Crete is the most popular of the Greek islands. But just like Mallorca you just need to step a bit off the main road to find a more quiet atmosphere. The East side of the island has fewer tourists, is more quiet, has the best resorts and more rough scenery. It’s a bit more difficult to get here, but that’s probably also why it’s less crowded, and even in July it’s not overrun.
I have been to Crete 3 times, my sister lived in Chania a few years ago, my husband also used to live on the island and still has friends in Agios Nikolaios. So it’s quite familiar by now. Here’s what to see, and how to do as the locals.
Crete is the southernmost island in Greece and has a history that goes back 4000 years to the Minoans. It has a different feeling than the rest of the islands with a strong sense of independence and a history full of strife. Due to war and other circumstances the population often withdrew to the mountains and developing a different culture than the rest of the Greek islands.
WHY GO TO CRETE
This is for vacation – not for travel! If you want to relax in the sun and water, but also see a few historical sights, this is perfect. As a couple or as a family (like we were) there’s a little of everything. A week will give you enough time to let the kids do nothing (as my son prefers) and the culturally interested to take some trips.
HOW & WHERE
We stayed in Agios Nikólaos on the East side. You can fly to Heraklion, and then it’s just an hour’s drive to Agios Nikolaios. Some of the more high end resorts are on this side of the island with Elounda as the top notch place, where all the exclusive resorts are.
I would recommend stay at an apartment or a villa just outside town – most have sea view and small pools. Or go for the most expensive spa hotels like Sensimar Minos Palace or Elounda Mare Hotel, but most of them don’t want kids. We stayed at Almira Sand Apartments, which I do not recommend!
TOP 5 SIGHTS
1 PANAGIA KERA
The small baroque church Panagia Kera near Kritsa with beautiful frescoes dating from 13th century. The church is very small, but like a small hidden treasure. I like the one with the last upper; the jug and fish looks like it’s been painted by Picasso.
2 THE LASSÌTHI PLATEAU
The plateau is very fertile, and it’s were you can find the famous windmills used for two centuries for irrigation. It takes a whole day to drive around. The most important sight is Dikteon Andron: a cave where Zeus was born! I repeat: ZEUS! You can also hike and in spring there are beautiful flowers.
The old leper colony on a small island of Spinalonga. The island is made up by a Venetian fortress from 14th century for protection against the Ottoman Empire, but it was eventually seized in 1715. In 1903, it became a leper colony until 1957!
Take a ferry from Plaka or Elounda – it’s cheaper then from Agios.
4 SUNKEN CITY OF OLOUS
Just outside Elounda is a peninsula with some sights and a beach. Park on the main land or try to get across.
First you’ll meet some old salt pans. These are Venetian salt pans built in 15th century and that functioned until 1972. The water was trapped in the cisterns and when the water evaporated, the salt was left. We did the same in Denmark once. The salt was sent to Europe.
Elounda comes from Olounda or Olous – an Ancient city now sunken. Olous was mentioned by Homer as one of the cities in Crete. (Homer- Zeus, this is epic) It was a great city and it even had its own coinage. Not too much is left, and the site is now the sort of bridge connecting the mainland and the peninsula. At some point it sank, and you can clearly see stones marking buildings under the surface.
On the peninsula there is a nice little restaurant called Kanali. When you sit at their terrace you can see some of the stones.
Behind the restaurants are the remains of an old Christian basilica Poros Elounda, from which there’s still a very beautiful mosaic tiles floor showing dolphins. It’s clearly not a high-profile antiquity…
The city flourished in Byzantine times as well, but during the Arab period, pirates forced the inhabitants inwards. Later wars would do the same.
5 LATO RUINS
The ruins of the ancient town of Lato. The ruins are some of the best preserved Classical-Hellenic city, and the views across the mountains and all the way to the Mediterranean are fantastic. And you get to climb!
Right next to Lato is the town of Kritsa, which is not much of a town, but you can buy some souvenirs and get some decent food.
Swimming is one of the main reasons you came to Crete. Snorkling is great too with many colourful fish and sea urchins. Bring a good book, I recommend The best travel book for the Mediterranean: “The Histories”.
The Almyros beach is just outside the city, but because of a freshwater stream here, the top 10 cm of the Mediterranean are ice cold and the lower are warm.
You will find many pebble beaches along the coast on the east side. Unfortunately some of the nicer sandy ones belongs to the big hotels. Damn you capitalism!
We know someone working at one of the big hotels Candia Park Village, so we got into the pool area for free. It was nicer than our own, but I would never stay here, and without kids I would prefer to follow the locals (read further below).
Most of the beaches will have some kind of watersport. We just kept to the quieter ones…
Further east or on the south coast there are also some great beaches, like Myrtos beach in the South or Váï beach known for its palm trees.
LIKE A LOCAL
Go café-swimming! When it is hot, do like the Cretans, and sit at a café instead of lying at the beach and getting sand everywhere. You get a table, order ice-coffee or raki, and once in a while you jump into the deep blue.
We liked To Votsalo and the bar outside Polydoros –both just outside the city.
Rent a car! And not a big convertible – but a small one, so you can park. If it’s a little dented the better, if you want to drive like to locals. And air-con is for losers.
Go fishing! There are plenty of fish in the water still, although the Mediterranean is becoming more polluted and overfished.
Order many appetizers and share. Remember the local snails, the fried cheese (saganaki) and the fish roe salad (taramo salad). Octopus is not the speciality here due to the many hundred years of mountain living.
Greece and Crete has the longest wine-making tradition in Europe, so drink plenty of local white wine – I like the grape Assyrtiko. And buy some if you can; it’s not easy or cheap to find back home.
Also drink wine to save water. Crete is very dry, but many hotels water plants and lawns without regard for the environment.
Learn to say “Efharisto” and “kalispera”. And then ask what they think of EU…
But if you really want to do as the locals, you travel in wintertime and go hiking in the mountains without any tourists around….
If you don’t know anyone who lives there, like we do, there are only few guidebooks. The Rough Guide to Crete is one of the best guides to this Greek island, if you want to get a little more off the beaten track.
What’s your favourite Greek island?
This post has been rewritten and updated May 2018, but is originally from August 2017.