The largest island in Greece, and fifth largest in the Med, is also, by good fortune, one of the most stunningly scenic and historically rich. Minoan palaces, Venetian harbours, snow-capped mountains, deep gorges, tiny coves and bustling beaches, proud and generous inhabitants, colourful traditions - there is no shortage of good reasons to visit.
Of course there is also no shortage of visitors. Every day in summer, dozens of European charter flights land at the busy airports of Chania and Heraklion; but most visitors are bused to north-coast resorts, leaving other parts of the island mercifully empty. Enjoying a holiday on Crete is all about finding the right place to stay, away from the crowds but within striking distance of the gems.
While large stretches of the north coastline have succumbed to mass development, there is one spot - a long-standing favourite of ours - which has kept its lazy-fishing-village charm: Panormos, home to Villa Kynthia guesthouse. Along the undeveloped south coast are stunning coves backed by soaring mountains: favourites include Preveli and Agios Pavlos in the centre (both reachable from Eleonas), and the Paleohora-Souyia stretch in the west (much of it only accessible on foot or by boat). On the western and eastern tips of the island are some of the most idyllic beaches imaginable: the sandy sickles of Elafonisi and Balos, easily reached from Elia in the west; and, in the east, the perennially popular palm-shaded strand of Vai and the beachside ruins of Minoan Zakros, near The White Houses and White River Cottages. All of these hotels and villas offer boutique tranquillity by night and a choice of beaches by day, if you don't mind a short drive.
The interior is very mountainous, with three huge ranges reaching over 2000m (6500 ft) in altitude. These are real wildernesses, baking in summer and snow-covered in winter, which hikers will revel in, but should not underestimate. The White Mountains are a personal favourite, with lunar summits, elusive chamois and neck-cricking gorges (try Ayia Irini or Aradena; leave Samaria to the crowds). Nestling in their foothills, among lush avocado and citrus groves, you'll stumble upon crumbling Byzantine chapels and picturesque villages. If this sounds tempting, book a few days at Milia, hidden high in the foothills.
Before you leave, indulge yourself for a few days in one of the lively, Italianate towns of the north coast. Venetian fortresses, Turkish mosques, quintessentially Greek fishing harbours and cosmopolitan shops make westerly Chania and Rethymno prime candidates, with a range of palazzo-style hotels and simpler B&Bs in each. If you're after a mix of partying and pampering, head to Elounda in the east, with a choice of ultra-luxe or budget resorts, and lively Agios Nikolaos on its doorstep. And don't forget Knossos, the king of Minoan palaces, which is near to Crete's capital Heraklion, and to the Hilltop Villas.
It's a tough call, but here are 3 beaches (one in the west, one central, one east) which took our breath away.
1. Balos beach (pictured) - perched in the northwest corner, this seawater lagoon has improbably turquoise shallows, dazzling pink-white sands, and a backdrop of rocky mountains. You can see why, back in the 80s, Prince Charles and Lady Di escaped here in their private yacht. The sea is safe, shallow and warm, and these days you can buy drinks and rent parasols from a simple cafe in season. The only downsides are the crowds in July-August, and the access: a 1-hour boat trip from Kissamos, or a bumpy drive (4WD preferred) from Kaliviani, followed by a 30-minute walk.
2. Agiofarago beach - this stunningly secluded beach on Crete's south coast is reached either by hiking through the Agiofarago gorge (45 mins, passing chapels and hermits' caves), or by boat from Matala or Kali Limenes. Either way, it's well worth the effort. The waters are among the clearest we've seen in the Med, and the shore, while mostly pebbly, is backed by impressive cliffs, with a natural rock-arch at one end. No facilities, so bring food and plenty of water (don't rely on the well by the chapel of St. Anthony).
3. Vaï beach - billed as the only natural palm forest in Europe, its moment of fame was as a stand-in Caribbean beach in a 1970s TV commercial for Bounty bars (complete with artificial coconuts, as these are date palms!). Adopted by the hippy community in the 1980s, it was then classified as a nature reserve, with no camping and no road access (you have to walk the last 10 minutes). These days it is firmly on the tourist map, with plenty of cafes, sun loungers and attendant crowds in July and August. Come early, or off-season; or slip away to one of the quieter beaches 5 minutes’ walk north or 10-20 minutes south.
1. Agia Eirini gorge: to avoid the crowds (and the entrance fee) of the well-known Samaria Gorge, head instead to its smaller and oft-overlooked neighbour to the west. It may not be the "longest and deepest" in Europe, but you can still crick your neck looking up in awe to its sheer cliffs to spot wild chamois, or to admire the bright green pine trees which have somehow gained a toehold in the limestone walls. It's also an easier hike: 3-4 hours' walk from Epanohori down to Moni, from where you can take the daily bus or (by prior arrangement) a cab back up; or several companies in Chania can arrange it all for you in a day package.
