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Essential Crete: the inside guide

Come for the beaches — but don’t forget the mountains, food, wine and ancient relics. Here is your guide to the ultimate Greek island

Crete is charged with superlatives. Like its native sons, Zeus and Zorba, it is Greece distilled: passionate, larger than life, a little bit crazy. Crete’s sun is hotter, its traditional music and dancing faster. Even its myths are older, stretching back 4,000 years to the Minoans, the first literate European civilisation.

On the largest of the Greek islands, gorgeous beaches are a given. But Crete also has mountain ranges and timeless villages embedded in olive groves. Set between Europe, Asia and Africa, it’s a botanical Eden — a richness reflected in the island’s food and wine.

It takes a full six hours to drive across Crete, so, for a holiday, we’d advise choosing sides. The east has the best archaeological sites, the capital, Iraklion, and the spectacular, Riviera-like Mirabello Gulf, rimmed by lively Agios Nikolaos and swanky Elounda — but avoid the overbuilt strip around Malia. Further east, towards Sitia, the spirit of Old Greece lives on.

Western Crete, home to the island’s most beautiful cities, Chania and Rethymnon, is greener — and prime villa country. The landscapes here are covered with cypress, olive and citrus groves; wild, sandy beaches line the far west coast. Over the mountains, the Libyan Sea coast has few roads and an end-of-the-world feel, which you may like best of all.

The beaches

Balos
This is Crete’s ultimate beach photo op — a swoosh of white sand forming an aquamarine lagoon so clear that boats cast shadows on the ocean floor. Get there by sea from the northwestern port of Kissamos (£23; stratatours.com), or brave the rocky, narrow road for the angel’s-eye vision of Balos from the car park (£1), before tackling the, count them, 845 steps. Sunbeds and snacks are available, but save your appetite for salads featuring stamnagathi (wild chicory) and herbal cheese pies at Gramvousa, in nearby Kaliviani (mains from £6; gramvousarestaurant.com).

Elafonisi
A mountain road winds down Crete’s west coast to coral-tinted sands and a shallow turquoise lagoon. A protected site, it comes with the essential beach bars, sunbeds and umbrellas (£6), though you can escape the crowds by wading out to a quiet cove on the tiny islet of Elafonisi. In season, the free car park fills up fast, but early or late in the year, you can have it practically to yourself — and sea temperatures here hit 20C by late April.

Matala
Laid-back Matala was once notorious for the hippies who moved into the ancient tombs carved in its sandstone cliffs. (Joni Mitchell was there for sure, Bob Dylan allegedly.) The village’s soft crescent of sand is still a groovy hang-out, though things are calmer now (except for three days during the Matala Beach festival — this year, June 16-18). Channel the spirit of the 1960s in the caves, loll under tamarisks, have lunch in the Taverna Sunset (mains from £5) and hike over the headland to the red sand of Kokkinos Ammos, where clothes are optional.

Vai
This is a Caribbean-style fantasy: satin sands, aquamarine water and a 3,000-year-old natural palm grove, the largest in Europe. Now a conservation area, it has a car park (£2.60), snack bars, loungers and parasols (£8), though just plopping your towel under a palm à la Robinson Crusoe works pretty well. In high season, coaches pour in from the nearby resorts on the northeast coast, but get there by 8am and you can have a blissful hour to yourself.

Paleochora
This village has two of the finest beaches on the south coast, with fans ranging from young families to retirees. West of the castle-crowned peninsula, the half-mile Pachia Ammos has sugary sand and tamarisks, but can get blustery (hence the windsurfing boards for hire). East of the peninsula, pebbly, taverna-lined Chalikia is nearly always calm and clear. Consider heading along the coast to Sougia by ferry, from which whales and dolphins can often be seen frolicking (£19 return; anendyk.gr).

