Crete: A beekeeper’s story

 Crete: A beekeeper’s story

by Betsy Herbert, Earth Matters

It’s May 4 — the height of spring in Crete, the largest Greek island. Crete is laid out like a ribbon across the southern Mediterranean Sea. Because of good rains last winter, wildflowers are in full bloom across lush green plateaus that stretch beneath the snow-capped peaks of Crete’s three picturesque mountain ranges.

Much of Crete’s landscape is underlain with karst limestone. Some 1,700 species of wildflowers — one tenth of which are found nowhere else on earth — thrive here on these limestone soils

Over the eons, water has carved out Crete’s limestone mountains to form spectacular deep gorges and caves. That morning, my friend Georgia and I set out to explore one of these gorges. We drove her Citroen rental car from the coastal city of Rethymno up into the Psiloritis mountains to find St. Anthony’s Gorge.

Along the twisting mountain road, as we gawked at the spectacular wildflower bloom, we spotted clusters of beehive boxes in the traffic turnouts. The bees must be having a field day.

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Earth Matters: Sustainability truly a global effort

by Betsy Herbert

published in the Santa Cruz Sentinel 07/17/2015

Vassili Gialamarakis gives a food demonstration in the Mistral Hotel kitchen. (Betsy Herbert)

Vassili Gialamarakis gives a food demonstration in the Mistral Hotel kitchen. (Betsy Herbert)

I’m not a foodie, but I enjoy good food and care about nutrition and environmental sustainability of food production. At home I eat plant-based, organic, and locally grown food as much as I can.

When I started my trip around the world, I expected that sticking to such a diet would be challenging. But the nonprofit Slow Food International makes it clear that eating healthy food is an international movement, ongoing in 160 countries. Slow Food International “envisions a world in which all people can access and enjoy food that is good for them, good for those who grow it and good for the planet” (

I decided early on to make healthy food choices part of my travel agenda. Crete, Greece’s largest island, has been on my bucket list ever since my first art history class introduced me to ancient Minoan art and architecture at the famous site of Knossos.

But where to stay in Crete? The website for the Greek-owned Mistral Hotel near Chania, Crete captured my attention: “Our traditional organic food is simply unbeatable and if you have any doubts, we invite you to visit our vegetable garden. ... We stick to traditional dishes as much as possible and use as many fresh vegetables and raw foods as we can.” (

I booked a two-week stay at the Mistral Hotel in June. During my stay I enjoyed traditional Cretan meals almost every night at the hotel, including tzatziki, mousaka (they made me a vegetarian version), and a local specialty called boureki. They use eggs, tomatoes, eggplant, greens, dill, mint and lettuce from their hotel garden. Anything else on the menu, such as goat cheese, lamb, thyme honey and bread is sourced from local farmers, and they use only fresh local seafood.

The Mistral Hotel is owned by the Gialamarakis family and run by brothers Adonis and Vassili. The family also owns and operates an olive orchard, which produces extra virgin olive oil for the hotel and for market.

Vassili, who has an M.S. in horticulture, points out that olive oil is a traditionally important in the Cretan diet, which has been shown to be particularly heart-healthy (

Crete alone has some 48 million olive trees. Greece is the world’s third largest olive producer. Approximately 82 percent of the 350,000 tons of olive oil produced in Greece annually is “extra-virgin” olive oil, meaning that it is produced by traditional stone milling of organic olives.

Vassili explains, “Choosing an olive oil is like choosing a wine. You need to know where it comes from, something about the microclimate, the rain, and soil. Crete has all the right conditions.”

The Mistral Hotel is one of a growing list of Cretan restaurants that has earned the “Quality Label of Cretan Cuisine,” awarded by the non-profit named Cretan Quality Agreement, which works in tandem with the regional government of Crete to promote the Cretan diet. (

Vasilli took a group of Mistral guests to Dounia, a rustic restaurant in the mountain village of Drakona. The owners, the Trilyraki family, produce all the vegetables in their own garden. Before eating, we visited the kitchen and watched food being prepared on a large outdoor wood stove.

All of the vegetables at the Dounia restaurant are grown in their garden. (Betsy Herbert)

All of the vegetables at the Dounia restaurant are grown in their garden. (Betsy Herbert)

We also enjoyed another charming exquisite plant-based meal at a restaurant named Sto Skolio in a small village above the town of Paleochora.

Making sustainable food choices a primary part of my travel agenda for Crete unquestionably enhanced my entire travel experience.

Betsy Herbert is a freelance writer who serves on the boards of Sempervirens Fund and the Santa Cruz Mountains Bioregional Council. She can be contacted through her website,