Thinking of a vacation in Crete? Here is what we learned after tons of research and ten days of travel.
WHY DID WE LOVE CRETE?: It’s got everything: Sandy beaches with clear deep-blue water, charming harborfront towns with Venetian/Turkish buildings, 5000-year-old historic sites, a club scene, generous and friendly people who speak English (it’s a required subject in school), plenty of outdoor activities, and a varied and healthy Mediterranean cuisine. Ten days was not long enough to explore the island.
GETTING THERE: Crete is a short flight from Athens. The folks we ran into who had taken the overnight ferry from the mainland complained of the long trip and seasickness. We looked at some tours that included Crete and other islands, but they seemed to rushed and to involve too much travel. Instead, we booked hotels in three cities, rented a car, and explored Crete on our own. .
RENT A CAR?: Absolutely. For a short trip, you can stay in one of the harbor towns and book bus tours to some tourist sites; but, for a longer stay, there’s no way to see the island without wheels. (And, cab fare to and from the airports to Chania or Iraklio can cost as much as a car rental). You’ll get better rental rates by reserving in advance on line with an international company like Budget, rather than renting in person when you arrive. That’s also the best way to get a car with an automatic transmission, which are scarce. Speaking of which:
DRIVING IN CRETE: You will hear horror stories about driving in Crete, which in fact has the highest accident rate in Europe. Forget those stories – here’s the fact. On the main roads, drivers “create” two lanes – slower drivers drive on the shoulder, and faster drivers zip by on their left (often veering blindly into oncoming traffic lanes). Just stay in the slow “lane,” and enjoy the sunsets. You will never feel uncomfortable. In the cities (which can be trafficky), riders on motorbikes weave in and out of traffic and go through stop signs and red lights. Avoid them and wish them well. Unless you are accustomed to driving in rural Iowa, you won’t have trouble driving in Crete.
Note, the steering wheel is on the left and you drive on the right – same as in the US. Parking is not an issue except in the dense tourist areas of the harborfront towns. In those towns, there is free street parking surrounding the no-car historic districts. In Chania, the free parking area is on the waterfront at Tolon Square at the foot of Theotopoulou Street. In Rethymnon, it is surrounding the soccer stadium. Chania does require a bit of circling and looking for a spot.
IS CRETE EXPENSIVE? This is maybe the best part. None of the gorgeous hotels we stayed in cost more than $100 per night, and most meals were in the $10-15 range. The local beers are about $4 for the large half-liter bottles, and a half-liter of house wine is $6-8. This is true even for the open-air cafes on the waterfront, where you’d expect to pay extra for the ambience and location. Greece is on the Euro, which when we visited cost $1.02 in dollars; a weaker dollar will of course raise these prices.
CITIES AND HOTELS: Crete’s cities are concentrated along the northern coast. The southern part of the island is mostly undeveloped and much of the southern coast is accessible only by boat. From west to east, the larger northern cities are Chania (also, Hania), Rethymno (Rethymnon), Iraklio (Heraklion), and Agios Nikolaus (“Ag Nik”). Chania, Rethymno, and Ag Nik are gorgeous harborfront towns with strollable harbors, waterfront tavernas, and cobblestone historic lanes filled with shops. Iraklio is more urban and crowded.
We spent three days in Chania, two days in Rethymno, and three days in a villa in the wine country south of Iraklio, from which we visited Iraklia and Ag Nik.
In Chania, we had a balcony room overlooking the harbor, at Hotel Nostos, http://www.nostos-hotel.com/. Here’s a view from our balcony:
Chania is an easygoing and compact town focused around the harbor promenade and the historic quarter. There are a couple of small town beaches just west of town, but much better beaches can be reached by car.
In Rethymno, we stayed in the heart of the historic district at Veneto Suites http://www.veneto.gr/ . The room had a kitchenette and its own adjoining garden patio:
(By the way, Lonely Planet was a perfect guidebook for Crete). Rethymno is much more sprawling than Chania, with a massive Venetian fortress, more than a mile of waterfront, and a very large historic/shopping district. Stop by Yoirgos Hatziparaskos’s workshop at 30 Manouil Bernardou, where he has made phyllo dough by hand for 50 years; and buy some of his baklava. The Folk Art Museum on the same block is also worth a visit. And, the Mona Lisa ice cream shop near the Loggia is great for sheep’s-milk ice cream.