The days out

Off-road to Zeus’s birthplace
To visit Crete’s rugged interior is to step back into another time. An ideal way to see it without having to keep your eyes on the road is on Safari Club’s day-long 4×4 tour. Its Katharo route takes in remote mountains, the island’s largest forest and the high-altitude Lassithi plateau, with a chance to descend into Dikteon Cave, birthplace of Zeus. How do you follow that up? With a selfie by a 2,000-year-old plane tree and the chance to spot rare bearded vultures (£70, including lunch; safariclub.gr).

Heroic monks and an exotic swim
The monks of Moni Preveli, on the south coast, helped Allied soldiers escape to Egypt after the German invasion in 1941. Now a handful of them occupy their serenely peaceful monastery. Take in the heart-stopping views over the sea, buy the monks’ exquisite honey, then take a panoramic drive down to the seafront car park (£2). From here, the steps are many, but the reward is to cool off in the Megapotamos river, in a luxuriant palm-forested ravine (preveli.org).

Crete’s loveliest town
A mix of medieval Venetian, Ottoman and neoclassical architecture makes Chania look as bijou as Portofino. Inhale the smell of freshly plucked produce in the covered market, stroll its mesh of bougainvillea-draped lanes, then head 2½ miles west for lunch and a swim at the wooded bays of Agios Apostoli. Return in the evening at cocktail hour, when the port sparkles: the Salis restaurant, on the waterfront, offers an exceptional Cretan wine list to go with its modern Greek cuisine, including spicy cheese dip and seared tuna (mains from £6; salischania.com).

Ride a horse in the sea
Twittering birds and the musical clank of goat bells are often the loudest sounds you’ll hear from the saddle on the trails and through the sleepy villages in the foothills of the White Mountains. The Deres Horse Riding Centre, southwest of Chania, offers tours for beginners through orange and olive groves; experienced riders can take a day ride down to Tavronitis beach, ending with a splash in the sea (one-hour tour from £39, full day from £112; chaniahorseriding.com).


The Venetian quay in Chania

Sail away
Chryssi Island, in the Libyan Sea, comes pretty close to paradise, being covered in golden sand and fragrant, stunted, century-old cedars of Lebanon, with shores lapped by clear blue-green waters. Boats take about an hour to sail there from Ierapetra (£22; cretandailycruises.com) and, while most people are happy to be seduced by the beautiful beach beside the port, a walk through the cedars takes you to quieter northern beaches that are covered with seashells. Take water, a picnic and swim shoes: the seashells are sharp.

The hikes

Crete’s staggering variety of landscapes away from the busy north coast are crisscrossed by ancient trails that make for lovely walks. Rambling doesn’t have to be limited to the off season; in summer, many of the high-walled gorges offer shade.

The 10-mile Samaria Gorge is the longest in Europe and Crete’s most spectacular walk. It’s open from May until mid-October, and the descent from the starting point, the 3,415ft Omalos plateau, takes six hours. (It’s impossible to return to Omalos in a day, so you’ll need to take a bus or taxi there.) Towards the end of the gorge, through the sheer-walled, 10ft wide “Iron Gates”, lies Agia Roumeli, a tiny port on the Libyan Sea linked by ferry to Sougia, where waiting coaches return to the towns in the north. Rather than organising a trek on your own, go with Diana’s Travel, which can arrange early-morning hotel pick-ups and returns from Sougia in the late afternoon (£26; dianas-travel.com).

The five-mile Imbros Gorge is easier, quieter, more family-friendly and nearly as spectacular. It’s open all year, too. From Chora Sfakion, take a taxi (£18) and walk back. Allow three hours.

Part of the E4 European Long Distance Path ascends the three-mile Rouvas Gorge from Zaros, a lush beauty spot on the slopes of Crete’s highest peak, the 8,058ft Psiloritis. Start by Lake Votomos and walk up through oaks and a rare holly forest, taking in steep drops and cameo appearances of Psiloritis’s often snowcapped peak along the way. It takes about five hours there and back.

