The Island of Crete

Map of the Island of Crete
Map of the Island of Crete

Sometimes people send me their desired itineraries to Greece for comment and suggestions. Many times along with their 3 days in Mykonos and two days in Santorini they want to do 2 days in Crete. My advise to them is to forget it. Unless they have at least a week to spend on Crete, I tell them to go elsewhere. Crete is simply too big and too multi-dimensional to breeze in and out of for a couple days. It would be like stopping in New York for a couple hours. What’s the point if all you will see is Times Square?

There is lots to see on Crete, and a lot not to see. While the mountain villages and coastal towns on the Eastern and Western tips of the island have retained their traditions and their beauty, towns like Malia, and many of the beach towns in Northern Crete have been over-run by British package tours and gigantic hotels owned by international travel cartels who have turned much of Crete into Nassau with Mousaka.

Crete
Crete, Greece

Not to discourage those who are looking for a Club-Med style vacation. If that’s what you want, it is certainly here in quantity and in quality and two days in Crete is fine, though you might as well have spent the time on whatever island resort you just came from since it was probably not much different from what you will find in Crete.

But I have come to praise Crete, not to discourage those travelers who come to Greece looking for the real thing. Crete is spectacular and if you take the time to get to know it, you will probably return.

Getting to Crete

Getting to Crete
Pireaus, Greece: Ferries to Crete

Getting to Crete is easy. If you are a backpacker you simply take the subway to Pireaus sometime before 6pm, decide which port in Crete you want to arrive at, buy a ticket and get on the boat. It’s a 12 hour trip and if it is a warm summer night and you are in your sleeping bag under the stars on the top deck you may never want the journey to end. If you prefer a cabin then you should get your tickets in advance through a reliable travel agent in Athens. The boats have restaurants and bars, videos on TV in the lounges and in some cabins. Some of the ferries are newer and better then others and your travel agent will be able to tell you which is which. The ferries to Crete are to your far right when you get off the train and face the harbor. You can walk or take the free shuttle which goes back and forth along the dock.

Ports in Crete

There are 3 main choices of Cretan ports to arrive at that have daily ferries. Heraklion is a big city with traffic, noise and all the chaos that goes with a large population. It’s the closest place to ancient Knossos and for that reason many people go here first. It is the capital of the island so many of the travel agents, major hotels, car rental agencies, restaurants, nightlife and tours are based here, but that does not mean you have to be.

Chania and Rethymnon to the west of Iraklion are more my speed and maybe yours too. They are smaller but they have plenty of life, with great restaurants, hotels, and all that you will need, without the congestion of Iraklion. The only drawback is that they are so far away from Eastern Crete, but that is not a good enough reason to not stay here, nor is it a good reason to stay in Iraklion and make that your base because of it’s accessibility to the rest of the island.

There are also ferries to Ag. Nikolaos and Sitia a couple times a week in the summer and they connect you with Rhodes. There is a boat from the Peloponessos to Kastelli in western Crete but finding the schedule for this one is tough and unless you happen to be in the Peloponessos not very practical.

Chania and West Crete

Chania, Crete, Greece
Chania, Crete, Greece

Though Chania is a modern city the interior is a labyrinth of old Venetian houses that you can wander around with only an occasional reminder of the twentieth century. The port is actually in Souda Bay, but there are buses and taxis available to take you right into the city. The bus will leave you at the market place near the old town. There are hotels all over the city but the ones overlooking the harbor are probably where you want to be even if the nightlife below can get a little noisy. If you don’t see yourself as being one of the people making the noise then you may want to find a quieter place further back or ask your travel agent what she suggests. Check out the Hotel Ammos on the beach, just 4 kilometers outside of town.

