Crete: A Grecian megamix

Crete offers luxury resorts, lazy fishing villages, boutique hotels, great beaches, rugged hinterland and lots of cultural heritage. The country’s largest island is the best of Greece in one package.

Traditional fishing boats in the port of the modern city of Heraklion (Iraklio), Crete, Greece. Getty Images
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Crete is long and narrow – 250 kilometres from east to west, and only 60km across at its widest point. There are sandy beaches and big resorts on the north coast, and smaller villages dotted along southern shores, where mountains plunge into a lapis-lazuli sea. Deep gorges cut through the mountain ranges that dominate the hinterland, and in spring and early summer the countryside blazes with wildflowers. Date palms, brought by Arab seafarers who settled here about 1,300 years ago, grow everywhere, shading harbour promenades and hotel lawns. Mosques, minarets, hammams and drinking-fountains bearing Arabic inscriptions attest to the 400-year reign of the Ottomans, and other empires have left their mark, too.

The Cretan diet – rich in fresh fruit, pulses, wild greens, yogurt, cheese and olive oil – is credited with making Cretans some of the longest-lived people in the world. Sample traditional cooking based on locally sourced organic produce at restaurants such as Avli (www.avli.gr) in Rethymnon, Sterna tou Bloumosifis (www.vamossa.gr) at Vamos, 24km from Chania, or the Agreco Farm (www.grecotel.com/crete/agreco), in the hills above R­ethymnon.

On the beach

Steer clear of the big, mass-market resorts that dominate much of the north coast. Instead, head for the exclusive enclave of Elounda, which is about an hour's drive from Heraklion. You'll find some of the best hotels in the Mediterranean here, with gourmet dining, private beaches, suites with pools, tennis courts and lushly landscaped grounds. You may find it hard to tear yourself away from the pampered cocoon of the latest addition to Elounda's luxury portfolio, Domes of ­Elounda (www.domesofelounda.com; open-plan, sea-view suites from Dh900 to Dh2,500), the latest boutique addition to Elounda's luxury portfolio, but for a day out, you can take a cruise across the Gulf of Mirabello to the spooky island fortress of Spinalonga.

The south coast is the place to find smaller hotels in fishing villages or pebbly beaches. Loutro, a classic white village that you can only get to on foot or by boat, is delightfully laid-back (no cars or motorbikes, just awesome scenery and crystal-clear water). Porto Loutro (www.hotelportoloutro.com; 0030 28250 91227; Dh350 for a double room) is the place to stay here, with elegantly simple rooms by the sea. Palaiochora, close to the south-west corner of the island, is lively in a low-key way, with a long, sandy beach on a shallow bay that makes it a good pick for families with children. From here, you can hop along the south coast by boat (there's no coast road between Palaiochora and Chora Sfakion, about 100km to the east) or head out to sea in search of dolphins and whales – these waters are home to the biggest sperm whale population in the Mediterranean, and to bottlenose, striped and Risso's dolphins. Most accommodation in Palaiochora is in family-run guesthouses and self-catering apartments. Ton Mari Garden Apartments (www.tonmari-paleochora.com; 0030 28230 41787; apartments from Dh300) has simple family apartments in a leafy ­courtyard.

Water-sports enthusiasts will find plenty to entertain them all round Crete’s shores. The north-coast resorts offer the biggest choice of powered water sports, such as water skiing, parascending and inflatable rides. Underwater, visibility is excellent, and there are some good cave and wreck dives, including the wreckage of a Second World War German fighter aircraft. The smaller south coast villages offer windsurfing, kiteboarding and sea kayaking.

Head for the hills

It’s early summer on the Libyan Sea. The temperature is beach-perfect. But look inland and you’ll see snow still clinging to a saw-edged skyline only a few miles away. The Lefka Ori – the “White Mountains” – are well named. Even after the winter snow melts, their barren limestone summits are still white, if not quite so dazzling. The deep, pine-scented Samariá Gorge cuts through these mountains from the Omalos Plateau, passing through the Sidheresportes (“Iron Gates”), where the gorge narrows to just a few metres and the walls rise more than 300 metres on either side. In summer, as many as 2,000 people per day make the 16km hike from Omalos at the top of the gorge to the tiny Agia Roumeli, where boats ferry them to the coaches that wait for them at Chora Sfakion, the nearest place that can be reached by road.

