Author: Andrew Bostock
Crete is exceptional in many ways. It is the largest Greek island, has the most diverse mix of landscapes, and stands far to the south of most of the rest of the country. 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, or Ag Nik to Brits, 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.
All prices are for one week’s accommodation for two in August and include breakfast unless otherwise stated. Prices outside of this month can be considerably cheaper. The price of food at Greek tavernas is remarkably similar wherever you are, and if anything have gone down in the last few years. You can usually expect to eat well for €15-20 per person. If eating places are cheaper or more expensive than this, it is stated in the text.
Makrigialos (south-east Crete)
Where to stay: The White Houses
These whitewashed fishing cottages are right on the harbour of this quiet fishing village. They consist of three, larger, “houses” and two apartments, all of which are tastefully decorated and well equipped. The influence of the Norwegian owner is plain to see, and the local colour is provided by Nikos who manages the properties with a friendly eye.
• +30 28430 29183, makrigialos.com, apartments from €650 for two, houses start at €1,550 for four, breakfast not included. Family-friendly
Where to eat: Spilia tou Drakou
There are good tavernas lining the harbour but for the best sunset views head 3km out of the village to the “Dragon’s Cave”, which nestles beneath the eponymous cavern. Once the sun goes down the cave is illuminated, and you can tuck into well executed, traditional Cretan food.
• +30 2843 051494
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.
Where to stay: Elounda Gulf Villas
Elounda, as one of Crete’s major resorts, is not to everyone’s taste, but if you have the cash these villas are sure to convert you, with luxuries including very private pools and butler service. Behind the deluxe exterior lies a family-run place with traditional Greek hospitality.
• +30 2810.227721, eloundavillas.com, suites from €2,600, villas are considerably more expensive
Where to eat: Kantoyni
It might be hard to tear yourself away from your butler, but the area has plenty of restaurants. This traditional taverna, above Mavrikano, boasts a great view, friendly service, and local food.
• +30 2841 042206
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, and was the setting for Victoria Hislop’s novel The Island.
Where to stay: Archondiko Spiti
Crete is full of villas to rent. The “Handsome House” is a good example of an old village house set in a walled garden with its own pool. Being away from the coast means that the surroundings are less commercialised, and Neapoli is a good example of a working Cretan town.
• 020-8847 8700, cachet-travel.co.uk, £3,700 based on four sharing and including flights but not breakfast. Family-friendly
Where to eat: Koudoumalos
On the mountain road between Neapoli and Plaka on the coast by Elounda, this taverna is located in the small village of the same name. The food is based round hearty portions of grilled meat, stews and local products such as cheese.
• +30 28410 31280
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.
Where to stay: Lato Boutique Hotel
The Cretan capital is not a first choice for many, but it has an honest charm. The Lato is also something different for Crete, offering futuristic chic with views overlooking the town’s old harbour. It is worth upgrading your room to ensure the view.
• +30 2810 228103 lato.gr, €570
Where to eat: Elia & Diosmos
The Lato offers three well-regarded restaurants with surprisingly reasonable prices. For a contemporary take on Cretan cooking its worth heading out to the “Olive & Mint” in the village of Skalani just to the south of Heraklion. The ingredients are all sourced locally and the food has won several awards. The mainly Greek wine list is also exceptional.
• +30 2810 731283
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. You should also check out some of what was uncovered here in the superb Heraklion Archaeological Museum.
Where to stay: Aris
No trip to Crete is complete without a visit to the mountains. The large village of Anoyia sits in the White Mountains below Psiloritis (previously Mount Ida), Crete’s highest peak at 2,456m. The village is attractive and was a centre of resistance during the second world war – if you look carefully you’ll see that few buildings date from before this as they were destroyed by the Germans. The rooms at the Aris are simple, but boast magnificent views.
• +30 2834 031817, arishotelanogia.gr, €300
Where to eat: Aetos
Anoyia relies not on tourism but sheep farming to make ends meet, and trying the local lamb is a must. The best place for this is the Aetos, with its large charcoal grill standing outside.
• +30 28340 31262
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. Certainly a cult to the god once existed here and plenty of finds have been dug up (you can still see the remains of the archaeologists’ rail tracks). More recently, it provided a hideaway for the Cretan resistance and British agents during the second world war.