As for what to do in Chania it’s a case of passing the day until the sun goes down and the lights of the cafes, restaurants and bars around the harbor come on and life begins. Like most harbor towns the expensive cafes have taken the best spots on the waterfront and the cheaper and more traditional restaurants are on the fringes and the back streets. There are also some interesting non-traditional restaurants scattered around the old town which you will come across in your wanderings. Most of the bars, discos and nightclubs are located in the inner harbor. For traditional Greek music in a traditional Greek setting try the Café Kriti at 22 Kalergon, the next street up parallel to the inner harbor. See Chania Restaurants by Nikos Tsepetis

The beaches are to the west and being close to the city they are usually if not crowded, well populated. Anyway, for adventurous travelers to be in Crete without a car is like being in Manhattan without a wallet. Your days should be spent exploring the island. If you came to lay out on the beach and watch people you should be at Elounda beach or Ag Nik. For some excursions in Chania and around western Crete read Nikos Tsepetis Chania Crete Excursions which includes secluded beaches, traditional villages, spectacular gorges and places to visit and to avoid.

Another option for a port of arrival is the city of Rethymnon which is a mixture of high end tourist resorts and a traditional inner harbor of old buildings. Most of the tourist activity and nightlife is located on the road behind the town beach, but some of the best beaches on the island are a short distance away to the west where development is not as advanced as it is toward Heraklion. There are long stretches of sand and you may find yourself alone, but be aware that there can be strong currents and there are no lifeguards.

Crete: Arkadiou Monastery
Crete: Arkadiou Monastery

The Arkadiou Monastery between Rethymnon and Iraklion is a 5th century holy site that became a symbol of Cretan resistance on November 9th 1866 when hundreds of refugees and revolutionaries chose death over surrender to the Turks and blew themselves to pieces with the gunpowder that was being stored there by the Cretan Revolutionaries. The monastery was rebuilt again and is well worth the visit.

The Samarian Gorge and Southwestern Crete

Crete, Greece, Samarian Gorge
Crete, Greece: Samarian Gorge

To go to Crete without going through the gorge would be a missed opportunity for an incredible experience, providing you are physically strong enough to walk downhill for 15 kilometers. This part of the trip to Crete should be done before renting a car unless you are prepared to walk 15 kilometers back uphill to retrieve it. There are buses from Chania to Omalos and to give yourself plenty of time I suggest taking the first one. When you get to Omalos find the Xiloskala, or Wooden Staircase and begin your journey down. Eventually you reach a stream and begin your trek towards the sea, passing on your way the deserted village of Sammaria and a variety of wildflowers and terrains. The gorge ends at the village of Agia Roumeli where there are restaurants, cafes and a boat that will take you to Chora Sfakion where you can find a room and spend the night or catch a bus back to Chania or Rethymnon. There are also less frequent boats from Agia Roumeli to Souyia and Paleo Hora.

It is the general consensus that Chora Sfakion is the best place to stay on the southern coast of Crete. In the summer there are plenty of tourists here, that is to say if you are looking for a place where you will be one of a handful of foreigners then you won’t find it here. But the town has retained it’s Greek character and most of the foreigners who go there and promote it have helped to keep it that way. There are good restaurants with authentic Greek and Cretan food and a balance of tourist activities to go with the traditional activities. The area around Chora Sfakion is some of the most beautiful in Crete due to the inaccessibility of the area in the past. Now getting here is easy and fun.

The west coast of Crete is along with the southeast coast the least developed coastline on the island. From Kasteli on there are plenty of deserted beaches and the small island of Ellafonisi which you can walk to. Of course as usually happens to any magical ‘undiscovered’ spot on the island, the giant multinational hotel conglomerates have bought up all the land and are making plans to destroy it.

The island of Gavdos off the coast of Paleochora is your best bet for escaping the throngs during the summer months. This does not mean you will be alone there, but chances are anyone you see will be a lot like you. There is something funny about an island full of people seeking solitude. There is not much there besides a few beaches, tavernas and rooms and it’s inaccessibility makes it unlikely to be developed. There are rooms for rent which can be arranged from Paleochora.

