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Why Crete Should Be Your Next Greek Island Escape

June 04, 2019
11 min read
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What Greek island pairs the romantic palace ruins of Europe's earliest civilization with some of its most spectacular beaches? If you answered Crete, you're correct.

The fifth-largest island in the Mediterranean, Crete is much more than just a spot to party — and its vaunted reputation as a repository of Minoan ruins at sites like Knossos make it a cultural contender with no peer in the region. Despite all this, many Americans still tend to conflate Crete with other Greek Islands, like the also-fabulous Santorini which, while smaller by leaps and bounds, still attracts bigger profiles.

The sheer size of the island makes it a bit of a juggernaut to see in one fell swoop: Frankly, you can't. From east to west, the distance is approximately 160 miles and while distances north to south are much less, this is rugged terrain, and in some spots only accessible by boat.

"Crete may be an island, but it's big enough so that it almost feels like a separate country from Greece," Kostas Filippakis, an Athens-based architect who hails from Heraklion, the island's capital city, told The Points Guy. "One of the things I look forward to most when I return to visit are the landscapes, which are very mountainous and you might say mirror the character of the Cretan people — beaches and all that aside, the place just has this certain depth to it that you don't find in typical 'holiday' islands."

The Morosini Fountain in Heraklion, Crete, was built in the 1600s by the Venetians who ruled the island. (Photo courtesy of Region of Crete)

That said, the word is out about Crete, and now September — a month when visitors tend to trail off — is practically as busy as August. In some cases, heavily-Instagrammed spots like the old port of Chania and the wide lagoon of Balos are now at risk of the same kind of overtourism that has plagued destinations such as Venice and Barcelona in recent years. Hotels are finally stepping up to the plate with new properties, and there are more flight options now, too.

The major cities of Crete, which are Heraklion, Rethymno and Chania, are all on the north coast which is also traditionally the more developed, touristy side of the island. Heraklion is one of the fastest-growing destinations in Europe. In the east, party spots like Hersonissos and Malia are well-known to British sun-seekers, while Agios Nikolaos draws a less booze-driven crowd. Nearby is Elounda, where posh resorts like Elounda Mare and the Blue Resort & Spa are the standard-bearers of luxury. Between Agios Nikolaos and Elounda, the Wyndham Grand Crete Mirabello Bay is emerging from a massive renovation.

On the south side of the island, not far from the mythic seaside hippie enclave of Matala, the coast is sprinkled with tiny towns like Agia Galini where hotels are of the luxury, family-run breed like Irini Mare resort.

"Crete is the best Greek island because we've got everything here, from the archaeology and amazing food to the scenery and stunning Mediterranean Sea views," said Antonis Milolidakis, Irini Mare's owner and general manager. "Cretan hospitality is one of the highlights for our guests — we produce our own olive oil and they love that too!" Milolidakis told TPG the resort, which reopened for the season in April, will welcome guests "through to the beginning of November."

Still not convinced? Here are some other factors helping to put Crete on the Greece-bound traveler's radar this year.

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You can see the islet of Paximadia from the newer sea view suites at the Irini Mare hotel. (Photo courtesy of Irini Mare)

The Longest Beach Season in Greece

You can visit the southernmost point in Europe during a trip to Crete (it's in Gavdos, a tiny island south of the main island) and, as such, its beach season is probably one of the longest on the continent. Though the water is still pretty cool in April, you'll find the water is warm enough for swimming well through October.

And Some of the Best Beaches

As would befit a Mediterranean island with an uncommonly long coast, Crete boasts some pretty spectacular beaches. Some beaches in the north and west of the island, such as Balos Lagoon and Elafonisi, may look spectacular on Instagram but (partly because of Instagram) tend to get overcrowded and are therefore best avoided in the peak months of July and August. And beaches in or very near to the main cities are generally not great. To find the best spots, you'll need some wheels (for the best car rental deals, go local).

The Longest Gorge in Europe

While Crete is best-known as a sunny escape, its rugged and deeply chiseled coastline also makes it a paradise for hikers. The island is more about mountains and gorges than wide open spaces and plateaus (though there are a few of those) and the most spectacular ravine is the Samaria Gorge, nestled in the White Mountains on the south coast of Crete and part of a protected biosphere. The popularity of the gorge's 10-mile-long walking path does nothing to diminish the setting's remote and rugged appeal; the trail starts at an elevation of more than 4,000 feet and culminates at the Libyan Sea.