Where to eat

Ntounias, Drakona Keramia
It’s a half-hour drive from Chania to this extraordinary restaurant run by the endlessly enthusiastic Stelios Trilyrakis, whose family farm produces nearly every item on the menu. He mills four kinds of grain for his bread, makes his own cheese and prepares dishes from the best available ingredients, slow-cooked over a wood fire. Sit on the terrace, with its enchanting views, sampling the rooster and pasta, kid stewed in a ceramic pot and ragout with chestnuts — and discover just how well Cretans ate a century ago. Small plates from £3; ntounias.gr

Ferryman Taverna, Elounda
It might not be a traditional pre-dinner activity, but it’s well worth visiting the islet of Spinalonga, in Elounda Bay, where the last leper colony in Europe remained until 1957 — it’s memorably evoked in Victoria Hislop’s bestseller The Island (£7; tinyurl.com/h3k5jmn). Then head into Elounda itself to find this 40-year-old stalwart. Named after the 1970s BBC drama Who Pays the Ferryman? — the taverna was one of the sets — it serves superb homemade bread with dips, grilled bream, red mullet and melt-in-the-mouth kid. Book early to bag one of the four tables at the water’s edge — under the full moon, it’s impossibly romantic. Mains from £11; 00 30 28410 41230

Kouzinerie, Iraklion
Arrive hungry at this small restaurant on a pedestrian square. Meat is king here — its famous pork knuckle with crispy crackling is baked in a wood-fired oven for eight hours, until it falls off the bone, and is big enough to feed two or three. Kouzinerie also does exceptional salads and homemade desserts, including a decadent millefeuille. There’s a good Cretan wine list, too. Mains from £8; 00 30 2810 346452

Alekos, Vori
A truly simpatico husband-and-wife team offer a warm welcome at this taverna in Vori, near Matala, a village otherwise famous for its excellent ethnographic museum. Relax in a walled garden amid pomegranates, lemon trees and flowers, and feast on salads and tzatziki, delicate cheese pies, snails, lamb stew with artichokes and slow-baked meats. And chicken satay, if you’re Greek fooded-out. Mains from £5; tavernalekos.blogspot.gr

Mesostrati, Rethymnon
On a shady lane away from the city’s main tourist hub, George Sifakis’s stone taverna stands out for its home cooking and lively atmosphere. The walls are covered with photos of masters of the lyra (the Cretan fiddle, played on the knee), many of whom gather here to jam or play acoustic sets, especially on weekends, when Mesostrati throbs to the driving rhythms of traditional Cretan music, and dancing feet fly. Mains from £5; cretaislandservices.wix.com/mesostrati

The hotels

Old Phoenix, Loutro
When the rest of the world is driving you bananas, head to the Old Phoenix, secluded from civilisation on a tamarisk-shaded cove a 15-minute walk or boat taxi from Loutro, on Crete’s southeast coast. All the rooms have balconies and sea views; at night, the loudest sound is the murmur of the sea. The owner catches the fish served in the restaurant. And if you really, really need to stay in touch, there’s wi-fi on the terrace.
Doubles from £40; old-phoenix.com

Sitia Beach city resort
This immaculate hotel in the charming and still very Greek town of Sitia is a cheese pie’s toss away from a long, sandy beach. Besides being an excellent base for visiting Crete’s unspoilt far east, it’s great for just hanging out, with a spa and pools. The best rooms are poolside, away from the street. Families are well catered for, with bungalows, a kids’ disco and special meals. Doubles from £60, B&B; sitiabeach.com

Casa Delfino, Chania
King of the boutique hotel conversions in Chania, this 17th-century Venetian mansion offers understated elegance and a keen attention to detail. Goodies include a hot tub in the roof garden with views over the old port, a spa that you and yours can book to have all to yourself, and an excellent Cretan breakfast served in the pebble mosaic courtyard. Don’t miss the yoghurt with thyme honey. Doubles from £107, B&B; casadelfino.com

