CRETE: the ABC's of Greece's Alpha Island

"I hate Crete!" sniffed a well-known Greek editor I know (though for his sake as much as mine, I'm not naming names!). So actually he or she texted me this, you know how it goes these days, but the shade thrown left me stunned. What islands did the lady or fellow favor instead? "Mykonos or Hydra."

Well let me tell you, Crete will never be Mykonos or Hydra, because a lot of what Crete is about, frankly, is what those islands are not.

The fifth-largest island in the Mediterranean, Crete is to the Greeks megalonissos — the great island —and its vaunted reputation as a repository of Minoan ruins at sites like Knossos make it a cultural contender with no peer in the region. Its closest cultural cousin may be Greek but Crete is close to North Africa and Egypt too, and was drawn into various orbits depending on whomsoever was the alpha maritime power in the eastern reaches of the Mediterranean Sea.

The sheer size of the island makes it a bit of a juggernaut to see and "do" in one fell swoop: Frankly, you can’t. From east to west, the distance is approximately 160 miles and while distances north to south are much less, this is rugged and challenging terrain, and in some spots only accessible by boat.

Visit ethereal Balos Lagoon with Cretan Daily Cruises

“Crete may be an island, but it’s big enough so that it almost feels like a separate country from Greece” Kostas Filippakis, an Athens-based architect and designer who hails from Heraklion, the island’s capital city, told Greek Column. “One of the things I look forward to most when I return to visit are the landscapes, which are very mountainous and you might say mirror the character of the Cretan people — beaches aside, the place just has this certain depth to it that you won't find in typical ‘holiday’ islands.”

The Morosini Fountain in Heraklion, Crete, was built in the 1600s by the Venetians. (Photo courtesy of Region of Crete)

That said, the word is out about Crete, and in a normal year (remember those?) September — a month when visitors tend to trail off — is practically as busy as August. In some cases, heavily-Instagrammed spots like the old port of Chania and the wide lagoon of Balos are now at risk of the same kind of overtourism that has plagued destinations such as Venice and Barcelona in recent years. How the abyss of 2020 will roll into or otherwise impact 2021 remains to be seen.

The major cities of Crete, which are Heraklion, Rethymno and Chania, are all on the north coast which is also traditionally the more developed, touristy side of the island. Heraklion is one of the coolest island cities in the world. In the east, party spots like Hersonissos and Malia are well-known to British sun-seekers, while Agios Nikolaos draws a less booze-driven crowd. Nearby is Elounda, where posh if sometimes staid resorts like Elounda Mare and the Blue Resort & Spa are the standard-bearers of Cretan luxe. Between Agios Nikolaos and Elounda, the Wyndham Grand Crete Mirabello Bay is emerging from a massive renovation.

On the south side of the island, not far from the mythic seaside hippie enclave of Matala, the coast is sprinkled with tiny towns like Agia Galini where hotels are of the luxury, family-run variety like the well-established Irini Mare resort.

“Crete is the best Greek island because  we’ve got everything here, from the archaeology and amazing food to the scenery and stunning Mediterranean Sea views,” says Antonis Milolidakis, Irini Mare’s charismatic owner and general manager. “Cretan hospitality is one of the highlights for our guests — we produce our own olive oil and they love that too!”

Still not convinced? Here are some other factors helping to put Crete on the Greece-bound traveler’s radar this year.

The Longest Beach Season in Greece

You can visit the southernmost point in Europe during a trip to Crete (it’s in Gavdos, a tiny island south of the main island) and, as such, its beach season is probably one of the longest on the continent. Though the water is still pretty cool in April, you’ll find the water is warm enough for swimming well through October.

And Some of the Best Beaches

As would befit a Mediterranean island with an uncommonly long coast, Crete boasts some pretty spectacular beaches. Some beaches in the north and west of the island, such as Balos Lagoon and Elafonissi, may look spectacular on Instagram but (partly because of Instagram) tend to get overcrowded and are therefore best avoided in the peak months of July and August. And beaches in or very near to the main cities are generally not great. To find the best spots, you’ll need some wheels (for the best car rental deals, go local).