Plakias, Agia Galini and Matala

Plakias Caves
Matala, Crete, Greece

These coastal villages have a lot in common. At one time they were remote villages with beautiful beaches, inexpensive rooms and small tavernas. Now they are built up with hotels, tour buses arriving by the minute, tourist shops and wild nightlife. But this is the case with lots of places in Greece and particularly Crete and if you are here in the summer you may as well enjoy it. Anyway we are not all traveling monks and recluses looking for olive groves on empty beaches where we can contemplate the success and failures of our lives. Some of us like to party at night and lay out on the beach and watch girls and guys in their bathing suits by day and these beaches are perfectly suitable. Plakias is 2 kilometers of tanned (and often lobster red), young,(and old) bodies. Matala is a coved beach with the hippy caves made famous by life magazine in the late sixties and thus changed forever. In the winter of 1973 I stayed in these caves until one day we were awakened by policemen led by priests who evicted us because they are actually mausoleums. In fact several of the caves had skeletons in the carved out beds we were sleeping in. Agia Galini is a full blown tourist resort however there are three good reasons to recommend going there. The sun is usually shining there, the people are nice, and I can’t remember the third. That being said, any of these places is fine during the off-season and being the southernmost part of Greece, they can be a little warmer in the winter. In fact I swam on New Years day in Matala in 1974. When I emerged from the water, Germans dressed in winter overcoats, scarves and hats gathered around to have their picture taken with me.

Agios Nikolaos

Agios Nikolaos, Crete, Greece
Agios Nikolaos, Crete, Greece

The town center of Agios Nikolaos is a bottomless lake, which is actually not a lake because it is connected to the sea and is not bottomless because it does not go all the way to the other side of the earth. But it is deep enough for the retreating Germans to dump all their tanks during WW2, and nobody has seen them since. Now the descendants of those same Germans can frolic in the sea and in the pubs with the descendants of the British people they fought, while being served by the descendants of the farmers who defended their land with muskets against those tanks at the bottom of the bottomless lake. Indeed ‘Ag Nik’ as the British tourists call it, is an interesting town, somewhat less so in the summer when it is so packed with tourists that the local buses can barely get through the streets. Nearby is the Elounda Beach, one of the most well known and successful resorts in the country and from what I have been told is not bad as resorts go. There are enough sandy coves and beaches along the coast so you can get away from the crowds if you want though you probably won’t find solitude unless you head inland.

Malia

Between Agios Nikolaos and Iraklion is the famous Malia which represents everything I dislike about the tourist industry in Greece. Once a small coastal village with an interesting Minoan archaeological site, it is now an overwhelming, chaotic collection of tourist shops, supermarkets, fast food restaurants, moped rental and travel agencies where you can’t walk down the street without being accosted by someone trying to get your attention so they can drag you into their restaurant. The once quiet beach is now packed with tourists who could not give a damn where they are as long as it is sunny and there is a beach and a pub nearby. There are plenty of pubs. Discos too, and they compete with each other by playing their music loudly to draw customers in. You have to wonder how anyone gets any sleep, but generally these people did not come for sleep. Nor did they come for Greece. They come because someone told them to come or because everyone else does, and the package tours rake in the pounds and shillings. Unfortunately this is what many of the coastal towns in Crete aspire to and even as far as Palakastro farmers have begun planting apartment buildings in their fields for the anticipated hordes. But before anyone accuses me of being unsympathetic to the needs of the people of Malia to make a living (well, get rich actually), or for the common people to have a place where they can go and spend their holidays unhindered by local culture and customs I have to admit that Malia does serve a purpose, much in the same way that prisons do by getting hoodlums off the streets. Working class people with simple needs should have a place in Greece to call their own. Not everybody cares about tradition or is enamored with the culture of Crete. Some people just want to get hot, wet and drunk. They want to go to a foreign land that is not too foreign and they want it to be cheap. Places like Malia are perfect for them, but if you are reading this it probably is not for you.

