"Boro na eho nero?" my daughter says, trying out one of her go-to Greek phrases on the man behind the small lobby bar of the Athens Gate Hotel. Can I have water? She's asking for the same thing every other tourist wants on this 96-degree July afternoon, but she gets a little language lesson on the side. "Ena boukali," he says slowly and deliberately as he hands it over. "Bottle." She accepts the water and the new vocabulary word with a grateful smile.
This is serious business to my three kids, ages 9, 11 and 13. They set out on our two-week trip to Greece -- a few days in Athens, and then on to Crete, Greece's largest island -- eager to immerse themselves in the history and culture of the country that two of their grandparents once called home.
It's the trip that almost wasn't. In the weeks before our departure, Greece's fiscal near-meltdown had us wondering whether we should cancel. A last-minute bailout allowed Greece to reopen its banks, and with assurances from our hotels and from friends in Greece, our trip was on.
We arrive in Athens in the midst of a minor heat wave, carrying enough cash to cover food, cabs and other expenses for two weeks. Over the next three days, we climb to the top of the Acropolis to marvel at the awe-inspiring Parthenon, endure a sweltering hop-on, hop-off bus ride for an overview of the city, and hike Mount Lycabettus, where we're rewarded with a stunning view of the city. We visit the first-rate Acropolis Museum, and at the National Archaeological Museum of Athens we dig deeper into the country's history.
On day four we're off to Crete, catching an early morning flight to the island's biggest city, Iraklion (also spelled Heraklion), where we pick up our rental car. At more than 160 miles from end to end, Crete is too big to explore fully on this trip, but we've compiled a bucket list we hope will offer a sample of its bounty: rugged mountains, gorgeous beaches, simple villages, historic cities and archaeological sites that offer a peek into early civilization.
We start with Knossos, an elaborate Minoan palace whose history dates to about 2000 B.C. With mythical connections to the stories of King Minos, Theseus and the Minotaur, and Daedalus and Icarus, it's a must-see for mythology-loving kids.
ALONG THE COAST OF CRETE
By lunchtime, we're zipping westward along Crete's north coast, where our hotel sits on a long stretch of beach just west of the city of Chania. The area, a favorite with package tours and sun-seekers, is a tightly packed scrum of midrange hotels, bars and souvenir shops. Though it's a bit too touristy for our tastes, it's a jumping-off point to explore western Crete.
Our first outing is a traffic-clogged trip to Chania's Venetian harbor. We park the car nearby, and as we're muddling our way to the harbor, my Greek-speaking husband Spiro spots a restaurant with what he thinks are a bunch of Greek people feeding their kids. In short order we are seated under the trees, enjoying cold glasses of Mythos beer, baked lamb and roasted vegetables and listening to live bouzouki music.
We spend the next day exploring the peninsula to the east of Chania by boat with our group of friends. It's just us and another family the next day as we road-trip to Elafonissi, whose turquoise waters and pink-tinged sand often land it on lists of the "world's best beaches."
A day later, Spiro and our two oldest kids board a bus for another mountain adventure: hiking the 10-mile-long Samaria Gorge. The next morning I get to hear the details of the all-day trek: their search for the elusive kri-kri (mountain goat), the ankle-turning boulder-strewn path, the relief of fresh spring water collected in moss-covered stone fountains, and finally, the race across a piping-hot pebble beach for a merciful dunk in the Libyan Sea.
After breakfast we set out with two of the families from our group, cutting across central Crete for Matala, a beach town tucked along the south-central coast, surrounded by strikingly pretty cliffs with caves probably first dug out in the Neolithic Age, then used as Roman tombs and later as hippie hangouts. (They're now an archaeological site.) It's nowhere near as developed as the resorts of Chania, but even so it's still more tourist haunt than fishing village.
YOU WON'T GO HUNGRY
We have a host of restaurants to choose from, a Blue Flag beach (certified clean and safe) and our favorite morning stop, Bakery Zouridakis, whose long glass cases are stacked with spanakopita, tiropita and more variations of baklava than I knew existed.
We can't leave the area without a visit to the archaeological site of Phaistos, where surprisingly informative plaques help us imagine the Minoan palace in its heyday. Phaistos' best artifacts aren't housed here, so we make a quick visit to the Archaeological Museum of Heraklion, home to a host of Crete's noteworthy finds.
Back in Athens for one last night, we stroll the ancient agora and ask the kids their most memorable moments of the trip. The list is fairly predictable: the Parthenon, the beach, Phaistos and Knossos, the hikes. My son throws in a conversation he had in halting Greek with a woman working in Bakery Zouridakis. It wasn't much: She asked whether he was Greek, what his name was, where he was from. But as he recounts that simple moment of connection, I can tell it's one he won't forget.
And he can't wait to share it with his grandparents.
IF YOU GO
WHERE TO STAY The Athens Gate Hotel, 10 Syngrou Ave., Athens. Stellar view of the Acropolis, a short walk away. Clean, quiet comfortable rooms start at $168, athensgate.gr.
WHERE TO EAT Taverna Synolakis, National Road, Rethymnon, Iraklion, Crete. Simple but delicious Cretan cuisine at about $6 to $15.
O Mylos tou Kerata Platanias, Chania, Crete. Traditional Cretan and Mediterranean fare, with a 14th century water mill in the courtyard. Entrees $10 to $34, mylos-tou-kerata.gr.
WHAT TO DO Crete's Samaria Gorge hike. Entry to the 10-mile gorge is $6 ($3 students). Bus from Chania to the starting point of the hike, the Omalos Plateau, is $15 round-trip. Private coach tours can be booked at many resorts, $33 to $45, visitgreece.gr/en/nature/canyons.
Palace of Knossos, Knossos Avenue, Iraklion, Crete. Bronze Age archaeological site, open 8 a.m.-8 p.m. daily. About $6, children free. Joint ticket for Knossos and nearby Heraklion Archaeological Museum, around $12, odysseus.culture.gr.