Is it a cliché that, on my first trip to Greece, I am dancing Zorba the Greek in a dining room of our hotel with a group of complete strangers? Probably, but I’m having so much fun it’s hard to care.
Eleni – general manager, party hostess and all round cheerleader at the Paradise Island Villas – is busy working the playlist on the iPod while, Paul, her deputy puts us through the paces. ‘Left, right, left, right!’ The woman to my left, M from New York, whispers, ‘Oh my God, he’s gorgeous!’ I hope her husband on her
left can’t hear over the quickening beat of the blaring music. I turn to Mr Smith and yell, ‘I can’t believe we’re in Crete
Rewind. When I was eight, I was given one of those dinky Ladybird children’s books for Christmas. It was about an island called Crete and it had amazing pictures of an austere throne-room in a palace called Knossos that was filled with paintings of gorgeous Minoan ladies with huge curly hair, and lithe youth somersaulting over bulls. The book said Knossos was 4,000 years old. I was endlessly impressed. When you’re eight, any number over ten
is old. We moved houses, and the book got lost, but I never forgot those images and the thrilling sense of this other, ancient world. Even the name 'Crete' held a magical quality. Which explains why when Mr Smith idly suggested we spend Easter in Greece this year, my immediate response was that I wanted to go to Crete.
The omniscient reach of the Mr & Mrs Smith website threw up Paradise Island Villas. With just 12 double-storey, self-contained villas, each with a private plunge pool, it sounded like the perfect getaway. For the next couple of months, I peppered the lovely Eleni with emails. How should I get to Crete from Athens? Could she organise a rental car? Should I fly to our next stop Santorini
? How much would it cost for a car pick up from the airport? What was the weather like?
The woman was unflappably relaxed and cheerful. And she seemed to know everything there is to know about Crete. When we finally met, I blinked, because she was a dead ringer for one of those Minoan ladies, right down to the abundance of curly tresses. ‘I’ve upgraded you,’ she announced in flawless English. ‘Your villa has two bedrooms upstairs, two bathrooms, a dining room, living room, kitchen, and a big backyard with the pool, so it’s a big space. It’s perfect for a family, but you’ll love it.’
As it turned out, the villa was a little too big for the two of us. We spent a lot of time clattering around the different levels, calling out, ‘Where are you? Can you bring down the camera? I can’t be bothered going back upstairs.’ It quickly became clear why Paradise Island is so popular with families. Styled a little half-heartedly like a show-flat, the villas are low-key and laid-back in a way that is almost rough and ready. Even the resort’s location – in the midst of a suburban row of residential houses – is no-frills. Which explains why the view from our bedroom was a mix of distant mountains, vast swathes of natural scrubland, and the backyards and garages of neighbouring residents.
One afternoon, while playing tennis, we saw a family pull into the parking lot and unload bags of groceries. ‘They’re English and they booked their holiday with Mr & Mrs Smith,’ Eleni said, completely unaware of our secret identities. ‘This is their second visit and they say they are coming back in August. They just love the freedom to do what they want. They can cook in their villa, they can order room service, their kids can run around. It’s a real holiday for them!’
And Paradise Island certainly lacks little in the way of facilities to keep its guests entertained. Besides the hardcourt tennis area that adjoins the garden of a kindly old gent who turned out to be the owner of the resort, there’s also a small gym, a large pool that fronts the deep comfy sofas of the lanai, and a smaller more private pool nestled among the villas.
But it’s the staff that gives the resort its welcoming warmth. M’s husband celebrated his birthday with a surprise chocolate birthday cake. And it was Eleni who staged the impromptu after-dinner dance of Ibiza hits and Zorba the Greek to mark the occasion. In the end, her unflagging energy was a boon. Unerringly, she advised us on everything from which table to book at the restaurant on the harbour and which little village to visit, to where we should park in the port and the quickest route to Knossos.
‘It’s a pity it’s still too cold for the beach, but the next time you come, I can recommend a different beach to go to each day!’ she said proudly on our last day as we were checking out. ‘Different type of sand, different colour of the sea, different crowd
,’ she added, giving Mr Smith and me a penetrating knowing look.
Mr Smith and I laughed about this in the taxi all the way to the port for the ferry that would take us to our next stop, Santorini. ‘I really can’t believe we’re in Crete,’ I repeated.