Abi Jackson heads to the sunny island for a low cost holiday, and finds that despite the financial crisis, the Greeks are still great hosts.
Think of holidays in Crete, or any of the Greek islands in fact, and busy beachside hotels and sea-view villas spring easily to mind.
Filion Suites Resort & Spa, however, is nestled near the top of a small, sleepy valley, surrounded by nothing but farmland and overlooking the fishing village of Bali, a 15-minute drive away on the coast.
Opened in 2010, the hotel was, for all intents and purposes, poised for rapid success with its modern, stylish decor, five-star standards and a picture postcard setting.
Out of its owners’ control, though, was the financial crisis which was about to hit. Like much of Greece and its islands, Crete relies heavily on tourism. With a reliable climate, safe, warm seas, stunning landscapes and delicious cuisine, thankfully trade is usually steady.
But negative press can rock the boat, and with the region’s economic woes falling under the spotlight, the locals are more anxious than ever about drawing in visitors.
For holidaymakers like me, especially with summer in Blighty being in a pretty dismal state, there is no greater draw than sunshine.
Apart from, of course, sunshine on a budget - which is the speciality of lowcostholidays.com, part of the Low Cost Travel Group which has been growing in success since its launch in 2004, gaining a sizeable stronghold on the European budget sunshine breaks market.
I have never been to Crete before but receive lots of envious “ooh, lovelies” from friends and colleagues when I tell them I’m off.
The reasonably quick (under four hours) flight is appealing too, as is the promise of long, lazy lunches and a weather forecast that doesn’t make me want to weep.
Optimistically, I pack two bottles of factor 25. I could have gone for the 35 though as the weather’s gorgeous but just on the comfortable side of scorching, and my boyfriend and I have smiles plastered on our faces all the way to Filion, a 45-minute transfer away from the airport in Heraklion.
It’s a straightforward drive along the main coastal highway until, just before Bali, we turn off onto the country lane that runs up to the hotel.
As the taxi crunches along the dusty track, the highway traffic fades away, replaced by the croaks of crickets and tinkling bells of grazing goats.
It’s such a peaceful setting. Yet Bali is just a 15-minute drive away and Filion runs a regular free shuttle service to and from the village centre throughout the day, so guests can easily venture out to explore.
The hotel has 50 superior double rooms, 20 pool-front suites and three luxury villas with private pools.
For everyone else, there are three decent-sized pools surrounded by sun-loungers, situated within easy reach of the bar.
Our superior double is spacious, air-conditioned and comfortable and has everything we need. Our private balcony looks out over the pool area, valley and sea beyond.
On first impressions, Filion gets everything right: the staff are friendly and welcoming and, though it’s five-star, the atmosphere is relaxed.
The decor is stylish, contemporary with a traditional feel, and there’s a lovely spa offering a range of treatments.
The only challenge is getting my head around the fact that this is available as a ‘budget’ holiday.
Staying half-board means breakfast and dinner at the hotel is included. Both meals are served as buffets, and there’s a good choice for each.
Fresh fruit, cereal, cheese, cold meats and bread, omelettes and fry-ups in the morning, and in the evening a decent range of chicken, lamb and fish, as well as salads and vegetables.
Lunch is available to buy from the bar. Here, the a la carte menu is more about hearty, local dishes, with fresh seafood and a scrumptious moussaka. The cocktails are good, too - especially during daily happy hour.
Basics covered, that’s us sorted for the week. Blazing sunshine, cool Mojitos, a stack of books, and two sunloungers with our names on them - what more could you want?
This holiday is all about relaxing and unwinding - the old-fashioned way. By lying back, feeling the rays on your skin, and indulging in simple pleasures.
Every now and then the calm is interrupted by a sudden splash or a happy squeal. The hotel is child-friendly, but because it’s not huge and slightly removed from all the action of the main resorts, it will never be heaving or noisy.
We take three trips into Bali, a charming little place hovering between tourist hot-spot and traditional fishing village.
Once a small port for fisherman, now a scattering of hotels, villas and restaurants provide a bright and cosy backdrop to Bali’s pretty W-shaped bay.
There are two small but perfectly formed beaches, separated by a rocky divide (hence the W-shape). You can hire sunloungers and umbrellas for two euros a day.
Maybe it’s all in the imagination, but somehow the sun feels hotter when you’re lying on the beach. The beauty of a small beach, though, is that the sea’s only ever a hop and a skip away, so quick, cooling dips are no effort at all.
For active types, there are excursions available. Boat trips are a good choice and available from around 25 euros upwards.
Being the largest of the Greek islands (and fifth largest in the Med), sailing around the whole of Crete would take a while, but lots of visitors opt for a trip to explore some of the other nearby resorts. Rethymnon, a city further along the coast, is great for shopping and the picturesque old town is well worth exploring.
Bali has a few shops where visitors can pick up souvenirs and holiday supplies, but most of the action is down near the beach.
The most popular place in town is Panorama restaurant, in part because of its fantastic location - right on the outside tip of the bay, elevated slightly, affording fantastic views of the village, beach and boats below - but mostly because the food is delicious, very reasonably priced, and the staff are a hoot.
After overhearing another Filion guest describe Panorama’s tzatziki as “the best in town”, and being told by a local taxi driver that this is where he takes his family when they’re dining out, we waste no time in trying it out.
Lunch (grilled octopus, tzatziki and moussaka) is so good we book a table for dinner the following day - a Friday, when the restaurant hosts ‘Greek night’, with local musicians and dancers (also on Mondays).
The place is packed and buzzing as the waiters rally round to make everybody feel welcome, cracking jokes and making recommendations.
Thankfully, they give us time to polish off our platters of lamb, and a selection of seafood, before we’re coaxed up to join the dancing, along with other merry diners. The bill arrives with customary (apparently!) shots of tequila and an offer of a lift back to Filion (Bali currently has no taxi service and ordering one from the next town is a little pricey).
Before leaving, we chat to a young waiter about the financial situation. Are people anxious? “Yes,” he says, “but if tourists keep coming, winter won’t be too bad.”
One thing’s for sure, Greece’s credit rating may be at an all-time low, but the sunshine, and the hosts, are as glorious and warm as ever.
Key facts - Filion Suites Resort & Spa, Bali, Crete
:: Best for: Couples, singles and families looking for a peaceful sunshine break on a budget.
:: Time to go: The weather is great from spring through to autumn, with mid summer months the hottest.
:: Don’t miss: Panorama restaurant, for food, atmosphere and great views. Book ahead to get a Friday night table.
:: Need to know: Filion is 15-minute drive from the nearest shops, so pack any crucial supplies or factor in that you’ll need to travel a little bit to get to Bali.
:: Don’t forget: Book your boat trip in advance, as they don’t run every day of the week.
Abi Jackson was a guest of lowcostholidays.com which offers seven nights’ half-board at Filion Suites Resort & Spa on Crete from £307 in this summer’s programme, based on two adults sharing and including return flights ex-Gatwick.
Regional departures include Manchester from £363 and Glasgow from £398, all prices based on October.
Reservations: 0800 111 6271 and www.lowcostholidays.com
Transfers with ResortHoppa booked through lowcostholidays.com at time of booking start from £37 return on a shared shuttle.