The most southerly of all the Greek islands, and with the longest summer, Crete has lively towns, charming villages, chic restaurants, clubs and boutiques, magnificent nature reserves and breath-taking scenery – and don’t forget it is the legendary birthplace of the god Zeus, so Crete inspired the legends of the Minoan Empire!
Find your inner hippie
“They’re playin’ that scratchy rock and roll, Beneath the Matala Moon,” sang folk legend Joni Mitchell, in her song Carey, written in the fishing village on Crete’s south coast. Matala became a hippie haven in the 1960s, with young people occupying its Neolithic caves, and Bob Dylan and Cat Stevens among the visitors. Now the spirit of the time is revived every summer by the Matala Beach Festival, a long weekend of music featuring around 200 bands from around the world, attracting tens of thousands of fans. Held in late June, there is free entry to much of the festival, and a small charge for the main stage, while events surrounding it are suitable for adults and children, including a huge street painting extravaganza.
Crete’s fantastic waterparks zany fun for all ages. Water City, at Kokkini Hani, near Anopolis, claims Europe’s biggest wave pool, with swirls in five directions, up to 1.5 metres high, and a body-spinning slide making this a must-see destination when stopping at Knossos Beach Hotel. For a break from the thrills, there’s the Lazy River ride, promising some surprises. Among attractions at Acqua Plus, in Hersonissos, are the Giants of Terror, billed as the tallest slides in Greece, at 23m high and 180m long. With a range of hotels near Hersonissos, including the Acropolis Apartments, Porto Village and Silva Beach Hotel, the Walk-on-Water Balls, children’s slides and an inflatable castle add to the entertainment at this waterpark. Smaller Limnoupolis, in lovely countryside near Chania, has slides, games, waterfalls and its own Lazy River.
Ready for watersports?
Crete is a watersports paradise, with the offshore breezes and challenging waves perfect for windsurfing and kitesurfing. Kouremenos Beach, near Palekastro, suits both experienced surfers, thanks to the ‘Meltemi’ summer wind, and beginners, who find gentler conditions closer to the shore. Equipment and coaching are available from the windsurfing school at the beach. Tenta, near Cape Sidero, is another testing, and more secluded, hotspot, while Agia Marina, Amoudara – home to the Heraklion Windsurfing Club – and Papadiokambos, a rocky cove near Sitia, are among other favourites.
Awe-inspiring Samaria Gorge, deep in the White Mountains in western Crete, attracts many thousands of visitors each year. It runs for almost 13km through Samaria National Park, and three kilometres more to the coast at Agia Roumeli, and a walk along its length can take between five and eight hours. A World Biosphere Reserve, it is home to the striking Cretan wild goat, a variety of birds, huge cypresses and some plants unique to the gorge. Criss-crossed by wooden bridges, the river valley narrows at points known as ‘gates’ to 3m, with cliffs up to 700m high. There are occasional access restrictions, especially during bad weather, but organised tours are available, and the gorge is usually open between May and October.
Wealth of history
Crete’s crucial part in Greek history has left a wealth of fascinating heritage sites, like the ruined Minoan Knossos Palace, and nearby Heraklion, where a museum preserves more treasures. The palace, home of King Minos, is associated with the legends of his labyrinth, the Minotaur and ill-fated fliers Daedalus and Icarus. Advance booking can beat the queues and a guided tour increases the enjoyment. The museum, in Heraklion centre, exhibits pottery, sculpture, painting, models and other artefacts from more than 5,000 years of history.
Look for ghosts
Arrive for a May dawn in Frangokastello, a small village with big ideas on Crete’s south-west coast, and you might add ‘ghosts’ to your sightseeing exploits. The mirage-like phenomenon, caused by heat rising from the soil, is claimed to be apparitions of 19th-century warriors. The village also has a stunning landscape, an imposing Venetian castle, a small monastery and beautiful, if often windy, beaches – one with child-friendly shallow water, another with a rocky seabed popular for snorkelling and a third fringed by dunes. Visitors on September 15 can enjoy a church festival, including athletics and horse racing in honour of St Nikitas, who, according to legend, rescued a kidnapped bride on horseback.
Take a day trip
One of Greece’s most impressive Venetian fortresses dominates the small island of Spinalonga, a popular destination for day trips – despite its history as a leper colony, closed in 1957. The attractive coast around Elounda was a location for 1970s TV series Who Pays The Ferryman? and from there, during the summer, regular ferries make the 20-minute voyage – seven minutes from Plaka. Local boat owners will often supply transport out of season. There are guided tours, too, some including the breathtaking Selinari Gorge, swimming breaks, and a barbecue ashore or on board that are great if stopping at nearby hotels such as Elounda Water Park Residence Hotel or Tasmania Village.
Dine and dance
Glorious beaches, fabulous scenery and sublime sunsets put the Greek islands among the world’s most romantic destinations, and couples will find a myriad of places to dine and dance on Crete in an intimate or party atmosphere. Many visitors have discovered an unexpected, lively delight in The Whisky Bar, run by a Scottish family on the beachfront in Kokkini Hani. Seafood lovers might choose the family-run Sunset fish restaurant in the beach village of Sfinari, where guests can see the food being prepared, and the menu is full of fresh, locally caught and grown produce.
Celebrate St George’s Day
Just because you’re away from home, there’s no reason to miss celebrating St George’s Day – in fact, it’s a long-standing tradition in the village of Asi Gonia, in the Apokoronas region. On, or close to, April 23, shepherds from all the local farms bring their sheep and goats, bearing typical Cretan ‘leria’ bells, to be blessed at the church of St George ‘Galatas’ (‘milkman’). They then milk the flocks and women in traditional costume distribute the milk.
Visit botanical gardens
Overlooked by the magnificent White Mountains, Crete’s Botanical Gardens, near Fournes, exploit the area’s microclimate with a huge variety of exhibits, including a citrus garden, a tropical display, vineyards, medicinal varieties and aromatic herbs. The gardens were developed by a local family after a devastating fire in the village of Skordalou, started when an electricity pole was toppled by high winds in 2003, and retain a symbolic burnt olive tree. A haven for birds and butterflies, the garden takes about three hours to explore and has a restaurant.