Sitia and Eastern Crete

Sitia, Crete
Sitia, Crete

The main road that runs between Agios Nikolaus and Sitia is one of the most dramatic in Crete, winding through olive groves on the steep sides of mountains where around every bend is a spectacular view. Sitia with a population of 8500 people, is the easternmost city on Crete and perhaps the least developed. Sitia has been inhabited since the Minoan period. At Petra, to the east of the town, a section of ancient settlement has been excavated. There is a waterfront with restaurants and cafes, a large public beach, and an archeological museum which holds many of the findings from Palekastro. Above the city is a Venetian castle where they have concerts, in fact we were lucky enough to see Ross Daley, an Irishman who single-handedly has popularized traditional Cretan music, on one of his rare visits to the far end of the island. There is a weekly boat that goes to Karpathos and Rhodes and returns to stop in Santorini, Ios, Sikinos, Folegandros, Milos and Sifnos before going back to Pireaus in case you are interested in a long and scenic return. Outside the city is one of the wonders of nature, a beach that attracts plastic from all over the Aegean. By some miracle of sea currents, this tiny beach seems to be Mecca for every bit of plastic that has been tossed or blown into the sea and though they try to clean it up continuously, it is a losing battle. On the bright side though, it is a beautiful site at sunset when the light reflects off every piece of plastic and engulfs the beach in a prism of beautiful colors like sparkling jewels. Recently the headlands next to the beach have been bought and developed into a large resort community and one must assume they have a plan to challenge nature and restore the beach to all it’s pristine glory. I for one will be disappointed at the loss of the plastic beach but I suppose there are benefits to having clean seas.

The Moon
Gaze at the Moon from the Sasteria Observatory Telescope

In the small mountain town of Agios Stefanos above the coastal town of Makriyialos, a unique place worth visiting is the Sasteria Observatory run by Belgian astronomist Filip Feys and his artist partner Chantel Debrabande. With Astronomy and Art Workshops in the day and star and planet-gazing at night through 4 state-of-the-art telescopes in the clear southern Crete skies they even organize nature walks in the surrounding hills and mountains every Wednesday. Every Sunday, the artistic activities are combined with a Cretan inspired lunch in the villages of Agios Stéfanos. At night you will see the sky as never before and even be able to take photos. In the day you can see aspects of the sun you never knew existed. For those who are staying in Ag Nikolaos, Irapetra a trip to the observatory is a wonderful diversion from the typical holiday activities.

Palekastro and Vai

Crete, Vai beach
Crete, Vai beach

The town of Palekastro or PK as the archaeologists call it, is an agricultural town which has opened its arms to embrace the mass tourism which has not quite arrived yet. There are plenty of working class tavernas in the central part of town and plenty of working class people to fill them at night. The town is slowly being built up as apartment buildings and hotels have sprung from the ruins of the traditional stone family dwellings which have been allowed to collapse in favor of commerce. Still it’s not a bad place to stay. There are some nice beaches, miles of olive groves, hills and mountains and a wind that while some might call it maddening, I found it entertaining as it made it’s way through every crack and orifice in our hotel to create a symphony of whistles and banging. There are a couple nice tavernas by the old customs house on the beach and there you can find many of the archaeologists from the Minoan site nearby, mostly Americans and British.

The beach at Vai is very commercial with tour buses from all over the island, fast food, tavernas and corn on the cob sold in the massive parking lot. But Vai deserves the attention. Not only is it one of the nicest beaches in Greece, but it is also the only natural palm tree forest in Europe. Or at least that is what the guidebooks said and I had no reason to disbelieve them until I got an e-mail from Raul who told me that his town of Elche in Spain has over half a million palm trees! They have also won a world Heritage pride because of their palm tree forests. So that just goes to show you that you can’t trust everything you read in a guidebook. So let’s just say that Vai is the only palm tree forest in Southeastern Europe. There are also a couple huge pelicans that wander around terrorizing sunbathers by jumping on their backs as they sleep or sunbathe in the rented beach chairs.

Further north are the small beaches of Itanos where there are some classical ruins and a retired professor who lives in a hut and entertains dignitaries with grilled fish and raki. The day we were there we just missed Constantine Mitsotakis, the former Prime Minister.

Toplou Monastery
Crete, Greece: Toplou Monastery

Nearby is the Toplou Monastery with it’s high walls and beautiful gardens, worth a visit, especially if you are interested in Byzantine icons. The icon of The Theotokos the Immaculate is one of the most holy in all of Greece and some of the works of the well known iconographer Ioannis Kornaros are on display. The monastery also took part in the uprising of 1866 and in the resistance against the German occupation when a wireless transmitter was placed here.

