Crete (Kríti) is a great deal more than just another Greek island. In many places, especially in the cities or along the developed north coast, it doesn’t feel like an island at all, but rather a substantial land in its own right. Which of course it is – a precipitous, wealthy and at times surprisingly cosmopolitan one with a tremendous and unique history. At the same time, it has everything you could want of a Greek island and more: great beaches, remote hinterlands and hospitable people.
With enough land for agriculture (and some surprisingly good vineyards), it’s one of the few Greek islands that could probably support itself without visitors. Nevertheless, tourism is an important part of the economy, particularly exploited along the north coast, where many resorts cater almost exclusively to rowdy young revellers lured by thumping bars and cheap booze. The quieter, less commercialized resorts and villages lie at either end of the island – west, towards Haniá and the smaller, less well-connected places along the south and west coasts, or east around Sitía. The high mountains of the interior are still barely touched by tourism.
Of the cities, sprawling Iráklion often gives a poor first impression of the island but is well worth a visit for its excellent archeological museum. It’s also close to the fabulous Minoan sites of Knossos, Phaestos and Ayía Triádha to the south (with Roman Gortys to provide contrast). Further east, the upmarket resort of Áyios Nikólaos provides sophisticated restaurants and hotels, while quiet, lazy Sitía is a perfect base for exploring the eastern coastline. Heading west, Réthymnon boasts a pretty old town and an excellent beach, though Haniá in the extreme west arguably beats it in terms of style and atmosphere. South of here is the Samariá Gorge, one of the best hikes in the country.
In terms of climate, Crete has by far the longest summers in Greece, and you can get a decent tan here right into October and swim at least from May until early November. The one seasonal blight is the meltémi, a northerly wind, which regularly blows harder and more continuously here than anywhere else in Greece – the locals may welcome its cooling effects, but it’s another reason (along with crowds and heat) to avoid an August visit if you can.
Crete is distinguished above all as the home of Europe’s earliest civilization, the Minoans. They had a remarkably advanced society, and formed the centre of a maritime trading empire as early as 2000 BC. The island’s strategic position between east and west has since continued to play a major role in its history. Control of the island passed from Greeks to Romans to Saracens, through the Byzantine empire to Venice, and finally to Turkey for more than two centuries. During World War II, Crete was occupied by the Germans and attained the dubious distinction of being the first place to be successfully invaded by paratroops.