And, in the wine country near Iraklio, we stayed at Villa Kerasia http://www.villa-kerasia.gr/. Villa Kerasia is about 15km from Iraklio. It is a small country villa with swimming pool, built by the very genial host, Bobis, who also cooks dinner for his guests, makes his own wine, and seems to be known by everybody in Crete. If Bobis is not cooking, there are a few tavernas in adjoining towns; needing to drive to them for dinner was a drawback to staying in Kerasia. On the other hand, here is the view from our window:
EAT IN CRETE: There are some fancy restaurants in Crete, but there’s no particular reason to try them. The island is full of restaurants, tavernas and cafes that do a fine job with Cretan cuisine. Fresh salads (especially, Greek salad with cucumber, tomato, herbs and cheese), simply-grilled fish or chicken, a bruschetta-like appetizer called dakos, meze platters, fried potato, all are easy, healthy, and inexpensive. Lonely Planet was a good reference for the best places in town.
A small tip (10%) is welcome but not expected. At the end of the meal, every restaurant will provide something sweet for dessert and a small carafe of raki (similar to grappa) without charge. We never found a restaurant where customers dressed up for dinner. On the waterfront, it seems that every restaurant employs a tout (we called them “hookers”) to lure strollers in for drinks or dinner. (Other places countered with signs announcing “We Do Not Pressure You! We Respect You!”) Although the guidebooks advise to steer clear of these places, the hookers are charming, and we enjoyed these restaurants just as much as those that were away from the main strolling areas.
WHAT TO DO IN CRETE: This is like listing what to do in New York City. But, of the ten “Best Things” listed in Lonely Planet, we hit eight of them. Here’s the skinny on some:
1. The Samaria Gorge This is a 16km-long gorge that you scramble down until arriving at the Libyan Sea. The best way to experience it is on an arranged bus tour. Although we saw these tours available on-line for $90, we booked with our hotel desk in Chania for 22 Euros. The walk is not easy – it’s a long and rocky descent of 5000 feet in elevation, involves multiple crossings of the river, and even with walking sticks it took a toll on our knees and hips – and there is no way out except to complete it. There are multiple spring-fed fountains to replenish your water, and rest stops with bathrooms. There is no food available until Km13, when you leave the national park and there is a welcome café with beer, ice cream, and hot dogs. At Km16, you arrive at the town of Agia Roumeli, on the Libyan Sea (a bus service is also available for the last 2 km). There are many tavernas and a nice beach to enjoy there. From Agia Roumeli you must take a boat to Chora Sfakion, the nearest place served by roads, for your ride back.
2. Elefonisi Beach is a pink-sand, turquoise-water paradise on the southwest corner of Crete, on the Libyan Sea. Lonely Planet called it the place that most Crete visitors want to go but most never get to, because it’s an hour’s drive through twisty mountain roads from Chania. But, it was a perfect restorative after the Samaria Gorge.
A note about beaches: Almost all beaches on Crete are set up with lounge chairs and umbrellas. If the beach is public, you’ll be charged 6 or 7 Euro to use two chairs for the day. If the chairs are set up by a beachfront restaurant, you’ll be expected to order a drink or snack as your “rental fee.” Because siesta time on Crete is from 3 to 6, or maybe to beat the heat, the beaches fill up in the morning and clear out by about 1pm. The bathers we saw in Crete dressed modestly, though we heard that there are a couple of clothing-optional beaches on the southern coast.
3. Spinalonga: This is a former leper colony off the northern coast, near Ag Nik. It is worth booking a ferry ride and walking tour (15 Euro from Ag Nik, although ferries from Plaka are shorter), which also stops for a swim on the way out. The short tour focuses on how the lepers on Spinalonga created their own society, economy, and families, and is worth hearing. Time is left to climb to the top of the island, which has gorgeous views.
4. Knossos Palace: This 4,000-year-old palace complex is the oldest archaeological site in Europe. Some on-line commentators dismiss it because a large part of it was reconstructed on the original ruins. Hey, let the haters hate. It’s fun to see where the legends of King Minos, the Minotaur, and the Labyrinth began, to see the frescoes (some of which are re-created), and to imagine palace life in the Bronze Age. The site is about 5km from downtown Iraklio. It has a large free parking lot. Admission is 4 Euro (10 Euro for a combination pass with the Archaeological Museum in Iraklio), and a group tour will cost 10 Euro.
5. Archaeological Museum, Iraklio: This museum, in the middle of downtown Iraklio, is certainly impressive, with thousands of household items, weapons, and pieces of art unearthed from across Crete. We were pretty well numbed and overwhelmed after the first couple of rooms. They would do well with an audioguide or printed guide to the highlights, because there really are only so many primitive clay bull-like figures a person can see in one day.
There are plenty of sites we didn’t get to. The guide books list other beaches, lakes, gorges, and towns to visit. We didn’t get to any of the wineries in the wine country surrounding Villa Kerasia, which are open for tours and tastings. But, there’s always next time!