Some holidays result in impressive photos and souvenirs, but Gabrielle Fagan’s Greek escape yielded a string of precious friendships
We’re just three girlfriends out for a brisk winter walk on a windswept Welsh beach, where waves are crashing against the rocks and we’re huddled up in anoraks to beat the cold.
It’s a spur-of-the-moment weekend break but our talk is of somewhere far warmer; the Greek island of Crete, and a highly unusual holiday hotel where we originally met last summer.
While the three of us have busy lives, careers, families and friends, thanks to a variety of reasons including widowhood, divorce and a homebound partner, until that turning-point trip, individually, we’d generally ended up taking breaks alone. We’re part of a fast-growing sector in the travel market.
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A recent survey by Which? Travel found that one in 10 Britons who holidayed between June 2010 and June 2011 were single travellers, largely women.
But holidaying as a solo can be a challenging experience, leaving you feeling like the proverbial wallflower at the school dance.
By contrast, The Mistral hotel, exclusively for single travellers, offers a haven for those who are holidaying alone, but don’t necessarily want it to be that way.
It’s on the beautiful western side of the Greek island of Crete, in Maleme, about 20 kilometres from Chania, and owned and run by the Gialamarakis family.
Vassilis and his brother, Adonis, are both passionate about making guests feel part of the family, rather than simply customers, and also about opening their eyes to the real Crete, with a host of trips and excursions that are often off the predictable, well-trodden tourist trail.
The hotel is charming with 33 double rooms with en suites, and twin bedded rooms available for friends travelling together, and is set in landscaped gardens, with two large pools.
A communal dinner is held every evening (half board is the normal arrangement) on a shaded terrace.
“We have people coming from all over the world, and returning year after year,” says Vassilis, 42, whose perfect English is testament to the fact that he took a master’s in hospitality in Scotland and has helped run the hotel for 18 years.
“That’s because they say there is nothing like this. Where, as a single person, they can feel special, rather than feeling they don’t quite fit in, or feel conspicuous sitting or eating alone.”
While its location, next to a petrol station and on a main road, might make Kirsty Allsopp blanch, neither the road nor the garage is busy. And anyway, initial reservations about that are banished by the friendly atmosphere where nothing appears to be too much trouble.
There’s a thoughtful stack of spare flip-flops, hats, towels and suncream, as well as maps, books and pampering pure olive oil toiletries in every room.
The hotel is also perfectly placed for the beach, a couple of minutes’ walk away, and within 10 minutes of an array of beachfront bars and restaurants.
It’s impossible not to relax and as you chat to other guests, friendships are made, so it’s not surprising that although it’s definitely not aimed at would-be Shirley Valentines, romantic attachments are formed there, and there have been some Mistral weddings.
Every evening starts with cocktails at the bar next to one of the pools, before three courses of fresh Cretan cuisine, including eggs and organic vegetables from the hotel’s plot tended by Adonis.
All the flavours are enhanced by eating with pleasant company on balmy nights under a starry sky.
Frankly, it would have been all too easy to sit and sunbathe by the pool by day with new-found friends, but my fellow guests enthused about the excursions, particularly a fish lunch at Sfinari that follows an outing to an archaeological dig at Falasarna, about a 40-minute drive from the hotel.
A small group of us were taken there by Vassilis, who prides himself on his historical knowledge of the area, and he explained the city of Falasarna was founded in the 6th century BC and its port was a home for pirates.
The largest earthquake in the history of the Mediterranean in 365 AD lifted Western Crete nine metres higher above sea level than today so the port ended up inland and the ruins, scented by an abundance of thyme flowers, give a fascinating glimpse into the naval life of yesteryear.
But, as predicted, lunch at Sunset tavern more than fulfils expectations, not just because it is off the beaten track – about a half an hour drive from Kissamos – but also because we’re served a veritable fish banquet.
All of it is freshly caught, and it cost us only 23 euros each. It would be a small fortune in a smart restaurant in any European city.
On another day, we travelled through the green, lush countryside on the south west of the island to the beach of Elafonisi, where the sand is tinted pink from millions of crushed shells and the water is a clear, turquoise blue – a perfect location for swimming and sunbathing.
But we truly felt privy to the cultural life of the island when we travelled east to Apokoronas for an evening music concert featuring vintage Cretan instruments held in a village square and, apart from ourselves, attended only by locals. We ended up joining many of them for coffee and brandy afterwards.
If you don’t want to take part in the variety of trips on offer, from the former leper island of Spinalonga through to a day cruise to the volcanic island of Santorini, there’s plenty to do at the hotel.
I had a useful class with photographer Harvey Smith, and a watercolour class with artist Anne
Urquhart, both of which took place in the hotel gardens.
It’s never dull chatting with guests whose ages, when I was there, ranged from 29 to 80, and came from all walks of life, including a diplomat, midwife, a car salesman and a teacher.
You know everyone’s in the same boat, so there’s a common experience which makes it easy for everyone to talk, mingle and make friends quickly and easily.
Gabrielle Fagan@ stayed at the Mistral Hotel, where seven nights’ half-board starts at £525.
She flew to Crete with Monarch, which operates weekly flights during the summer to Chania from Gatwick and Manchester, and to Heraklion from Birmingham, Gatwick and Manchester, from £149.50. Call Singles In Crete on 0871 990 2070 or visit the address below. Contact Monarch reservations on 0871 940 5040 and at: