By Martha Jacobs | 07-13-2021 |
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Crete is Greece’s largest island and certainly the most diverse. From the sun-drenched countryside, rugged mountain terrain, gorges, olive groves, white sandy beaches, and the glittering turquoise of the Aegean to the North and the Libyan Sea to the south – Crete has it all.
Since I was a small child, I have been visiting the island, and upon my return, I always find something new to love. My fondest memories of this island are of its locals. They are amongst the most friendly and welcoming people I have encountered on my travels across the globe, and Crete is a place I can’t stop coming back to. Get in touch with a Tully Luxury Travel Designer to craft an experience on this magical island that is tailored to you.
Best time to visit: Spring, Summer and early Autumn. Winters are mild but often rainy.
- One week in the Lassithi Region (Elounda and Agios Nikolaos)
- 2 days in the Heraklion region
- 5 days in the Chania region
The island is a tapestry of myth and legend forged over centuries of its rich history. This has manifested in a culture distinct from other Greek islands and the mainland and a landscape that feels inherently ancient. The legendary birthplace of the Greek god Zeus, and therefore the cradle of mythology that would define the Ancient world.
Crete was where Minoan civilization flourished during the Bronze Age and later became a Roman and subsequently Byzantine territory. The island was then subjected to Venetian and Ottoman rule, and most recently, occupation by Nazi Germany in the Second World War. Crete has stood firm throughout centuries of change and upheaval and has not lost her identity but equally is a place that is a testament to all this island has endured. Crete will tell you her story as soon as you step foot on her shores.
Crete is so vast she could be a country of her own. Her regions are wildly diverse and represent the island’s dynamic nature. I would recommend spending ample time in each of these regions, so you don’t miss out on all the island has to offer.
Start your Cretan adventure by flying into Heraklion airport. Choose a hotel near Heraklion city; my recommendation would be the Amirandes resort, with architecture that imitates the ancient palaces that once dominated the Cretan landscape. After settling into your private residence, take a plunge in your private pool, and let the azure waters of the Aegean wash over your toes before embarking on archaeological discovery.
There is no better introduction to the island than visiting the majestical palace of Knossos that has largely been restored for public viewing. Archaeologists believe the palace was the center of Minoan society. You can still see this proto-Greek civilization and its monolithic architecture and colorful frescoes today. The reconstruction of this site by the respected archaeologist Sir Arthur Evans has made Knossos a more accessible experience for travelers who aren’t history enthusiasts, and while this presents a less authentic archaeological site, the myths of the island, including those of Theseus and the Minotaur, are brought to life by Evan’s glorious reimagination of the past. Speak with your Tully Luxury Travel Designer to organize a private guide to escort you through these magical ruins and the associated Heraklion Archaeological Museum in the city. It is easy to spend hours admiring the exhibits that showcase Minoan and Classical artifacts, Cycladic art, and many of the original frescoes excavated from across the island, mostly restored to their former glory. It is one of the most impressive antiquity museums I have visited.
After immersing yourself in the Ancient Greek World, wander through the cosmopolitan Cretan capital, Heraklion, which may not possess the beauty of other Cretan cities but has a working town kind of charm. A poignant contrast manifests itself as you venture from the ancient Knossos to the adjacent metropolitan Heraklion. By returning to the surrounding countryside, that holy, ancient splendor that Crete exudes is restored. Often it feels as though this island is untouched by time. Still, the concrete jungle of Heraklion is a sharp reminder of history and the extensive rebuilding scheme that occurred in the aftermath of the second world war.
For dinner, take a taxi into old town Hersonissos, in the foothills of the Cretan mountains, where vivacious taverna owners will beckon you to sample their food, convincing you theirs is undoubtedly better than next door’s. Try Taverna 1930 and enjoy traditional Cretan cuisine in their garden, where playful kittens scamper beneath tables and hide in the undergrowth. Don’t be tempted to feed these friendly felines, as when you’re not looking, they may dart off with a mouthful of your dinner. Organic meats are roasted in a traditional Cretan wood oven that leaves a pleasant earthy taste on the palette at the end of your meal. To accompany this hearty home-cooked feast, take the opportunity to sample some local wines which may surprise you.
My favorite restaurant on the island is Peskesi, in Heraklion. It arguably serves the best Greek food I’ve ever tasted. Reservations are essential for this restaurant all year round as it is a favorite with locals and foodie travelers in the know. It isn’t uncommon to see lines of people eager to snap up a last-minute table in high season. The restaurant is rooted in a farm-to-table ethos. Since most of the ingredients are sourced from their farm, the food couldn’t be more sustainable, organic, and delicious—sample the olive oil tasting menu for an authentic taste of the island. Peskesi manages to elevate authentic Cretan cuisine using the freshest ingredients, traditional techniques, and rustic presentation. Highlights of the menu include the simple Cretan Dakos salad, perhaps my favorite traditional dish. Sit on the terrace as the city whirs in the background, and a friendly waiter will advise you on the menu, which presents an overwhelming choice of delectable dishes and plenty of vegetarian options.
For your last night in this region, take a taxi to the Saradari Restaurant near Hersonissos. The restaurant itself perches atop a cliff overlooking the sea. Come early and walk from the restaurant down to the beach for a sunset swim in the bay. At dusk, the waters are smooth like a millpond, and the sky is stained pink. Saradari is casual but chic, with a hip beach-club vibe. Sit in their booths carved into the building’s exterior, and dine on fresh seafood under the starlight, sipping on cocktails made from traditional Greek mastiha liqueur or my favorite Otto’s Athens Vermouth. In Crete, is it customary to receive a fresh plate of fruit and raki to finish your meal as the Greeks say – Yamas!
