Eastern Crete is dominated by Áyios Nikólaos, a small cosmopolitan town and resort, and its close neighbour Eloúnda, the home of luxury hotel and villa complexes, and the gateway to the mysterious islet of Spinalónga. Inland from Áyios Nikólaos, Kritsá with its famous frescoed church and textile sellers and the imposing ruins of ancient Lato make for good excursions. Further inland, the extraordinary Lasíthi Plateau is worth a night’s stay if only to observe its abidingly rural life. Far fewer people venture beyond the road south to Ierápetra and east to Sitía, where only the famous beach at Váï ever sees anything approaching a crowd.
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ÁYIOS NIKÓLAOS, known simply as “Áyios” to the locals, is set around a supposedly bottomless salt lake, now connected to the sea to form an inner harbour. It is supremely picturesque and has some style and charm, which it exploits to the full. The excellent archeological museum (Tues–Sun 8.30am–3pm; €3) on Paleológou north of the lake, and an interesting Folk Museum (Tues–Sun April–Oct 10am–2pm and 5–7pm; €3) near the tourist office are both worth seeking out. Both the lake and the harbour area are surrounded by charming restaurants and bars.
The small and busy Kitroplatía beach lies just around the southwest corner of the port and is lined with tavernas and cafés, while 1km beyond here, past the marina, lies the much larger, and well-kept, municipal beach. There are further swimming opportunities to the north around Eloúnda, and some great backcountry inland – perfect to explore on a scooter.
Scores of daily tour buses visit the LASÍTHI PLATEAU to view the “thousands of white-cloth-sailed windmills” which irrigate the high plain. In fact there are very few working windmills left, although most roadside tavernas seem to have adopted many of those made redundant as marketing features. The drive alone is worthwhile, however, and the plain is a fine example of rural Crete at work, every inch devoted to the cultivation of potatoes, apples, figs, olives and a host of other crops; stay in one of the villages for a night or two and you’ll see real life return as the tourists leave.