Living and working in France means I have a minimum of 5 weeks of vacation. Yes, you read correctly, a minimum. Because I work for a kick ass company, I get 8 weeks. So besides the weeks I spend going back to the US to replenish my soul with Arby’s curly fries and sisterly drama, I travel as much as I can.
Last week, I took full advantage of this benefit and went on a 6 day trip with my husband Robin, my close friend from college, Abby, who miraculously lives in the south of France (praise the lord!), her French boyfriend Bruno, Robin’s best friend Thibault and his spicy Italian girlfriend Anna. We started planning the trip in September when we had all just received our tax statements. All you french expats out there understand my pain when every September you get a nice little bill from the government asking for about one month’s worth of salary asap. Since the option of not paying this bill means a 10% fine and freezing a good majority of your bank account, we all paid our taxes and cried into our beer cans.
The impact of paying our taxes while planning a trip in two months meant that our previous plan of Denmark and Sweden seemed out of the question. It costs a pretty penny to go see those beautiful North European men, so we nixed that plan and started researching. We eventually found some cheap flights from Paris to Heraklion, Crete and some airbnb research showed us that we could actually afford to stay in a house with hallways. Living right now in an apartment that is a slight upgrade from my college dorm room in terms of size, means that hallways are a luxury I don’t enjoy regularly. Plus, the beginning of November in Crete could possibly mean tanning my pasty butt, so everyone got on board and we booked the tickets.
Jumbo Jackhammers & an Overhaul of Olive Oil
We stayed at a charming airbnb our first two nights in Heraklion where our host Maria made us feel right at home with copious amounts of local liquor and heavenly pieces of fried batter swimming in pools of honey. Unfortunately, she couldn’t predict the renovation work of the apartment below us. At 8 am, we awoke in paradise to the sound of a jackhammer chiseling below us. What’s even worse, is our friend Giorgis liked to chisel for a minute or two and then abruptly take a short break. The break time always varied so we were convinced every time that he had finally finished. It was so unbearable that Robin actually came on a run. Don’t believe me? I wouldn’t either so I made sure to have proof…At least the early morning wake up call gave us extra time to explore… and by explore I mean scout out places to eat. Eating lunch and dinner on this trip took on a whole new meaning for a few key reasons.
1. All Cretans, including workers in the service industry, are incredibly welcome and friendly. As an expat living in France where my existence in a cafe is enough to piss off the waiter, I lived for the service. People actually smile at you and return throughout the meal to check on you. I’m lucky in Paris to get a side eye glance as I frantically wave my arms at the waiter like a banshee to get the bill.
2. When they write appetizers on their menus, they forget to include the words super sized before appetizer. There is more food on each of these “appetizer plates” than your plate at your first round of an all you can eat buffet.
3. The food is delicious. Can’t stop, over-eat, roll myself out of the restaurant delish. My new motto is “if you don’t know how to cook something, just drench it in olive oil and fry it.”
4. When you’ve finished the ridiculous amounts of food you ordered because you thought you were actually ordering normal sized appetizers, you ask for the bill. This is when the real fun begins. The server returns with not only the bill, but also the free dessert and a carafe of raki. What is raki you ask? Just the national drink of Crete that happens to be an unsweetened 45% alcohol. So in between the spoonfuls of honey and yogurt that you eat because well, its awesome, you’re also being served numerous shots of raki. Do you remember the last time you stuffed yourself silly and then started taking shots? Yea, me neither, because nobody does that. But in Crete they do, and you can’t refuse local customs when traveling right?
5. And finally, when you go to pay the bill, you double check because there is no way that 6 soft drinks, 6 beers, 12 plates of food, 6 desserts and 18 shots was 10 euros a person.
Ok, I’ll be Mario and you can be the Princess
After putting on a few pretty pounds in Heraklion, we took our rentals to Chiana, a charming seaside town west of Heraklion, but still in the north of the island. Like many countries, Crete has an emergency shoulder on the highway, that we naturally assumed should be used in an emergency situation. Think again. Crete drivers have just turned the shoulder into another lane. So when you’re driving a car from the 80’s that has no horsepower in a mountainous region , you will naturally be honked at on a regular basis, by semi trucks and 90 year olds, to move onto the emergency shoulder so they can pass you. When you have no idea of this local interpretation and therefore you refuse to drive on an emergency shoulder, you’ll find that no amount of twists and turns throughout the mountains on a two lane road will stop these drivers from finding a way around you. If you’ve ever dreamed of being a NASCAR driver or making mario kart come alive, just rent a car in Crete and all your dreams will become a stark reality.
And it doesn’t help that as you twist and turn throughout bends with no guardrails and 100 foot drops, you’re also whizzing by hundreds of tiny dollhouses on the side of the road. When we realized that these houses were placed to remember a loved one who had died in a car accident, not even the stunning scenery could distract us from the local driving.
The icing on the cake was when we arrived at our villa outside Chania and mentioned to our darling host Peter, how surprised we were by the emergency shoulder driving. His response: “Oh no in Crete that’s not an emergency shoulder, it’s just a lane.” The government’s response when you look up the road rules in Crete, “350 dollar fine for driving on the emergency shoulder.”
We did all the top activities on trip advisor in Heraklion and Chania. Spoiler alert, there aren’t that many, in Crete get ready to relax by the water with a cocktail. But we did visit the different ports, went to the main history museums, walked around, of course ate and drank a ton and we also spent on a day on the most gorgeous pink beach, Elafonsini.
One activity that we did that was not on the top 10 list was laser tag. I had last partaken in a laser tag game when I was 8 years old, at a neighbors birthday party. We were 16 screaming hellions hyped up on smarties, running through ball pits trying to shoot one another. There were winners and losers and consequently mothers consoling the losers and telling them “it’s just a game.”
Adult laser tag at Chania was a different game. First, it wasn’t inside a bacteria ridden ball pit. It was outdoors, in a junk yard the size of a football field, littered with old cars, abandoned buses and makeshift houses with multiple floors. Second, 3 out 6 of the players considered themselves professional call of duty gamers. So you can probably imagine that their motto wasn’t “it’s just a game.” And finally, instead of shooting ourselves up with smarties, we had just recently eaten our body weight in feta cheese and taken the normal three shots of raki to wash it down. It’s safe to say that I vomited in my mouth on multiple occasions.
All jokes aside, adult laser tag was an actual highlight of my trip. There’s something really satisfying about sneaking up on your other half and shooting the crap out of them. And I’m not just saying that because I was the #1 sniper of the day or on the winning team. Unlike those professional gamers, I do recognize that it’s just a game… no matter how good it feels when I win. 😉
Top Tips for Crete
1. Crete is full of tourists between June and August due to the beautiful weather. But the weather is still in the 80’s in September/October, so if you have some flexibility, go in early fall when you have the beach to yourself. Beware that the last day of the season is the 1st of November. I won’t recommend going after that because everything is closed.
2. Barter, Barter, Barter. The price is never what is written – except for at restaurants. This means the “tourist price” does exist, so don’t be offended, just negotiate constantly so you aren’t taken advantage of completely.
3. The capital Heraklion doesn’t have more than 2 days worth of things to do max. It’s worth it to go, but I would spend more time exploring other cities like Chania and the surrounding beaches which are more charming and still have a great nightlife.
4. The archaeological site of Knossos is 15 minutes away from Heraklion and is a must see. But go as early in the morning as possible and splurge on a guide. There are so many ruins that even if you use your imagination, it’s hard to picture how it was thousands of years ago without a professional.
5. Visit the port of Heraklion at sunset. You not only get to see all the fishermen coming back with their boats, the sunset view at the top of the tour is breathtaking.