Find your new favourite destination with these 10 holiday swaps

In February last year I spent the wettest, coldest weekend of my life on the waters of Chichester Harbour, gaining my stripes as a powerboat licence holder (level 2!). The fixed grin I maintained in the face of 48 hours of driving rain and sleet was motivated by one thing, and one thing only.

Come the summer months (Covid permitting) I’d have the chance to be the proud skipper of a rented RIB, cruising the infinitely warmer waters of the Med. I think my fellow students in Bosham, most of whom were an altogether hardier breed of seafarer, took a rather dim view of this shallow motivation. Let’s just say, they passed the knot-tying test with ease; I caught my thumb in the bowline and scraped through.

And so, thank God (let’s call him Zeus), the day came when we were gliding atop the dead calm, petrol-blue surface of the waters around Crete, in search of nothing in particular beyond the occasional spot to drop anchor and slip into the unfeasibly warm and silky water. 

It was a rich hunting ground for my son, “fisherman” George, who reeled in a succession of surprised-looking puffer fish, promptly conceding to their apparent demand to be put back where they belonged. With his big sister adorning the prow like some hedonistic figurehead, lost to whatever was blasting through her AirPods, my wife and I were able to trust that this rash experiment might just have worked. Let me explain.

“If it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” was very much the mantra in this house when it came to holiday planning. In 2005, wide-eyed and fraught with the demands of a new baby, we found a family holiday that worked, that we loved, and that we have since looked forward to for 11 months and two weeks of every year. So much so that I wrote about it in this newspaper and, based on the response, it turns out we weren’t as dull as I feared we were. 





Timothy Watson and family in Crete


Credit: Timothy Watson

Apparently, lots of people fall into a pattern – and stick to it. For us, it was Mousses Crèche and Kids’ Club on the island of Lefkada, an island tied to the west coast of the Greek mainland by a floating bridge and just down a bit from Corfu. Possibly you have never heard of it; equally, you may have been ordering mojitos from Pantazis and windsurfing off the southern tip for years. In either case, it’s irrelevant. The time must come to cut the apron strings, take a deep breath and head off somewhere else entirely. 

Almost 200 miles south of Athens lies Crete; over 3,000 square miles in size, with a 650-mile coastline and, by some margin, the largest of all the Greek islands. Yes, yes, I know – I said somewhere else entirely, but forgive me. Though every self-respecting Cretan will tell you all Greek islands are unique, in the same breath they will point out that Crete is more unique than all the other 6,000 put together. And if that sounds like a feeble attempt to justify a less-than-adventurous spirit, you will have to take it up with the locals.

There were raised eyebrows from the youngest (and most sceptical) member of the family when, emerging from our plane and having gulped barely a few lungfuls of hot Mediterranean air, we were corralled into a densely packed corner of Chania Airport for Covid testing. Good idea, slightly nervous and chaotic execution. But half an hour later, we fairly skipped out to our hire car and set off for the first stop on our Cretan odyssey – the Kissamos Estate, a cluster of eight villas in the far west, perched on a hillside overlooking the headland that points to Balos Bay and Gramvousa island. Met by Vasilis and the kind of enthusiastic welcome that no British hotelier would ever give, we took in our new surroundings and shared that knowing look that says, “We’re on holiday!” and usually results in an ill-advised bomb into the pool.

The next 16 days were, well, glorious. And humbling, in as much as we did no more than faintly scratch the surface of a destination that has an embarrassment of riches to offer. Week one, we took in the extraordinary sunsets at Falasarna   Beach, made a boat trip to Balos Bay and indulged in plenty of relaxing family time by the pool. Week two, we moved a little further east, much closer to Chania, for seven nights at Villa Vereniki in the hills above Almyrida. And we concluded our stay with three nights in Loutro, which I’ll come to in a minute. 





Street cafe on the Promenade of Loutro


Credit: Robert Harding

The point is this; regardless of your remit, Crete will deliver. From high-end hotels to hippy hideaways, roadside Raki sellers to designer shopping, and spectacular gorge hiking to barefoot beachcombing, there’s a bespoke itinerary to suit all tastes. And then there’s the food – unique, unpretentious and utterly delicious. Whether at a traditional kafenion in the foothills of the White Mountains, in a fine-dining restaurant by the Venetian harbour in Chania, or in the bohemian heart of Rethymno, the level of heartwarming hospitality is palpable. 

And I don’t just mean the ever-present shots of Raki, the local firewater that pops up whenever you least expect it. Good old-fashioned friendliness and warmth. They call it philoxenia (very broadly translated as the welcome of strangers) and there’s no lip-service; just an honest, tangible generosity of spirit that’s completely bewitching. 