For a less-frequented walking trail, head for the east end of the island and the Zakros Gorge. This is a shorter walk than the big trek at Samariá, stretching for 8km from Ano (“Upper”) Zakros to Kato (“Lower”) Zakros on the sea. You can do it at an easy pace in about two hours – just long enough to stretch your legs and work up an appetite.

Crete’s mountains are riddled with hundreds of limestone caverns. You’ll find one of the most impressive on the Lasithi Plateau – a high, fertile plain surrounded by treeless grey slopes. Believed by the ancient Greeks to be the birthplace of Zeus, the Dhiktean Cave is 70 metres deep, and its dark interior is covered with mosses and ferns.

City lights

Crete’s biggest city, Heraklion, sprawls a historic centre built by the Venetians, who occupied Crete for more than 400 years. Their mighty fortifications withstood a 21-year siege before the city finally fell to the Ottomans in 1669. It’s worth braving Heraklion’s gritty streets to visit the Archaeological Museum – a treasury of gorgeous frescoes, statues, pottery, gold and silver unearthed at a plethora of ancient Minoan, classical and Roman sites around the island.

The Grecotel Amirandes (www.amirandes.com; 0030 28970 41103; from €239 [Dh1,193] for a double room), on the outskirts of Heraklion, is one of Greece's most fabulous hotels, offering suites and villas with private pools, as well as seven restaurants.

Farther along the coast, the 17th-century Neranzes minaret towers over the old town of Rethymnon and a beachfront esplanade lined with palms gives an agreeably Levantine air. The harbour is surrounded by restaurants and cluttered with fishing boats. Yet another huge Venetian fortress, the Fortetza, is worth a look, and two small museums – the Historical and Folk Museum and the Frantzeskaki Collection – are packed with colourful textiles and fine traditional jewellery.

In the old Turkish-Venetian quarter, Nadia and Manolis Paraski (www.mythos-crete.gr; 0030 28310 53917; doubles from Dh500) have created Mythos Suites, a boutique charmer with 15 rooms (including eight split-level suites) around a calm courtyard and a tiny pool.

Colourful buildings surround the harbour in Chania, which is overlooked by the White Mountains. Attractions in Crete’s second-biggest town include an archaeological museum, Venetian bastions and the oldest Ottoman building on the island, the 17th-century Mosque of the Janissaries (it’s now a cultural centre) – but Chania really excels at shopping. Great buys here include stylish cottons and linens for men and women, leather accessories and made-to-measure Cretan riding boots.

Metohi Kindelis (www.metohi-kindelis.gr; 0030 28210 41321; from Dh900), on the outskirts of Chania, is a gorgeous old Venetian manor house with three spacious self-catering apartments, each with its own swimming pool, in lush grounds.

Ancient wonders

If you visit just one of Crete’s ancient sites, it has to be Knossos. Just outside Heraklion, this vast Minoan palace was rediscovered and colourfully restored by a British archaeologist, Arthur Evans, a century ago. Its pink and yellow columns and frescoes of bulls and dolphins are quite stunning. The only downside is that Knossos gets so many visitors in summer that it can resemble a human anthill. Other sites are less busy. Zakros, in the east, is the least-visited of Crete’s remarkable Minoan palace sites. Unlike Knossos and other Minoan palaces, it wasn’t looted or rebuilt by later settlers after the fall of the Minoan empire around 1450BC, and it attracts only a trickle of visitors, so you can wander around its evocative maze of walls in peace and quiet. Gortys, amid the fertile fields of the Messara Plain, is another less-crowded gem, with a Roman amphitheatre and agora and a sixth-century stone wall that is fascinatingly inscribed with the law code under which the Romans governed the province. Crete is dotted with deserted medieval ruins, too. One of the most evocative is the Venetian fort at Frangokastello, on the south coast near Chora Sfakion, where a band of phantom warriors reputedly appears at dawn in early summer.

Robin Gauldie first visited Crete in 1973. He's the author of several books about Crete and other Greek islands, including Eyewitness Top 10: Crete (Dorling Kindersley). His latest guidebook, Crete: The Big Island (Hunter Publishing), will be published later this year.

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