Crete

Crete – for when you want it All!

There is nothing simple about Crete, after all it’s divided into four prefectures – Chania, Rethymnon, Heraklion and Lassithi. Each of these prefectures is then subdivided into provinces which are still further divided. The purpose of this Crete guide isn’t to bore you about all the divisions but to offer some insight into the four prefectures.

Crete is the largest island in Greece and is about a 50-minute flight from Athens. It feels as if you can reach across the waters and touch the  Greek mainland,  especially when the wind blows and the whitecaps dance across the Aegean Sea.

So Many Reasons to Extend your Holiday 

There is so much happening on Crete that it will seem like somebody has pressed a ‘fast-forward’ button and before you know it your Greek Isle getaway will be over and you won’t have seen a fraction of it. 

The best advice you can have is to tell your boss you’re taking a year’s leave to explore Crete and then it may not be long enough. Even your trip from Athens to Crete can be amazingly fascinating as you travel to reach your destination.

Look at the town of Hersonissos as an example. Just this exciting town alone comprises the areas of Gouves, Episkopi, Hersonissos and Malia. The town is about  26km from the capital city Heraklion and 20km from the airport. You need at least a week in this town alone as it offers a whirlwind of surprises with a number of beaches and an unlimited number of restaurants, cafes, bars, shops and activities for kids.

A Treasure-Trove of Exciting Sights and Activities

The reason that you need a holiday that is a decade long when you visit Crete is because you don’t have to go far to find a treasure-trove of attractions. Just a couple of kilometers away from the town of Hersonissos are the traditional villages of Koutouloufari, Piskopiano and Ano Hersonissos.

If the crowds become too overwhelming, these villages provide a quieter way of life, but they still have their own mix of winding and twisting streets, wonderful restaurants, hotels and shops. Don’t forget to buy some olive oil soap and a few other items to take as souvenirs for green-with-envy family and friends back home. 

Crete is also well known for its party vibes and the island has a vibrant nightlife in some areas. You’ve got the opportunity to dance the night away at wild parties or you can sit outdoors at a Greek restaurant with traditional live Greek music. Crete simply has it all and for night owls it has a splendid mix of taverns, restaurants, dance venues, bars and clubs. 

A rental car will be your ticket to freedom and independence to explore all these places. The road network is well developed but traveling is slow as the island is mountainous and many of the roads narrow and winding. Driving can be tiring as you have to watch out for goats and sheep on some of these unknown roads. Making use of public transport can sometimes be a wiser choice.

Some quick facts and general info on Crete before we get to the four prefectures

Getting to Crete:

Charter flights, scheduled international flights, regular ferry boat services from the port of Piraeus to Heraklion and Chania. Ships depart each evening. From other islands there are also ferries to Rethymnon (not regular). Buy your ferry tickets online.

Airports: 

Crete has a few airports – in Chania, Heraklion and Sitia. There are direct flights from Chania to Thessaloniki. 

Currency:

The Euro, currency of the European Union is what you’ll need to spend in the Greek Isles. 

Emergency numbers:

Police: 100, Chania – 28210

Ambulance: 166
Elpa: 10104 – national car breakdown service

Pharmacies:

There are plenty of pharmacies in the towns and cities. Some stay open till 7 at night.

Best time to visit:

May to September is when the weather is at its warmest. It is the island’s peak tourist period. July and August are the hottest months. 

Accommodation Options:

Budget- up to 5-star hotels in Crete. The northern side has upscale, luxurious hotels and resorts while the southern side offers comfortable family apartments and bed and breakfasts. 

Prefecture One – Chania:

Chania borders the regional unit Rethymno to the east. The road distance between Chania and Rethymno is 58 km. Chania is often referred to as Western Crete and is an exquisitely attractive, unspoiled part of the island. 

It is very popular with tourists  and the natural park of Samariá Gorge, which is also a sanctuary for the rare Cretan wild goat is in Chania. Also, the White Mountains or Lefka Ori can be topped by snow till about May. It’s amazing that there are about 40 peaks, the highest being Pachnes which is 2,453 meters above sea level. 

Bird lovers will be delighted that there might be a chance to see the lammergeier and golden eagle. If you’ve got time to spare in Chania, try and spend time walking the Gorge of Samaria. Hikers from around the world come to experience it, starting at the plateau of Omalos in the White Mountains and ending in the coastal village of Agia Roumeli in the south of Chania. The gorge is about 18 km and depending on your fitness, you can take anything between 4-7 hours to complete. 

Just 47km from Chania is Crete’s freshwater lake,  Lake Kournas. A number of small beaches have been formed on the shore where you will find sunbeds and umbrellas. There are lots of wonderful little cafes around where you can simply sit under the trees. You can even hire a pedal boat to get around on the lake.

The Old Town of Chania

The capital of this region is Chania, one of the oldest cities in Greece. The city has an illustrious history and in December 1913 Crete became part of Greece.  Today it’s a popular tourist attraction being made up of the old and new towns. 

The old town provides those interested in history with wonderful samples of Venetian architecture and boasts with the Venetian wall which dates back to the 15th century. The museum in the city features amazing archaeological findings and plenty of exhibits of the island’s cultural history.

