Mountains, museums and the Minotaur's lair
Variety is the spice of life on the largest Greek island. Crete, home of the Minotaur legend and birthplace of Europe’s first evolved society, is a vivid and sensual mosaic of contrasts: from lofty mountains and pink-sand beaches, to buzzing nightlife and traditional kafeneions (coffeehouses). Standing at the crossroads of three continents, the atoll described by Homer in his Odyssey as ‘a fair land ... in the midst of the wine-dark sea’ has been invaded countless times over the centuries. The traces of successive invasions can be found in Turkish bathhouses, Venetian fortresses, and Byzantine architecture.
However, Cretans refuse to dwell on the past: any and every occasion is an excuse for a glendi (party), usually revolving round food: home-grown vegetables, locally produced olive oil, fat snails gleaned in the mountains, or raki brewed in the local still. And (as any Greek will proudly tell you) Crete is the country’s most hospitable island, so you can expect plenty of invitations to join in the fun.
Hot right now . . .
Heidi Fuller-Love, our resident expert, offers her top tips on the hottest things to do and places to eat and stay this season.
One of a recent flurry of luxury hotel openings, beachside Nana Princess (Old National Road; 00 30 28970 26900) offers stone-built suites and villas clustered around a spectacular underground spa – which is possibly the most lavish in Crete.
The island's hottest dish right now is saligaria souvlaki, a recent creation: snails grilled on a skewer and eaten with a tangy vinaigrette. Order them in any of the kafeneions near the town of Moires, where the dish was first invented.
It’s a winding drive to Psiloritis’ northwest slopes, but worth it to visit the superbly designed Museum of Ancient Eleutherna (Milopotamos; 00 30 2834 092 501). Highlights include artefacts from the seventh century BC necropolis of Orthi Petra.
48 hours in . . . Crete
You’ll need a car to explore Greece’s largest island. There are dozens of car rental kiosks at Heraklion Airport, so you might want to wait until you arrive to book a car – though advance booking is essential during the high season (from late June to early September). On arrival, bargain hard: expect to pay €22-€33 (£20-£30) per day, or less if you plan to keep the car for more than three days.
Start (early) in the superb Heraklion Museum (Xanthoudidi and Xatzidaki 1; 00 30 28102 79000) in the island’s capital, where jaw-dropping archaeological wonders include the intricate Malia bee pendant, Kamares tableware, and those legendary Minoan frescoes.
Sip an ice cool frappé in the museum’s café, then take the rutted road inland through silver-leaved olive groves to Knossos Palace (Knossos; 00 30 28102 31940). To get the best value from your visit, buy a combi museum/palace ticket – and it’s also well worth paying extra for a guided tour of this sprawling site. For €8 (£7) you'll get in-depth information about the life and times of Crete's Minoan civilisation, along with a host of fascinating anecdotes that really bring the visit to life. It was the seat of mythical King Minos (and the bloodcurdling minotaur), and where archaeologist Arthur Evans carried out his controversial – but evocative – restoration work.
A small road, looping through tousled vineyards that produce some of the island’s best wine, leads to the traditional village of Archanes. Sit at a tree-shaded table of gourmet restaurant Kritamon (Epano Archanes; 00 30 28107 53092) and order the maggiri – fresh pasta served in a meaty broth, dotted with white anthotyros cheese.
After lunch, head next door to Myrtia’s Nikos Kazantzakis Museum (Myrtia; 00 30 28107 41689). The life of Crete’s literary giant is commemorated with rare photos, travel souvenirs, and an excellent little video. Real fans should visit his tomb in Heraklion’s hilltop cemetery, too.
Back on the coast, take the old National road to Agios Nikolaos (traffic melts away as you head for the island’s less crowded eastern side). The shop-lined streets of Lasithi’s capital descend to Voulismeni, a circular lake surrounded by taverns where legend says the Goddess Athena once bathed.
From here it’s a short drive to Elounda, where boats leave for Spinalonga– the leper island which featured in Victoria Hislop’s bumper-selling novel, The Island. After the sombre trip, raise your spirits with dinner at The Ferryman (Akti Olountos, Schisma Elountas; 00 30 28410 41230) – a gastro tavern overlooking Elounda’s glittering bay. You'll love the crusty home-baked carob bread, baked lamb, and fluffy feta-flavoured aubergine scones – all sprinkled with sea salt gathered from the local shoreline.
Back in Heraklion, the bars will be buzzing. Follow hip Herakliotes to Stone Project (Korai 14; 00 30 69481 73755) – a stylish, low-lit bar with friendly service, which serves some of the city’s best raki-based cocktails. Try the bitter-sweet Mediterranean Manhattan, made with raki, Vermouth and orange bitters.
For a real dose of local lifestyle, end your evening at warehouse-style music venue Nyn Kai Aei (Archiepiskopou Makariou 17; 00 30 69563 06002), where Cretan music stars come to strum and improvise their rhyming mantinades folk songs.
Food specialties abound in the home of the 'Cretan Diet', but it can be tough to find them without insider help. Instead of having breakfast at your hotel, follow local-born guides from Crete Urban Adventures (00 30 69867 80970) on a gourmet walking tour through Heraklion’s busy backstreets: sample flavoursome cheeses in the local market, try the best bougatsa (custard pie) in town, and visit hole-in-the-wall kafeneions serving delicious local snacks.
