Inside: The most awesome things to do in Crete, where to stay on Greece’s largest island and the perfect 5-day itinerary.
“Or Rethymno or Agios Nikolaos?” she countered, with an exasperated sigh.
This exchange mirrored all previous deliberations over where to call home on our upcoming visit to Greece’s largest island. We were smack in the middle of a 30-day, 15-stop summer adventure from Moscow to Turkey. If we didn’t end this dance of procrastination soon, we’d be landing in Crete homeless.
Our cheap-o Ryan Air flight from Sardinia (via Rome) landed in Chania, on the western end of the island. Logic dictated spending (at least) the first night there. But our outbound flight 5 days later departed from the eastern city of Heraklion.
Further complicating our decision? There was plenty to see in between.
Thus, the Cretan Dilemma
Usually, picking the right hotel is one of my biggest hurdles in travel planning. But with Crete, you must first choose between beachy-resort areas (Agios Nikolaos, Elounda), charming harbor towns (Chania, Rethymno) or a history-rich city port (Heraklion).
East or west, big or small. Beach, history or nightlife?
Finally, while searching Chania hotels on Booking.com, we found a great rate on a small, basic hotel in a terrific location near the harbor. It seemed like a sign, so we booked it for the first two nights. We’d throw caution to the wind and figure out the rest when we arrived.
What Makes Crete Unique?
For centuries the natural beauty of Crete was at the mercy of pirate fleets and the conquests of formidable Mediterranean powers. The Greeks, Romans, Venetians, and Turks each left their cultural mark on the island.
As a result of this confluence of cultures, Crete evolved a national identity that is entirely unique from the rest of Greece. Even today, when the locals refer to their traditional dishes or local products like olive oil or honey, it’s always as “Cretan,” never Greek.
In fact, it wasn’t until 1913 that Crete formally joined with Greece.
Love at First Sight in Chania
Our bargain pick in Chania turned out to be a genius decision. Shannon and I immediately fell in love with the quaint harbor town of Chania the minute we saw it (ultimately deciding to spend all 5 of our nights there).
Our room at Nikolas Rooms was small and very basic. However, the location was superb, with a lovely view of the town square and church and just steps away from the harbor…all for about $50 a night.
Chania was our base for the first two nights, but the question remained. Where to stay for the remaining three nights? And more importantly, how to spend our days?
The Top 2 Things To Do Near Chania
For a little professional guidance, we made straight for the local travel office for a map and some local advice. They were extremely helpful and we quickly nailed down the two main things we wanted to do on this end of the island:
- 1- Visit the pink beach of Elafonissi
- 2- Take a day trip to Gramvousa and Balos islands
The bus to Elafonissi left and returned at two set times each day. Judging the morning time a bit aggressive for a proper Greek island holiday, we opted to rent a car for the next day to drive ourselves.
Then, we booked the standard ferry boat trip to Gramvousa and Balos for the following day.
The Balos day trip meant we’d be gone all of our third day, so it made sense to stay put at Nikolas Rooms for a third night (luckily, our host was gracious enough to extend our stay).
Three nights down, two more to go.
The Pink Beaches of Elafonissi
The plan for our first full day in Crete:
1 – Make the 90-minute drive across the mountainous center of the island to Elafonissi on the southwest corner
2 – Maximize our 1-day car rental by checking out the picturesque harbor of Rethymno to see if it was any better than Chania (which didn’t seem possible).
Driving on the Island of Crete
We picked up our car rental at Rental Center Crete in downtown Chania at a respectable 9:00am. The car was perfect and the rental experience was smooth.
As much as I love the freedom of having my own wheels in Europe, I hate the obnoxious fees for excess insurance charged by most companies. The rates at Rental Center Crete are all-inclusive with full insurance and no excess charges.
Once on the road, the drive involved several white-knuckle, winding roads through the mountains. It took nearly two hours to get to Elafonissi, instead of the estimated 90-minutes.
Pink Beach Paradise
But it was definitely worth the ambitious drive, Elafonissi was stunning.