2. Gingilos peak (pictured): experienced hikers can climb the 2080m summit from Xiloskala, the trailhead for the Samaria gorge on the edge of the Omalos plateau. It's a dramatic 5-6 hour round trip, including a natural rock-arch and some light scrambling at the end; you'll need a guidebook or a good Anavasi map, but not a guide. Be prepared for strong cold winds at the top; there's one spring about halfway up.
3. Paleohora - Sougia coastal walk: Crete's southwest coast is road-free and stunningly beautiful, with clear blue seas, pine woods and secluded coves. Our favourite stretch is from Paleohora - Sougia: about 5 hours' hiking, returning by ferry (check timetables in advance). En route you pass the gorgeous beach of Gianiskari (seasonal drinks stall; nudism allowed), then a sweaty ascent and descent into the magical valley and ancient healing sanctuary of Lissos, with its ruined temple and lovely beach; and finally a smaller climb and short descent through a tiny but spectacular gorge. There's not much shade, and only one spring (at Lissos), so take loads of water and sun protection.
Crete's diet is famously healthy - full of local herbs, olive oil, fresh seafood and organic goodness. Here are some of the best places to enjoy it:
A no-nonsense tapas-style eatery inland on Daskalogianni St. where owner-chef Despina Polaki serves a predominantly locally sourced sorrel pies, marinated anchovies, and sautéed escargots, among other delicacies.
On the east end of the waterfront near the Arsenali. Outstanding fish soup ('kakavia') and seafood, served on the quayside by friendly Antigoni and her sons.
A cut above most of the old town eateries, occupying a domed Ottoman bath building - though you usually eat outside on the tables which line the narrow, pedestrianised Zambeliou St, one block in from the harbour.
Well of the Turk
In Splanzia district - worth the short walk, though you should arrive early to ensure a place. Their North African and Middle Eastern cuisine includes aubergine meatballs with baba ganoush, plus orange and avocado salad.
1 km east of the centre, hidden down an unlikely lane - best to take a taxi. A somewhat drab setting but excellent, locally-famous seafood and the freshest of fish (booking advised, tel 56672).
Among the tacky street stalls of Chania's pedestrianised old town are some local and very worthwhile finds:
Cheese, herbs and infusions from the covered market (pictured), including therapeutic dittany (dictamo), sage tea and fragrant oregano (very light gifts to bring home!)
Penknives from the workshops on Kanevaro or Sifaka street – more distinctive than a Swiss army knife, longer-lasting than an Opinel, and sharper than either. Don't forget to check it in to your hold luggage when you fly home.
Leather sandals or walking shoes from the many stalls on Skridlof St – handmade, solid, durable.
Homeware from Kiwi Selection at 86 Halidon St (near the top) - OK, it may not be local (mostly produced in Indonesia), but we loved the simple design and colourful flair of their crockery, baskets, handbags, jewellery and decorative driftwood.
Cretan folk music - if you were moved by the mournful singing performed in some of Chania's taverns, seek out the back catalogue of Chainides or of Loudovikos Ton Anoyion, both of whom combine ancient Eastern-sounding melodies with virtuouso lyre, guitar and mandolin playing
If you're staying around Chania and fancy a drop of history, a short hike and a swim, then head to the Akrotiri peninsula. Start at the monastery of Ayia Triada (also called Giagarolo) near the airport: occupied by a handful of black-clad monks, it's a beautiful honey-coloured building whose frescoed church you can visit (wear long sleeves and trousers/skirt; closed from about 2-5pm). Then follow the country lane uphill to the smaller monastery of Gouverneto, sporadically open and very peaceful. From here a lovely footpath leads down past a cave-hermitage to the ruined church of Ayios Ioannis (Katholiko), hidden in the cliffwall of a small limestone gorge. You can continue to the sea and (despite the sign) plunge into the crystal clear waters of a rocky inlet.
On the Akrotiri peninsula, not far from Chania airport, are 3 beaches which kids of all ages will love:
1. Stavros beach (NW of the airport): a totally safe seawater lagoon with shallow green waters, which are usually a few degrees warmer than the ocean. There's fine blond sand, parasols and loungers for hire (in season), and plenty of tavernas and mini-markets in the village alongside.
2. Marathi beach (SE of the airport): a pair of beaches with (imported) white sand, backed by a pretty village (excellent fish restaurant) and a colourful fishing harbour. The waters of Souda Bay are usually calm, sand-castling is excellent, and the backdrop of the White Mountains is breathtaking.
