Having visited several Greek islands in the Cyclades, the Dodecanese, the Argo-Saronic, the Ionian, and Crete; it is really difficult to pick a favorite. Each of the islands has its individual appeal and unique character. Nonetheless, if I had to pick just ONE island which offers everything, it would be Crete. So, what do I mean by "offers everything?" For me, it means ... pristine beaches, serene sunrises, gorgeous sunsets, quaint towns, beautiful nature, and of course, fascinating HISTORY. All of these categories are amply satisfied on this HUGE island, where a car is a must ... or at the least HIGHLY recommended! Because the island is so large, about 160 miles long and 37 miles wide, there is A LOT to see and do and it NEVER feels claustrophobic. The only thing that is small about Crete is the length of time that most people typically stay. So when it comes to Crete, ONE visit is just not enough!
Let's start with amazing beaches. A large island has a large perimeter. That means a long irregular shoreline with many nooks and crannies and caves and coves. The northern coastal waters are more gentle and shallow, with numerous developed beaches along the length. That is the commercial side of the island loaded with stretches of sandy beaches and many hotels. The main road connecting the east and west ends of Crete runs right along the Northern coastline. It is here that you will find incredible beaches like Balos lagoon at the far northwestern end, Istro beach at Agios Nikolaos, and Vai beach at the far northeastern end of Crete, with MANY, MANY others in between.
The southern shoreline is rockier with precipitous cliffs and choppier waters and remains blessedly unspoiled. This scenario allows for amazing coves and hidden beaches, some of which are accessible only by boat. My favorite beach on Crete is at the southwestern corner of the island, named Elafonissi beach. This is a gorgeous beach, associated with a nature park that is separated from the island by a large sand bar. The sand at Elafonissi is often various shades of pink, depending on the tides and the time of year; a result of the finely crushed shells and broken coral pieces that mix with the white sand. Beaches on Crete, and throughout the Greek islands for that matter, run the gamut from textile to topless to naturist. The choice is yours. Some beaches are more developed, offering sunbeds and an umbrella for a modest fee, as well as refreshments, tavernas, and water sport rentals. Others are isolated and offer no services whatsoever. It is possible to charter a boat with a skipper, either privately or with an organized small group, and visit many "hidden beaches" and coves, or to participate in a sunset cruise. Private boat rentals, without a skipper, are also available.
Chania is a large town on the western end of Crete and has a charming atmosphere. It makes for a great base for many of the nearby western beaches, including both Balos and Elafonissi, as well as for the Samaria Gorge which I will describe below. Chania's architecture displays the quintessential appearance of a Venetian quarter. Having been ruled by the Venetians for about 400 years beginning in early 1200 AD, the town still has several neoclassical mansions and a massive Venetian fortification. This picturesque 'old town' features houses with wooden balconies overhanging a maze of narrow music-filled cobbled backstreets. Chania is set alongside the sea and filled with cute shops, restaurants, bars, and inns. Watching the sun set "into" the sea from Chania's harbor is truly magical.
Another "not to miss" city on the island, but located on the eastern end of Crete, is Iraklio (Heraklion). This city also has much to offer, although it is not as quaint and charming as Chania. It serves as a great base for exploring the eastern end of the island including the beaches at Agios Nikolaos and Vai. It is also located in close proximity to Knossos, the massive archaeological site of the capital of the Minoan civilization from ~3000-1500 BC. The Heraklion Archaeological Museum should be an 'absolute MUST' during your visit. It houses a priceless collection of Minoan and Mycenean finds from Knossos and the entire island. Heraklion also has a large active port welcoming boats and ferries from other islands and the mainland. Watching the sunrise across the tranquil Heraklion harbor appears as if the sun was simply plucked from the sea horizon. Countless restaurants and shops exist in Heraklion, as well. The fantastic Cretan cuisine and exceptional hospitality can be enjoyed throughout the island. Lastly, it is interesting to note that the famous Renaissance painter, El Greco ('The Greek') whom I previously blogged about, was born in Heraklion, Crete. It is on this beautiful island that he was rooted in the Cretan School of Painting, before moving to Venice to study under Titian.
