Mythology and modernity come together on this, the largest of the Greek islands. Tourism may have spelt boom time for Crete in recent times, but the backdrop is ancient. This is the legendary birthplace of Zeus and home of the Minotaur.
Away from the popular resort towns, a proud people make their living from the land, continuing traditions dating back thousands of years. Visitors come for the superb beaches, the weather, the food, and the nightlife. They come, too, to explore an island of great beauty, with its rugged mountains, spectacular coast, and long history of civilisation and conquest.
Many visitors are content to make the most of the beaches and there are more than 80 on Crete, with some of the best a little more off the beaten track. Vai, on the far eastern point of the island, is particularly beautiful given its backdrop of palm forest.
The clear waters are perfect for water sports and you will find windsurfing, kayaking, snorkelling and sailing, especially from the key tourist centres.
History is everywhere with more than 50 sites of archaeological importance including the Minoan Palace of Knossos outside Heraklion, Venetian and Ottoman fortifications, tombs and temples. The archaeology museum in Heraklion is a must-visit.
Eat and Drink
Plump olives, high-grade olive oil, ripe tomatoes, leafy greens, nuts and pulses, feta cheese, fish and lean meat including goat and rabbit – the virtues of the Greek Mediterranean-style diet are well enough known and Cretans pride themselves on the quality of their home-grown produce.
It is worth seeking out traditional tavernas for the best in local fare as an alternative to the international dining establishments (some admittedly first-class) that are now prevalent in the main tourist centres, along with the most popular bars.
For an equally true taste of Crete, head to the inland towns and villages. And remember that Cretans eat late in the day, European style.
Where to Stay
Crete is a popular destination among Europeans and most head for the beach resort towns of the more developed north coast which offer a huge number of hotel rooms and self-catering options. It is worth doing a bit of “exploring” before you leave to find the best area to stay.
While Malia may appeal to those who want to mix beach with party in the booming bars, it’s probably not the place for older travellers or those with families. Other districts have their particular charms and the south is best for those seeking a little more Cretan peace and quiet.
Crete has a great tradition in handicrafts and that means top-quality souvenirs. Chania is the hotspot for beautiful leatherwork in the workshops of Skridlof, near the Orthodox Cathedral and not far from the central market. Pottery is another traditional Cretan product and the village of Margarites is famous for it.
Some of the best jewellery in the traditional Minoan style comes from the Fanourakis shop in Heraklion. For more mainstream shopping, there are plenty of markets, supermarkets and specialty stores in the key towns, but if you are looking for the best in olive oil, cheese and honey it’s hard to beat the Chania and Heraklion markets.
Crete Like a Local
There is no doubt that the traditional villages will give you the best insight into genuine Cretan rural life as it has been carried on for countless years on family farms. What’s more, you are guaranteed to receive some wonderful hospitality in the roadside tavernas as well as the best possible local produce.
Alternatively, pick up your own from the numerous roadside stalls offering strawberries, oranges, nuts, honey and more.
Inland Crete is a whole new world of rugged mountains, dramatic gorges, fertile farmland and mythical caves, and is the scene for some superb walking or more strenuous hiking, including the renowned Samaria Gorge.