Greek Islands: Paros, Santorini and Crete

*this post originally appeared on NourishRDs.com, the website of my former nutrition practice. I’ve moved it here, but am still working on getting photos added*

On August 24th, I married my best friend, a man who must have been destined for me.  We’ve never had a cross word. Not once. He thinks my ears are cute. He laughs at my quirks, which we’ll leave unnamed.  No matter how certain I am about a question, he’s always right.  He doesn’t have any quirks.  He thinks ice cream and chocolate are food groups.  He’s just so darned cute.

We are blessed.

A post on our wedding will come later.  In the meantime, I want to tell you about Greece.  Elie and I spent three glorious weeks in the Greek islands—Paros, Santorini and Crete—celebrating our marriage with good food and sunshine.  Seems a fitting way to start our life together.

We arrived at our first island, Paros, in the early afternoon, after an overnight flight from the U.S. to Paris, and then Paris to Athens, and then Athens to Paros.  It’s not a short trip.  We arrived to a tiny airport—a white, blue-trimmed building sitting on a runway under a cloudless sky.  That’s a good way to beat jet lag.

We picked up our cute little car and found our way to the hotel, Yria, just south of the main port town of Parikia.  It wasn’t hard.  Paros basically has one road that circles the island.  You almost can’t get lost.

We were greeted with a welcome drink while we relaxed on the veranda, just one symbol of the hospitality of the people on the islands.  Everywhere we went, the Greek people greeted us with warmth and kindness, going out of their way to ensure we were having a good time, and falling in love with their country.  Whether it was the gift of a honey dipper (for our honeymoon) from a store owner or someone who walked us through town to personally show us her favorite restaurants, we found generosity of spirit everywhere we went.

This spirit of generosity extends to the way the Greeks eat.  The Mediterranean diet—rich in olive oil, nuts, beans, fish, fruits and vegetables, and wine—has gotten a lot of press over the years, most recently for its ability to prevent heart attacks, strokes and deaths from heart disease.  While traveling the islands, the reason for the region’s fame for vitality and longevity became clear.  First, the diet on the islands epitomizes the ‘eat local’ movement.  There’s not a great deal of diversity among menus—tomatoes, peppers, olives, zucchini, potatoes, lamb, goat, and cheese, cheese and more cheese—because restaurants serve what’s grown locally.  That means food is fresh, and handmade.  Second, there is a genuine sense of community, of taking care of each other.  You see this best when you look at the cafes, filled with older men drinking coffee, swinging worry beads and playing backgammon.  There are few retirement homes in Greece.  As people age, they move to live with their children, and they spend their days with friends.  Research shows this sense of community—of belonging—leads to longevity.

In short, they eat real food and share it with those they love.

But the food is not light.  The traditional comfort food of the islands is rich and hearty, because they were mainly farmers and fisherman who worked hard and needed the calories to get through daily life.  Now, life is not so hard, but the food remains the same.

The richness comes almost entirely from olive oil.  Greeks consumes an average of 24 liters of olive oil per person each year, compared to only about one liter per year for Americans.  Some sources show people in Crete consume as much as 30 liters of olive oil per year.  I believe it.  Every single meal in Crete was made with extra virgin olive oil, even the baked goods.  Olive oil was on every table—and it was good.  In fact, Greeks take their olive oil so seriously, every restaurant menu tells you exactly what kind of oil is used to make the dishes.  Pretty cool.

While the food is rich, salads and vegetables are the mainstay of the diet.  I feel like I ate 101 Greek salads while we were there.  They are on every menu, with some variation of fresh tomatoes, cucumber, thinly sliced green bell pepper, olives, sometimes capers, red onions (but not for me), copious amounts of olive oil, a little red wine vinegar, freshly dried oregano, and a huge wedge of feta cheese or the local mizithra cheese, made from sheep or goat milk.

The islands, especially Crete, are also famous for their wild greens, which include dandelion, wild arugula and wild fennel.  Historically, when times were tough, the people would head to the mountains and forage for wild greens for nourishment.  Today, you can still see the grandmothers with their knife and bag, gathering greens for home, although they are also widely available in the markets to buy.  You’ll see them on menus as a ‘salad’—boiled greens drenched in olive oil, and often paired with boiled potato and zucchini.

Pies are popular in Greece—but they’re not what we think of as pie.  It usually means a savory filling wrapped in phyllo dough or another homemade pastry dough, always made with olive oil.

Cheese pie is a traditional late-morning snack of homemade phyllo dough stuffed with mizithra cheese and baked until golden.  It’s often topped with sugar before serving.  We had the pleasure of watching cheese pies being made at a small shop in Chania.  It takes years of practice to learn how to toss the dough, stretching it so thin you could read through it.

There’s also fennel pie, a Cretan specialty, almost like a quesadilla with sautéed fennel and fennel fronds inside.

And Caesarean pie, which is a pastry stuffed with spicy cured beef, tomatoes and graviera cheese.  We had a version at Thea, on Paros, that was out-of-this-world.

