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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’ll throw caution to the wind and figure out the rest when we arrive.
2021 Update: Traveling to Greece right now
I just returned from another 2-week trip traveling around the Greek Islands. I wrote a comprehensive post about traveling in and around Greece right now during the Covid-19 pandemic:
It’s everything you need to know about pre-arrival testing, whether you’ll have to wear a mask, where you can get a Covid test if you need one to return home, and all the essentials for traveling to Greece right now. If you’re planning a trip to Greece in 2021, it’s a must-read.
And now, back to Crete!
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 turns out to be a genius decision. Shannon and I immediately fall in love with the quaint harbor town of Chania the minute we see it (ultimately deciding to spend all 5 of our nights there).
I didn’t think anything could top my previous Greek Islands favorite, Mykonos, but Chania just might come close.
Our room at Nikolas Rooms is small and very basic. However, the location is 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 is our base for the first two nights, but the question remains. Where to stay for our last three nights?
And more importantly, how to spend our days on Crete?
The Top 2 Things To Do Near Chania
For a little professional guidance, we make straight for the local travel office for a map and some local advice. The office is extremely helpful and we quickly nail down the two main things we want to do while on the western end of the island:
- 1- Visit the pink sands of Elafonisi Beach
- 2- Take a day trip to Gramvousa and Balos islands
The bus to Elafonissi departs and returns at two set times each day. Judging the morning time a bit aggressive for a proper Greek island holiday, we opt to rent a car for tomorrow to drive ourselves.
Then, we book the standard ferry boat trip to Gramvousa and Balos for the following day.
The Balos day trip means we’ll be gone all of our third day, so it makes sense to stay put at Nikolas Rooms for a third night (luckily, our host is gracious enough to extend our stay).
Three nights down, two more to go.
A Day Trip to Elafonisi Beach
The plan for our first full day in Crete:
1 – Make the 90-minute drive across the mountainous center of the island to Elafonisi Beach on the southwest corner
2 – Maximize our 1-day car rental by checking out the picturesque harbor of Rethymno to see if it is any better than Chania (which doesn’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 is perfect and the rental experience is very 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 involves several white-knuckle, winding roads through the mountains. It takes nearly two hours to get to Elafonisi, instead of the estimated 90-minutes.
Pink Beach Paradise at Elafonisi Beach
But it is definitely worth the ambitious drive, Elafonisi is absolutely stunning.
More than just a simple beach, Elafonisi 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 seems like miles.
It brings to mind some of my favorite endless lagoons in the South Pacific, like Aitutaki and Moorea. It is just fantastic.
Though it isn’t a bold shade of pink, the pink crystals of sand in the shoreline are easy to see. I’ve never seen a pink beach before, so I thought Elafonisi 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 explore the various coves of Elafonissi and spend some quality time lounging on the pink sands. But if we are going to squeeze in a trip to Reythmno, by mid-afternoon it’s time to hit the road.
A quick stop in Reythmno
Three hours later, we arrive in the harbor of Reythmno. It is lovely, but it’s no match for Chania.
We get some ice cream and stroll the port’s shop-lined, cobbled lanes. An hour later, we’re back in the car bound for Chania – secure in the knowledge that we’ve made the right decision between those two towns.
Stick with Chania or Move On?
That night, over dinner in the harbor, we decide to spend our final two nights in Chania as well.
But, it’s time to upgrade our hotel situation and splurge on a room with a view. We’ve 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 eat, we search rates for our top picks on Booking.com. We identify a few favorites and then narrow it down to two:
1 – The Plaza Apartment, which has a spacious terrace and sweeping views of the harbor. Sadly, a quick check reveals it is fully booked for the week.
2 – Captain Vasilis Hotel – Also boasting a striking terrace and pristine location in the harbor.
This time, we go straight to the source and walk right into the lobby at Captain Vasilis to ask if we can see a room. The room we are most excited about is occupied that night. but is available for the next two nights.
The helpful manager shows us around the small B&B and up to the terrace we’ve spotted from the harbor. The view is simply incredible. SOLD!
It is a shared terrace with one other room, but it is huge. And our room will have a magnificent view as well. The rate is nearly twice what we were paying at Nikolas Rooms, but it is a considerable upgrade for a very reasonable price.