But one spot deserves special mention. Most remote hideaways are one road in, same road out. Loutro doesn’t even have that. One boat in, same boat out that you can take later that day, the next day, the next week or even next month, according to your need to unwind. Start at one end of the perfect crescent of whitewashed buildings and after a gentle five-minute stroll you have reached the other. That’s it. Nothing to do and nowhere to go (unless you’ve got your walking boots and are in the mood for adventure, which I didn’t and wasn’t on this occasion). 

And at the heart of the village, in every sense, is hotel Porto Loutro, and its owner Alison Androulakakis. Her journey to acceptance, some decades ago, by this remote and somewhat partisan community is a story of heroic proportions. Depending on your sensibilities you might consider her strident, occasionally abrasive, a little scary even. She is certainly formidable, but I was fascinated and completely charmed by her. As the legions of returning clients will testify, she will look after you wonderfully, with true warmth and heart. 





There really is very little to do on Loutro beyond securing your spot on the shallow beach, catching up on a backlog of bedside novels, gazing at the horizon


Credit: Simpson Villas

Loutro held us all spellbound. There really is very little to do beyond securing your spot on the shallow beach, catching up on a backlog of bedside novels, gazing at the horizon (and the African coast you can almost convince yourself you can see), and periodically immersing yourself in the purest water on the planet. We were there for three days but I could have happily made it 30. And the youths gave in to it gladly (remember – with the exception of the A3 corridor in Surrey, there is 4G everywhere these days).

So thank you, Crete. We are now a liberated family. No longer beholden to the same spot every year and ham-strung by our fear of the unknown. We can dream of the summer to come – when hopefully restrictions will have eased once more – like some glorious, blank travelling canvas. Our only question is: where next?

The details: Timothy Watson travelled with Simpson Travel (simpsontravel.com), staying at the Kissamos Estate, Villa Vereniki and Porto Loutro – On the Beach. Boat hire was also through Simpson Travel.


10 great holiday swaps 

Swap the Dordogne for Gascony

Francophiles won’t need to be told of France’s alternatives to popular hotspots such as Provence and the Dordogne, but if you’re relatively new to the country, look to Gascony, close to the Pyrenees, as a more pleasantly low-key destination with the same exceptional food, wine, pastoral countryside and pretty towns and villages. Toulouse is the closest airport – British Airways, Ryanair and easyJet fly direct, depending on the time of year – and specialists such as Simply Gascony (simply-gascony.co.uk) and Gascony Secret (gascony-secret.com) offer rental properties across the region.





Gascony is a pleasantly low-key destination with the same exceptional food, wine, pastoral countryside and pretty towns and villages as France’s main hotspots


Credit: iStock

Swap the Costa Brava for the Costa Daurada 

The Costa Daurada (costadaurada.info) curves south from Barcelona – the Costa Brava stretches to the north – and while similarly developed, is less visited by British holidaymakers. The most tempting smaller centres are Altafulla, Roda de Berà, Calafell and Creixell, and Salou (visitsalou.eu) or Cambrils (cambrils-turisme.com), the key resorts. If your children clamour for waterparks, stay close to Aquopolis (costa-dorada.aquopolis.es) and PortAventura (portaventuraworld.com). Packages are available from major operators such as First Choice (firstchoice.co.uk). Specialists such as Barcelona Inside & Out (barcelonainsideandout.com) can organise trips that the grown-ups will love, including visits to the region’s wine country.

Swap Tuscany for Abruzzo 

The Abruzzo is in central Italy, east of Rome. It has some lovely towns and villages (Farindola, Scanno, Loreto Aprutino, Sulmona, Castel del Monte) and fine stretches of coast near San Vito Chietino, Borsacchio and Ortona, but its chief attraction is the magnificent mountainous scenery of the national parks – Abruzzo (parcoabruzzo.it), Majella (parcomajella.it) and Gran Sasso (gransassolaga park.it) – still the haunt of bears and wolves and home to some of Europe’s finest wilderness. Fly to Pescara with Ryanair and rent a villa – Vrbo (vrbo.com) has around 150 properties across the region – or stay in the mountains at the characterful Sextantio hotel (sextantio.it; double rooms from £148).





The Abruzzo has some beautiful scenery


Credit: Francesco Riccardo Iacomino

Swap New York for Washington DC

The United States is ranked fourth after Spain, France and Italy as the country most visited by British holidaymakers, with New York its most popular destination. Try Washington DC (washington.org) for a change, however, and you will find a gracious, well-planned and low-rise city with plenty to see and do. The green spaces of the National Mall (nps.gov), home to the Lincoln Memorial, the Vietnam Veterans’ Memorial and more, are worth at least a day, but the exceptional national museums (si.edu/museums) – many of them free – are the main draw. Virgin Holidays (virginholidays.co.uk) offers a variety of packages from around £990pp per week, room only, including flights.