The diet in the islands developed from necessity, and since most of the islands’ people were fisherman, fish is a mainstay.  Whole fish, simply grilled or fried with lemon, olive oil and oregano, is delicious, and can be found in every fish taverna, freshly caught and delivered that day.

On the western coast of Crete, the cuisine does not center as much around fish, because over the past centuries, most of the people lived in the hills away from pirates and marauding invaders.  Instead, they became farmers and foragers, learning to raise goat and sheep, for milk as well as meat.

They use the sheep and goat milk to make delicious, creamy cheeses, from the tangy ricotta-like mizithra to the aged manchego-like graviera.

 

And they put cheese on and in everything.  There is usually a special section on the menu, just for cheese and cheese dishes, like saganaki.  Saganaki is basically baked or fried cheese, so anything can be made into a saganaki—shrimp saganaki or spinach saganaki, below.

Our favorite cheese dish was the boureki—a casserole with layers of potato, zucchini, mint and mizithra cheese that’s baked until golden brown and delicious.

You can’t speak of Greek food without talking about wine.  Grapevines grow everywhere on the islands, and they have hundreds of varieties of grapes, making wine tasting interesting and fun.  Most people seem to make their own wines, or community wines.  When you visit a taverna, you’re likely to have a glass (or carafe) of wine made by the owners.  Everyone has their ‘house wine’ which is the only wine available by the glass.  More than likely, it will be poured from a large water jug and it will be good.  If you want choices, you have to order a bottle of wine.

 

The Greek people’s spirit of generosity extends to mealtime.  Greeks show their love through food.  Portion sizes are huge, and they take personal offense when you don’t eat everything on your plate.  By the end of the trip, Elie and I were stuffing food in my bag, just to finish the meal without offending the proprietors—and not come home stuffed ourselves!

And when you think you’ve finished your meal, you’re not really finished.  Every meal ends with complementary dessert and raki, the traditional hard alcoholic drink.  After a while, we stopped asking them to please not bring us dessert and raki.  It’s futile.

 

So, obviously our days were filled with eating.  The rest of the time, we read books, sunned ourselves, napped, and explored just enough to keep things interesting.

Here are a few recommendations of things to do and places to eat, when you visit the Greek islands.

Paros

You can drive around the perimeter of Paros in about an hour, so nothing is very far away.  We stayed at the Yria resort, just south of Parikia, the largest town.

The town of Naoussa is a quaint, seaside town with winding whitewashed streets that invite you to get lost in their maze.  You’ll find a confusing tangle of streets among most island towns.  It was purposeful by design, to help the townspeople to hide and escape when they were attacked by pirates or invaders.  You feel the impact of history very closely when you’re there.

Rent a scooter on Paros.  The roads are fine, and there’s not as much traffic here, as on the other islands.  We took the scooter up to Lefkes for the magnificent views and to walk a bit of the Byzantine trail.

On another day, we took the scooter to the port at Pounta, and took the ferry to Antiparos, only a seven minute crossing.

This was one of our favorite days.  We turned left out of the port and rode to the other side of the island, to Ag. Georgios.  We had lunch in an idyllic fish taverna right on the water, with a golden retriever trying to catch fish below us.

Elie talked to a boat captain who offered to take us to the sea caves, and where we could go swimming.  After lunch, we climbed aboard (with the golden retriever) and motored to several shallow caves before anchoring in a beautiful cove.  We changed into swimsuits and jumped overboard into the clear, turquoise water.  After we dried off, the captain handed us little plastic cups of homemade wine, poured out of a large water jug.  It was delicious.

As for restaurants, we had some of our favorite meals on Paros.  Don’t miss Levantis, in Parikia, which serves a creative, lighter version of traditional Greek food.  You won’t find light meals like this everywhere.  The roasted tomato salad with arugula and grilled haloumi wrapped in grape leaves is on my list to recreate at home.

Thea, which sits at the water’s edge at the port at Pounta, is known for its wine cellar and for the exquisite sunsets.

We loved it so much we ate there twice.  Both nights, we had Costas chose our dishes for us, and he brought me wines to match.  I’ve already mentioned the Cesarean pie.  But our favorite dish was beef, pork and lamb kebabs in a spicy tomato sauce with lots of green peppers, served on top of a fluffy pita with yogurt.  So simple and good.

At Yemini, in Naoussa, we sat outside in the whitewashed alley, laughing at the very polite, well-kept cats who kept coming to ask for our leftovers.  We had a delicious appetizer, layers of eggplant and tomato sauce topped with mizritha and baked and served like a lasagna.

Santorini

If you go to Santorini, stay in Oia (pronounced ee-ah).  The town is unlike anything you have ever seen before in your life, and even the pictures don’t do it justice.  The town is built into the cliffs high on the northern edge of the caldera, a volcanic crater flooded with ocean water.  Many of the hotels, restaurants and shops are built like caves, tucked into the sides of the cliff, with paths snaking through and connecting them to the main pedestrian street at the top.  All of the buildings are whitewashed, and trimmed in that iconic blue of the islands.  With the ocean as backdrop, it is truly spectacular.

