A garland of sugar-cube bungalows and villas threaded with tumbling bougainvillea and scarlet hibiscus, all strung along the rocky coastline of eastern Crete, Minos Beach Art Hotel is very, very easy on the eye. To say that the property's setting, Agios Nikolaos, is a place of rare cinematic beauty is not mere hyperbole: in the early 60s, French film director Jules Dassin chose it as the location for his hit He Who Must Die, starring iconic Greek actress Melina Mercouri, and it's where, in 1964, Walt Disney filmed jewel-heist mystery The Moon-Spinners, moving into the hotel, which had just opened the year before, for the duration.
"Where dreams come true" might be a Disney mantra, but it's one that could equally apply at Minos Beach, where laid-back five-star living sounds like the call of wood pigeons from towering, fragrant pines and the ever-present whisper of waves lapping against shore; where a multi-faceted culinary offering champions traditional recipes and hyperlocal ingredients; where a design ethos of understated minimalism elevates glass, wood and cotton to more-than-the-sum-of-its-parts effect; and where contemporary art installations provide food for thought at every turn. Even the bins look more like bee hives than somewhere to chuck the rind from that last slice of watermelon you couldn't resist going back to the breakfast buffet for.
A superior waterfront bungalow, left, and views from a two-bed seafront villa.
Throw in a centrepiece freshwater swimming pool, the garden-set Anaea Wellness spa, sea-view tennis courts, the possibility of taking the hotel's motorboat out to explore the nearby fishing village of Mochlos or island of Spinalonga (made famous by Victoria Hislop's blockbuster novel The Island), watersports on tap and the crazy-comfortable, new-for-2022 sun loungers, and this is not an easy place to tear yourself away from. Which is why, at the end of our stay, when it comes time for us to make the 45-minute journey back to Heraklion Airport, we want to hug Maria, one of the ever-accommodating, 140-strong hotel team, when she reassures us: "London? We have a saying here, 'It's only one cigarette away'."
As though purposefully designed to foster a running-away-to-a-(this)-Greek-island fantasy. Spanning 15 categories, ranging from one-bed bungalows to a three-bedroom villa with private swimming pool, all 126 rooms offer pared-back style and quiet luxury.
Our home-from-home is right on the water's edge, with its own loungers and parasol, and a covered terrace overlooking Mirabello Bay and the mountains on the other side. Inside, pale concrete floors spell cool barefoot living, with a sofa, tree-section coffee table, round sisal rug and beaten copper side table all set off by floor-length taupe voile curtains, which flutter and diffuse sunlight hypnotically. An ocean liner of a bed is dressed in white linens, with dark, industrial-chic metal pendant lights contrasting with tactile, village-made baskets.
Sand-hued suite interiors, left, and glimpses of whitewashed villas.
A spacious dressing area and bathroom continue the theme, with two round charcoal-grey sinks, a powerful walk-in rain shower and separate WC. Organic toiletries, courtesy of the award-winning Bioaroma, whose HQ is just down the road, are in generous supply, including eco-pods packed with a hat-trick of shampoo, conditioner and body wash, which pop satisfyingly against salty skin.
What's for breakfast?
You'd need a month to try it all. A multi-section buffet spread encompasses everything you could hope for and much, much more: cereals, olives, cheeses, cold meats, fish, vegetables, salads, dips, tarts and a rainbow of fresh fruits, including Cretan bananas, which are smaller than most but more tasty. Chefs will whip up an omelette (or anything else) to your specification while you watch, while a dazzling array of breads and pastries includes traditional cakes and syrupy village festival favourite loukoumades - bite-sized fluffy sweet honey balls scattered with sesame seeds.
Coffee is the time-honoured Papagalos (Parrot) brand by Loumides, bought in the same, small, green packets picked up in corner kiosks by discerning coffee lovers all over Greece, rather than in bulk. You can taste the difference.
Lunch and dinner?
There are four restaurants, any one of which would be a destination in its own right were it to open in your neck of the woods back home. Top of the pile are the award-winning La Bouillabaisse and traditional Cretan restaurant Terpsis, both of which overlook the sparkling bay and offer refined farm-to-table dishes seasoned with herbs grown on-site. Wherever you choose to eat, it's the attention to detail and passion for excellence that really stand out: the ice-cold flannel for refreshing hot face and hands with before lunch: the olive oil presented in sorbet form to accompany a basket of artisan breads; the waiter who "accidentally" brings you what he considers the best dessert on the menu (in addition to the one you ordered), so sure is he that you're going to want to try it. (He is not wrong.)
