(Updated July 2019)
The blue Mediterranean, the white villages and the octopus in a relaxed and sunny spot. A Greek island is just heaven. Crete is the most popular of the Greek islands. But just like on Mallorca, you just need to step a bit off the main road to find a more quiet and local (refuse to write authentic) atmosphere.
The east side of Crete has fewer tourists, is more quiet and luxurious, 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.
HOW TO DO CRETE AS THE LOCALS:
I have been to Crete 4 times, my sister lived in Chania a few years ago, my husband used to live in Agios Nikolaos and still has friends there. In all, I’ve been to Greece 11 times. So it’s quite familiar by now.
Agios Nikolaos is the largest city on the east side of Crete. 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.
Hardly any families are here, it’s mainly young and older couples. And then us with our 13 year old… It’s pretty quiet, since there is also almost no of the “beer-at-10-am-tourists”. And our friends who work in hotels tell us, that it’s mainly returning visitors – like us. Because this place is just so nice.
Living like a local in Crete
Unless, you like us now someone you can stay with, I would recommend renting an apartment for instance a little south or north on Anapafseos Street or Akti Koundourou. Buy your own ouzo, wine, bread, yoghurt and fruit to eat. It’s cheap. There’s a large supermarket on the last road number 33.
Drive like a local
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. Fiat Panda is a good size for the small winding roads.
If you rent with a big company like Sixt, it will be pretty swift. It will be around 185€ for a week, but there are many small local companies with way better prices, but also a little more Greek style. For instance, one time, the guy had left because our plane was delayed. Then we had to call him and he had gone home, so we had to wait an hour for him to return. Then he just gave us a car without checking driver’s licence or anything. We could probably have returned a different car without him knowing.
A Greek guy shook his head, when I told him I can’t drive and it’s not important or practical in Copenhagen. In Crete, it’s essential.
Swim like a Greek
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”.
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 used their beach for free, but if it’s not important, do as the locals and don’t go to the beach at all.
Our favourite beaches are Gargadoros and Ammoudi. 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. But this is not for the locals, but for Instagrammers.
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. Really weird.
Going to the beach without sunbathing in the sand on the beach is surprisingly great. Just 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 on Gargadoros beach and the bar outside Polydoros near Ammoudi –both just outside the city.
Greeks also use water sports like paddle boarding. You can rent everything in many beach bars like Kimzu Sea Lounge.
Drink like a local
Greece and Crete has the longest wine-making tradition in Europe, so drink plenty of local wine. 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.
Crete especially has excellent white wine. The grape Assyrtiko is the most famous, but try all of them. Also a few of the rosé are good. For a guide of the best wineries in Crete hit up Culture Trip’s guide here.
When at the beach café, everyone drinks ice coffee. I don’t like it, so not for me. You immediately get a glass for water when you sit. If you order ouzo (and you do) you probably get some snacks like ours on the picture above. With beer, we got chips.
Raki is of course also a favourite. You probably don’t even have to order it. Often, when you ask for the chechk you’ll get some sweets and some raki. Try it. But don’t buy a bottle, because it’s just not drinkable at home. Raki is white, but one evening our favourite restaurant offered us some, that had been stored i barrels for 15 years tasting like raki and rum. It’s the yellow one above. I liked it.
For non alcoholic beverages, fresh orange juice is good, but I recommend having it with a twist of pomegranates like in the picture above. Delicious.
For the serious
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.
Learn to say “Efharisto” and “kalispera”. And then ask what they think of EU…
But if you really want to do as the locals, travel to Crete in the 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.