The eastern most tip of Crete, the beach town of Kato Zakto is at the bottom of an enormous gorge and the journey from upper Zakro will test your courage while it amazes you. The mountain road is suspended above the sea and as exciting as the ride is, the village is a welcome sight. The gorge is known as the ‘Valley of the Dead’ and contains ancient tombs and an impressive Minoan site. There are tavernas along the beach with fresh fish and there are rooms to rent though they can get scarce in the mid summer. Beyond Zakro the pavement ends but if you are adventurous don’t let that stop you. There are some amazing secluded beaches and tiny isolated tavernas that you can have all to yourself where the food is inexpensive and excellent.

Iraklion: Crete’s Capital

Crete, Greece, Iraklion
Crete, Greece, Iraklion

Iraklion is Crete’s main city and has a population of over 120,000. Most people arrive here and base themselves in one of the hotels within or on the outskirts of the city. There is an international airport and an enormous harbor full of ferries and cruise ships and the Palace of Knossos is one of the few places that visitors to Crete have ever really heard of if they were paying attention in ancient history class. The city is built on the side of a hill overlooking the port and it’s a climb to the center of town with a fully loaded backpack. Mercifully there are taxis below and the bus station is also in the port area where you can leave your bags and wander around in the town above until you know where you are going.

Like most cities there are local buses, traffic lights, plenty of cars and trucks, hotels, shops, restaurants, fast food and a terrific central market in the center of town. The square of Elefteriou Venizelou is a pedestrian area full of cafes and restaurants and if you wander through the tiny back streets that are mostly closed to automobile traffic you will come across some interesting shops. In the restored Venetian church of Agios Markos they hold concerts in the summertime. The archaeological museum is the best on Crete and contains Minoan relics from all over the island. There is a huge fortress in the harbor built by Venetians that protected the town from invasion. Throughout the city there are examples of Venetian architecture and it is a pleasure to explore, especially in the off-season when the temperatures are cooler and they crowds have dwindled.

Nikos Kazantzakis: Greece’s Greatest Modern Writer

Crete, Greece, Kazantzakis, A very special place for me is the grave of the writer Nikos Kazantzakis who wrote among other things Zorba the Greek, The Last temptation of Christ, Freedom or Death, Report to Greco and the Modern Sequel to the Odyssey.

Nikos Kazantzakis
Nikos Kazantzakis

He has also written numerous travel books and philosophical works. Colin Wilson wrote that if Kazantzakis were Russian he would be considered one of the world’s greatest writers. Well he wrote that in the early sixties when few people knew of him and since then Kazantzakis has become one of the world’s greatest writers by the millions of people who have read his books in translation.

If you have not read it already, Zorba makes wonderful complimentary reading for your visit to Crete. Kazantzakis grave is on the south wall of the city.
His epitaph is “I hope for nothing, I fear nothing, I am free”

Though a national hero, Kazantzakis was excommunicated by the Greek church which is why his grave is on the wall and not in a cemetary.

Knossos: Ancient Minoan Crete

Knossos, Crete
Crete, Greece, Knossos

The Palace of Knossos is a few kilometers south of the city and easily accessible by bus or taxi, but should be seen as early as possible or in the off-season. The ruins are extensive and fascinating and should be enjoyed at a time when you are not suffering from the heat or trampled by the crowds. Among the ruins, beautiful frescos and giant pithoi are the remains of the world’s first flush toilet.

The Best Way to See Crete

Crete, Greece, Greek islands Crete is a big island that can appeal to a variety of people in different ways. I don’t discourage anyone from going there whether you are a sun-worshiping party animal or a cultural minded, eco tourist looking for the land of Zorba. But if you are the latter my advice is this: Visit Crete in the off-season.

