I actually planned the last day for this. I hoped it wouldn't be the whole day . . .

    For dinner, I called the nearby restaurant 2MAZI and reserved a table in the garden. Thankfully, the rain had blown through and it was clear again for outdoor dining.

    My review: A garden oasis in Athens - We came for an early dinner (with a reservation @ 7:30) & the restaurant was wide open with no one inside. Very strange. We waited for 10 minutes with another walk-in couple before someone wandered in & hustled us to the garden next door where other diners were in full swing. The food - welcome amuse bouche, their multi-color salad, beef fillet & lamb shank were all very attractive plated & very, very good. The efficient & personable service was as well. The tables set up in a garden setting on crunchy uneven gravel was a tad odd but the meal was great.

    --

    Clunk.

    Ian

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    The last day. Shopping was on the agenda. Hers but not mine. So we walked to the Dionysus gate of the Acropolis and arranged to meet here in 3 hours. I decided that a trek to see the Pnyx – the early gathering place for the social experiment that became the Greek democracy – might be a good way to kill a few hours. And it was. I walked up the broad avenue by the Acropolis to the circle at the end. It was a noisy maelstrom of buses, taxis, tourists, tour groups – yeah, a good thing to flee from. As soon as I entered the park at the nearby entrance, it all dropped away. I had a really nice leisurely stroll with only the occasional dog-walker as company. A crew was setting up chairs in the assembly area in front of the Bema for an event and a cop was loitering nearby but other than that, the whole area was empty. I could see the steps of the entrance to the Acropolis in the distance and it was jammed with tourists baking in the sun. A constant stream of them snaking up the steps were just multi-colored blotches from this vantage point. I was very happy to be sitting on my rock on the lonely Pnyx with an amazing view of the city of Athens in front of me, rather than packed in with the masses. I sauntered along following the empty paths through the woods with an invisible distant flute player adding to the atmosphere. I stumbled upon the excavation of an ancient road with wagon ruts cut into the bedrock. Kimon’s tomb was further up the path. Just more remnants of the ancient peoples who lived and died here.

    We easily met at the allotted time at the designated place. Since it was lunch time and the heat was coming on, we made the mistake of ‘picking one that looked good’ in Lysikratous Square. The Diogenes.

    http://www.diogenes.gr/

    My review: A Bad Review? You Betcha! - After 2 weeks hopping around various parts of Greece, we had been amazed at the level of service in restaurants. Universally friendly, typically very efficient . . . a big WOW! And then came the Diogenes. Yes, this restaurant singularly attempted to undo all of the goodwill accrued by the Food & Beverage Industry of Greece toward us. Actually downright rude. Surly. Ignoring requests. Ignoring tables near us. Throwing food plates on our table. They really pulled out the “Please Don’t Come Again’ mat for us. The only time our waiter cracked a smile was when he was literally bringing the bill.

    Which is all too bad because our food – Greek Salad & the Politico Kebabs - were actually pretty good. And the location - outdoor tables set back from the road in the heart of the Plaka at Lysikratous Square - is nice as well.

    --

    And to complement the sour taste of this restaurant’s pitiful service, a stereotypical Ugly American – I kid you not - was holding court at a table of his fellow cruisers. Loud and boorish, he was the real deal. And as if that wasn’t enough to throw me over the edge, after I had paid Mr Surly and his cohorts, as I was gathering my wife’s purchases to take back to the B&B, one rolled out of the bag and bounced on the ground and shattered inside its bubble wrap. To her credit, she said nothing. I said nothing. Other restaurant patrons gasped and said nothing. Time stood still as I scooped it up, stuffed it in the bag and stomped off.

    My wife had wished to continue shopping, so once again we arranged to meet – this time at the B&B door – since I had the only key. And once again, the rendezvous worked. I opened the front door just as she was reaching for the buzzer that I wouldn't have heard up on the 3rd floor. We debated and decided to pass on the Acropolis Museum. We just didn't have the energy left and I was utterly, absolutely fed up with crowds. We were done with Athens. We walked a few blocks and found an inviting café for an espresso and a cappuccino fredo. They were pretty addictive.