The Samaria Gorge(Photo by Saro17 / Getty Images)

(Mostly) Uncrowded Ancient Ruins

The most famous ruins in Crete are the ancient Minoan palace ruins of Knossos, outside the capital city of Heraklion. While Knossos is an impressive site, it can get crowded with day-tripping cruise ship passengers. In general, the ruins sites in Crete are less well-preserved than those you'll find around mainland Greece — they're generally just a lot older — but the settings are often spectacular. A good example is Phaistos, another palatial, open-air Minoan site that's a good ride south of Heraklion (but worth it). There are even a few beaches fringed with ruins, often unmarked.

More Hotel Choices

With Heraklion's growing popularity as the gateway to Crete (with Chania following), a spate of new hotels have arrived, with more on the way. Last year saw the debut of Legacy Gastro Suites, a "foodie" boutique hotel with in-room food stations and the stylish Ibis Styles Heraklion Central, an Accor hotel (with new suites opening this year), and the Metropole Urban Hotel is new for 2019. Luxury resort additions to the Hersonissos area (east of Heraklion) are the Nana Princess, Abaton Island Resort & Spa and, between Malia and Hersonissos, the Cactus Mare.

A Trio of International Airports

The main airport is Heraklion International Airport "Nikos Kazantzakis" (HER), named for the celebrated Cretan author of "Zorba the Greek." The good thing about the airport is it's only about 3 miles east of the historic town center. The bad thing is the airport opened in 1972 — and nearly 50 years later, tourism in Crete has exploded, so from about May to November the airport, which is the busiest in Greece after Athens International (ATH), is seriously overstuffed. The summer crowds and security lines can be so soul-crushingly bad I actually recommend that travelers going to or from Athens take a ferry instead of flying. That said, if Athens is not in your plans and you can deal with the madding hordes, there are plenty of nonstop flights from Heraklion to cities like London and other European gateways, as well as Tel Aviv during the summer.

Located three miles east of the town center, Heraklion Airport was opened in 1972. (Photo by ErimacGroup / Getty Images)

If your travels are going to focus on the historic city of Chania and western Crete, then Chania International Airport (CHQ) may be a better option. But there aren't as many flight options from here as from Heraklion and its peninsular location makes it fog-prone. In the far eastern part of the island, little Sitia Public Airport (JSH) is growing in popularity. From here, there are seasonal flights to Copenhagen on Atlantic Airways and to Oslo and Stockholm on SAS, as well as flights to Athens on Olympic and Aegean.

 Cretan Cooking Is a Showstopper

With some 35 million olive trees and wine presses dating as far back as 1500 BC, it's no wonder that the gastronomy of Crete is downright epic. According to Stefanos Pertsemlides, a Greek nutritionist based in Athens, "While the Cretan diet does not differentiate much from the Greek/Mediterranean diet, what is unique is the very wide variety of ingredients that Crete has."

Whether you find yourself tucking into an herb-suffused Cretan pork sausage, chicken souvlaki marinated in yogurt and garlic, or dakos (a kind of bread rusk with chopped tomatoes) or go for more adventurous stuff like skioufikta pasta or local snails in olive oil, the Cretan table is dynamite. Excellent restaurants include Ferryman in Elounda; Peskesi in Heraklion and Portes; and Ta Chalkina in Chania. But even the humblest taverna turns out tasty dishes you'll probably want to text home about.

Olive farm in the mountains near Crete. (Photo by Zdenek Kajzr / Getty Images)

It's One of the Most LGBTQ-Friendly Greek Islands

The capital city of Crete, Heraklion, is the fourth-largest city in Greece, and while it thrives on tourism it's not totally dependent. So while the famously gay-friendly vibe of Mykonos is more or less seasonal, Crete is a good bet for the LGBTQ traveler all year long. Some facets of Cretan society are still pretty conservative while others are surprisingly modern, but in cities like Heraklion, Chania and a few others, you'll be impressed by just how convivial a place Crete can be.

The Summer Is Hot

Crete has a lot going for it either as a part of your broader Greece travel plans or as a standalone destination. No matter which part of the island you decide to stake out, the scenery, beaches and food won't disappoint — and all this has contributed to the island's popularity. What can be a major drag is when you look for hotels at the last minute in the summer months and find your options limited (or sometimes nonexistent).

Aris Soulounias, sales director at the upscale Galaxy Hotel in Heraklion, told TPG, "We welcome guests all year long, but the months during the summer season look to be especially busy this year, so we do recommend that travelers make their reservations as far in advance as possible."

Indeed, according to Eleni Vougioukalaki — an official at the Region of Crete's tourism department in Heraklion — "The busiest month not only for Heraklion but for Crete and Greece is August."

What that means is the time to plan your summer travel in Crete is right now. If you're planning on getting to Heraklion from any European gateway other than Athens, consider making your flight reservations without delay. That's less urgent if you know you'll be flying from Athens, on account of the multiplicity of flight connections — and from Athens (specifically the port of Piraeus) there are plenty of ferry options, too.

Featured image by Getty Images