Crete, Greece — Although neophytes to parenthood, my husband and I had no misgivings about traveling with our infant son to London, a city where we had once lived and where we felt sufficiently fortified with names of nannies and good friends to see us through any unforeseen calamity. It was the second lap of our journey, planned months earlier with English friends of ours, that gave us a little more cause to ponder, especially the closer we came to our departure date and the reality of packing for a four-month-old-baby. The plan was to spend a couple of weeks on the western coast of Crete with our friends and their two children, a girl of four and a boy of two.
Until then, my strongest association with this faraway Greek isle was Homer's reference to it in "The Odyssey": "There is a land called Crete, in the midst of the dark sea, a fair, rich land, begirt with water. . . ." A small and varied assortment of friends who had visited Crete also expounded the beauty and richness of the island and this unsolicited praise, plus thoughts of a warm Greek sun and exotic excursions into the mountains, was sufficient enticement for a mother-to-be in the dead of an East Coast winter.
As we approached the date of departure, such repeated adjectives as "unspoilt" and "almost primitive" used romantically by our friends to describe the island's special charm loomed heavy while I calculated quantities of diapers , formula, and infant sun repellents to take.
In the end, we took enough formula for our stay in Crete and our nearly two weeks in London. There are equivalents available overseas, but the safest route was clearly to take along what the baby was used to. We managed to stuff all the cans of formula into a single heavy-duty and deceivingly compact duffle bag, which proved to be just the thing on the return trip for transporting the 9-by-4 flokati (goat's hair) rug we picked up for a song in the local market.
As for every other baby provision we could conceivably need, from disposable diapers and small bottles of strained baby food labeled with familiar American brand names to collapsible strollers just like the Italian-made one I bought at home (which, to the chagrin of my English friends, is not available in London) -- they abounded in the large central market and small shops and pharmacies of Khania, the western harbor town where we were staying.
"Unspoilt" and "charmingly unsophisticated" as it may be -- and it is -- the island is amazingly well equipped and up- to-date to meet the needs of the child. This is not by accident.
In Crete every child, whatever the age and whether a stranger or not, is accorded the kind of adulation you might expect the ancient Greeks reserved for their favorite god or goddess. As the saying goes, "all Greeks are hospitable, but the Cretans are more so." The same holds true when it comes to their delight in children.
From the moment we disembarked at the international airport in Iraklion, a large coastal city in the middle of the island famous for the palace of Knossos, where the myth of the minotaur and the labyrinth originated, our collective children were lovingly patted, tweaked, and cooed at by what seemed like every Cretan airport attendant, immigration officer, taxi driver, waiter, shopkeeper, and passerby we came in contact with. Clearly, this was a corner of the world where vacationing couples with young children would not only be tolerated but welcomed with open arms.
It was a two-hour taxi ride along the modern National Highway from Iraklion to Khania with spectacular views along the way of the rugged mountain terrain on the one hand and rhe dazzling blue-green sea on the other. We were staying in a villa some 10 minutes from the center of Khania, which we had rented with our friends through one of several holiday home rental companies that operate on the island.
There were hotels that would have served our purposes, but the villa route seemed the ideal solution -- and it was. From our front terrace we looked out past brilliant red clay hills dotted with rows of olive trees onto a wide stretch of sandy beach and the beautifully hued sea beyond. We were surrounded on two sides by an olive grove where, to the delight of the children, grazed an old swaybacked horse that snorted repeatedly as if exhausted even by his idleness.
Our closest neighbors were a large family of Greeks ranging from grandmother, who was dressed from head to toe in black, to a seemingly ever-expanding number of grandchildren. In the evening when the Greek family gathered under the grape arbor that stretched across their terrace, our children and theirs would wave back and forth and giggle at the assorted pigs, chickens, and dogs that lived on the ground floor of the neighbors' house, a common practice in Crete.
With the villa came a car, a very attentive representative from the company who made sure we were managing all right and daily maid service. Polyxeni, our maid, was a delightful motherly woman whose daily visits not only eliminated any of the drudgery of maintaining a home-away-from- home but also proved to be one of the highlights of the day for the children. Polyxeni's gifts for the children became more and more elaborate as the days passed by, and the children loved it -- and, obviously, so did Polyxeni.
Polyxeni gladly would have babysat for the children at night but we chose to take them with use when we dined out, usually in one of the open-air tavernasm along the quay of Khania's charming old harbor, a miniature Venice with enough architectural hints here and there to remind us that the Turks, like the Venetians, had once had a turn at ruling Crete.
Other nights we would travel a few kilometers eastward out of town to a delightful small terraced restaurant called Nikterida with a spectacular view of Souda Bay. Wherever we dined, in town or outside, we were warmly greeted by the proprietor; the three children, strollers and all, were happily provided for; and, as is the custom, we were ushered into the kitchen to inspect the culinary offerings of the day, the better to make our selections.
We did not seek out dining spots which were specially suited to children. They didn't exist, for Cretans are proud of their families and take them with them everywhere. In fact, the evening volta,m or family promenade, around the harbor or main square is an important social institution in Crete.
As the dinner hour starts around 10 p.m., our children became used to taking rather long afternoon naps, like the rest of Crete. It was not until the late afternoon, after the peak sun had passed, that we started off on our excursions inland into the mountains or farther down the coast. There are many interesting and relatively easy side trips to take like the Gorge of Samaria, a dramatic site said to be the longest gorge in Europe and reached by some 2,500 feet of zigzag, wooden steps; or, the Monastery of Agia Triada with its elaborately handsome icons, paintings, and stained glass treasures.
Our days began early (as anyone with a four-month-old knows). After toast and some of the deliciously strong local honey, we would either go down the road to "our" beach or pack up the whole group in the car and head down the coast until we found a stretch of beach that struck our fancy. One such spot looked out onto a small, craggy island, a healthy swim out from the shoreline, which formed one of the most beautiful views we were to discover anywhere on the trip.
A few trees, perfectly located in the middle of the beach, provided the extra shade we wanted for the baby and just a few yards behind us was a delightful, open-air thatch-roofed taverna.m This spot quickly became our favorite even though a combination of beautiful beach, shade trees, and a taverna is not difficult to find up and down the coast.
We enjoyed many long, relaxed luches there consisting a meat kebabs prepared on a primitive outdoor grill and a sumptuous Greek salad with lots of feta cheese on top.
Or we might spend a day at Stavros, the beach made famous by the film version of "Zorba the Greek" and, unquestionably, a set designer's dream come true with its wide beach, gentle intlet, and rugged mountainous backdrop.
As we boarded the plane that was to take us -- too soon -- back to London, we all agreed that this had been one of the best vacations we'd ever had. The same thought occured to my husband and me -- we hadn't just been able to take a vacation with the kids, the kids had helped to make the vacation.Maybe next year we should bring along another of our own.