Oia, Santorini. Photos by Craig Finetti

Exploring Greece’s Treasures

A venture through Athens, Santorini and Crete for the finest food and drink with a splash of adventure

When considering a family vacation for four, the challenge is to discover a destination that everyone can amicably agree on. Greece rose to the top for these reasons: beaches, culture, food and drink, and adventure. My husband, two boys and I spent most of the time eating and drinking in Hellenic territory, embracing Greece for all its beauty in Athens, Santorini and Crete.

Athens

Photography Craig Finetti

Historic Plaka is one of the oldest districts in Athens. Crammed with shops and tavernas along narrow pedestrian-filled cobblestone streets, Plaka is for those who have a burning desire to buy something for everyone back home. Artisan-crafted gold jewelry, leather sandals, local herbs and seasonings, evil eye pendants and miniature replicas of the Parthenon—the supply is astounding. But Plaka is also for the hungry and thirsty. A street-side table at a taverna offering fresh seafood, Greek salad, moussaka, pastitsio, souvlaki and more is the perfect energy-refueling spot. With full stomachs, a hike to the Acropolis, the ancient hilltop citadel, is a cinch. The Acropolis Museum, itself an architectural wonder, is a treasure trove of ancient art history.

After a day spent on foot in the bustling city of Athens, dining on white linen feels like the natural thing to do. Cookoovaya (cookoovaya.gr), which is located behind the Hilton Athens near Syntagma Square, is a place stomachs and hearts desire. Five well-known chefs fuse their knowledge and imagination to create an inspiring cuisine. Pericles Koskinas, Manos

Cookoovaya octopus. Photography Craig Finetti

Zournatzis,Vangelis and Spyros Liakos, and Nikos Karathanos work together to offer a unique menu inspired by Greek cuisine with a twist. The impressive, well-lit space and a busy, wide open kitchen provide a theatrical experience. Things to try include savory pies baked in the wood oven with spinach or truffle creamed mushroom, grilled beef filet, seasonal menu items (when I was there, they featured grouper collar braised in orzo, cinnamon and tomato sauce), charred fresh octopus served with fava spread, and skirt steak with mushroom infused with thyme puree‑‑‑ and steamed wild rice. The wine list features stunning Greek wines, and it is not by accident that they go with the food merrily.


Santorini

Santa Irini Bakery. Photography Craig Finetti

A 35-minute flight to the volcanic island of Santorini reveals the supermodel of the Greek islands. She is a head-turner, instantly recognizable around the world, with her multicolored cliffs that soar out of a sea-drowned caldera, topped by drifts of whitewashed buildings. But beyond the dazzling panoramas are the pristine wines that grow from wind-swept landscapes-—so harsh at times, growers shape the vines into coils, which are trained low on the ground, to provide protection for the grapes that grow inside of them. The assyrtiko grape variety is native to the island and delivers crisp, dry, alluring, food-friendly wines. Perched on a cliff overlooking the Aegean Sea, Venetsanos Winery (venetsanoswinery.com) is a picturesque spot to taste indigenous varietals, local cheeses and cured meats, while learning about the chemist who developed the site and leveraged the power of hillside gravity to make his wines.

Volcanic sand beaches are unique to Santorini’s terrain. The Mars-red sand of Red Beach and the black sand beach in Perissa are two to visit. Along these beaches, the sea is clean and calm. In Perissa, tavernas hug the shoreline, making eating and swimming an all-day affair. The Magic Bus (magic-bus.gr) offers an assortment of delicious local fare, such as its popular Magic Bus Burger, made medium rare with grilled peppers. A Greek salad topped with a brick of feta is a cool and refreshing side to the burger and Greek fries.

Zeas Baklava. Photography Craig Finetti

For a little adventure, a private sailing ship (bluewavestrips.com) with our skipper Vangelis brings us to the hot springs for a relaxing, warm-water dip at sunset. A volcano in the area erupted just over 60 years ago and sulfuric gasses and heat continue to emerge from the earth, creating a soaking tub, if you will, in the middle of the cool sea.

And bakeries are huge in Greece and all its islands. For less than one euro, you can grab a large crusty loaf to go. Zeas (bakerysantorini.gr/zeas) is one of two bakeries we frequented, which also has an assortment of baklava. The other is the Santa Irini Bakery, a 24-hour shop attached to Santa Irina Hotel, where one can stock up on breads, cookies, savory pies, sesame sticks and more.


Crete

Balos Beach. Photography Craig Finetti

Going farther south to Crete by high-speed jet to visit Greece’s largest island, it’s evident that it has a long and complex history.  Minoan palaces, Venetian towns, Medieval Castles and Byzantine monasteries constitute the most important sightseeing. And the most distinctive characteristic is its beaches. Many say the best on the island (if not all of Greece) is Balos Beach, and after a treacherous drive on unpaved roads that hug the cliff, followed by a mile hike down, it’s arguably one of the most breathtaking spots in the world. Walk far into the turquoise sea for a refreshing dip and bask in the sun-kissed, pink-hued sandy beach. The hike back up is for the fit, however. You’ll need a good pair of hiking sandals, water, more water and determination.

Crete also has a wine industry experiencing a revival, with producers focusing on elevating indigenous grapes. High up on a hill above the quaint town of Houdetsi in appellation of Peza is Rhous Winery (rhouswinery.gr). The husband-and-wife team, Maria and Dimitris, strive to modernize their winemaking practices to provide terroir-driven wines of indigenous grapes, such as Vidiano, Plyto, Muscat of Spina, Mandilaria and Kotsifali. These are beautiful wines and can be found on-premise at places like Milos inside The Cosmopolitan.


Pies and More Pies

Pies are the thing in Crete and throughout Greece. They are called pites (pita: singular), and the one we are most familiar with is spanakopita, which is filled with feta and spinach. In Greece, there are hundreds of different types of pies. They come in all sizes and shapes: rectangular, coiled, sticks, triangles. Some are savory, others are sweet, and they are filled with a number of different local cheeses, meats and vegetables. But apart from the wholesome ingredients, they are all made of the layers of light and airy, crispy phyllo, whose crunch is addictive and deliriously delicious.


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