Crete Local
Crete, Greece: One of the Locals

Base yourself in Chania for starters and explore the interior of the island, the mountain villages and the fields and hillsides which are alive with wildflowers in the spring. You will need at least a week here. If possible, book yourself or have your travel agent book you in different towns around the island. You can even base yourself in the resort areas without running with the crowds, if it is near a part of the island you want to see. There are several guidebooks for sale on the island including a guide to the Monasteries which I recommend. Take your meals at the small tavernas in villages away from the tourists and get to know the people who are Crete’s finest asset. The fancy resorts are a modern phenomenon. Who knows if they are the trend or will wind up as relics like the ruins at Knossos? The point is they have been imposed upon the island by external forces who saw Crete as a paradise on earth, well worth the exploitation. I don’t condemn this because the nature of tourism is commerce and who am I to judge the needs of the package tourists or the Cretan people who prosper from the flow of dollars, pounds and Deutch-marks. If sun, sea, beer and companionship is what you have come to Greece for then you will find the resorts very satisfying as some of these giant companies have created a new Greece, grafting Caribbean tourist culture with the famous Hellenic hospitality. But if you are looking for the magic head for the hills. You’ll find the people where the tourists aren’t. As for the beaches, the island is big and somewhere there is a secluded little cove with your name on it.

Helpful Services and Information for Crete

Golf in Crete

Golf in Crete
Crete, Greece: Crete Golf Club

Crete is home to a spectacular 18-Hole Golf course! If you have always wanted to visit Greece but your husband won’t go on vacation anywhere he can’t play golf then come to Crete. See Crete Golf Club

Lefteris Nikiforakis Taxi Tours of Crete offer a one day tour and a 4 hour tour for people arriving on cruise ships who want to make the most of their time on the island. He also does custom trips and transfers to and from the port to hotels, the airport and anywhere on the island.

See www.greecetravel.com/crete/taxitours

Dolphin Hellas Travel offers individual hotels to Crete or packages in combination with Athens or other islands. See their web-site at www.greecetravel.com/dolphinhellas

Fantasy Travel in Athens is an excellent agency and they have some great prices for hotels in Crete as well as itineraries that combine Crete with other islands like Santorini, Mykonos, Rhodes and others. Prompt, efficient and highly recommended. See www.fantasytravelofgreece.com

Hotels in Crete

See Hotels of Greece for a listing of recommended hotels with photos, descriptions and booking information. The Hotel Porto Elounda Deluxe is listed by Conde Naste as one of the 100 best resorts in the world. The inexpensive but very comfortable Ammos Hotel in Chania is also highly recommended.

For houses and Villas for rent see www.greecetravel.com/villas

For hostels and very cheap accommodation see www.greecetravel.com/youth-hostels or try my hotel search page: www.hotelsofgreece.com/search

Eria Resort for the Disabled in Crete: The Eria Resort is specially designed with disabled people in mind located in the historic village of Maleme in an area of unique natural beauty, surrounded by olive groves with an unobstructed view of the Cretan sea.

Getting to Crete

For ferry schedules to Crete see www.athensguide.com/greek-island-ferry-schedules

If you want to continue on from Crete to the Peloponessos there is a ferry from Kissamos in western Crete to Kalamata every Wednesday at 07:00, and from Kissamos to Githion every Sunday at 07:00. These routes are until the 23 of May. Afterwards the timetable will change. You can get information from Dimitris Xirouchakis who is the ferry agent and also owns the DELFINI, DIMITRIS-CHRYSSANY Apartments in Kissamos. His e-mail is dimitris@hotel-delfini.gr

For more information about Greece visit Matt Barrett’s Greece Travel Guide.

If you have questions about Greece or you would like a copy of Matt Barrett’s Greece Travel Newsletter or Greek Island Synopsis email: matt@greecetravel.com

If you arrive from abroad and you need to get to Pireaus to catch the ferry to Crete I recommend George the Famous Taxi Driver. Plus if you have some time to spare, as some of you will, you can do a little tour of the city. For your return to Athens from Crete I also recommend using him to get to your hotel or the airport. When the ferries arrive in Pireaus there are usually just 3 or 4 taxis waiting for several hundred disembarking passengers. You will be very relieved to see a guy holding up a sign with your name on it. See his web-site at www.greecetravel.com/taxi

For information on restaurants in the Chania and Western Crete area see Chania Restaurants by Nikos Tsepetis and Chania Crete Excursions which includes secluded beaches, traditional villages, spectacular gorges and places to visit and to avoid.