Crete: turqouise seas, a long-ass gorge and amazing food

Deceptively large, and extremely diverse – you’re going to need more than a week to make the most of this corner of Greece…

Crete is a freaking big place, and it’s deceptively far between some of its best locales. This is great for those who have weeks of leave or funeployment on their hands, but for those of us who need to make the most of our week’s holiday – one must hit the best places in reasonably quick succession. Luckily for you, there’s plenty here to keep you entertained, between cerulean seas, white sandy beaches and some excellent hiking.

DO:

Beach it.

Where to begin. First of all, the east side of the island just so happens to have the best beaches. Think white, soft sands, water so clear you’re convinced you’re about to break both legs jumping from a pier into 7-metre deep water, and laid back beach bars not intent on taking you to the cleaners for every pint of beer you consume.

We’ve written a full post devoted to Crete’s best beaches, and here’s a quick snippet below:

Elafonisi:

The stuff Mediterranean dreams are made of. Elafonisi is arguably Crete’s most famous beach, and for good reason. With a swathe of white, sandy beach, framed by electric-blue water jutting out into the ocean where it culminates in a peninsula: there is just no way to justify this scene through a lens. Though the cerulean sea may look as inviting as bath water, it’s not as balmy as some of the seas in the Mediterannean, but on a hot day there’s nothing better than jumping in for a refreshing dip.

Tip: Leave your shade umbrellas at home, unless you plan to hold them with one hand and read with the other (which we did). The wind here is a howler, and parts act like a wind tunnel – meaning you might want to be careful you don’t Mary Poppins it outta there, clutching on for dear life.

Menies Beach (aka secret beach aka attempt in a non-4wd rental car at your own peril):

For most people, if they’ve hired a rental car – gravel roads are not high on the priority list. For us, a gravel road feat. jutting rocks, feat. unstable cliffs feat. boulders ready to undo the bottom of your car, were all just a bit of a challenge. A really dumb challenge.

This is Cretan rugged beauty at its best; a pebbly beach flanked by jagged cliffs, overlooking calm, turquoise water. The cliffs make for excellent dive boards too, the remains of German trenches from WW2, and there’s even ancient ruins just strewn across the countryside (it once was a temple for a woman who was chased of a cliff – so a pretty grim place of worship in all). It’s also well sheltered from the fearsome Cretan winds.

Read more on how to get there, and the rest of our pick of the island’s best beaches here.

(Also, the fitspo model vs. everyday women ratio is at the best proportion in Crete than we’ve experienced anywhere. We love the fact here that size 22s wear a bikini, right alongside the size 8s. People don’t care what you look like – and we’ve never been so comfortable letting our muffin tops and cellulite hang out for all to see.)

Kolymbari:

It’s also home to a monastery

This sleepy little hamlet is tucked in beside the first of the two big western peninsulas on Crete, and is as far from touristy Greece as you’re going to get. With barely a stretch of road dedicated to dealing with outsiders – a few touristy shops, a couple of restaurants – the rest is just a smattering of houses, both locals’ and short-term rentals alike. There is one five-star resort, which is a new addition and seems outlandishly out of place. Bar a tour bus or two heading in there, holidaymakers clearly agree.

While the beach out front can be volatile and harbour a formidable swell, on calm days a run along the shore, or a dip in the (admittedly a bit chilly) sea is just the antidote for an escape after too long spent on Santorini.

Knossos:

We’d be a pretty terrible travel blog if we didn’t tell you to stop by the island’s most well-known attraction. We’d be a pretty terrible blog if we told you we didn’t actually go there, too. In all honesty, all of the beaching really got away on us and we just ran out of time. Though the inner Classics nerd in me was desperate to see the ancient palace where they kept the Minotaur, I’m obviously going to go back. I have had it on good authority that it’s well worth a trip, too.

Samaria Gorge:

Just an hour’s drive south sits one of Crete’s most well-known attractions, and well-known it may be but overrun it is not. While we’re sure we could sway you into doing this hike by telling you it’s almost entirely downhill – it is also rather beautiful. At 16 kilometres long, Samaria is either the longest or second-longest gorge in Europe, depending on who you ask, and is located in Crete’s only national park.

Read our run-down of exactly how to do the hike here.

EAT

Kolymbari: Nikiforos

The village’s premiere seafood, seafront restaurant may look a little dated and tired, but rest assured that its quality is nothing of the sort. Take a seat outside as the waves crash almost right at your table, as you feel the spray on your face. Aptly, the menu features plenty of sea critters and traditional Cretan fare, for prices more mainland than Santorini. Don’t go past the zucchini balls, the fried calamari, and the moussaka.

Spoiler alert: you’ll of course be treated to an after-dinner treat and this involves a scoop of ice-cream. This was admittedly our first experience of the after dinner treats in Greece, and we were sneakily wolfing it down as fast as possible – certain that someone, somewhere had accidentally sent out a table full of desserts into the wrong greedy mouths.

Kolymbari: Kyma

It’s right next door to Nikiforos, so expect your waiter from the night before to stare forlornly at you from across the tiny barrier. But if you’re okay with that kind of initial awkwardness (I’m sure they get it all the time), this is every bit as good as Nikiforos. The things to try here are the fish roe dip, the fresh cod and the pork.

Rethimno: Castelo

If a beautiful setting and gourmet, delicious food is what you’re after – look absolutely no further. This restaurant is set in the courtyard of an old 18th Century (we think?) villa, complete with vines creeping up the wall and ancient stonework. The food here is a tad more expensive than you’ll pay elsewhere, but it’s also god damned delicious. The pork medallions in ginger are drop-dead gorgeous, as is the stuffed squid, and just about anything else pork-wise (can you tell we’re living in a Muslim country. Pork starved is what we’d call it). This might have been the best food we had on the island – but expect to pay 13 or so euro each for a main.  As is Greek tradition, expect a plate of fruit and some raki after your meal.

Final tip: Watch out for the wind. Crete is notoriously windy at certain times of the year, and this means wavy beaches and wind-borne shade umbrellas. As well as checking the temperature forecast, make checking the wind strength a daily thing too.

STAY

Airbnb – wherever possible.

This is not your average Airbnb. At our first house, we were greeted with a fridge full of fresh fruits, homemade wine, breakfast food and warm, utterly generous hospitality. At our second, our host cooked us a delicious dinner of roast chicken and potatoes, and had sandwiches, breakfast foods and milk stocked high in the fridge. Each of the hosts were knowledgeable, approachable at all hours of the day and only too willing to help. The Airbnb microclimate on the Greek Islands is something you need to experience – it’s as close to a homestay, or staying with locals as you’re likely to get (unless you do in fact know a local).

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