Of all the Greek islands, Crete is one of the most distinctive and beautiful.
Bits of it are reminiscent of other parts of Greece, but on the whole it stands alone and has its own unmistakeable culture and atmosphere.
The north coast of the island is the most populated area, and most well known to tourists. Heraklion (or Iraklion) is the island’s capital and main entry point. A working city, it can be off-putting at first, but it has a world-class museum. Rethymnon and Hania to the west are much more pleasant and retain a distinct Venetian influence. To the east Agios Nikolaos is one of the island’s major resort, but still retains some character.
The interior is home to the White Mountains, which soar to over 2,000m in the western part of the island, and offer some spectacular hikes and drives. The mountains are a bit more gentle to the east, and in their midst they hide the extraordinary basin of the Lasithi plateau dotted with white windmills.
The south coast is much more rugged and less visited than the north. It is crisscrossed with gorges and dotted with isolated villages and coves. It is also the stepping off point for the isolated islets to the south of Crete.
The last thing that makes Crete stand out from the other islands is the breadth of its history: from the mysterious Minoans with their labyrinthine palaces, through Venetian control, to the daring deeds during the German occupation.
Makrigialos (south-east Crete)
Makrigialos already feels fairly isolated but to really get off the beaten track see if any boat trips are running to the island of Koufonissi. Now abandoned, it used to be one of the sources of the shellfish that provided purple dye to Roman emperors. The surprising number of ancient and Byzantine ruins, plus the great beaches, make for a fantastic day of exploration.
Boat tours run from Elounda to the island of Spinalonga. It’s atmospheric, winding streets are now abandoned, but still seem full of history. The Venetians built a fortress here in 1579 and the island was used as a leper colony in the 20th century. It has inspired artists and writers through the centuries.
The Lasithi plateau is a bizarre dinner plate of a landscape surrounded by a lip of high mountains. It used to be highly populated due to its fertile soil and you can still see examples of the white-sailed windmills that irrigated the land (there used to 10,000 of them). Don’t miss exploring the Diktaean Cave near the village of Psychro, the reputed birth place of Zeus, king of the gods, which provides a slightly spooky thrill.
Knossos, to the south of Heraklion, was the heart of the Minoan kingdom. Its reconstruction, by the British archaeologist Sir Arthur Evans, remains controversial to this day, but there is no doubting that the rocks still seem to be haunted by the ghosts of the minotaur and his labyrinth.
Hiking in the mountains is always rewarding but should not be taken lightly; take local advice. An easy short walk (around quarter of an hour) takes you to the Idaean cave, another candidate for the birthplace of Zeus.
If you want to visit a Minoan palace in a more authentic state than Knossos, then nearby Phaistos is for you. The ruins of this 4,000 year old structure are still spectacular and much less visited than their famous sibling.
To the south-east of Rethymno, and set in beautiful countryside, the Arkadi monastery is worth visiting for its 16th century buildings alone.
The famous gorge in these parts is the Samariá, which is just along the coast and is Europe’s longest, but it can get crowded.The more adventurous should try Aradaina gorge, which is just as spectacular but much less known. Walk up the snaking path from Loutro, and then down the gorge to the lovely pebble beach of Marmara where you can wash the sweat off – this is an all day hike.
The western coast of Crete consists of a few relatively sleepy settlements and some of the beast beaches on the island. The sands of Falasarna in the north sit near the ruins of an ancient Greek city, whilst the small island of Elafonisi in the south lies in an azure blue lagoon set off by pinkish white sand.