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Chania Crete …
An Enchanting Travel Odyssey
Becomes a Dream Wedding Destination

by Wendy Leopold
Travel Editor, Locations, Etc. Inc.

On the picturesque Greek island of Crete,
in its charming, romantic Venetian port city Chania, we have explored many popular attractions and re-imagined them as magical wedding destinations. From a Byzantine church cave to a mystical lagoon, from the gothic Old Town to a white glove 5-Star resort, your wedding will be full of all the flavor and surprise lovely Chania has to offer.

Crete is the largest and most diverse of the Greek islands. Amidst contemporary architecture and chic hotels, Chania's many villages are rooted in customs that go back centuries. In Crete, both young and old share in traditions long forgotten on other Greek islands. Hospitality is the most sacred of their customs - and here it still reigns supreme.

Whether in the hands of Crete's travel and event specialists, or at a small unassuming taverna on a back road, you and your guests will be treated as royalty. It's the Cretan mindset - how they live, think and breathe - with a charming charisma and a genuine concern that can only be described as instinctive. They intuitively give you what you want or need before you ask, and they do it better than anywhere else.

I know this because it's my first day, and I can't wrap my head around how much I've already lived, smelled, and tasted. I'm mesmerized by the people and romanced by the land in this magical place called Kriti. I'm traveling alone, and I'm the one falling in love.

Inside a 16th Century Cave Church

I'm traveling by car wearing my new pair of beaded sandals, a gift hand-made by Adoni, my multi-talented tour guide. Adoni is a stage actor by trade, a soft spoken gentle soul, and his voice resonates an exuberant pride when he speaks about Crete. “I'm taking you someplace really special that many tourists don't know about. I often come here just to sit and be at peace,” he tells me.

My brilliant and lively interpreter, Alexandra, is traveling with us, and she also lives and breathes Crete. Born in Kalamata, she visited Crete when she was 18, and like many others, instantly fell in love and never left.

We are traveling 20 kilometers to a cave church just outside of Spilia in Marathokefala. Adoni explains “We are going to enjoy lunch like a local.” We stop to sample ripe tomatoes, juicy peaches and avocadoes growing on several of the roads we are traveling. WOW! This is how fruits and vegetables really taste!

We climb the last stone road and see the petite 16th century Byzantine Cave Church of St. John the Hermit. It is enveloped within an infinite valley of olive trees on the Kolimbari plane. And- our dessert is waiting! There are trees overloaded with clusters of the sweetest champagne grapes I've ever tasted.

The sun outside is bright but inside the large cave's imposing sanctuary there is only filtered sunlight. We are enveloped in soft mellifluous shadows and cool gray walls with patchy stalactite formations. A loam floor connects the numerous aisles, the rows of primitive wood benches and an altar.

Adjacent to the benches is a well that hosts a delicate stream of mountain water we hear trickling down a large rock. Using a tin cup attached to the side of the well by a thin rope, we savor the cool fresh water. I feel transported back centuries before modern-day germophobia, like a character in Ken Follett's Pillars of the Earth.

Spilia Village and the Kolimbari Plane

Here in this old Greek cave it's easy to be spiritual. In the silence I can't stop thinking about all those who stood in this exact spot before me … and I find myself contemplating my intangible place in this world.

Down a nearby meandering road is a photographic memorial that gives homage to Cretan World War II veterans. I gaze at each of the proud defiant faces of these local heroes who are only strangers to me and recall Plato's words, “Only the dead have seen the end of the war.”

A Modern Wedding 500 Years in the Making

Heading back to Chania, I'm already imagining an inspired wedding at the cave church. The large sanctuary with its crusty floor and uneven stone walls is filled with family and friends who have never been part of a wedding ceremony this exotic. The aisles are decorated with wedding arches and rococo candelabras covered in cascading flowers. Suspended votive candles and the grandest of arches on the altar are spotlighted in rose and amber gels.

After the “I do's,” the guests spill out into a magnificent reception that seems to materialize from nowhere. Crystal chandeliers and flowers are suspended inside the giant tent over each dinner table. A custom dance floor covers the grounds. Majestic floral arrangements frame the band and dance floor. Shimmering dupioni silk tablecloths embellished in myriad shades of blues and greens pay homage to the infinite colors of the Greek seas.

A five-course gourmet plated dinner is white glove and the celebrity entertainment includes well-known Cretan singers and musicians. It's a magical wedding celebration under the heavens with stars illuminating the surrounding valley's olive trees.

5-Star Destination Extraordinaire

Adonis brings me back to reality when he delivers me to my hotel - a stunning 5-star gem - The Minoa Palace Resort and Spa. The Minoa Palace Resort is located in Platanias, a popular resort village nine kilometers outside Chania. Whether your label is convention group, wedding party, or leisure traveler, this award-winning property has everything. Their acclaimed Imperial Congress Hall and Athena Conference Hall host the crème de la crème Chania events.

