By Benjamin Newton Wylie-Black*
Having found Crete when coming for the first time to an All Inclusive in Hersonissos some 14 years ago we instantly fell in love with the island. From the moment we stepped off the plane at Heraklion airport there was a smell in the air, something sweet and familiar, something that resonated with a past that we couldn’t have known, this being our first time in Greece.
From the airport we were packed into a bus and started the journey to our hotel, a large impersonal compound nestled in the hill above Hersonissos. We arrived at night, after the bar and shop had closed and found ourselves melting and dehydrated. We ventured out in search of water just so we could survive our first night.
The morning sun brought with it the harsh landscape of our home for the next 14 nights. Breakfast was packed and the queue was through the mess hall doors and we fought people cutting the queue, only to find a table in a corner where the heat alone would have cooked the eggs.
This lasted two days and then, one day whilst exploring the grounds of the hotel, we found a hole in the fence and decided to make a run for it. Being at the top of the hill, we decided to see where the dust road led and we followed its winding route until we arrived in the village of Koutouloufari. Our hearts melted.
Hooked on raki
Having walked in the morning sun, we stopped at the first bar we could see and ordered a drink, served by two young Greek girls, Ana and Stamatea, which she told us meant ‘Stop’ in English, and here we had our first experience of Cretan hospitality.
Once rehydrated, we went on a walk around the village, stopping in many of the shops and being handed glasses of raki in almost every shop we went, even without having to buy anything.
One of the shopkeepers explained that the raki is good for stopping you from sweating — although we were starting to suspect that this was because the body went into shock once you swallowed this clear liquid. We were hooked.
We would escape the hotel every chance we got and would venture into the villages and then down into the main town, as often as we could.
Following this holiday it was another three years before we returned to Crete, but this time we managed to find a family-run hotel on the outskirts of Hersonissos. This was more our style; small, relaxed and friendly in a way that only the Cretans know how to do. We would return each year to the same hotel until it was forced to close when the height of the crisis hit.
However, we managed to find another family-run hotel, smaller and closer to the villages where we would return each year.
Over the years we became real friends with the hotel owners, a friendship that was reinforced when we got a phone call on a cold Scottish morning in January 2015 to ask if we had considered moving to Crete and would we consider running their hotel for them.
We knew nothing of running a hotel; in fact we knew nothing of the hospitality world. My husband and I were both qualified British Sign Language/English Interpreters and earned a very good salary working our trades in and around Scotland, but it was not a difficult question to answer.
After a look out the window into the grey, wet morning, and a quick look at each other, we said yes. It was that simple. We had spoken about moving to Crete once our mortgage was paid off, which would have been another 10 years time, but with the premature death of my father (aged 59) and the changes in work environments at my husband’s place of work, life was too short not to do it now.
What is the worst that could happen? We would move for a year and then have to move back to the UK at the end, but at least we would be able to say we had lived in Greece for a year.
As it happened, the original plan had to change but our friends had found another venture that might be of interest to us. There was a hotel business up for sale in a quiet area, just outside the port town of Hersonissos, so we arranged to go and see it to give us other options. We didn’t want to move to Crete and do nothing for a year, so this seemed like a good option.
Crete becomes home
Arriving at the hotel, the first thing we noticed was the name ‘Home’. Having called Crete our home away from home since first arriving all those years before, this seemed like a sign. The owner, a tall gay Athenian with a zen and chilled air about him met us and we looked around the hotel before having a coffee and chatting briefly about some figures and details.
Then it was back to the hotel and, pen and paper in hand, I started to crunch the numbers.
By the time we returned to the UK, we had sold our house, rented an apartment for 6 months and set about sorting our lives out for the move to Crete and to the new prospect of opening a hotel in an area we didn’t know too well and speaking little more than ‘yes’, ‘no’, ‘please’ and ‘thank you.’
And I don’t think we did that very well either. But fueled by this new, exciting adventure we started Greek lessons at the Greek Orthodox Church in Glasgow.
Moving lock stock and barrel to the furthest point in Europe is no easy task, especially when you have so much to bring with you. Somehow we managed to fly to Crete, via Athens for the first time, a frightening experience when traveling with six suitcases and two hand luggage bags in tow, arriving on the leap day, 29th February 2016, to be met and taken to OUR hotel.
Of course there are a great deal of things one must consider when buying a hotel before the season is due to start — not least of all, what is required to get it ready to open for your first season.
This is a task to be balanced with checking your bookings for the new business every 30 seconds in case there is a new one that has arrived and you need to stop sales, if you are lucky enough, or print it off and then turn to social media to search for the name of the guest so you know who to expect when they walk through the door.
Going from strength to strength
Over these past years of running the hotel we have been fortunate enough to go from strength to strength. We have had guests return to us each year and become friends, we have made friends in our local communities and we have been accepted, for the most part, as being a gay male married couple who have moved in and set up shop… or hotel.
Our first two years we mixed solely with Greeks. Although we struggled understanding the Greek conversations, we could follow parts of them, and grew to understand more and more as we progressed. We had moved to a new country and we wanted to integrate as much as possible in our new host country.
Often people visiting the hotel, or people we would meet would say ‘moving to Crete is such a big decision and such a scary one’ but we would always disagree. For us it was one of the most natural decisions we have ever made.
We moved here and invested all our money, then we have worked for every cent and we have employed locals and paid our way in our new home.
And when the going gets tough, we open our doors and step out into Crete. We feel the heat of the Cretan sun on our skin and the warmth of the Cretan people, and their spirit lifts ours.
There are certain points on the island that remind us why we are here and often they are in the most unsuspecting places, I’m not talking about the wonder of the Minoan sites or the buzz of the tourist traps.
Rather, the corner on the road from our hotel to Hersonissos where you follow the main road and suddenly there in front of you is the sea, the land and the sky in one vista — and that vista has been different every single time we drive that road.
We may have come from a land blessed with rolling green hills but this is our Home!
*Benjamin Wylie-Black is the owner of the Home Hotel, located 3 km (1.8 miles) from the heart of Hersonissos, known for its dynamic nightlife, its many scenic charms and wonderful beaches.