The big trip

Cayo Exclusive Resort & Spa review: embrace Crete’s cool corner

Go off the beaten track with a stay at this minimalist and slick hotel

Cayo Exclusive Resort & Spa is built into a steep hillside towards the east of Crete which competes with the rugged south for the title of furthest off the well-trodden path. For the wilder at heart, take the mountain road, not the main highway, to feel like you are truly getting away from it all. 

It’s easy enough to navigate and whilst the road is fairly winding, it’ll allow you to slow down, unwind and embrace this cool corner of the island. When you round that final bend, you’ll be greeted with a showstopping view of an arcing bay and, across the water, Spinalonga, the island that served as a leper colony until as late as the 1950s. Elounda town is a 20-minute stroll away, full of fishing boats, colourful houses and welcoming tavernas.

Some of the villas at Cayo Exclusive Resort & Spa

Some of the villas at Cayo Exclusive Resort & Spa

The resort

Cayo has 74 suites and villas built into the hillside split across six tiers, all accessible by a funicular; each one has uninterrupted, expansive sea views which are perpetually restorative. Many have private pools and some feature a subterranean room with a viewing window - so far, so Bond. 

Designed by legendary Italian art director Gian Paolo Venier, the hotel is minimalist and slick, leaning towards the functional, with stone finishes, natural touches and a neutral colour palette throughout. Materials have been carefully selected from around the world - dark volcanic pebbles from Sumatra, light Indonesian belian wood, and gleaming marble from Brazil’s submarine quarries. 

A few minutes walk (or a buggy ride) away lies Plaka, a long, large pebbled beach; railed paths have been created to save sore toes and any inelegance on entry or exit from the calm, cooling waters. Cayo has its own beach bar/restaurant here so you can either have lunch at one of its tables or have it served straight to your sun lounger. If you’re after a quiet time, it can be a little loud down here with a few of the beach bars playing music; the pool at the main hotel is much quieter. Children are permitted but, on our visit, were quiet and well behaved.

Breakfast at Cayo Exclusive Resort & Spa

Enjoy breakfast with a view at Cayo

Eating and drinking

Breakfast is a real strong sell here; currently, due to Covid, you are escorted through the buffet with a member of the team serving you. Ambrosia is the core restaurant at Cayo and heavily Cretan in influence – think decadent and luscious walnut-strewn yogurt with chunks of honeycomb or bougatsa – a crispy filo pie encasing a dense custard. Alongside these, more traditional fare like mini pastries, charcuterie and savouries along with a hot selection round out the offering. Taken on the terrace, overlooking the Aegean, with a warm breeze rolling though, it’s about as perfect a way to start the day as you can imagine. Offerings throughout the day are a little safe and lacklustre – the island has such wondrous produce it’s a shame not to see more of it on the menu. 

Kelari restaurant at Cayo Exclusive Resort & Spa

The food at Kelari is elegant, playful and subtle

The dinner menu at Kelari is a much safer bet, curated by Lefteris Lazarou, the first Greek chef to have gained a Michelin star. Showcasing some of the island’s best ingredients, the food is elegant, playful and subtle – on this visit, mullet tartare was followed by lamb pappardelle with a silky bechamel, rounded off with a lemon cream and shortbread dessert accompanied by some of the fantastic wines Crete has to offer. Due to its geography and soil, some unique grape varietals grow here.

If you want to eat more traditional Cretan food, take a taxi down to Elounda itself. Οικογενειακό εστιατόριο « Περιγιάλι (Perigiali) is a lovely place right on the road that follows the coast. Breezy and cool, it’s full of locals and extremely generous; traditional spit-roasted meats come with mountains of world-famous Greek chips. As with many Cretan restaurants, they’ll do half-portions if you want to try a few things or you’re a solo traveller. You’ll struggle to spend more than 20 euros per person (food and drink).

Armonio Spa at Cayo Exclusive Resort & Spa

Armonio Spa has its own relaxation pool

Relax at the spa

Cayo’s Armonio Spa is a spiritual gem unto itself – a hidden, calm oasis beneath the hotel; it has its own relaxation pool, lit by candles and feeling like something from a fantasy novel. It’s just the right level of dark to feel like a secret natural spring. The treatments are wonderful and considered – the therapists are all trained in physiotherapy – so you’ll leave feeling like your body has been given a full service. The spa uses ancient Greek techniques paired with modern skills to deliver outstanding R&R – try the Cretan massage using a local olive oil base, raki and orange extracts.

The beach at Cayo Exclusive Resort & Spa

Cayo’s spot on the beach

What to do?

There are plenty of watersports available off Plaka beach. It’s incredibly calm so lends itself well to newbie wakeboarders and water skiers. For a little culture, It’s worth the swift boat ride across to Spinalonga Island. Made famous outside of Greece by Victoria Hislop in her novel The Island, it was once one of the strongest fortresses in the Mediterranean used by the Venetians and then the Turks; it was most recently used as a leper colony right up until the middle of the 20th century when a cure for leprosy was discovered and the final inhabitants left. Depending on the time of year you go, there’s plenty of hilly hiking and cycling; as with lots of Crete, there are some nearby caves purported to be the birthplace of Zeus.

Rooms start from £250 in low season; and from £350 in high. The hotel is child-friendly but wouldn’t be suitable for disabled/less able individuals; cayoresort.com

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