A highlight of our stay was a Friday-night meze at the hotel's Kafeneion Adeste - styled after a traditional village coffee house. Soulful live Greek music by a hugely talented local two-piece was accompanied by a line-up of Tsikoudia artisanal Cretan raki iterations, which, at 38 per cent proof, may have added fire to the Greek dancing that climaxed with some of the dancers swaying, ankle-deep, in a pond-like art installation by Polish-American artist Malgorzata Koscielak.
Is there a bar?
Multiple, scattered around the grounds. Dionyssos Lounge is the place to go for killer cocktails and live DJ sets; Ibiscus is for poolside sipping and nibbles; the waterfront La Cave de la Bouillabaisse draws guests and locals alike for its extensive list of Cretan, Greek and international wines; and Pure Lounge Bar serves up fancy finger food, iced coffees, fresh juices and spirits around the fire pit.
Guests arrive to a welcome fresh fruit platter and bottle of Cretan wine in their room, along with all the usual amenities you'd expect from a leading Design Hotel, including Nespresso machine, fast WiFi, flatscreen TV and touchscreen climate/audio system. Elsewhere, there's an airy library/meeting room stocked with a multitude of covetable coffee-table books, a well-curated boutique selling all the pretty things, two on-site Blue Flag beaches, a watersports centre offering sailing, windsurfing, waterskiing and the rest, tennis courts and bikes available to borrow.
What are the hotel's eco-credentials like?
Strong and far-ranging, with social, environmental and economic sustainability being a key guiding principle of bluegr Hotels and Resorts, of which Minos Beach is a member. A growing number of villas and bungalows are equipped with the energy-efficient KNX system, a smart water management system is in place and construction materials are sustainable. Locality is a touchstone, from staffing to food and drink sourcing, and Minos Beach is actively involved in various environmental initiatives including a recycling programme, tree-planting scheme, beach and coast cleaning and providing support to local animal shelters.
What about accessibility?
Some common areas and guest rooms are wheelchair-accessible. Speak to the hotel for further information.
Airy terrace dining at Bacchus, one of four hotel restaurants, and the lush Cretan surroundings.
What's the crowd like?
Urbane, relaxed and elegantly dressed. Think Apple Watch-wearing young couples with adorable first babies in tow and too-cool-for-school older parents holidaying with grown-up kids. The hotel is happy to provide high chairs and cots, but there's no kids club. We didn't see any children between the ages of one and 18 during our stay.
Within a short walk I can find...
The lovely fishing town of Agios Nikolaos, named after the patron saint of sailors, is a 10-minute walk away, and has changed little since the advent of tourism in the 60s. Stop for a frappe in one of the tavernas set around the town's sparkling Voulismeni Lake (actually a lagoon, connected to the sea by a narrow inlet), browse boutiques selling locally made crafts and jewellery (including some amazing pieces featuring glittering snakes, which were worshipped by Crete's Minoan civilisation during the Bronze Age) or visit the weekly farmers' market and pick up a jar of the herb-infused local thyme honey to take home. Also worth a visit is the Folklore Museum, where traditional woven textiles, embroideries and handcrafts are on display alongside old photographs and fabulous folk costumes.
Things I should know
Home - since 1988's inaugural G&A Mamidakis Foundation's Art Symposium - to an evolving collection of unique sculptural installations by artists from around the world, the hotel's common areas and grounds form a unique gallery. An annual contest sees one winner being invited to stay and take inspiration from this Hellenic Eden, their completed artwork joining the more than 50 pieces currently on display.
That flash of canary-yellow you spy en route to one of the hotel's two private beaches? A rock sculpture by Italian Carlo Ciarli, resplendent against the regular old rocks on the water's edge. Those four, soaring, illuminated pyramids that look like they're made of spun sugar, their reflection glowing golden-copper, after dark, on the inky surface of Mirabello Bay? A work by Magdalena Abakanowicz of Poland. Chilean artist Lily Garafulic's gunmetal-grey… um… bull's horns? Person doing a handstand? Giant moustache? We'll let you figure that one out for yourself.