It’s a sizzling day in Crete. We’re hot, we’re sweating and Mr Smith is muttering obscenities in my ear. If I’m conjuring scenes from a Greek-themed skin flick, the reality is far from Debbie Does Delphi – we’re not even at Kapsaliana Village Hotel yet, let alone in a romantic clinch. We’re down a dead end, stuck in our hire car. On a bend, facing a wall, next to an old lady’s house. Said old lady is toothlessly shouting and clapping sarcastically. Through the window I can make out her moustache but not her words. She looks older than time, but from her incredulous rage, it’s clear that in her 1,000-odd years she’s never encountered anything as ridiculous as us.
I confess this is not the first time my navigating has got us in trouble on foreign turf. As Mr Smith winds down the window and begs for mercy, I wince at recollections of that veering lorry on a motorway near Cannes; a miserable midnight rain-lashed drive through Copenhagen; that looping, lawless search for a châteaux in the Dordogne. We’re no stranger to the scenic route when seeking out a boutique hotel, and it was inevitable that in rural Arkadi, on our way to Kapsaliana Village Hotel, we’d have an ‘adventure’. Some couples have a third party endanger their relationships. We just need a road.
I’m stirred from my reverie by an unexpected sight: the crone smiling. She mimes knocking back a drink, and stabs a finger to the right. Mr Smith translates: we must summon help from over there, where the men-folk are drinking. We arrive at the taverna, gate-crashing the village lunch date. Throwing dignity to the wind, we stand before the locals, grinning idiotically, reeking of tourism and re-enacting our predicament.
In the interests of us getting to Kapsaliana, I’ll speed things up. Two hours pass thus: Costas, the taverna owner, calls the man with the tractor (he’s out on his tractor); Mr Smith talks to Avis on his phone; Mr Smith shouts at Avis on Costas’ phone; the villagers (children included) volunteer to lift the car; Mr Smith, mindful of insurance, nervously declines; a local Adonis is dispatched by Avis; Adonis rides the car like a bucking bronco, and reverses it – with a few terrifying false starts – to safety. I drink raki with Costas and toast the Adonis. Mr Smith ages rapidly. We bid the locals goodbye and drive off with a grinding of gears.
‘I thought the hotel was up this road,’ I tell Mr Smith cheerily as we pull up outside Kapsaliana Village Hotel. (It was the raki talking.) If it wasn’t for the trailing flowers, sea views and sense of calm working its magic on a gibbering Mr Smith, I might be writing this from the grave. Luckily, I see him visibly soften as he takes in our hillside surroundings: lemon and lime trees, fragrant herb bushes and verdant olive groves. The smell of grilled meat wafts across the courtyard, and we hear the clink of cutlery and the gentle murmur of guests lingering over their food. Our Crete hideaway all feels very un-hotel like, until a young girl walks towards us, smiles, and utters the magic words: ‘Welcome to Kapsaliana.’
Moments later, we’re walking with our guide, Agnes, to our room. We dip under a stone arch and into a lantern-lit village – for Kapsaliana Village Hotel is exactly that: a boutique hotel fleshed out around the bones of a village, with an 18th-century olive press at its heart. Traditional Cretan houses hewn from nougat-coloured stone are clustered around the former press, adorned with little courtyards, Venetian vaults and stone staircases. The layout is far from the hotel norm: more sprawling, more independent, more private, and infinitely more relaxing. We’re staying in the first house, Izar – each room is named after a star or planet. Soon we’re throwing open a heavy wooden door and admiring the seductive simplicity that greets us: whitewashed walls, farmhouse furniture, a bed graced with sprigs of lavender and rosemary, a wood-burning fire, and a cosy bathroom, stocked with olive-oil unguents.
The best bit of our Crete retreat is outside: a private terrace. There we scuttle with some in-room spoils: dates and loukoumi (a Greek take on Turkish delight), and a vial of raki. A few tots of liquor later (well, the entire bottle to be exact – Mr Smith has residual driving tension), and we’re convinced that a dip in the pool is a good idea. (Please don’t try this at home.) Clad in bikini and beach shorts respectively, we tipsily wend our way to the peaceful pool, set amid the verdant olive groves. Thankfully, we’re the only ones indulging in a nocturnal splash, so there’s nobody to witness our boozy bathing. The cold water soon sobers us up, as does the realisation that there’s food close by and we’re yet to taste it.
Back on dry land and dressed for dinner, we head to the restaurant which is celebrated for its simple, organic cuisine; set apart from the rooms, it's in a stone building that also houses the reception and lounge. We eye up the crackling fire in the latter, but opt for a table beneath the pergola on the restaurant’s flower-graced, lantern-lit terrace. Meals here are taverna-style, free from fuss and formality, and it’s clear that this luxe-for-less lodging’s relaxed magnificence continues in the kitchen; memorable dishes include meltingly soft courgette patties with minty yoghurt, olive cakes with a salty, treacly filling, a zingy salad with sour apple and crispy onions, kebabs with all the trimmings, and ice-cream splintered with shards of chocolate.
Meandering back to our room later, we encounter our hire car. Through the wine haze I stiffen, and dart my eyes nervously at Mr Smith. He reaches forward and pats the bonnet affectionately. He glows; he has forgotten. In that moment, the success of our Greek holiday is sealed.