For centuries the natural beauty of Crete was at the mercy of pirate fleets and the strategic conquests of the strongest Mediterranean powers. From the Greeks to the Romans, Venetians and Turks, each conquering culture left its mark on this eternal crossroads between East and West.
But it was some of the island’s earliest inhabitants who created the ancient sites and palaces Crete is best known for today. The early Minoan culture began to emerge on Crete around 2500 B.C., transitioning to Middle Minoan by 2000 B.C. It was during the Middle Minoan phase when many of the island’s archaeological treasures were constructed. By 1200 B.C. the Minoan culture had mostly gone under and the race for control of the island’s resources and strategic Mediterranean position was on.
The confluence of cultures that define Crete’s history lend it 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.
The Cretan Dilemma
Shannon and I arrived in Crete Greece from Sardinia at 4:00pm on a perfect, sunny, Saturday afternoon. We had some initial difficulty sorting out our stay in Crete. Like Sardinia, it was a big island with two airports and the options were literally overwhelming. Our super-cheap flight on Ryan Air from Rome to the Chania airport helped give us some direction, at least for the first few nights, but we weren’t sure we wanted to commit to Chania for the entire week.
The biggest question mark was where to stay. And I don’t just mean which hotel but the west end of the island or east? In one of the main towns like Chania, Heraklion or Rethymno or in one of the many beach resort areas?
There were endless options on Greece’s largest island and with so many other stops to finalize in the first week of our trip; Crete was continuously shifted to the back burner. Shannon and I both made a face every time one of us mentioned that we still needed to figure out where to stay on Crete.
So we procrastinated. We knew we needed to spend at least the first night or two on the western end of the island since our flight from Rome arrived into Chania. But since we were both flying out of Heraklion at the end of our stay, at some point it made sense to move to that side of the island. And there was plenty to see there as well.
Finally, while searching online from Sardinia, we found a great rate on a small, basic hotel in a great location near the harbor in Chania and went ahead and booked it for the first two nights. We decided to throw caution to the wind and figure out the rest when we arrived.
It turned out to be a genius decision as we both 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 but 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.
Even after we settled on Chania as a base for our first two nights, we still weren’t exactly sure where we wanted to stay for the remaining 3 days or how to spend our days. So after settling in a little at our hotel, we headed straight for one of the travel agencies in town to get a map and some local advice.
The nice gentleman at the agency was extremely helpful and we discovered that the two main things we wanted to do on this end of the island were:
1- Visit the pink beach of Elafonissi
2- Take a day trip to Gramvousa and Balos islands
Since the bus to Elafonissi left and returned at two set times each day (the morning time was really early), we opted to rent a car for the next day from Rental Center Crete. And then we booked the standard ferry boat trip to Gramvousa and Balos for the following day.
After booking the day trip to Balos for our second day, we realized that had basically made our decision for the 3rd night. Since we‘d be gone all that day and didn’t want to have to change hotels, it made sense to stay put for a 3rd night. So we asked Nikolas if we could stay one more night and luckily our room was available. Three nights down, two more to go.
The Pink Beaches of Elafonissi
The plan for our first full day in Crete was to make the 90-minute drive across the mountainous center of the island to Elafonissi on the southwest corner and try to get the most out of the car by checking out Rethymno, the town at the midpoint between Heraklion and Chania. We’d heard Rethymno was nice so it was also on our list of possible places to stay. We wanted to see for ourselves if it was anywhere near as awesome as Chania.
We picked up our car rental at Rental Center Crete in downtown Chania and were pleased with the car and the rental experience. This time we got a real car, no more of that Smart Car nonsense from Sardinia. 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 nice thing about using Rental Center Crete was that their rates were all-inclusive with full insurance and no excess charges.
Once we were on the road, we realized the drive was through more of those white-knuckle, winding mountain roads so it actually took nearly 2 hours to get to Elafonissi, but luckily it was a beautiful drive through several quaint little Greek villages.
As in Sardinia, I did the driving and Shannon did the navigating (it was nice to have someone doing the navigating as I’m usually juggling both when I’m on my RTW trips!).
And it was definitely worth the ambitious drive, Elafonissi was stunning.
It’s more than just a simple beach; it’s actually a peninsula of several beaches that at various tides even becomes its own island. The water is shallow and extends at knee-high depth for what seems like miles. It reminded me of some of the endless lagoons of the South Pacific. It was just fantastic.
Though it wasn’t a bold shade of pink, it was easy to see the pink crystals of sand in various places around the shoreline. I’d never seen a pink beach before so I thought it was amazing. There were even signs posted warning visitors not to damage the natural environment by taking any of the pink sand (this is apparently a problem so perhaps at one point Elafonissi had even more pink sand).
After spending a couple of hours exploring the various coves of Elafonissi and relaxing a little, we realized we’d better get back in the car if we were going to have time to get all the way over to Reythmno, too.
It was a long drive but once we reached the highway near Chania the last 65 kilometers to Reythmno went much faster. After nearly 3 hours in the car, we arrived in the harbor of Reythmno and though it was really lovely, it was no match for Chania. We got some ice cream and walked around the port and the shops for about an hour before getting back in the car for the drive back to Chania.
That night over dinner in the harbor we decided to stay our final two nights in Chania. But, we wanted to change hotels and splurge on something with a terrace and a view. We’d been eyeing some of the hotels around the harbor with incredible views.