Minoa Palace boasts six guest swimming pools and many guestrooms and suites have private heated pools overlooking romantic Chania Bay. Amenities abound, and just the short list includes luxurious marble baths, 24-hour room service, soccer, tennis and football mini courts, a children's outdoor playground, a deluxe spa, full event and wedding planning, VIP services and seven outstanding restaurants.

If you forego renting a car, there are beaches, shopping, restaurants and bars just outside the lobby doors.

A Perfect Rehearsal Dinner Venue

In the evening Alexandra and I meet Annalies, another virtuoso guide who hails from Belgium, but spends half of each year in Crete. Annalies is vivacious, fun, and extremely accommodating. We dine at Mylos, a former 14th century water mill with outrageous décor and superb Cretan food. The owner introduces me to Gamopilafo, a traditional Cretan dish of rice simmered in chicken broth. Alexandra tells me it's translated as “Wedding Pilaf,” but to me it's closer to risotto in texture. Gamopilafo is traditionally served at all Cretan weddings.

Outside, the scents from the garden full of herbs, vegetables and flowers attack our senses. But inside it's our eyes that are overwhelmed. Massive vegetable displays and antiques are everywhere. Dinner tables are surrounded by gigantic tomato vines that spring up from the floor and seem to grow up through the sky!

Mylos is a convenient walk from Minoa Palace and an ideal rehearsal dinner venue. Your guests will assume you spent a fortune on the décor, but you won't have spent a penny. At Mylos, it's all done in-house, and their mind-blowing décor is just business as usual.

History Revisited

The next day as the sun creeps over the horizon, I'm enjoying the liberating solitude of an early morning beach, and reading more about Crete. Soaring seagulls overhead share the salty sea air I'm breathing. In the background are sounds of waiters' voices and the clanging dishes from Korali, the nearby beachfront restaurant at Minoa Palace.

Crete is the fifth largest island in the Mediterranean Sea. It is home to the oldest civilization in Greek history - The Minoan Period. Knossos, the largest existing Minoan excavation site, is located three hours east of Chania, in Iraklion.

A mild climate makes Crete an ideal year-round for travelers. Tourists enjoy fantastic winter skiing on Crete's mountains and great sightseeing, beaches and summer sports from spring through fall.

Chania is the site of the Minoan settlement of Kydonia and her history includes occupation by Dorian Greeks, Byzantines, Arabs, Turks and Christians. In 1285, Venetian and Cretan cultures became intertwined, and Chania began to form into the city it is today. In 1913, Crete was annexed by Greece, but the Cretan population still remains a distinct and separate people - a fact immediately noticeable to any tourist who spends time here.

I've skipped breakfast so I can sample an early traditional lunch at Korali. My convivial waiter makes it effortless for me to be adventurous. Following his suggestions, I choose three distinct entrees - Kohli Bourbouristi, Goat Stew with Stamnagathi and Sfakian Pie.

“Fried snails in vinegar and rosemary has been a Cretan delicacy since the Minoan Age,” he tells me. “And Stamnagathi is a wild Cretan green you must try.” I already know about Sfakian Pie. It's made from local cheeses and local Cretan thyme honey and originates from Skafia - a village in the southeast of Crete. It's the village where Cretans are the “proudest, the bravest, the most defiant,” Annalies explains when she picks me up after lunch. And Korali deserves all the accolades it receives - the meal was pure bliss!

A Hidden Nirvana Surrounded by Mountains and Cliffs

Annalies and I are off to a wildly popular Chania tourist attraction, Balos Lagoon. I'm crossing my fingers this famous landmark can be re-purposed as my next event venue extraordinaire.

Tourists love the full-day ferry excursions that depart from nearby Kissamos Port. The itinerary includes a short stop on the island of Gramvoussa, an optional self-serve lunch at the onboard restaurant, and two glorious hours at stunning Balos Lagoon.

Gramvoussa is thought to be Aeolus, a Korrykies island in Homer's Odyssey. Its old Venetian castle housed thousands of 16th century Cretan revolutionaries who died in the struggle to liberate their island from Ottoman occupation.

“We are driving to Balos Lagoon because you must see the view from above,” says Annalies. Our unpaved winding road circles up the edge of a steep mountain cliff while Annalies is happily chatting about dictamus, a wild Cretan herb that has been around since antiquity.
She tells me Aristotle and Hippocratis have lauded its many health benefits, and it's also thought to be an aphrodisiac. “Erondades - brave young love seekers - risk their lives on the treacherous steep mountain ledges. They pick the pink flowers and present them to the girls they love,” Annalies explains.

I'm only half-listening because I'm slowly decomposing from my fear of heights. I'm watching the narrow roads getting even narrower, and I'm trying not to be too conspicuous.

“You're polite even in the face of death,” teases Annalies once she is aware of my mini-meltdown, and my futile attempt to act nonchalant.

We finally arrive on the mountaintop and park at its expansive stone lot, home to mostly the free-roaming Kri-Kri goats who greet us with uninterested disregard, even though I'm really excited to see them.