3. Stefanou beach (NE of the airport; also called Seitan Limania) - this one is for older, more adventurous kids: a tiny cove at the head of a narrow fjord-like inlet, with translucent turquoise waters, large grained sand and no shade or amenities, but a wonderful sense of isolation. Older kids will love jumping into the sea from the rocks, but watch out for waves and currents if you leave the protected waters of the cove.
Google maps should suffice for the first two; Stavros is also accessible by bus from Chania centre. To find the last, drive through Chordaki village, keeping right and later forking right, past the isolated chapel of Agio Spyridon, down some hairpins, to the end of the road, from where a rocky path leads in 15 mins down to the beach.
Rethymno's old town, with its cobbled streets, pastel buildings, picturesque harbour, Ottoman minarets and Italianate fountains, is livened up by some great nightlife, thanks in part to its student population. Our top pick is Avli Fusion Enoteca, a wine bar occupying a vaulted stone cellar, with a spectacular 400-label wine list (one of the largest cellars in Greece) and a creative menu of light meals. Other hot spots include Chalikouti, a tiny bolthole below the Fortezza, overflowing with book, chess boards and raki from a women's co-operative; nearby Inomena Voistasia, famed for Greek beers, cosmopolitan cocktails and Cretan mountain tea; and Raki Baraki for coffee, wine and traditional mezedes (tapas) accompanied by live Cretan music.
On the central stretch of Crete's south coast, near Plakias, is one of its most photogenic beaches, shaded by date palms and backed by an idyllic river gorge which flows all year round. The best way to reach it is from the the road head 1km beyond Kato Preveli monastery (do stop to admire its its beautiful cloistered courtyard and small museum): follow the path down through the gorge to the sea (20 minutes). Alternatively, with a sturdy car you can drive the dirt road to Drimiskiano Amoudi and walk from there (5 minutes); or take the boat from Agia Galini or Plakias. As always, try and go early, or out of season, to beat the crowds.
50 minutes' boat ride from the easterly town of Ierapetra, the tiny sandbank island of Chryssi makes a great day trip, especially with older kids. The name means 'golden', after the sparkling blond-white sands which cover most of its surface. Look closely and you'll see thousands of tiny shells, some ground into fragments, others still whole. Tempting though it is, don't take any with you, as the island is a protected AONB. But do walk round from the landing point (taverna, parasols, simple shop) to find your own castaway beach, and swim to your heart's content in the bright blue seas before picnicking in the shade of a cedar tree. And do keep half an eye on the time; you're not allowed to stay overnight.
Offshore from Elounda is the fortified rocky islet of Spinalonga, once a Venetian stronghold against the Turks, then a leper colony, now just a spookily fascinating place - well worth a day-cruise. You can join one of many boat excursions, or hire sea kayaks and explore at your own pace. Nearby is the ‘sunken city’ of Olous, a Minoan port now half-buried by sea and sand, and the tiny islet of Kolokytha, on whose far shore (30 minutes' walk, or a short but bumpy drive) is a small sandy beach with limpid turquoise waters. Go early - or late - to avoid the day trippers. And if you haven't read Victoria Hislop's "The Island", here's the place to do so.
On Crete's southeast coast, the harbour town of Makriyialos (or Makris Gialos) makes a great base for these short but spectacular hikes.
1. from Pefki village (marked as Ayios Stefanos on google), there's a poorly marked but beautiful little trail downhill, through a small pine-shaded ravine, to the restored hamlet of White River Cottages (guests can get a sketch map - and end with a swim in the pool!). It takes 2-3 hours, so you could fit it in after a lingering outdoor lunch at the wonderful Piperia taverna in Pefki.
2. east of Makriyialos is the forbidding Kapsa monastery, perched impressively over the mouth of the rocky Perivolakia gorge. It contains treasures amassed by a fraudulent self-appointed miracle-worker called Gerontoyiannis (you can see his skull in a box). A rocky trail squeezes its way inland between sheer cliffs for about an hour, before starting up one of the flanks; turn and hike back down for a well-earned swim at the small, pebbly bay below.
On Crete's eastern tip, at Kato Zakros, is one of its most atmospheric Minoan palaces. The ruins are only knee-high, with a simpler ground-plan than Knossos, but you can vividly imagine the layout of the town, its harbour and the 150-room palace, all of which date from 1900-1500 BC. You may also come across a cistern, a bronze-smelting kiln, paved streets, benches and Cyclopean wall segments. Best of all, it is backed by a dramatic oleander-lined gorge, whose walls are pocked by caves containing Minoan burial sites - the so-called Valley (or Ravine) of the Dead (pictured). You can hike through it in about an hour, emerging on the road to Ano Zakros; or walk back again for a well-deserved fish lunch and swim.