More than just a simple beach, it’s actually a peninsula of several beaches. At various tides, it even becomes its own island. The shallow, sparkling turquoise sea extends at knee-high depth for what seemed like miles.
Though it wasn’t a bold shade, the pink crystals of sand in the shoreline were easy to see. I’d never seen a pink beach before, so I thought it was amazing. Posted signs warn visitors not to damage the natural environment by taking any of the pink sand (this is apparently a problem).
We explored the various coves of Elafonissi and spent some quality time lounging on the pink sands. But if we were going to squeeze in a trip to Reythmno, by mid-afternoon it was time to hit the road.
A quick stop in Reythmno
Three hours later, we arrived in the harbor of Reythmno. It was lovely, but it was no match for Chania.
We got some ice cream and strolled the port’s shop-lined, cobbled lanes. An hour later, we were back in the car bound for Chania – secure in the knowledge that we’d made the right decision between those two towns.
Stick with Chania or Move On?
That night, over dinner in the harbor we made the decision to spend our final two nights in Chania.
But, it was time to upgrade our hotel situation and splurge on a room with a view. We’d been secretly coveting several hotels around the harbor with terraces and (what must be) incredible views.
A Room with a View in Chania
As we ate, we searched rates and for our top picks on Booking.com. We identified a few favorites and narrowed down to two:
1 – The Plaza Apartment, which had a spacious terrace and sweeping views of the harbor. Sadly, a quick check revealed that it was fully booked for the week.
2 – Captain Vassilis – Also boasting a striking terrace and pristine location in the harbor.
This time, we went straight to the source by walking right into the lobby at Captain Vassilis to asking to see a room. The room we were most excited about was occupied that night. but was available for the next two nights.
The helpful manager showed us around the small B&B and up to the terrace we’d spotted from the harbor. The view was incredible.
It was a shared terrace with one other room, but it was huge. And our room would have a magnificent view as well. The rate was nearly twice what we were paying at Nikolas Rooms, but it was a considerable upgrade for a very reasonable price.
We booked it on the spot for our last two nights.
Gramvousa and Balos Islands
For our third day on Crete, we had another full day planned. First up, catching the 8:00am bus to the port of Kissamos. Then hooking up with our boat for the day.
We arrived at the port around 9:30am and were mildly alarmed at the size of the ship. There were easily 400 people aboard the large ferry boat.
We immediately feared this might be one of those obnoxious group tours, elbow to elbow on the beach with everyone else.
But we shouldn’t have worried. Despite the large number of people aboard, both islands were expansive. Plenty of room for us to carve out our own little bit of serenity at each stop, away from the crowds.
After a one-hour sail from Kissamos, we arrived at our first stop, the more ambitious of the two, Gramvousa Island.
First stop, Gramvousa
Gramvousa featured a perfect stretch of white sand beach, complete with an awesome shipwreck peeking up from the emerald sea just offshore.
However, the island’s top sight was easily the Venetian castle towering atop a steep rock, 500ft above sea level. It’s considered one of the most impressive castles in Crete, so like most of our fellow passengers, Shannon and I opted to make the climb to the top instead of lounging around on the beach.
The climb was tough in the mid-day heat, but we were rewarded with incredible views of the sea from every corner of the castle.
The island itself exploded with colorful flora and fauna and had tremendous views of our next stop, Balos Island. By the time we climbed back down, the ship was blasting its departure horn.
So much for beach time!
The Spectacular Balos Lagoon
Our next stop at the Balos lagoon was all about relaxation. Like Elafonissi the day before, the beach area was a vast lagoon with several different beach areas. Deciding to forgo the more crowded umbrella and beach chair area, we found a quiet area off to the side of the main beach and spread out our towels to relax for a while.
It was a splendid way to spend an afternoon. We enjoyed nearly three hours of relaxation time on Balos before it was time to head back to Kissamos for the drive back to Chania.
A Vacation from the Vacation
For our fourth day on Crete, there were lots of things we could have done.
The other major day trip on this end of the island is hiking the Samaria Gorge, a rugged 6-hour hike that’s supposed to be fabulous. We could also have taken the local bus to any of a number of beaches along the coast.