The Longest Gorge in Europe

While Crete is best-known as a sunny escape, its rugged and deeply chiseled coastline also makes it a paradise for hikers. The island is more about mountains and gorges than wide open spaces and plateaus (though there are a few of those) and the most spectacular ravine is the Samaria Gorge, nestled in the White Mountains on the south coast of Crete and part of a protected biosphere.  The popularity of the gorge’s 10-mile-long walking path does nothing to diminish the setting’s remote and rugged appeal; the trail starts at an elevation of more than 4,000 feet and culminates at the Libyan Sea. But it's not the only gorge... Uncrowded Ancient Ruins

The most famous ruins in Crete are the ancient Minoan palace ruins of Knossos, outside the capital city of Heraklion. While Knossos is an impressive site, it can get crowded with day-tripping cruise ship passengers. In general, the ruins sites in Crete are less well-preserved than those you’ll find around mainland Greece — they’re generally just a lot older — but the settings are often spectacular. A good example is Phaistos, another palatial, open-air Minoan site that’s a good ride south of Heraklion (but worth it). There are even a few beaches fringed with ruins, often unmarked.

More Hotel Choices

With Heraklion’s growing popularity as the gateway to Crete (with Chania following), a spate of new hotels have arrived, with more on the way. The recent debut of Legacy Gastro Suites, a “foodie” boutique hotel with in-room food stations, was an exciting addition to the scene.

Three International Airports

The main airport is Heraklion International Airport “Nikos Kazantzakis” (HER), named for the celebrated Cretan author of “Zorba the Greek.” The good thing about the airport is it’s only about 3 miles east of the historic town center. The bad thing is the airport opened in 1972 — and nearly 50 years later, tourism in Crete has exploded, so from about May to November the airport, which is the busiest in Greece after Athens International (ATH), is seriously overstuffed. The summer crowds and security lines can be so soul-crushingly bad I actually recommend that travelers going to or from Athens take a ferry instead of flying. That said, if Athens is not in your plans and you can deal with the madding hordes,  there are plenty of nonstop flights from Heraklion to cities like London and other European gateways, as well as Tel Aviv during the summer.

If your travels are going to focus on the historic city of Chania and western Crete, then Chania International Airport (CHQ) may be a better option. But there aren’t as many flight options from here as from Heraklion and its peninsular location can make it fog-prone, improbable as that may sound. In the far eastern part of the island, little Sitia Public Airport (JSH) is growing in popularity. From here, there are seasonal flights to Copenhagen on Atlantic Airways and to Oslo and Stockholm on SAS, as well as flights to Athens on Olympic and Aegean.

Cretan Cooking Is a Showstopper

With some 35 million olive trees and wine presses dating as far back as 1500 BC, it’s no wonder that the gastronomy of Crete is downright epic. According to Stefanos Pertsemlides, a Greek nutritionist based in Athens, “While the Cretan diet does not differentiate much from the Greek/Mediterranean diet, what is unique is the very wide variety of ingredients that Crete has.”

Now that's what I call a dakos! (think juicy Cretan tomatoes, olive oil drizzled rusk & soft farm cheese

Whether you find yourself tucking into an herb-suffused Cretan pork sausage, chicken souvlaki marinated in yogurt and garlic, or dakos (a kind of bread rusk with chopped tomatoes) or go for more adventurous stuff like skioufikta pasta or local snails in olive oil, the Cretan table is dynamite. Excellent restaurants include Ferryman in Elounda; Peskesi in Heraklion and Portes; and Ta Chalkina in Chania. But even the humblest taverna turns out tasty dishes you’ll probably want to text home about. The Summer Is Hot

Crete has a lot going for it either as a part of your broader Greece travel plans or as a standalone destination. No matter which part of the island you decide to stake out, the scenery, beaches and food won’t disappoint — and all this has contributed to the island’s popularity. What can be a major drag is when you look for hotels at the last minute in the summer months and find your options limited (or sometimes nonexistent). Indeed, according to Eleni Vougioukalaki — an official at the Region of Crete’s tourism department in Heraklion — “The busiest month not only for Heraklion but for Crete and Greece is August.”

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