Venture further along the coast to Chania, in my opinion, Crete’s most beautiful city. I would recommend spending three days here to explore this region where the island’s landscape transmutes – rugged hillsides and coastlines battered by the Meltemi winds, it is somehow wilder, more desolate as you travel from Chania city into the heart of the region, and I like it. The winding roads embrace the netted cliffsides, and as you emerge from around the corners, sprawling countryside stretches out to the sea.
Base yourself in one of Chania’s boutique waterfront hotels that combine simplicity and traditional Cretan hospitality with the pared-back style of more luxurious resorts such as the nearby Domes Zeen, still only a convenient fifteen-minute walk into town.
The 14th century Venetian Harbour is vibrant, with boutiques and restaurants lined up along the waterfront and colorful boats bobbing in the water. It is a town that feels more Italian than Greek, probably thanks to the Venetian influence. I remember salty air and seagulls. Fashionable crowds gather at the bars before sundown, sipping on wine in historic buildings converted into dynamic spaces for drinking, eating, and socializing.
My restaurant recommendation is Pallas. A beautiful historic townhouse beside the harbor, set over three floors, has a distinctly romantic atmosphere — request one of the balcony tables for two for a beautiful view overlooking the harbor. The food is wonderful and eclectic – try their sushi and sashimi selection if you are hankering for a change from the traditional Cretan fare.
Make day trips further along the coast to the famous Balos Bay and further afield to Elafonisi Beach, renowned for its pink sand. The drive through Arcadian Crete is long but beautiful; you will pass vineyards, silver-leaved olive groves, and sylvan hillsides. When you finally arrive at Elafonisi, you will feel as if you have been transported to an exotic paradise as you bathe in the clear lagoon waters and the pinkish hue of crushed seashells glitters underfoot. My advice would be to arrive early in the morning or during the low season to avoid the crowds and make sure to check the weather forecast. I had the misfortune of visiting on a windy day, and it was far from a pleasant experience.
Don’t miss out on the challenging but beautiful seven-hour trek for active adventurers through the Samaria Gorge, the longest in Europe. Pack hiking gear and avoid visiting in the high heat of summer if you plan on integrating this into your itinerary
The Lassithi Region is my pick for a relaxing beachside vacation and the final stop on your whirlwind tour of Crete. Put your feet up and soak yourself in the Cretan sun (it is worth noting that the island rarely sees rain in the summer months, and as one of the southernmost Greek isles, the temperature is mild or hot all year round).
Stay at the Elounda Mare Hotel, a worthy member of the Relais & Chateaux family. With a picturesque view over Mirabello Bay, it occupies the finest spot on the hillside. Stay in the hotel’s bungalows, all with a private plunge pool. Whether you are visiting as a family, a couple, or a solo traveler, the bungalows can offer up to three rooms to meet your needs. The hotel has a sandy beach reserved for hotel guests where you can unwind on a sun lounger, being waited upon with drinks and snacks at your convenience, or for more adventurous travelers, there is a copious selection of water sports activities that can be enjoyed on the glassy waters of the bay, a scuba diving center, tennis courts and a nearby golf course in sister hotel Porto Elounda.
The concierge can also arrange day trips on a luxury motor or sailing yacht, where it is possible to visit the nearby island of Santorini or cruise along the Cretan coastline at sunset. Elounda Mare will cater to the unique needs of each guest, offering a service level that goes above and beyond, so whatever you need, don’t hesitate to ask.
The hotel itself has three restaurants that surpassed all my expectations. The variety provided by Elounda Mare makes it a perfect choice for travelers seeking an idyllic seaside vacation with personal, attentive, and friendly service. Still, suppose you prefer a change of scenery. In that case, it is only a short taxi ride to the town of Elounda, formerly a fishing village, where bounteous tavernas offer hearty Cretan fare.
My recommendation would be the traditional seafood restaurant – Ferryman Taverna. A myriad of luxury hotels and villas speckle the rugged coastline from Elounda to the nearby Agios Nikolaos. It is no wonder why with peaceful inlets, limpid Aegean waters, and the small island of Spinalonga, a short ferry ride from Elounda, which has a rich history as a former Venetian fortress turned Leper colony. There is a haunting soundlessness within its walls, and as you stare out at a seemingly infinite blue sea, it is easy to imagine the despair those trapped here must have felt as they looked upon the world that was kept from them.
Crete is best explored by car. Allow a Tully Travel Designer to arrange car rentals or chauffeured services. Explore the coastline and head off the beaten track, allowing yourself to discover quiet coves and beaches, local tavernas, and magnificent views. It is more rewarding and magical to explore Crete, learning its secrets, and allowing the island to tell its own story, rather than being bound by your predetermined itinerary. A lingering memory of my most recent visit to the island is stopping off at an isolated chapel hugging the coastline on our journey to Elafonisi beach. It felt like the wind could sweep me away at any moment, but I had never felt more peaceful looking out on a bay, waves breaking in the breeze, not a single soul or building in sight. It is only in moments like these will you feel that you have truly experienced the majesty of Crete.
What are you waiting for? Get in touch with a Tully Luxury Travel Designer to plan your perfect Cretan getaway.