As we ate, we made notes of the hotels with the best views and started looking them up on Booking.com to see what the rates were. After identifying a few favorites, we had it narrowed down to two. The first was the Plaza Apartment, which appeared to have a spacious terrace and sweeping views of the harbor. Sadly, a quick check revealed that it was fully booked for the week.
Next, we walked around to our other favorite, Captain Vasilis, to check availability and see if we could get a look at a room.
The room we wanted was occupied that night but was available for the next two nights and the manager showed us around the small B&B and up to the terrace we’d been eyeing from the harbor. The view was incredible.
It was a shared terrace with one other room but it was a huge terrace and our room would have a great view as well. It was just 85 euro a night, about twice what we were paying at the other place but it was a considerable upgrade for a very reasonable price so we booked it on the spot for our last two nights.
Gramvousa and Balos Islands
For our second day on Crete we had another full day planned. First up, catching the 8:00am bus to the port of Kissamos to catch our boat for the day. It was a long ride with many stops along the way to pick up other people and when we arrived at the port around 9:30am we were a little alarmed at the size of the ship.
There were easily 400 people aboard the large ferry boat and we feared this would be one of those obnoxious group tours and we’d be elbow to elbow on the beach with everyone else.
But we shouldn’t have worried because despite the large number of people aboard, both islands we visited were pretty big so everyone spread out fairly well and we were still able to carve out a quiet spot for ourselves 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.
Gramvousa had a perfect stretch of white sand beach and an awesome shipwreck peeking up from the emerald sea just offshore but its top sight was the Venetian castle sitting 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 decided to make the climb to the top instead of lounging around on the beach.
It was a tough climb in the mid-day heat but totally worth it for the views of the sea from all sides of the castle. The island itself was full of colorful flora and fauna and had tremendous views of our next stop, Balos Island. We wandered around the castle so long taking in the views that by the time we climbed down the ship was blasting its departure horn. So much for beach time!
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 and we had almost three hours to relax on Balos before it was time to head back to Kissamos for the drive back to Chania. That night we packed up a little before heading to dinner excited to be moving over to our fancy hotel the next morning.
A Vacation from the Vacation
For our 3rd day on Crete, there were lots of things we could have done. The other major day trip on this end of the island was 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.
But we decided we both needed a vacation from our (so far) exhausting vacation. We’d done nothing but sight see at full-throttle since Moscow and we were spent. We both just needed a day to relax and not plan anything in particular.
We slept in until 9:30am or so (not as easy as it sounds thanks to the blaring church bells from the church next door starting at 7am) and then packed up and headed over to our new hotel around 11:00am.
The room at Captain Vasilis was just as fantastic as we’d hoped. Twice as big as the one we’d been sharing for the past 3 nights and it even had a Jacuzzi tub overlooking the harbor. We’d been wishing for a giant tub to soak our tired legs for a week and finally we had one! Immediate plans were made to establish trade-off times in the tub.
After unpacking in our new digs, we headed down to the harbor to grab some lunch and finally took a walk around the Venetian walls of the harbor and out to the lighthouse to get a look at the view from over there. 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 decided to try out one of the many glass-bottom boat trips available from Chania harbor. We chose the 2-hour trip with Captain Nick which went out around Thodorou and Lazaretta islands and over the top of the wreckage of an airplane shot down in World War II. It was again a gorgeous day and it was nice to get out on the water and get a look at some of the other beaches near Chania.
We made the most of our terrace that night with a glass of wine during sunset and then picked a different spot for dinner and tried to come up with a plan for Heraklion. I had a flight out Thursday night to Rhodes and Shannon had two more nights on Crete so she still needed to find another hotel on that side of the island.
Our break from our vacation was so relaxing that we decided to do it again the next day. I had some work to do and Shannon took a walk over to the beach closest to town and spent some quality time on a lounge chair. That afternoon we did some shopping and again set up camp on the terrace with a bottle of wine for sunset.
After dinner we made the rounds to say goodbye to a few of the local friends we’d made at the bars and restaurants during the week. We were sad to be leaving beautiful Chania the next day but we knew without a doubt that we’d made the most of our time here.
Heraklion and Knossos
For my last day on Crete, we took the 9am bus from Chania to Heraklion and arrived in town just after 11:00am. My flight wasn’t until 8:00pm that night so we had lots of time to explore Heraklion a bit and visit the nearby Minoan Palace of Knossos.
Shannon had booked a room right near the port at the gorgeous Aquila Atlantis Hotel and 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 sure that we’d made the right decision about where to spend our time while on Crete.
After dropping our luggage in Shannon’s room, we wandered around the old Venetian port area for a bit before catching a bus over to 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 and 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 by rebuilding 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. His actions at Knossos may have been controversial to some but I’d have to say it sure helps those of us without an archaeology degree gain a better appreciation for the place.
After wandering the grounds at Knossos for a while, we grabbed the bus back into the city. We had just enough time to grab one last Greek meal together before I had to head to the airport. Over dinner we realized our lack of initial planning had really worked out well.
I’m a natural planner (it’s what I do for a living) so it was hard for me to leave Crete to work itself out upon arrival, even though 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.
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. It’s not everyone who can keep up with my high-octane style of travel (or who would want to for that matter!) but she never complains when we stay somewhere for just one night and, like me, she always makes the most of everywhere we go, no matter how short the stay.
Truth be told, it’s nice to have an experienced traveler to divide up the trip-planning responsibilities with. Plus she’s just good company!
So thanks to Shannon for coming along these first two weeks, enjoy the rest of your time in Crete and your short stop in Istanbul on the way home.