Appetite sated, follow the old National road to the outskirts of Rethymnon. Stop anywhere along this beach-lined coast for a refreshing dip, then escape the heat in the pretty jasmine-scented labyrinth of Rethymnon’s old streets. Lined with mosques, mansions and Venetian fortifications, the old town is dominated by a 16th-century fortezza (citadel) whose ruined walls make an atmospheric venue for concerts and other events in summer.
Continue along the coast, past the pretty coastal town of Giorgioupoli (nature lovers should make a detour to see rare striped terrapins bobbing on Kournas lake). Then, venture up the breathtaking – and occasionally terrifying – panoramic mountain road to Hora Sfakion. Hop on a boat to Agia Roumeli and hike through the bottom end of Samaria Gorge: check timetables, but in high season the last boat usually returns from Agia Roumeli around 7pm.
Cretan shops stay open until 10pm in summer: head for Chania and enjoy a late afternoon stroll in the city’s intricate network of shopping streets behind the Venetian harbour.
Restaurants near Chania’s harbour tend to be tourist traps, so head to the uneven paved streets further back. Chrisostomos (Devkalionas and Ikarou; 00 30 28210 57035) is one of the city best venues for hearty Sfakian fare slow cooked in a wood oven.
For more exotic victuals, choose The Well of the Turk( Sarpaki 1; 00 30 28210 54547) in Chania’s Splantzia district. Here you can sit outside at a table surrounded by pots of bright-coloured geraniums and lemon-scented basil, watching crowds mill around the 13th-century Irini church opposite. The food is fantastic: think crunchy pitas stuffed with red pepper and tomato, lahmajoun (a sort of Turkish pizza flatbread) topped with minced beef or lamb, and other Middle Eastern specialties.
Dance off those calories on the sands of nearby Platanias beach: built around a large pool (ideal for cooling off), Mylos Club (Platanias; 00 30 28210 68578) is one of the island’s hippest dance venues. The vibe is casual but sophisticated, with guest DJs flown in for their sets during the summer months.
Where to stay . . .
No expense has been spared in creating Abaton Island Resort & Spa, a sleek and classy Cycladic-style resort close to Hersonissos. Rocking chairs scattered around the property invite repose, and lighting is used to create ambiance: a forest of light bulbs dangles above comfortable sofas in reception, and the main bar glows with coloured lights.
Double rooms from €233 (£206). Themistokleous Avenue; 00 30 2897 022850
Domes Noruz, a stylish design hotel modelled on the domes of nearby Chania’s Venetian shipyard, has two large pools (one of which has a swim-up bar) and a bijou spa. Public areas are immaculate, with scatter cushions and bean bags strewn over carefully tended strips of grass. Close by are some of Crete best beaches, including the pink sand beach of Elafonisi.
Double rooms from €190 (£161). Strati Pantelaki 5; 00 30 2310 810 624
The four-star ibis Styles Heraklion Central has Fifties-inspired decór, a decent restaurant and friendly staff. There are 72 rooms across six categories, all featuring big beds with plump mattresses and plenty of cushions. Large prints of local scenes on walls and a canny use of mirrors gives an impression of space.
Double rooms from €68 (£59). 26 Koroneou Street; 00 30 281 028 2020
What to bring home . . .
Traditional stivania boots can be made to measure at Nikos Terezakis’s Chania store, Gilotes-Stivania (potie 17; 00 30 28210 50300).
For authentic local crafts head for Verekinthos Arts and Crafts Village (Verekinthou 6, Souda; 00 30 28210 89101), where you can purchase leather, glass and jewellery items, as well as old-fashioned toys made from tin or wood.
When to go . . .
Temperatures are balmy all year round along Crete’s extensive coastline – although it will often rain from January to March, and sometimes there will be a few days of snow. Weather up in the mountains is colder: expect chilly weather from late December to early April. Conversely, in summer when temperatures along the coast climb to 30-35C, the mountain villages – which are often five degrees cooler – are ideal for escaping the heat.
Sea temperatures start to rise in late April and May, and you can often still swim in November. The island is crowded during July and August when Cretans from overseas come ‘home’ for the summer, but in late spring and early autumn the beaches and attractions are generally far less crowded – especially in the east of the island.
Know before you go . . .
British Consulate: Heraklion: 00 30 28102 24012; gov.uk
Tourist police: 171
Tourism Office: 00 30 28102 28225; Xanthoudidou 1, Heraklion
Currency: Euro (€)
Telephone code: 00 30
Time difference: +2 hour
Languages: Kritikoi (Cretan patois), Greek
Flight time: Around four hours
Local laws and etiquette
Cretans are relaxed about sartorial style, but they appreciate modest clothing (no shorts or crop tops) when visiting churches and other religious places – and you are expected to remove headgear when entering. Nude sunbathing near Cretan families is considered extremely rude, and is only acceptable on designated beaches.
Heidi Fuller-Love is Telegraph Travel’s Crete expert. Seeking clean seas and Cretan food she moved to Greece’s ‘big island’ ten years ago. A fan of local music, she learnt Greek by listening to Cretan mantinades.
Experience Crete with The Telegraph
Telegraph Travel's best hotels, tours and holidays in Crete, tried, tested and recommended by our Crete experts.