Kapsaliana Village Hotel, Arkadi
Beware: if you check in at this oasis of rural charm, you may never want to leave. An abandoned hamlet amid olive groves, lovingly converted into a hotel, Kapsaliana has unfussy but atmospheric rooms with stone arches, mini courtyards and walled terraces. The lounge occupies a huge 18th-century olive press. The staff are kind (children are very welcome) and there’s an enchanting secluded pool, a superb restaurant and soft lighting on starry nights. Doubles from £130, B&B; kapsalianavillage.gr

Domes of Elounda
This glam all-suite hotel, with bubble domes and mesmerising views across the water to Spinalonga, pulls out all the stops: marble baths, golden mosaic spa, four restaurants and an enormous range of well-thought-out experiences for couples and families. New this year is the Haute Living programme — VIP coddling in sleek private villas, with limousine or helicopter transfers, private pools, a personal concierge and a 24-hour dining service.
Doubles from £175, B&B; domesofelounda.com

Elounda Mare
The best recommendation for this swanky Relais & Châteaux pile is the number of return visitors: after our recent feature on a guest who had stayed 38 times, Sunday Times readers wrote in droves to agree it was a hotel worth going back to. It ticks all the boxes — serene sea-view rooms, suites or bungalows, Six Senses spa, private sandy beach, great facilities, good food — but the recurring theme for our correspondents was the warmth and kindness of the staff. Not cheap, but worth splashing out on. Doubles from £265, B&B; bungalows with a private pool start at £365, B&B; eloundamare.com

The villas

You’ll find every kind of villa on Crete, from complexes attached to five-star hotels, with all the bells and whistles (especially around Elounda), to standalone renovated properties in the lush hinterlands of Chania and Rethymnon.

Pure Crete specialises in farmhouses restored as holiday villas in the Apokoronas area, east of Chania. Its Villa Diktamo is ideal for families: isolated at the mouth of a gorge, but only 10 minutes from Kalyves beach (sleeps 6; from £1,348 a week; purecrete.com).

Simply Crete’s standout Swallow Cottage, named after the birds that swoop in the garden, offers rural bliss in Episkopi, 20 minutes from Iraklion (sleeps 8; from £1,599 a week; simplycrete holidays.co.uk).

Getting swisher, Luxury Villas on Crete has Villa Lene, in Kalathas, five miles from Chania airport, with an infinity pool and spectacular sunset views (sleeps 12; from £5,831 a week; luxuryvillasoncrete.com).

The James Villa Holidays portfolio includes the stone Villa Magda, which has a pool and gorgeous views, and is 30 minutes from Rethymnon (sleeps 4; from £469 a week; jamesvillas.co.uk).

Oliver’s Travels has the cool Villa Zaimis, set high above Chania, with an almond-shaped pool (sleeps 10; from £2,118 a week; oliverstravels.com).

Or blow the kids’ inheritance at Abercrombie & Kent’s antique-furnished Simeroma, near Elounda — there’s a Steinway grand piano and a croquet lawn (sleeps 16; from £18,170 a week; akvillas.com).

Flights

The international airports, Chania and Heraklion, have direct flights from the UK from late March to the end of October; in low season, you’ll have to fly via Athens.

Between them, easyJet and Jet2 fly to Heraklion from most UK airports, while Ryanair flies to Chania from seven airports, including, new for 2017, Birmingham. British Airways and Monarch also have services to Crete.

Crete’s bus service is good, if crowded in summer, but you’ll need a hire car to truly explore the island.

Tour operators

The Greece specialist Sunvil’s extensive offerings on Crete include flexible fly-drive holidays with a choice of hotels in 10 towns. A week staying in several places starts at £750pp, including flights and car hire (sunvil.co.uk). Cachet Travel has some keen package prices: its rustic Anatolika Cottage, an escapist’s dream house on the south coast, sleeping four, starts at £502pp, including flights and car hire (cachet-travel.co.uk).