Swap the Balearics for Corsica

Of course it’s bigger than Menorca or Mallorca, but all Corsica lacks by way of comparison is small-island charm. In every other respect it’s a revelation and, outside August, inexplicably under-visited. You can do beach holidays Club Med-resort style, or more intimately by booking a hotel such as the Roches Rouges (lesrochesrouges.com; double rooms from £127) near pristine coves and deserted beaches. Or you can explore historic towns or wind into the mountains that make up the island’s spectacular heart. Walking is superb, especially on the marked Mare a Mare trails. Contact Corsican Places (corsica.co.uk) for walking, villa and beach holidays.





Book somewhere like the Roches Rouge for an intimate stay on Corsica


Credit: Benoit Linero

Swap the Canary Islands for Agadir 

It’s a 3hr 40min flight to Agadir, on Morocco’s south-west coast, and four hours-plus to the Canary Islands, and yet it remains infinitely less popular with Britons. If you’re looking for somewhere to escape the cold next winter, Agadir offers average temperatures of 23C from December to February. Modern and elegant, this Moroccan resort offers a huge beach, a palm-shaded promenade of cafés, bars and restaurants, and plenty of local colour in the shape of souks and bazaars. Stay in town or in Taghazout, a quieter village 12 miles to the north. Tui (tui.co.uk) offers several Agadir packages from £348 per person weekly. 

Swap Amsterdam for Haarlem 

Amsterdam – again? Several Dutch cities offer a similar medley of canals, culture, great nightlife and picturesque streets, not least Haarlem (visithaarlem.com), which is just over 10 miles from Amsterdam – if you simply can’t resist a side trip. For art, visit the Frans Hals Museum (franshalsmuseum.nl), for superb small-store shopping wander the Gouden Straatjes (Golden Streets), and for aimless exploration seek out the flower-filled courtyards, or hofjes. Then take a boat trip (smidtjecanalcruises.nl) or rent a bike and ride out to the beaches or through the celebrated tulip fields south of the city. Eurostar (eurostar.com) operates direct to Amsterdam (4hr 7min) then regular trains take just 18 minutes to Haarlem. Shuttle buses also operate direct from Schiphol Airport to Haarlem in 20 minutes.





Several Dutch cities offer a similar medley of canals, culture, great nightlife and picturesque streets, not least Haarlem


Credit: robertharding / Alamy

Swap the Algarve for the Silver Coast

The Silver Coast – Costa de Prata in Portuguese – runs for around 100 miles roughly midway between Porto and Lisbon. Although not undiscovered, it has yet to be inundated by mass tourism. Nazaré is its best-known beach, but like other historic towns in the region – Obidos, Peniche, Coimbra, Aveiro, Batalha – it retains plenty of character, along with fine food, art and architecture and pretty countryside. Lastminute (lastminute.com) offers some 50 options for a week in or around Nazare, including seven nights at Quinta Amarela from £217 per person, including flights to Lisbon with easyJet.

Swap Dubai for Oman

Oman (omantourism.gov.com) ticks most of Dubai’s boxes, save for the excessive number of visitors and hotels. Come here for a mid-haul flight (7hr 10min) followed by warmth, beaches and desert adventures, along with cultural distractions and smart malls. Oman Air (omanair.com) flies direct from Heathrow to Muscat, with short road transfers to the country’s top beachfront hotels. Double rooms in many four-star hotels cost less than £80 a night, while rates in the five-star Grand Hyatt (hyatt.com) start at £124. For packages, contact specialists such as Steppes Travel (steppestravel.com) and Oman Travel (omantravel.co.uk). 





Oman ticks most of Dubai’s boxes, save for the excessive number of visitors and hotels


Credit: Basma Monier / EyeEm

Swap Orlando for Tampa

Move west from Orlando to Florida’s Gulf Coast and you will lose the theme parks and some of the crowds, but keep the fine weather and family holiday options. Tampa itself is busy, but there are quieter bases to the north and south. For old-time charm, head to Dunedin (visitdunedinfl.com), convenient for the superb beaches at Honeymoon Island State Park (floridastateparks.org). For the most child-friendly beaches, stay close to Fort de Soto Park (pinellascounty.org). British Airways (britishairways.com) flies direct to Tampa (9hr 55min) and offers packages in the region.

Tim Jepson