The path to Balos Lagoon is a 20-minute walk, but I'm in for a great surprise: Instead of walking, I get to ride a donkey! It's a local mode of transportation and I'm having a blast. We amble down this the mountain - with the lagoon still completely hidden from view.

The sudden and astonishing view of the lagoon when it emerges beneath a stone ridge can't be captured in a picture. Nor can my emotions when I see the sheer number of colors and shades in the clear shallow water and pink sandy beach - the water is a kaleidoscope of azures, ceruleans and jades.

I cannot stop staring at this arresting view and I know it will captivate guests with a lifetime of memories when they attend an event at this magical venue. Again I'm imagining the festivities…

The Romance of a Blue Lagoon Wedding

The guests arrive at noon by luxurious private ferry. Cocktails and a catered lunch are served in a decorated tent on the beach. Everyone enjoys a lazy afternoon sunbathing, swimming and walking through the shallow water at Balos Lagoon.

Mid-day, making a grand entrance, the bride and groom arrive by speedboat. At dusk, clanging cowbells and horns announce the onset of the evening's activities. Guests climb up to the first ridge where they stop to enjoy Balos Lagoons' stunning panoramic views.

As the sun sets, fire torches held by traditionally dressed Cretan waiters and dancers light the path leading up to the top of the mountain. Donkeys, previously hidden by the imposing ridge, greet the surprised guests. Donkey herders help everyone mount before leading the guests up to the dinner party on top of the mountain. Bouzouki players bring up the rear.

Tented areas and portable bathrooms are available for guests to change into their evening attire, having been previously packed into complimentary weekenders and given to event attendants earlier in the day.

The Kri-Kri goats are still with us and they are fine with the hoopla. The air-conditioned, dazzling tent is decorated in balloon clusters and miniature lights. Elder guests who chose to enjoy the day at The Minoa Palace have arrived by private motor coach. Bars pour a medley of cocktails, wines and raki, while specialty appetizers make the rounds. After a sumptuous dinner, the traditional dance troupe and musicians captivate guests with their performances, before inviting everyone to join them on the dance floor!

Weddings are a convergence of two families, but no one is a stranger now, everyone has become family. Most leave long after midnight, with party gift bags of Cretan dictamus and other local herbs, and a gift card for carte blanche spa services at Minoa Palace.

A Rooftop Wedding Exudes Charm

The following day we take an easy, 10-minute drive to Chania and forego its modern district to explore the “Old Town” area. We begin at Eleftherios Venizelos, the main square or 'Syntrivanxti'. The quaint Venetian streets are full of charming cafes, shops and restaurants that remind me of the Gothic Quarter in Barcelona.

Old Town Chania is steeped in history - old Venetian houses and fortifications, ethnic neighborhoods, churches, and Minoan ruins. Closer to the port we can smell the air - and it is potent with the aroma of fresh fish from the lively tavernas along the picturesque waterfront.

We end our walk at Amphora, a petite boutique hotel where I'm spending my last night in Crete. Travelers fall in love with this 16th century converted house with its uniquely styled guestrooms. Amphora can best be best described using a German adverb which is non-existent in English vocabulary - Gemutlich - meaning a mix of cozy, friendly, and familiar.

The rooftop, with its panoramic views of the Venetian harbor, is a charming location for any small wedding reception. If your wedding goal includes quaint and charming, this Old Town location is the place for you. Nearby beaches are in walking distance, so cars are optional. Taxi and bus service is at your fingertips, but you may prefer walking and getting lost in the Old Town's charming maze of narrow streets.

Good-Byes Are Not Forever …

It's Sunday morning on my last day in Chania and I'm at the famous Minoa Palace Breakfast Buffet. The buzz here is similar to the Caesars Palace's Sunday Brunch in Las Vegas. But this buffet is daily, and with its unending choices and top-notch service, the cuisine is unbeatable.

The made-to-order entrees include crepes! - a Greek specialty that would impress even French chefs (although they might not admit it). Fresh yoghurt and a wide selection of accompanying grains, dried fruits, syrups, and honeys are all locally made. An extensive selection of regionally harvested cheeses and hot buttery chocolate croissants are my favorites.

This splendid breakfast buffet is a grand way for all your wedding guests to break bread one last time before the inevitable bittersweet good-byes … and the goodbyes will be bittersweet, indeed. For that's exactly how my farewell feels. It's a harder goodbye than usual to this beautiful island. But it's the island's spirit that is already calling me back. It's why visitors return year after year, and some who visit … never leave.

There are beautiful wedding destinations on all the islands of Greece. But like Eddie Fisher or Peggy Lee croons in the famous Broadway song from Damn Yankees - “You've Gotta Have Heart” - and this island has the biggest heart of all.

“This is true happiness … to have the stars above, the land to your left and the sea to your right, and to realize all of a sudden that in your heart, life has accomplished its final miracle: it has become a fairy tale.”
— Nikos Kazantzakis, Zorba the Greek

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