    But contemplating the Plaka area, I just don’t get it. It has little-to-no charm and it is wall to wall shops selling all of the same ticky-tacky that every other tourist shop sells in Greek cities. And the restaurants? It doesn't take much research to realize that there are only a few restaurants in the whole Plaka district that offer much beyond common tourist food. If that is what you are happy with, then the Plaka is the place to go. As for us, we were very glad that we didn't spend more time there.

    For our last meal in Athens, I booked the Mono Restaurant for 8pm with strong approval of my choice again from John. This is one time when my sense of direction failed me completely. After a few blocks, as I was staring at the map and trying to decipher the streets signs on the buildings, a man came up and told us what street we were on. He then asked where we were going and offered to show us the way or better yet: to take us to a much better place. Uh, no thanks.

    http://www.monorestaurant.gr/

    My Review: A Good Destination in the Fine Food Wasteland of the Plaka - Easy to find on a small street just steps from the Metropolitan Church of Athens, this restaurant was our last dinner in Greece. The tables that spill out onto the sidewalk are the best in the house. Our wine selection was a Greek red Tempranillo – they have an excellent list of moderately priced wines. We shared a starter – The Village – which was yummy fried cheese with thin toasted bread & a red sauce. For mains, we tried the marinated pork – a cut of loin with potatoes & the lamb – a tasty & tender kebab with accompanying sauces. All was served by a friendly waitress who was the sole server but this was never an issue because she managed it well. My only minor quibble was that all of the dishes we tried leaned towards sweet. We finished with their wonderful lemon tart. Overall it was a very pleasant way to end our Greek odyssey.

    --

    The next day was going home day and you all know the routine. Checkout. Taxi. Airport. Plane. Baggage. Etc. It all worked except our flight was not much fun as we had turbulence for 3/4 of the 9 hours in the air with the seat belt light blazing.

    /end trip

    Ian

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    I enjoyed your report--thanks for taking the time to write it and share it with us.

    I agree with your assessment of Plaka--I just couldn't see the point of wandering up and down the trinket-filled streets and hundreds of other tourists.

    And the Santorini was indeed awesome, in the true sense of the word. The physical beauty is beyond compare. We did the walk from Fira to Imerovigli and the next day went from Imerovigli to Oia--what a treat. Interesting to hear your take on Akrotiri--we didn't manage to get there, so I'm glad to hear it wasn't a don't-miss site for you.

    Anyway, your report made for good reading the past few days. Thanks!

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    April

    Thanks for the kind words. I am glad that you enjoyed it.

    FD

    I hope that I informed you rather than put you off. Overall, we had a great trip. As my report illustrated, we loved Santorini & the Zaros area of Crete. And the museums. If I was planning it again, I would probably lessen the Chania part & add in Mykonos (with Delos) or more rural Crete.

    I am working on my website with the pictures embedded & I will post the link here when I get it done.

    Ian

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    Thanks for sharing your trip. Enjoyed reading your report, we are going in October so I took note of your restaurant recommendations. btw, where exactly is Lucky's gyro place in Athens? Is it a takeout place or is there sit down service?

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    Unfortunately, Lucky's is in Fira - in Santorini.

    Just a few doors from the Ancient Thira Museum. It is takeout with a few counter seats & a small table at the back near the drinks. They also had a washroom in the basement that - according to my wife - was actually very clean.

    Ian

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    Thanks Ian. We are going to be in Santorini too, so we will get to try Lucky's. And Luckily (pun intended), our hotel is in Fira, I think not far from the ancient thira museum. We will be at the Aressana Boutique Hotel behind the church whose name I can't remember.

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    And just a word on the images on Flickr. You can always view larger versions of the picture if you point your mouse to the lower right & click the download symbol (an arrow with a line underneath). A menu pops up - choose View All Sizes. Then select Original. Voila.

    If you cycle through them via the slideshow you have to put up with random commercial images that they insert. This doesn't happen if you register . . .

    Ian

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