Crete : a land of mountains and sand
Crete is not only the largest of the Greek Islands, with a 1,000 kilometre coastline, it's also an island that demands to be explored. Crete is exceptionally rich in beaches, mountains, flora, scenery and history.
Package holiday sprawl may have overrun much of north and eastern Crete but the south and west are relatively unspoilt and the majestic mountains remain completely wild.
Crete is one of the most popular holiday destinations in Greece and accounts for a giant slice of the Greek holiday market.
Beaches to the east Crete have long been subject to almost unbridled package holiday tourism with resorts between Heraklion and Malia almost wholly given over to all-inclusive holiday complexes.
The rest of Crete is defined by the mighty mountain ranges that form the backbone of Crete creating two climates; in the north the Mediterranean and in the south the North African.
The north coast is serviced by a major highway that that runs the 256km length of Crete, punctuated by the three cities of Heraklion, Rethymnon and Chania each full of history and character.
The busiest beach resorts are found near the airports and cities. Resorts like Malia and Hersonnisos, for example, are big party resorts packed with clubs and bars while Chania, in the west, has the busy beaches of Agia Marina and Platanias.
North coast beach resorts vary from the heavily developed holiday resorts like Platanias to the family beach sands of Almyrida and Panormos. Roads thread inland over the mountains passing through traditional hill villages and along dramatic canyons that eventually spill out into the Lybian Sea.
Beaches on the north coast tend to be fairly crowded as they are all linked by the National Road than runs the length of the island. Smallers resorts in areas like Apokoronas, Akrotiri and Kastelli Kissamos offer more relaxed surroundings.
For peace and quiet head south over the mountains, or west to the remote but beautiful beach hideaways. Resorts here tend to be scattered and they are not always easy to get to (some even need a ferry boat) but the south-facing sands enjoy a North African climate and the pace is much less frenzied.
The south coast beaches are far more scattered and much less developed. They also enjoy a sunnier position, sheltered by the massive mountains. To the far west are beaches remote, wild and extraordinarily beautiful — a magnet for day trippers by coach, car and boat.
The Cretans themselves are a notoriously proud but extremely friendly, especially with visitors. They have kept their culture, customs and traditions intact despite the annual influx of foreign visitors and right across Crete are charming mountain villages unaffected by tourism.
The island's remarkable history is evident at every turn, from the extraordinary ruins of the Minoan palace at Knossos to the Venetian Fortezza of Rethymon; the Byzantine mountain monasteries to the simply astounding archaeological museum at Heraklion.
Crete has holiday accommodation to suit all tastes and budgets. Package holiday accommodation is concentrated in the big holiday beach resorts while the cities of Heraklion, Chania and Rethymnon are packed with small hotels, many in restored Venetian mansions, where visitors can usually find a room even without a reservation.
Inland villages also offer the chance of cheap rooms away from the crowds. Freelance camping was once common but is now outlawed except in official campsites.
On the south coast most visitors will find studio accommodation in resorts such as Paleochora, Plakia and Agia Galini.
There are almost too many interesting sites on Crete to mention. Everywhere is surrounded by beautiful landscapes with the central mountain ranges forming an impressive backdrop. Here are just a few of the top sights to see on Crete.
Samaria National Park
This breathtaking 16km long gorge is one of the longest in Europe and a hike of the complete gorge takes five to seven hours. In the south the cliffs can claustrophobically close and almost converge at the 'Iron Gates' where they are just 4 metres apart at the base and tower 1,000 ft up. The park is open from May to mid-October.
Palace of Knossos
The ruins of ancient Minoan civilisation are by far the most extensive and famous sites on Crete while the Archaeological Museum of Heraklion contains wonderful treasures from the site. The ruins of Phaistos and the Palace of Malia are also most impressive but remember Crete covered in ancient treasures and interesting ruins can be found almost anywhere. Most sites are well marked with road signs in English and Greek.
These are found all over the island, most are well signposted and almost all allow visitors and will have a small museum. Some of the best are Selinari, on the National Road between Malia and Agiios Nikolaos; Prevelli Monastery near Spili which played a huge part in World War II and has one of Crete's most spectacular beaches nearby and Arkadi which houses the 'Sanctuary of the Dead' where rows of ancient skulls line the shelves.
This large and fertile plateau lies hidden in the mountains in the centre of the White Mountains. It has dozens of old stone windmills, many turned into beautifully restored private homes.
Crete summers start earlier and last longer than on other Greek islands. In spring Crete is full of wild flowers, many of them native to the island. By July expect temperatures to soar, easily topping 30°C every day, and rainfall to be non-existent. Autumn storms can last a week or so but November can be a warm and balmy.
The central mountain range splits the climate of Crete in two with the south much hotter than the north and the west wetter than the east. Mountain areas are always cooler and often snow-covered until May.
Crete has three large airports: Heraklion takes the bulk of package holiday traffic heading for the north-east coat; Chania airport is smaller and takes west Crete traffic while Sitia caters for domestic flights, mainly from Athens. Holiday charter flights arrive at Heraklion and Chania from many European airports. There are daily flights from Athens and Thessaloniki to Heraklion and Chania and also a daily flights to Rhodes.
The main ferry ports on Crete are Heraklion, Chania, Rethymnon, Sitia, and Kastelli-Kissamos. Ferry services operate from Piraeus to Heraklion, Rethymnon and Chania and from Thessaloniki and the Cyclades to Heraklion. There are also ferry services to several other Greek Islands including Rhodes and Santorini. A dally ferry links the south coast resorts of Paleochora, Sougia, Agia Roumeli, Loutro and Sfakia.
The main highway runs the length of Crete following the north coast. It's not dual carriageway but it is wide, well maintained and well signposted, providing easy access to the north coast beach resorts. Roads over the mountains are generally excellent but the winding roads often mean journey times are longer than expected from reading a map.
KTEL runs regular buses between Rethymnon and Chania and there are services to many inland villages. Taxis are common and relatively cheap. Fares are regulated and metered.
The main hiking route on Crete is part of the E4 European Long Distance Path. The E4 trail covers the White Mountains (Lefki Ori), Mount Psiloritis and Mount Dikti. The E4 Path is 320 km long. It starts at Kastelli Kissamos in the north-west and crosses to Kato Zakros in the east.
The city of Rethymnon on the north coast of Crete is packed with colourful parades and impromptu street parties in a celebration that has been running more than 100 years.
An intricate mosaic of pebble and stone cover a complex of buildings at Koumos, including a taverna and even a chapel, in an architectural extravaganza that will take your breath away.
Also, among the weapons on display at the Arkadi Monastery are some of those used in the famous siege, including flintlock rifles and long-barrelled pistols as well muskets.
Crete may be a holiday hotspot today but the islands was once the scene of a ferocious firefight between Allied troops and German paratroopers now buried in war cemeteries.