Where to stay: Eleonas
This complex of 20 cottages in the mountains of central Crete is set within a working farm, and guests are welcome to help feed the animals and even milk the goats. The individual cottages continue the rural theme, and the overall setting is superb, offering plenty of opportunities for exploration and hiking.
• +30 28940 31238, eleonas.gr, €735. Family-friendly
Where to eat
Eleonas is a bit out of the way, which is part of its charm. The nearby village of Zaros offers simple eating, but you needn’t stray far from the complex itself, which hosts a popular taverna that shows off the products of the farm. Alternatively another branch of the family that owns Eleonas has set up a taverna by the banks of Lake Zaros, a 1km walk away – the lake trout are excellent.
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.
Where to stay: Avli
Rethymno vies with Hania for the title of Crete’s prettiest town, and Avli nestles in the centre of the old Venetian quarter amongst pedestrianised streets. The theme that unites the 12 rooms is a note of extravagant luxury and romance that extends into the bougainvillea-clad courtyard.
• +30 28310 58250, avli.gr, from €595 for a standard double
Where to eat: Mesostrati
Avli was once just a restaurant, and is still famous for its food (and now has an attached deli which sells local produce). But if you want to go further afield, Mesostrati is worth seeking out. It is just off Martiron Square and is squeezed between two streets, as its name suggests. The draws here is the local meze and the live music, including traditional lyra players.
• +30 28310 29375
The main attraction of Rethymno is the city itself, and you could happily spend a day just wandering around it. Make time for the old Venetian fortress, reputed to be the largest the city state ever built and still thoroughly atmospheric.
Where to stay: Camping Elizabeth
Just to the east of Rethymno, and right on the beach, is the oldest and one of the best campsites on the island, with plenty of shady trees, all the facilities you would expect, and access to the sea that many high-priced hotels would kill for.
• +30 28310 28694, camping-elizabeth.net, from €140 for two people in a small tent. Family-friendly
Where to eat: To Pigadi
The campsite has a basic taverna, but you really need to head into Rethymno to eat well. To Pigadi has a lovely courtyard in the old town and serves Cretan dishes with a twist, such as beef fillet with strawberry and mint sauce.
• +30 28310 27522
To the south-east of Rethymno, and set in beautiful countryside, the Arkadi monastery is worth visiting for its 16th century buildings alone. The monastery also has a special place in Cretan hearts. In November of 1866 almost a thousand Greeks sought refuge here from the besieging Ottoman Turks, then the overlords of the island. As a final act of defiance, and rather than be captured, they blew themselves up as the Turks entered the monastery.
Where to stay: Blue House
Loutro has an idyllic location in a cliff-backed cove on the rugged southern coast. What makes it even more special is that it is only accessible by foot or boat. Plenty of people visit the village by day, but only a few can stay in the limited accommodation overnight. The Blue House lives up to its name and has simple, but comfortable rooms – the ones in the top floors are the best.
• +30 28250 91035, bluehouse.loutro.gr, €320
Where to eat: Blue House
The taverna downstairs, right by the water’s edge, is the perfect place to while away the evening once the crowds have disappeared on the last boat. With a captive audience it would be easy to let standards slip, but the Blue House gets it just right.
• +30 28250 91035
The famous gorge in these parts is the Samariá, which is just along the coast and apparently is Europe’s longest. Unfortunately tours run to it from all over the island and, whilst still worth it, it can be rather 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.
Where to stay: Porto del Colombo
An old Venetian building at the heart of Hania’s old town houses this small but exquisite boutique hotel. The interior carries on the historical theme with plenty of dark wood and red velvet.
• +30 28210 70945, portodelcolombo.gr, €686
Where to eat: Portes
Just around the corner a string of tavernas put their tables out onto the narrow street of Portou. Portes, despite being small, stands out for its more adventurous take on Cretan dishes, including treats such as fennel pie.
• +30 28210 76261
The western coast of Crete consists of a few relatively sleepy settlements and some of the beast beaches on the island. While no longer the secret they once were, these are still well worth the trek to get to them. 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 a azure blue lagoon set off by pinkish white sand.
From Athens, Crete can be reached by a 9-10 hour ferry or year round flights. From April to October numerous airlines fly direct from the UK to Heraklion and Hania from around £70 each way
This article originally appeared on guardian.co.uk