A Cretan hotel that hosts holidays for singles is so successful, 65 per cent of guests return, writes Rhik Samadder.
'You wouldn't pick 10 people out of a supermarket and go on holiday with them, would you?" asks Karen, a primary-school teacher, as we stroll along the Chania harbourfront, a warm wind at our backs. As the last supermarket I visited was in a pretty rough part of south London at 3am, I take this as a given.
However, that's more or less what we are doing at the Mistral, a resort for solo travellers. It's a family-run hotel that treats its guests as family.
Last year the small hotel enjoyed an extraordinary 65 per cent repeat business and Karen has been back seven times.
Crete is undeniably Edenic. In spring, the island blooms a ripening green, studded with densely hung olive, orange and lemon trees. As winds from Libya raise the temperature, a blanket of sun illuminates the snowcapped White Mountains, which run like a spine through the island. The Mistral (see singlesincrete.com) is in Maleme on the north-west coast of Greece's largest island, and almost all of the resort's 33 rooms have sea views. Maleme is quiet and undeveloped with few amenities, although bustling Chania is a bus ride away. The hotel is run by the genteel entrepreneur Vassillis Gialamarakis and his roguish brother Adonis - their father built it.
Why do so many singles return to the Mistral, even out of season? The broad range of personalities means everyone finds a place within the group adjacent to like-minded souls, and shared evening meals cement the bonds quickly. The food is a highlight - four courses every night, with an emphasis on seasonal dishes sourced locally and cooked traditionally. Stuffed cuttlefish, artichokes in lemon and dill sauce and the Cretan speciality, kalitsounia (sweet cheese pastries), are excellent. Snail dishes pop up occasionally, as do intestines and other grisly things when a whole lamb is spit-roasted and hacked up on a garden table. "This came from a relative's flock in the mountains nearby. I want my guests to enter real Cretan life and culture, so they're not simply tourists," Vassillis says.
While guests are free to sit out as much of the menu as they like, the resort's daily excursions are a big draw. They are often led by Vassillis, a voluble enthusiast as comfortable discussing Minoan architecture as military history or the migratory habits of the hoopoe, a type of bird. The traditional "booze and bouzouki" lure of the Greek islands is in ample supply here, but it's the warmth and largesse of Vassillis and Adonis that keep this extended "family" returning year after year, staying in touch with cards and text messages.
As trust develops in our group over wine and fine food, even the reticent among us start to share their stories. Some are here because they value time away with friends, separate to dutiful family trips; many are widowed. "When you're on your own, travelling again is hard. It takes a long time to get up the nerve," one confides. Guardian News & Media