x Abu Dhabi, UAEThursday 27 July 2017

Measure time in the chapters of a book on idyllic Crete

From the secluded seaside village of Agia Fotia to the dramatic Samaria Gorge national park, the Greek island is full of hidden delights.

We saw Agia Fotia before we reached it as our tiny car turned a corner on the high mountain road. The village is set in a small bay hundreds of metres below and accessible by one steep and narrow track with no barrier to prevent unfamiliar drivers from hurling over the cliff. This thrill is part of its charms - Agia Fotia has only two taverns, two small self-catering hotels, one beach bar, a white-washed church and a shop.

The south-eastern corner of Crete could not be a better advert for the perfect beach hideaway if it had been dreamed up by the Greek tourism board anxious to repair the country's image after months of street riots in Athens, which saw police firing tear gas at angry protesters. Athens feels very far away. Even Crete's capital Heraklion on the north end of the island is a lively metropolis compared to this small village.

Here, the pace of life is measured in how long it takes to finish reading a chapter of a book lying under an umbrella on the grey sands, mopping up a plate of grilled sardines then walking back to the beach to swim it off in the warm sea. Crete is in the south of the Aegean, Greece's largest island and its most popular. About one quarter of the 16 million tourists who visit the country every year come here.

Most elect to stay on the north coast, an eyesore of cheap resorts in Heraklion, Hania or Rethymno catering to pasty-skinned package holidaymakers arriving on chartered flights from north European climes. The canny give all of that a miss and head south. Agia Fotia is a two-hour journey, a nail-biting experience through mountain ranges which cut an east-west swathe across the island. The scenery alone is worth the drive: mountain roads framed by ripening pear trees and expanses of silvery grey olive orchards. Occasionally you flash past blinding white houses, balanced on cliffs with dizzying views of the coast, owned some very lucky and very rich folks.

There are 6,000 Greek islands but only 227 are inhabited, surrounded by the inviting waters of the Ionian and Aegean seas. Not surprisingly, tourism contributes 18 per cent of the nation's gross domestic product but this year sunseekers are staying away. After three people were killed in a public riot in Athens on May 5, there were 6,000 hotel cancellations on Crete and nearby Rhodes even though there have been no demonstrations on the island. That is a shame.

We stayed at Markos Studios, a small block of self-catering studio flats run by a friendly Dutch couple next to the beach. The rooms were clean and spacious. Each had a wide terrace with brilliant views of the sea and cliffs. For €46 (Dh212) per night, it was a bargain. We arrived at a perfect time, late June, just as the peak season should have been starting but it did not feel crowded at all. The only small cloud on the horizon was the need to get food supplies at Ierapetra, the nearest town and a 20-minute drive. But as someone who spends Saturday mornings guiding a trolley around a supermarket, it was a joy to wander around the open-air farmers' market which is open until lunchtime and browse through the fresh fruit and vegetables grown on the island.

Agia Fotia's beach is public and most days it was full of young Greek families and couples. There are sun loungers available for rent at €3 (Dh14) per day. The water is clean and clear and if you want to get away from the crowd you can escape to the small cove nearby. After a long morning of sunbathing and reading, we lazily made our way up the hill to the River Tavern, run by a Greek family. To get to the restaurant you must walk past their large vegetable plot. The daily specials were based on whatever had come out of the ground that morning: chicken and okra, spinach patties and courgette balls. The food was simple and good and most of the main courses cost no more than €8 (Dh37).

For the more energetic, many parts of Crete have footpaths for ramblers and you can spend hours walking along the coast exploring its bays and coves. Or wander through small villages fixed in time with sleepy squares and taverns. The dramatic and beautiful Samaria Gorge is a 16-kilometre-long national park on the south-west end of Crete which is popular for day hikes. The entrance fee is €5 (Dh23). The island has history too. You can experience ancient Greek culture at Knossos, five kilometres south of Heraklion and the palace of the mythical Minotaur owned by King Minos.

The British archaeologist Sir Arthur Evans excavated the site in the early 20th century with £250,000 of his own money but some historians criticise his reconstructions as fantastical. The entrance fee is €10 (Dh46) and you need several hours - preferably early in the morning to avoid the midday heat - to do the site justice. When I returned to Dubai longing for some salty sea air I found a website selling private islands which sought to reassure me that buying a Greek island is not as expensive as one might imagine.

"Greek islands are the ultimate status symbol, evoking images of sunglass-sporting shipping magnates sipping champagne on the deck of enormous yachts," says privateislandsonline.com. "In reality, Greek islands are relatively affordable, costing as little as two million dollars - less than a ski chalet in Aspen or a walk up on the Upper East side." One 13-hectare island on the Ionian sea is listed for €1.1 million. Tempting, but still a bit out of my price range - so I'll have to content myself with a future visit to Agia Fotia.

hghafour@thenational.ae