How this all-inclusive Greek island escape helped me rediscover how to holiday

The last of the day’s sun gently glinted across the dimpled Aegean Sea, the way the waning rays trickled across the water’s surface reminiscent of the drops of condensation working their way down my glass. I slowly sipped the dregs of a negroni, letting the bitter-sweet notes from the ruby-coloured cocktail linger in my mouth.

I was on my second drink, though I began to question whether I deserved it. The day had been far from backbreaking; instead, it was a languorous jumble of Greek coffee, laps of the pool, chapters of early John Le Carré, and dozing while the late summer sun warmed my skin.

But the answer was a resounding yes – because I was on holiday. Not on a city break, or an adventure, or an odyssey of self-discovery that would give me a chance to “learn something about myself” – but an honest-to-goodness holiday.

For the first time in more than four years, I’d plumped for a “flop and drop”, with actual time set aside from any work; all I wanted was a break. So I’d gone all-inclusive, something I tended to avoid. Was it snobbery? Not wanting to fight over towels on loungers at dawn? An urge to be a traveller not a tourist? Whatever the reason, I’d willfully shunned hotels offering the pure ease of a one-price package with all food and drink thrown in. Well, more fool me.

The Adama bar, where it’s adults only and the place to see out sunset

(Creta Maris)

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On the northern coast of the Greek island of Crete, I rediscovered not what it means to travel, but to holiday – with a new-found appreciation of the all-inclusive getaway.

Creta Maris is a hefty resort, almost 700 rooms and suites in total, straddling either side of a road and linked by bridge. One side is home to a waterpark and hotel complex, as well as a preserved, centuries-old chapel. As the “Spray Action Zone” didn’t do it for me, I found the half fringed by coast more attractive; here, away from the main building, is a quiet “village” of white-washed accommodation, creeping bougainvillea and winding stone paths.

It’s much the same as when it first opened in the 1970s, and the resort is still owned by the same family; they managed to anticipate a 21st-century desire for authenticity when travelling. Having arrived from Santorini, where even the dingiest cafes tend to be extortionate, the sense of protection from a whopping bill after every souvlaki that an all-inclusive package gave was a huge relief.

Parts of the resort have the feel of a Greek village

(Creta Maris)

At the centre of this quiet near-hamlet is a pool – there are 16 altogether – bordered by sun loungers and parasols, and a small bar that pours dangerously strong G&Ts. I was pleasantly surprised by how relaxed it was, even though it was at 80 per cent capacity, according to a staff member.

I assimilated quickly to the all-inclusive, stress-free life. Soon I stopped trying to check emails in the glare, didn’t reply to WhatsApp messages. On an island famed for its Greek mythology – Crete is the birthplace of Zeus, and the setting of Theseus and the Minotaur’s battle – Creta Maris is somewhere to do as the ancients did and… recline.

There was more of a hubbub surrounding the main pool, a large area that had been renovated for summer 2023. I occasionally swapped the quieter pool for here when I was after something closer to a beach club vibe; its proximity to a kiosk selling fresh gyros was part of the allure. For those seeking saltwater, the Blue-Flagged beach of Kastri stretches for 250 metres right next door.

Of course, one needn’t be as lazy as I was. There’s a gym, fi­ve-a-side football pitches, and tennis and basketball courts (I was just about persuaded to play a round of mini golf). On the water, jet skis, stand-up paddleboards and pedalos can be hired for an extra charge.

The main pool area at Creta Maris has been revamped

(Creta Maris)

More interesting is how Creta Maris is trying to mark itself out as different to other all-inclusive resorts. There’s its sustainable farming initiative for one, beginning with an organic kitchen garden and spanning responsible soil management and ensuring suppliers have the same ethos. The concept is brought to life in the seasonal dishes served at Pithos restaurant, which has a focus on Cretan cuisine using whatever can be sourced from the ‘farm’.

Elsewhere, the six other restaurants are hit and miss. I’d heard good things about Alatsi, new this year and which sells itself as specialising in Aegean seafood; it is one of the a la carte options included in a stay. Sadly, it didn’t deliver. Service verged on wilfully forgetful, while dishes were insipid – all the more of a shame given the waterside location. If all-inclusive resorts want to elevate their offerings to fine[r] dining, it has to be better than something you can serve yourself at a buffet (which might be a tad unfair on the buffet selections here, as Creta Maris served a fine range of Greek and international options at its help-yourself eateries). Better is another new spot for 2023, Mademi, which swaps sea for land with a range of grilled meats, such as ribeye steak with a zing of chimichurri, and where service was pin-sharp.

There’s a pretty harbour a short walk from Creta Maris, and trips can be organised to other parts of the island and beyond, but really it’s a resort in which to linger. I ventured to the town, which was diplomatically described as “lively”, but the bars selling “XL beers” or the mysterious “Purple F**cker” cocktails were off-putting (though I suppose it was comforting to know I had a choice of tattoo parlours, had a I wanted to get inked abroad). No, I was far happier inside the lovely boundaries of Creta Maris, knocking back another Aperol Spritz at a new beach bar dedicated to the Italian aperitif.

One of the dishes at Pithos restaurant

(Creta Maris)

As it turns out, I’m not the only one being won over by the ease of an all-inclusive break. Julia Lo Bue-Said, chief executive of Advantage Travel Partnership, the UK’s largest network of independent travel agents, told me that half of all 2024 bookings across their group are on an all-inclusive basis, as are 31 per cent of bookings for this winter.

“What’s not to love about an all-inclusive holiday? It was a concept developed back in the early 1950s and one that has become an increasingly popular way to holiday in recent years, especially as UK households have become more and more impacted by rising inflation and cost-of-living rises, and therefore need to effectively budget for their holidays.

“For many, an all-inclusive holiday means a stress-free, great value-for-money holiday. Parents don’t have to worry how many ice creams their children are having, adults can enjoy the bar and there are no hidden surprises when you come to check out of your hotel.”

Sunset and a negroni – not a bad way to end a day in Crete

(Ben Parker)

Bookings for all-inclusive holidays have grown three times as fast as any other board type, says Zoe Harris, chief customer officer for On the Beach, and are “the best way to get more bang for your buck”.

This is partly down to a rise in the quality of all-inclusive hotels in recent years, according to Ms Harris, but is also as a result of the economic picture: “The cost-of-living crisis has been impacting holidays for many of our customers in the past year, and an all-inclusive holiday offers the best value for money.”

“People now just want to take the stress out of their holidays; 86 per cent of people admit to worrying and having anxiety about holidays. But with all-inclusive packages, a lot of the stress and anxiety is taken away, so you can sit back and enjoy a cocktail by the pool – because, after all, that’s what holidays are about,” she added.

I can now say I wholeheartedly agree.

There are holidays for the museums, the hikes through jungles, the scaling of mountains. As I watched the repetitive curling of Cretan waves, I decided there was something glorious about a similarly metronomic escape from real life, just as worthwhile as something more obviously experiential. And even if there wasn’t, I was too relaxed to care.

Travel essentials

Getting there

There are many direct flights to Crete’s main city, Heraklion, from UK airports, including Heathrow, Gatwick, Standsted, Luton, Bristol, Birmingham, Manchester, Edinburgh and Glasgow. Airlines offering flights include British Airways, easyJet, Tui and Jet2. Ryanair flies direct to Chania.

Staying there

Creta Maris works for families, couples and friends, with authentic local touches (decor to cuisine), an easy all-inclusive offering and a beachside location – and it’s only 20 minutes from the airport.

Read our reviews of the best hotels in Greece