The island of Crete, the largest in Greece, is diverse in a way the others aren’t. It has soaring peaks frosted with snow. Broad highlands dotted with sheep and windmills. One of Europe’s longest canyons. Coastal communities whose buildings still evidence occupation by the Romans, Byzantines, Venetians, Egyptians, and Ottomans. Ruins from the seat of Europe’s most ancient advanced civilization (the Minoan). And entire cities that have nothing to do with tourism.
Its 3,219 square miles – about 4.5 hours end to end – are sectioned east to west into four prefectures: Lasithi, Heraklion, Rethymno, and Chania. (Or Lassithi, Heraclion / Iraklion, Rethimno / Rethymnos /Rethymnon, and Hania. Every town in Crete has multiple spellings.)
Seeing all three of them takes time. You could easily spend a week exploring each region, with a few days on the northern half by the Aegean Sea, and a few on the south by the Libyan Sea. We had half that time for our Crete holiday, so we didn’t get to visit Heraklion, and our posts about the others will share a similar format: the highlights of what we saw, and the highlights of what we missed.
Our first stop in Crete was Lassithi, the easternmost province and the least developed for tourism. We vastly underestimated the driving times here and were up against unfavorable weather, so overall explored far less of this jam-packed province than anticipated.
Around Agios Nikolaos
This cute marina town had a healthy mix of local buzz and tourist ease, but it’s hardly undiscovered. High season months will draw crowds like most places in the Mediterranean. Top attractions include its “bottomless” salt lake and byzantine churches.
BioAroma natural body products
Walk into any tourist shop in Crete and you’ll be encouraged to buy olive oil skincare. Turning a famous local product into marketable potions and lotions is nothing new – think Dead Sea salts in Israel or wine products in France – but the kicker here is that they contain all-natural ingredients.
This is one of the things that impressed me most about the island (and about Greece: many of you already know the naturals brand Korres, sold at Sephora, and perhaps even APIVITA). BioAroma takes this culture to another level, distilling essential oils from culinary and medicinal herbs grown around the island and folding them into luscious products that adhere to traditional island recipes.
A hundred kilos of herbs yield just 1.5% oil, so the entire process is a labor of love. The owner has created a museum to help explain traditional production methods, and brings in school groups to teach local children the importance of perpetuating traditional trades and producing with natural ingredients. I’m already looking to re-stock my supply, so if anybody wants to share a joint shipment….
No Name Cafe
Never in a million years would I have chosen to dine at this tiny gyro shop with a name written only in Greek; it’s situated right in the middle of the main tourist terrace next to the marina and displays a large stand-up picture menu with descriptions in several languages (look for the one with the red table cloths and a soft-serve ice cream machine outside). But don’t let my initial reticence put you off. Here you’ll find perfectly worthy gyros and the best saganaki – local pan-fried cheese – that we found on the island. (Not to mention great entertainment from the waiter, who will attend to you in between beer breaks.)
Next time we’ll visit:
We trimmed this village from our list because of its reputation as a glitterati hotspot; we were more interested in soaking up traditional culture than lounging with today’s cultural elite. Later we found out that on top of the area’s striking natural beauty there are a number of independent boutique hotels adhering to the traditional spirit, such as the Minos Beach Art Hotel, whose single-level bungalows were created by the founder of Koutsounari Traditional Cottages, were we stayed near Ierapetra.
Kritsa traditional village
I’m not sure which contest it was, but according to Lasithi’s tourist office this tiny village won the prize for producing the world’s best olive oil. Regardless, Crete’s olive oil is prized the world over, so supporting a village which maintains traditional production methods is an added bonus. The harvest and production season starts in November, but if you’d like to visit another time you can email me for contact information.
Perhaps the most famous destination in the Lassithi region, this photo-worthy mountain highland is surrounded by snow-capped peaks and is home to numerous sheep and windmills.