The landscape and terrain of Crete are different from the many other smaller Greek islands. Foliage is greener, plants are denser and flowers more numerous. Overall the island appears less arid and sparse. Abundant olive groves and orange orchards exist throughout the island. Majestic mountains and deep gorges intermix to create an environment that is both varied and interesting. Freshwater marshes act as magnets for various waterbirds, while Crete's ideal positioning between North Africa and mainland Greece makes it a staging post for migrant birds. Hence, much unique flora and fauna can be found on Crete. The shade of the tree canopies and the ravines streaming with cool running water provide an inviting landscape to hike and explore.
Samaria Gorge, cutting through the White Mountains, is one such landscape as it is the largest canyon on Crete and the 2nd largest in all of Europe. A 10-mile trail begins at the top of the gorge (at an elevation of 4,035 ft) and descends alongside steep cliffs offering spectacular views, to ultimately end at the seaport town of Agia Roumeli on the southern coastline of the island. There are several welcoming tavernas in Agia Roumeli with wide selections of food and cold refreshments, as well as an inviting black sand beach with crystal clear waters to cool off in after the long hike. Since no roads lead out from this seaside town, you will need to take a ferry to an adjacent south coast port where busses are waiting or taxis can be hired. The descent is steepest, and therefore hardest on the knees, at the early part of the trail during the first 2 miles; but the gradient decreases as the trail progresses. Most average hikers should allow about 5-7 hours to complete the hike. It is a workout ... but SO worth it!
Lastly, one of my favorite topics ... HISTORY! I admit that I get a bit bored of just laying on a beach and I am not one who enjoys much shopping. However, I love museums and archaeological sites. So for me, an island like Crete is paradise! As I alluded to above, Crete was the homestead of the Minoans who were likely the most advanced civilization of their time. They flourished during the Bronze Age, from roughly 3000 BC until 1500 BC, at which time the Minoan civilization declined and was replaced by the Mycenaeans. Their capital was in Knossos where they had an elaborate, multi-level palace complex ornately decorated with frescoes as well as a throne room. It contained over 1,000 rooms and had a complex drainage system, flushing toilets, and paved roads. The Minoans left behind many tools, artwork (pottery and fresco technique), a unique 'Linear A' writing system (that has yet to be deciphered), as well a vast maritime trading network. Their trading reach extended to the Cyclades (Akrotiri on Santorini), the Old Kingdom of Egypt, copper-bearing Cypress, cedar-yielding Levant, Canaan, and Anatolia. Their civilization was rediscovered in the 20th century. Outside of Knossos, a second large palace complex was unearthed in Phaistos, close to the southern coast of Crete. Minoan treasures have been found throughout the island and are now predominantly housed in the Heraklion Archaeological Museum. Many of the original frescoes from the palaces have been transported to that museum and are beautifully displayed in The Hall of the Frescoes.
Certainly, in a 6-minute blog, it is IMPOSSIBLE to cover all that Crete has to offer. Details of all of its beaches, alone, can occupy an entire guidebook. As can a thorough history of the Minoan civilization and their archaeological treasures. But, I hope to at least impress upon you the diversity, beauty, and abundance that this magnificent, large island offers. Perhaps, I have even enticed you to GO!! Ideally, two weeks would be needed to do it justice. A visit to Crete is convenient to arrange either by air or sea. Crete has 6 passenger ports with daily ferry connections to the mainland and other islands. Also, Chania and Heraklion each have their own airports that accommodate both domestic and international flights. All of the Greek islands are truly spectacular and I have never visited one that I did not like. But, Crete, in my opinion, stands out because it hits ALL of the categories that are important to me ... gorgeous beaches, tranquil sunrises and sunsets, charming towns, beautiful nature and landscape and of course, fascinating history!