Our time in Santorini was perfect.  We stayed at Canaves, which is an exquisite but completely unpretentious and relaxed resort, right at the beginning of the pedestrian walkway in Oia.

So relaxed, Elie would walk to reception each morning in his robe to order us breakfast (room service on our patio!).

One of the highlights of our time in Oia was a catamaran cruise around the island.  We motored to the volcano (which is still active) and went swimming in the warm sulfur springs around the volcano’s edge.  We anchored at two other beaches for swimming and then ended with a traditional Greek lunch on the boat before heading back to the port.

On another day, we rented a cute convertible mini car and went exploring.  We visited Akrotiri, an ancient preserved settlement that was destroyed by a volcano, and then sunbathed at Perissa beach, unique for its black volcanic sand.

We stopped at Fira, the other main town on the caldera, for a late lunch.  Since we had the car, we made a diner reservation at Selene, about 20 minutes from Oia in the village of Pyrgos.  It was worth the drive.  The quail starter, served with a soft quail egg I could have taken a bath in, was exquisite.  As was the langoustine.  And for me, the server opened bottles of wine, just to pair a glass of wine with each dish.  It was a lovely experience.

We also loved Ambrosia, which has a small rooftop patio, perfect for a romantic dinner.  Here we had a prawn appetizer in an incredibly unusual and delicious sauce made with mastic, a popular liquor.

And 1800, is another great restaurant, right on the pedestrian walkway in Oia.  It’s housed in a historic mansion, where you can dine in the garden courtyard, or on the rooftop.

Crete: Elounda and Chania

Crete is a large island, so if you visit, be sure and give yourself time, preferably staying on both sides of the island.  The two sides are quite different.

In Elounda, we stayed at Elounda Mare, the epitome of a refined, elegant resort.  No walking around in bathrobes here.  At Elounda Mare, you’ll feel very grown up.

I’m afraid we can’t quite give Elounda a fair impression, because we had three cloudy, windy, chilly days in Elounda, which drove us to the spa (poor us) and inside for room service and movies (again, poor us) for much of the time we were there. So, we didn’t get out and experience as much as we would have, had the weather been beautiful.

But don’t miss Agios Nikolaos, which is a bustling town, great for walking and exploring.

For dinner, we really enjoyed The Ferryman in Elounda, so much so that we went twice.  The lamb slow cooked in rice was amazing, worthy of recreating at home.

The drive from Elounda to Chania is gorgeous, with breathtaking views of towering mountains on one side and clear, turquoise ocean on the other.

We absolutely loved Chania.  We stayed at Casa Delfino, in the heart of the quaint old town.  Chania has been conquered by the Romans, the Turks and the Venetians (among others) so the architecture is fascinating, feeling a bit like Venice or Florence.

Note:  If you’re driving to a hotel in the old town, be sure and call ahead and ask where to park.  The old town is pedestrian-only, which we found out only after driving into the middle of the pedestrian streets.  Thank goodness Elie is a great driver. And calm.

There is a lot to explore around Chania, including an ancient settlement, Aptera, and many beautiful beaches.  We went to Phalasarna, a breathtaking beach about a 45 minute drive from Chania to the west coast of the island.

One of the best things you can do in Chania is to travel off the beaten path to some of the mountain towns, where you will encounter traditional, handmade Cretan food.  We went to Aetofolia, perched in the tiny village of Somonas with sweeping views to the sea.  The proprietor, Mrs. Katarina, cooks and serves you herself.  Her homemade bread alone is worth the drive.  We had goat stewed with green beans that reminded me of country style green beans from Kentucky.  Country cooking is the same everywhere—making delicious food from simple, humble ingredients.

In the Turkish section of Chania, don’t miss The Well of the Turk, which serves creative versions of traditional Cretan food.  Be sure and go inside to see the well, but eat in the quaint courtyard.

Oinopoieio is around the corner from The Well of the Turk, and is also quite good.  Tamam is very popular, and has tables on the pedestrian walkway, as well as inside in an old Roman bath.

Chrisostomos was our favorite restaurant in Chania.  As with most of our favorites, we ended up eating here twice.  As with any restaurant, the experience is usually greater than the sum of its parts.  The restaurant is tucked into the back of the harbor, so it doesn’t have a view and no outside tables.  But, it’s cute inside.  The menu is nothing fancy—just traditional Cretan food done really well.  Great service, good wine, and a room full of locals.  Perfect.

The entire honeymoon was perfect, actually.  We couldn’t have asked for a better way to start our married life together.

A big thank you to Ronnie Liadis of Liadis Travel, for helping us to plan the perfect honeymoon!

 

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About

I am married to my best friend, Elie, and we are the proud parents of a little boy, Theo, born February 11, 2016. Until Theo was born, I was a practicing registered dietitian nutritionist, but I am secretly a homemaker at heart, as I am happiest at home, cooking, organizing and making our home a comfortable place for our family and friends to gather. Elie and I are also travel lovers, and I share our travels here. Since Theo was born, this blog has morphed into a parenting blog as well, and those are actually my favorite posts to write and share.

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