Ierapetra’s surrounding hills are filled with greenhouses, not tourism. Despite the dominant agriculture economy, it’s the place where we most plainly witnessed the “creesees” (economic crisis) that is on the lips of people throughout the hard-hit Mediterranean. Listless young men roamed the streets or sat in outdoor cafes, nursing a frappe for an afternoon (speaking to underemployment) and the greenhouses were ripped and held together with duct tape (speaking to underinvestment). However, the area, like most of Crete’s southern, Libyan-sea coast, is a good option for those looking to get off the beaten track. True to fashion, it’s the more inaccessible places that have fewer tourists: Crete’s main highway runs along the northern, not the southern, coast.
*Tip: Regarding eating establishments, “going local” in Crete means being shrouded in secondhand smoke. If that sounds unappealing and you can’t find an uncrowded outdoor terrace, you might need to bite the bullet and head to a restaurant that caters to foreigners.
The oldest hotel in this town, situated in a reappropriated traditional stone village, is what drew us to this part of the island. Stay tuned to a later post for more details.
If it’s windy in Koutsounari and Ierapetra, drive twenty minutes west to this small village for the afternoon, or explore nearby Mitho or the Sarakina Gorge. Myrtos enjoys a famous beach of soft white pebbles, and for the naturists among you, beaches nearby neighboring Tertsa allow nudism. Free spirits of the 1970s were the first foreigners to spend time in this area, and their hippy legacy remains in the form of dreadlocked 20-somethings, frequently seen driving old vans.
Meaning “myth,” this hillside village of shady trees and streams was a stopping place for Minoan King Minos, who liked to be entertained with stories (myths). Not only is this the right kind of place to strike up a conversation with locals in a café (friendliness was one of the main reasons a local bartender returned to Crete after living abroad. “Even if you have never been there, you step into a bar in a mountain village and somebody will buy you a coffee.”), but it’s also the start of an ancient Minoan path. Along the hiking trail you can see evidence of the original cobblestones, the Nykteridospilon cave of bats, 14th century churches, and panoramic views which take in the ancient Minoan palace of Myrtos.
Crete boasts several dramatic gorges (canyons), the most famous being the Samaria Gorge in the Chania province. Since we knew we likely wouldn’t make it there, we made sure to visit Lassithi’s remarkably narrow Sarakina, with its steep sides and polychromatic gray-blue-browns. Find the road by heading first to Mitho and wind your way down to the parking area. A five-minute flat path will take you to the gorge. Hiking conditions depend on the water level of its stream, but be prepared to get your feet wet if you want to hike deeper than the mouth.
Next time we’ll visit:
Chrissi (Chrysi) Island
The gem of this region, Chrissi is an uninhabited paradise and protected nature zone that seems to have been plucked from the Bahamas. It’s clear, shallow waters create some of the best beaches in the Mediterranean and it is home to a large Lebanon Cedar forest, Minoan ruins, and a Roman cemetery. Unfortunately it was too windy and cold for us to make the hour-long boat trip worthwhile.
On the easternmost point of the island, Sitia is remote (although it has a small airport) and therefore less affected by the summer crowds. We planned to visit, but at the last minute altered plans because of timing. It would top our list if we returned.
Purported birthplace of the god Zeus, it now attracts visitors because of interesting stalactites.
Toplou Monastery (Moni Toplou)
The monks at this picturesque 15th century monastery are renowned for honey-making skills, which is one of the staples of Greek food (not to mention – like everything consumed in Crete – ridiculously healthy. More about that later. By arranging a visit, you can learn all about the island’s bee culture.
Its peaceful setting belies the hardships endured by its monks over centuries of foreign invasions. At one point during the Greek Revolution of Independence, all of its monks were slaughtered by the opposing Turks.
Europe’s largest palm forest with a long white beach attached. Caveat emptor: This is one of the greatest tourist draws on Crete, and belongs to the Toplou Monatery. After some degradation during the 1970s and 1980s when it was a popular camping ground for backpackers, the forest is now a protected nature zone.
*Special thanks to the Crete Tourism Board for invaluable assistance with planning this trip, as well as Koutsounari Traditional Cottages for their sponsorship in Koutsounari. To read about our commitment to candid and balanced reviews, see our disclosures page.