When the best food around is right where you’re staying
CHANIA, Crete — One of my favorite parts of traveling has always been the pre-trip research. Immersing myself in a destination, its art and restaurant scene, its independent design shops and coolest neighborhoods — everything — before I get there. I’m unashamedly a planner, and always have been, which is why on a recent trip to Crete with my girlfriend, Lauren, I was shocked to find myself politely declining plans, activities, and restaurant suggestions. As it turns out, when the place you’re staying is already the area’s best restaurant and coolest design destination, vacation can be much more relaxing.
Ammos Hotel is located on a pretty stretch of sandy beach about 10 minutes outside of Chania, one of Crete’s most atmospheric cities. It is the project of friendly, engaging owner Nikos Tsepetis, whose family has owned the 33-room property for decades. The hotel’s singular interior design is governed by Nikos’s aesthetic whims, and he’s perennially updating Ammos with fun and fresh furniture, objets d’art, and wall hangings. Photos of the mismatched, colorful contemporary chairs in the bright tile-floored dining room caught our attention on a certain popular photo-sharing app a few years ago, and we’d dreamt of visiting ever since.
The hotel operates from April 1 to Oct. 31 annually, and we arrived at the end of April — still considered “low season,” but with abundant sunshine and temperatures in the 70s. The towering White Mountains, visible in the distance from the beach, were still capped with snow, but the shimmering Mediterranean was swimmable. Wildflowers bloomed in the attractive promontory park, a five-minute stroll down the beach, and the week leading up to Greek Easter lent a festive atmosphere. European families with young children, who can easily zip down for a getaway, made up a large percentage of the other guests.
Food is a central focus of Ammos, and the first (and only) item on our agenda upon arrival was lunch. The dining room, which has an indoor section and two levels of outdoor seating overlooking the sea, is the heart and soul of the hotel. A blackboard near the entrance displays daily seasonal specials. Anxiously awaiting the appearance of these was the closest thing to stress that I felt during my time there.
Our first fantastic bites at Ammos were typical of Crete — a textbook dakos salad, barley rusks topped with crushed tomato and local mizithra, a salty, semi-soft goat/sheep cheese, plus oregano, olives, and capers. There were plump dolmadakia (stuffed grape leaves) slick with olive oil and lemon juice, and fried keftedakia (meatballs) with tzatziki. The star of this meal, though, and what would become a recurring presence on our table, was taramasalata — whipped fish roe spread, flecked with fresh dill and drizzled with olive oil. Grilled bread was the perfect delivery vehicle, though on our last day we dipped fries, in a stroke of genius.
Many of the rooms at Ammos don’t have televisions (there is Wi-Fi, however), so there were no distractions in our tastefully minimalist room that first night — all we could think about was what we wanted to try from the menu all week. A deeply comfortable bed by Greek brand Cocomat facilitated a good night’s sleep, and we woke up hungry on Day 2.
The breakfast spread at Ammos is not only stunning and abundant, it’s served all morning, an amenity that other hotels would do well to copy. There is thick, beautiful Greek yogurt and many delicious things to put on top of it — seasonal jams, honey, granola — tempting pastries and cakes, spinach, and other savory Greek-style pies, tabbouleh salad, olives, and, of course, filter coffee and espresso.
After our first breakfast, we met Nikos, who is often on site, eagerly trailed by his well-behaved Boston terrier Jonny. We got to talking, and before I knew it, we were behind the reception desk looking at Google images of ancient mugs from a museum near Heraklion. Nikos is a font of information about Cretan culture and history; he’s clearly passionate about his home island. He convinced us to visit a particularly beloved beach on the Libyan Sea and nearby seafood restaurant a few days later.
But in the meantime, we spent our time discovering new delicacies. Nikos insisted we try the wild sea urchins that were in season, served drowning in deep green Cretan olive oil and lemon juice, with toasted country bread and rusks for dipping. These proved to be the most memorable bites of the trip — briny, like an oyster, but with a brightness and energy that felt purely Mediterranean. This was what I was after — the grape leaves and spinach pie were undeniably refined, meticulously prepared versions of the Greek classics, but I was, on some level, familiar with them. This was something totally new, and I was floored.
Over the next few days, we tried the entire menu. Flavors were simple, clear, distinct, fresh. And miraculously, everything we wanted to eat was — and this is rarely the case on vacation — healthy. We tried marinated raw artichoke salad, grilled dogfish with red onions and parsley, slow-roasted goat, fava (yellow split pea dip), fried calamari, and what Nikos cheekily claims to be the best horiatiki (Greek salad) in the world. He and his team hand-pick the tomatoes and cucumbers. The smooth, artisanal feta comes from a village in central Crete, the oregano is homegrown. There are hunks of olive oil-toasted dark bread. Certainly the best version I’d ever had.
Toward the end of our stay, we did go on that drive to the beautiful pink-sand Elafonisi Beach. On the way back, we took a winding, mountainous road toward the recommended seafood restaurant, taking in the rugged cliffs and deep gorges that define this part of Crete. At one point, the road was blocked by damage from a recent landslide, and it was impossible to continue. We had to turn back, our driver said, and there was no other route to the seafood restaurant.
So we went back to Ammos for lunch. And we were secretly happy.