Destination Profile: Crete
Come with us to take a closer look at Crete, the largest of all the Greek islands and mythical birthplace of Zeus, the thunderbolt-wielding king of all Greek gods. From the seemingly endless length of its coastline to its historical importance as the center of the great Minoan civilization, this destination offers a microcosm of Greek culture to explore. It keeps you coming back time and again to discover its many treasures.
Landscape and geography quick facts:
The island stretches from west to east between the Aegean and Libyan seas, 160 miles long (260 km) and 35 miles (56 km) wide. Its exquisite coastline is about 650 miles (1000+ km) of sun-drenched white sandy beaches, hidden coves and postcard-perfect Mediterranean bays. The mountainous terrain is dominated by the central peak of Mount Ida, where ancient lore places the cave of Zeus's birth. Mountains to the west and east form a continuous range that expands the imposing landscape of the island.
The landscape itself is a combination of rugged mountains, flowery meadows, vineyards, orange groves, forgotten ruins and isolated chapels in the upland part of Crete. But wherever you wander, you will always be in the sight of the gleaming blue sea with its lovely beaches, bays and charming fishing villages. The most southerly outpost of Europe, Crete has a mild and exceptionally dry climate with a prevailing northerly wind, the “meltemi”, that brings a cool breeze on warm summer days.
The northern coast is where most of the touristic towns and archaeological sites are concentrated, while the southern region is more isolated with unspoiled villages well worth discovering with a rental car.
How to get there:
Lying south of Athens and the Cyclades, one can reach the main port of Heraklion in 5 to 8 hours by ferry. However, when arriving from Athens, a short flight of about 45 minutes is the simplest option. Crete is well-connected with the popular Cycladic islands to the north, and the fast ferry options are both convenient and pleasant – a one-way trip takes about two hours from Santorini and four hours from Mykonos.
Crete's people and history:
This friendly Mediterranean island is well-known as the home of one of the earliest Aegean civilizations. The ancient Minoans flourished during the Bronze Age, especially from 3650 to 1400 BC. Today you can explore a wealth of archaeological sites such as the most famous Palace of Knossos, the capital town of this ancient civilization. A tour of the palace ruins is complemented by a visit to the Heraklion Archaeological Museum to see many of the artifacts recovered from the site's excavation. But Knossos is by no means the only place where you can step into Crete's past. The Agia Triada palace, Palace of Malia, Phaestos, Aptera, Polyrrinia, as well as later Roman, Byzantine, Venetian and Ottoman influences will further introduce you to the vast spread of the island's history. The unique art, music, language, and culture of the Cretan people will give you a better understanding of how this proud island community retains a separate identity from the rest of Greece.
Main towns and beaches of Crete:
Heraklion (or Iraklio) – The capital of Crete and center of its archaeological treasures, this is a bustling city, not another charming seaside town. However, this important transportation hub offers much to discover and easy access to some of the island's most-visited sites such as the Palace of Knossos and world-class Archaeological Museum.
Agios Nikolaos – A quaint harbor town built on three hills, with more of a modern architectural style setting it apart from the rest of the island. In this developed tourist spot you will find an abundance of cafes and local shops around the deep waters of Lake Voulismeni, along with marvelous views of Mirabello Bay.
Elounda – A former fishing village, now popular for its luxury seaside resorts, jet-set visitors, and high-class shopping and dining. From here you can take the "Happy Train" ride to the fishing village of Plaka as you enjoy the breathtaking coastal scenery.
Dikti Cave – Situated on Crete's Lasithi Plateau, this expansive cave was once a place for cult worship. Mythology enthusiasts will also be interested to learn that this is the site where Zeus's mother hid the young god from his jealous father.
Spinalonga – Once a Venetian fortress and later the home of exiled lepers, this island now lies in beautiful ruin. Its bleak history has left an eerie spell of sadness over the island, promising a thought-provoking visit.
Kritsa – A traditional village located on the Lasithi mountains. A slow pace of life operates among the narrow streets, tiny shops and quaint houses. For a great view of the sprawling olive groves that make Kritsa’s award-winning oil, walk up the hill towards the church.
Chania (or Hania) - Representing the heart of culture on the island, there are many galleries, museums, and theatres where you can spend some time taking a break from the sun. The old town offers an evocative mix of Venetian and Turkish architecture, such as a Venetian lighthouse that sets off its picturesque harbor.
Samaria Gorge – Supposedly the longest canyon in Europe, this natural wonder promises an unparalleled, untarnished beauty as you gaze upon its sheer cliffs and deep pine forests.
Elafonisi beach – The prettiest of Crete's many unbeatable beaches. Here, pink and white sands lead out to a sparkling shallow lagoon that lies between the shore and a separate tiny island.
Balos Lagoon – A stunning white sandy beach surrounded by impossibly clear turquoise waters and views of rocky Gramvousa island. This is understandably one of the most photographed sites in Greece. You can arrive by car or boat from the nearby port of Kissamos.
Rethymno – Lying between Chania and Heraklion, this town is another historical combination of Venetian architecture and Turkish minarets. This harbor town is the third largest in Crete, but it moves at a slower pace than the others. Here you can linger at a café in the old town or spend your time on the long stretch of sandy beaches.
More activities than you can accomplish in one visit:
In addition to the impressive historical attractions that you simply must see, the natural beauty and unique cultural delights of the island are also waiting to be discovered and savored. Cretan cuisine consists of a typical Mediterranean diet with olives, green herbs, cheese, honey, seafood, and of course wine featuring heavily on the menu. You might dine out on traditional dishes such as dakos or kalitsounia (cheese or herb pastries). You can also visit a local winery or olive oil producer to sample and buy their products. Go inland to hike the mountains and the beautiful Samaria Gorge. Lounge around the coast to find no end of sun-soaked, pristine beaches, or even luxury resorts if that's your preference. For the best way to see the most of this singular destination, rent a car and drive winding roads to some of Crete's lesser-known villages.
Where to stay:
Presented below are just a few of our favorite highlights from Crete's hotel scene.
Casa Delfino in Chania: An elegant boutique hotel housed in a 17th century Venetian mansion which used to be the private home of the Delfino family.
Minos Beach Art Hotel in Agios Nikolaos: Situated right on the water's edge, this nature luxury art hotel with its traditional architecture, fragrant gardens and lavish accommodations is the epitome of beachfront living in Crete.
Domes of Elounda: This luxury resort is a destination in and of itself, with a small private beach, glittering spa, elite dining, and special amenities for both adults and children right in its own Aegean paradise.