We book it on the spot for our last two nights.
Gramvousa and Balos Islands
For our third day on Crete, we have another full day planned. First up, we catch the 8:00am bus to the port of Kissamos. From there, we’ll hook up with our boat for the day.
We arrived at the port around 9:30am and are mildly alarmed at the size of the ship. There are easily 400 people aboard the large ferry boat.
We immediately fear 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 are expansive. There is 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 arrive at our first stop, the more ambitious of the two, Gramvousa Island.
First stop, Gramvousa
Gramvousa features 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 is 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 opt to make the climb to the top instead of lounging around on the beach.
The climb is tough in the mid-day heat, but we are rewarded with incredible views of the sea from every corner of the castle.
The island itself explodes with colorful flora and fauna and has tremendous views of our next stop, Balos Island. By the time we climb back down, the ship is blasting its departure horn.
So much for beach time!
The Spectacular Balos Lagoon
Our next stop at the Balos lagoon is all about relaxation.
Like Elafonissi yesterday, the beach is actually a vast lagoon with several different beach areas. Deciding to forgo the more crowded umbrella and beach chair area, we find a quiet area off to the side of the main beach and spread out our towels to relax for a while.
It is a splendid way to spend an afternoon. We enjoy nearly three hours of relaxation time on Balos before it’s time to head back to Kissamos for the drive back to Chania.
A Vacation from the Vacation
For our fourth day on Crete, there are lots of things we could do.
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 take the local bus to any number of beaches along the coast.
What we actually do is take a vacation from our (so far) exhausting vacation. We’ve been sightseeing at full-throttle since Moscow two weeks ago. We are spent.
Read More: Russian Roulette in Moscow
A day to relax, sleep in and not plan anything is definitely in order. So after a serene morning, we head over to our new hotel at the very civilized hour of 11:00am.
An Upgrade to Captain Vasilis
The room at Captain Vasilis is just as fantastic as we hoped. Twice the size of the one we’ve been sharing for the past three nights. It even has a Jacuzzi tub with a million-dollar view of the harbor.
We’ve been wishing for a giant tub in which to soak our tired legs for a week and finally, we have one! Trade-off times for the tub are immediately established as we settle into our fancy new digs.
Later, we grab lunch in the harbor and finally take 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 try out one of the many glass-bottom boat trips available from Chania harbor.
We opt for the 2-hour trip with Captain Nick which circles Thodorou and Lazaretta islands and over the top of wreckage from an airplane shot down in World War II.
It’s another gorgeous day and the boat tour is 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 make the most of our terrace tonight with a sunset glass of wine. Then choose a new spot for dinner and try to come up with a plan for Heraklion.
I have a flight out tomorrow night to Rhodes. But Shannon has two more nights on Crete and still needs to secure a room on that side of the island.
The Port City of Heraklion
For my last day on Crete, we hop on the 9:00am bus from Chania to Heraklion and arrive in town just after 11:00am. My flight doesn’t depart until 8:00pm tonight, so we have plenty of time left to explore Heraklion and visit the nearby Minoan Palace of Knossos.
Shannon booked a room near the port at the gorgeous Aquila Atlantis Hotel and we find it easily after a short walk from the bus stop.
Heraklion is exactly as our local friends in Chania described it, a big city. Though the harbor area is pretty and the hotel is fabulous, the town itself is definitely lacking the charm and character of Chania.
We are instantly certain we made the right decision about where to spend our time while on Crete.
We ditch our luggage in Shannon’s room and wander the old Venetian port area for a bit before catching the 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.
Like many of the incredible ruins I’ve seen across Greece in Athens and the island of Cyprus, it’s a fascinating site to visit and explore.
Read More: 24 Hours in Athens
After wandering Knossos for a while, we grab the bus back into the city. There is just enough time for one last Cretan meal before I leave for the airport.
Did We Make the Right Decision?
Over dinner, we realize 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.
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 with a 30-day trip around Europe.
Read More: Europe in 30 Days
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).
Read More: Lightning Fast Lithuania: 3 Hours in Vilnius
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.
Next up for me, a late-night flight to Rhodes before continuing on to the Greek island I’m most excited about on this trip, Symi!