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.Read More
With its temperate climate and varied topography Crete is a great place for adventure holidays, and there are numerous companies across the island offering everything from mountain biking and canyoning to trekking and horseriding. Here’s a selection of what’s on offer. Watersports and diving operators are also listed throughout the chapter.
Liquid Bungy bungy.gr. White-knuckle bungee jumping (Europe’s second highest) at the Arádhena Gorge, Haniá.
Trekking Plan cycling.gr. Rock climbing, mountaineering, canyoning, rappelling, kayaking and mountain biking in Haniá province.
Melanouri melanouri.com. Horseriding holidays (one to seven days) from a stable near Mátala.
Odysseia horseriding.gr. One- to six-day guided and unguided horse treks from their base at Avdhoú near the Lasíthi Plateau.
Zoraïda’s Horseriding zoraidas-horseriding.com. Horseriding holidays and treks from their stables in Yeoryoúpoli, Haniá.
Walking and cycling
Alpine Travel alpine.gr. Hiking, rock climbing, sea kayaking and biking holidays (or combinations thereof) in Haniá province.
Cretan Adventures cretanadventures.gr. Hiking, horseriding and jeep safaris throughout Crete.
The Happy Walker happywalker.com. Walking tours from one day to two weeks from €30 (for the day-hike which includes minibus from your hotel to start point).
Hellas Bike hellasbike.net. One- to seven-day bike tours from Ayía Marína in Haniá province.
Korifi Tours korifi.de. Hiking and climbing holidays in central, southern and western Crete.
Olympic Bike olympicbike.com. Guided bike tours from €139 for three one-day trips, or bike rental only from €20 per day.
Strata Walking Tours stratatours.com. Guided trekking holidays in the Kastélli Kissamou area of Haniá.
Wine tasting in Crete
Wine tasting in Crete
As well as the large Péza region near Knossos and the ancient vineyard at Vathýpetro, there are also vineyards in eastern Crete, around Sitía, another major producer, and smaller vineyards in the west around Haniá. The main grape varieties grown on the island are the white Vilana and the red Mantilari, Kotsifari and Syrah grapes. Wine tasting and cellar tours can be undertaken during the summer months.
The Cretans love a glendi (party) and festivals are celebrated with plenty of eating, drinking, live music and dancing. Here are some of those which celebrate local harvests (check locally for specific dates):
Chestnut Festival Élos and Prásses, West Crete, end of October. The village squares are packed with tables and chairs as the villages celebrate the local chestnut harvest with eating, drinking, dancing, and roast chestnuts, of course.
Sardine Festival Néa Hóra, Haniá. The first Monday in September is the date for this annual festival at the small harbour by the town beach, with plentiful free fish and wine with local musicians and dancers.
Sultana Festival Sitía, in August. The region is well known for its sultana production, and the harvest is celebrated with traditional Cretan music and dance in the main square, accompanied by food and wine.
Tsikoudiá (Raki) Festival Haniá, Iráklion and Voukoliés, mid-October and early November. At the end of the grape harvest the must-residue from the wine press is boiled and distilled to make tsikoudiá, the local fire water. Hot tsikoudiá, with an alcohol content as high as 60 percent, is scooped from the vats and proffered in shot glasses, and so the merriment begins.
Ecotourism in Crete
Ecotourism in Crete
Crete has an incredibly diverse landscape, flora and fauna, and a number of environmentally aware locals have set about preserving its natural and cultural heritage. A range of retreats and lodges has sprung up across the island, offering the chance to experience sustainable, eco-friendly living and participate in everything from hiking to making the local firewater tsikoudhiá.