What we actually did was take a vacation from our (so far) exhausting vacation. We’d been sightseeing at full-throttle since Moscow two weeks earlier. We were spent.
A day to relax, sleep in and not plan anything was definitely in order. After a serene morning, we headed over to our new hotel at the very civilized hour of 11:00am.
An Upgrade to Captain Vassilis
The room at Captain Vassilis was just as fantastic as we’d hoped. Twice the size of the one we’d been sharing for the past three nights. It even had a Jacuzzi tub with a million-dollar view of the harbor.
We’d been wishing for a giant tub in which to soak our tired legs for a week and finally, we had one! Trade-off times in the tub were immediately established.
We settled into our fancy new digs, then grabbed lunch in the harbor. Later, we finally took a stroll around the harbor’s Venetian walls and out to the lighthouse. Chania’s architecture has a strong Venetian-Turkish influence which really adds to its charm.
The town was also heavily bombed during WWII and some of its unique atmosphere is due to a variety of nearly demolished buildings being reinvented as shops and restaurants.
That afternoon we took one of the many glass-bottom boat trips available from Chania harbor.
We opted for the 2-hour trip with Captain Nick which circled Thodorou and Lazaretta islands and over the top of wreckage from an airplane shot down in World War II.
It was another gorgeous day and the boat tour was the perfect way to get out on the water and get a look at some of the other beaches near Chania.
Last Night in Chania
We made the most of our terrace that night with a sunset glass of wine. Then chose a new spot for dinner and tried to come up with a plan for Heraklion.
I had a flight out the following night to Rhodes. But Shannon had two more nights on Crete and still needed to secure a room on that side of the island.
The Port City of Heraklion
For my last day on Crete, we took the 9:00am bus from Chania to Heraklion and arrived in town just after 11:00am. My flight didn’t depart until 8:00pm, so plenty of time remained to explore Heraklion and visit the nearby Minoan Palace of Knossos.
Shannon booked a room near the port at the gorgeous Aquila Atlantis Hotel. We found it easily after a short walk from the bus stop.
Heraklion was exactly as our local friends in Chania had described it, a big city. Though the harbor area was pretty and the hotel was fabulous, the town itself was definitely lacking the charm and character of Chania.
We were instantly certain we’d made the right decision about where to spend our time while on Crete.
We ditched our luggage in Shannon’s room and then wandered the old Venetian port area for a bit. Later, we hopped on a bus over to Knossos.
Ancient History at Knossos
For many visitors to Crete, Knossos is the main attraction. Excavation of the site containing two major Minoan palaces begun under Arthur Evans in 1900. Prior to that time, little was known about the ancient Minoan people.
Excavations continue to this day but during Evans’ time, he did something many considered controversial. He rebuilt large parts of the palace based on evidence that he had uncovered.
Throughout the site, reconstructed walls, stairs, windows, and columns give visitors a sense of what the palace may have looked like so many centuries ago.
While his actions at Knossos may have been controversial to some, it sure helps those of us without an archaeology degree gain a better appreciation for the place.
After wandering Knossos for a while, we grabbed the bus back into the city. There was just enough time for one last Cretan meal before I left for the airport.
Did We Make the Right Decision?
Over dinner, we realized our lack of initial planning turned out to be a solid strategy. I’m a natural planner (it’s what I do for a living), so it was a struggle for me to leave Crete to work itself out upon arrival.
Yes, I know other travelers do this all the time. But the fact that it worked out so perfectly has inspired me to consider a more relaxed approach to travel planning going forward. Maybe.
Big thanks to Shannon for joining me again for half of this summer’s trip. She’s now been on all 6 of my month-long summer trips since I first added them to the travel roster in 2009.
Not everyone can keep up with my high-octane style of travel (or would want to for that matter!). But she never complains. Not when we attempt to see an entirely new country in an afternoon (most recently, Lithuania), or bounce from one hotel to another, night after night.
Like me, she makes the most of every destination, no matter how short the stay.