What is super fun is to explore the city on an electric Trikke tour. You’re given protective helmets to drive your electric bike-cum-scooter  as well as a brief orientation on how to ride them. Riders are also provided with bottled water and then it’s a case of zipping around and exploring the city with a knowledgeable tour guide.

Prefecture Two – Rethymnon:

Also known as Rethymno, the city is the capital of Rethymnon regional unit of Crete. The distance between Rethymno and Chania is 44km. 

It’s a super ancient city, built during the Minoan civilization. There is so much to see here, that the truth is, you might never get to check everything off on your must-see list, as there are the other two prefectures to see as well.

The city with its port is known for its ancient, colorful Venetian and Ottoman buildings reflected in the water. There are plenty of things to see if you are history buffs, but many people want to explore other things too such as animals, nature, bakeries, the shops, do some wine tasting and visit the beaches. 

If you feel the need to take in some history, the town of Argyroupoli will meet your need and provide you with other spectacular things to see and do. It is roughly 22km away from Rethymno and you’ll find ancient- and Venetian architecture as well as Byzantine churches. 

Have lunch at the Argyropoli Springs..

A must-see is the Argyroupoli Springs. You’ll see water bursting forth from a cave found in the chapel of Agia Dynami and the water is believed to be miraculous! You’ll love the greenery and the small waterfalls. It’s the perfect time to have a bite to eat at one of the taverns alongside the springs. 

Georgioupolis Beach too is about 28 mins from Rethymnon and is a gem of a beach with the Agios Nikolaos Chapel marking one end of the soft, sandy beach with beautiful mountains in the background. Its got umbrellas and sunbeds and being a blue flag beach, it encourages lots of water sports.  There are plenty of restaurants and cafes along the promenade.

Prefecture Three – Heraklion

Iraklion or Heraklion is another of the four regional units of Crete with the capital city being Heraklion. The distance between Rethymnon and Heraklion is 80km. Iraklion is magnificently set on a hill overlooking the Cretan Sea and borders the regional unit of Rethymno to the west and Lasithi to the east. 

If you were to have booked yourself on an organized tour of the city you may well start at the old Venetian harbor and see the large Heraklion market on 1866 street. This takes you up to the Kornaros square and the Bembo spring. There are lots of local products to buy – wine, olive oil, cheese and honey as well as exquisite embroidery work, wooden items, clothing and jewelry. 

Amalia’s Kitchen is a vegetarian-friendly, family restaurant offering traditional Greek or Cretan dishes, and the fabulous food and super friendly staff make visiting Iraklion a real treat. If you don’t want Cretan food, they also serve your traditional American burgers, steaks and fries.

Also, about 20 to 30 minutes from Iraklion is the Labyrinth Theme Park which is inspired by the Minoan culture of Crete. It’s great to visit if you’ve got kids, but adults will enjoy it too. 

It can be challenging but fun too trying to figure out how to get out. As you work your way through the labyrinth, you’ll come across certain areas that explain the myth of Theseus and the Minotaur. 

Prefecture Four – Lassithi

Lassithi is the easternmost prefecture of Crete with Agios Nikolaos, a harbor on Merabello Bay, being its capital city. The distance between Heraklion and Lassithi is roughly 58 km.

Lassithi is a thriving tourist destination, and just like with the other prefectures, Lassithi will require you being there for a long time and then you won’t have seen all you want to see.

The prefecture is known for following traditions and is also well known for its sheer beauty. The fertile Lasithi Plateau is a perfect place to hire a bike and to go cycling through rural villages. 

If you’re a nature lover you’ll appreciate the famous palm forest of Vai which has thousands of trees. There is also the blue flag beach which attracts thousands of visitors. The beach is well organized and is set up with restaurant and cafe as well as umbrellas, sun loungers and wooden paths. If you like you can climb the stairs at the side of the beach and visit the observatory, where you can enjoy splendid views of the entire area. 

Crete is an extraordinary place for nature lovers, offering a host of adventure activities that you’ll want to continue when you return back home. Mountain climbing, windsurfing, parasailing, caving, scuba diving and horse-riding – the opportunities are endless. 

Take Diving Lessons

There’s the Crete Underwater Center at the Hotel Mirabello Beach where you can discover the fun of scuba diving in the clear waters of The Cretan Sea. There are lots of diving services laid on for beginners and advanced divers.

Horseriding

A unique excursion in Lasithi is to go on a horseback riding tour. Fourni Horses was founded in 2016 and provides a wonderful way to experience nature. The hosts will even pick you up from your hotel and drop you off again and you’ll be enthralled with the well-behaved horses and the friendly staff. A fantastic experience.

Summing Up:

You can never ever get to know the extremely atmospheric Crete Island in a couple of days – it’s impossible! It has a coastline of 1,000 kilometers long and there are villages, towns and cities all along the coastline, just waiting to be explored.

There’s no way you’re going to fit everything in in just one  week, a month or year – you need a lifetime! 

Crete can get hectic during peak holiday periods, but whether you want to tackle sandy paths in the mountainous countryside, scuba dive on a pretty coral reef or eat prawns until you burst, Crete certainly isn’t the kind of dream destination where you breeze in for a couple of days and breeze out again. 

Once you’ve savored all its offerings, it’s rich diversity and countless attractions, it won’t be long and you’ll be back again.

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