Peter Sommer offers an expert-guided 13-day tour in April — Exploring Crete: Archaeology, Nature and Food. Prices start at £3,595pp, including all meals, hotels and travel, but excluding flights to Heraklion (petersommer.com).

Crete begs to be explored by foot — outside July and August. Inntravel’s walking week along the dramatic, mostly roadless southwest coast includes hotel stays, breakfasts and some other meals, transfers and baggage transport, but not flights. Prices start at £785pp. (inntravel.co.uk).

Crete tips

● Fill up the tank before driving into the mountains, where pumps are scarce. And always bear in mind that goats, tortoises and other creatures may be around the next bend

● Get into the Cretan rhythm by cramming everything you want to do into the cool morning and early afternoon. Have a boozy lunch at 3pm, nap until 7pm and dine at midnight under the stars

Email us your Crete tips: travel@sunday-times.co.uk

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Dig this: the island’s top archaeological sites

The centre of Aegean culture before the arrival of the Indo-European Greeks, Crete is the land of myth, where Europa, seduced by Zeus in the form of a bull, lent her name to an entire continent. The island’s archaeological sites are one of its chief glories.

Sir Arthur Evans’s early-20th-century reconstruction of his great discovery, the Bronze Age Minoan palace at Knossos, is where myth comes to life; you can just imagine the Minotaur lurking in the labyrinth. Combine it with the Minoans’ exquisite frescoes, vases and jewellery at the superb Archaeological Museum in nearby Iraklion. A £14 ticket gets you into both.

Unreconstructed (but still impressive) Minoan palaces can be found by the sea at Malia and Zakros, and south of Iraklion at Phaistos and Agia Triada. Near the last two, you can also visit the extensive remains of Gortyna, a Minoan town that grew to become the Roman capital of Crete and Libya, and is famous for its unique wall of blocks carved with the laws of the land as they stood in the 6th century BC (entry £5).

For sheer beauty, however, the 4th-century BC ruins of the Dorian city of Lato, near Agios Nikolaos, are hard to beat: they wind over a saddle between two hills, high above the sea (£2). On the way there, pause to take in the beautiful Byzantine frescoes in the 14th-century church of Panagia Kera (£2).

Find out more about all these attractions at odysseus.culture.gr


How to eat your way round Crete

It’s simple, delicious and good for you — after all, it was a postwar study into the islanders’ surprising longevity that led to the phrase “Mediterranean diet”. You can cook the same dishes at home, but on Crete, where the ingredients are locally sourced, sun-ripened and raised free-range, even a simple loaf of bread can be a culinary experience.

You’ll find all the classic Greek starters on the menu (tzatziki, aubergine dips), but if you’re going all-Cretan, kick off with dakos — barley rusks topped with tomatoes, olive oil and crumbled myzithra, a tangy whey cheese. Other favourites include stuffed courgette blossoms, snails fried with herbs and little pies filled with vegetables, meat or cheese.


Tasty treat: snails are a Cretan favourite

Foraging for the island’s thousands of varieties of wild greens and bulbs has never gone out of fashion: seek out stamnagathi (wild spiny chicory), delicious when served with kid or lamb, and avgolemono (egg-lemon sauce). And try apaki, cured pork smoked in a herbal fire; siglina, pieces of fat-preserved pork; and pilafs finished with creamy ewe’s or goat’s butter (staka). Cretans aren’t big on desserts, but don’t pass up a chance to try kalitsounia — pies filled with myzithra, lemon zest and cinnamon, drizzled with thyme honey.

The lofty limestone plateaus above Iraklion and Sitia are the heart of Greece’s second largest wine-producing area. Crete has some striking indigenous varietals: fragrant white vidiano and delicate thrapsathiri, and well-structured reds made from mandilari and liatiko grapes. Taste 10 of them on Vintage Routes’ Deluxe Peza Tour, which starts at£69pp, including lunch (vintagetourscrete.com).

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