Crete – Overview

Crete is the largest of the Greek islands, first settled more than 8,000 years ago. It’s an island where myth and legend are so intertwined it can be difficult to separate the two. Was Knossos the site of a vast Minoan palace - or where the Minotaur, with a man’s body and a bull’s head, lived in a labyrinth? It might help to pack a book of Greek Myths as well as a guidebook.

If Crete is rich in remnants of mighty civilisations - Byzantine monasteries and Minoan palaces, Venetian fortresses and medieval frescoes – it’s also an island of great natural beauty; of steep mountains and fertile valleys, deep lakes and deeper gorges, long, sandy beaches and secluded coves. There are vibrant metropolitan cities and remote villages where a bottle of ouzo and a game of backgammon on the terrace of a dusty kafenion is about as lively as it gets.

Cretans have have their own poetry, their own music, their own wine and their own rich gastronomic culture. On the island’s northeast coast you’ll find some of the most luxurious hotels in the whole of Greece; on the southeast coast, you’ll discover deserted beaches and empty coves.

The Greeks call Crete, "Megalónisos", or the Great Island. That sounds about right to us.

FLY TO

Chania (CHQ) or Heraklion (HER)

FLIGHT TIME FROM UK

4 hours

TIME DIFFERENCE

+2 hours

CURRENCY

Euro

Crete – Location & Map

   

Crete – Villas

   

Talisker

  • Crete, 5 bedrooms/sleeps 10
  • Contemporary design with stunning views
  • Rural setting, beach and tavernas 10min drive
  • Wifi, air-conditioned throughout, cinema room
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Crete – Regions

Corfu

With a dramatically mountainous interior and a generous coastline dotted with picturesque coves, sandy beaches and rocky inlets, Corfu has much to offer the discerning holidaymaker. Choose from pretty cottages that sit close to the water’s edge, spacious character homes and exclusive hillside residences overlooking tranquil bays.

Meganissi

Lying just off the coast of Lefkada, this petite and pristine island is characterised by countless hidden inlets, white pebble beaches and the clearest turquoise sea. Meganissi is wonderfully unspoilt with just a handful of tiny villages and a wild, forested interior.

Paxos

An hour by boat from Corfu, Paxos lies reassuringly off the beaten tourist track. It's somewhere to totally relax and reconnect with family and loved ones, this charming holiday destination - where time has almost stood still - is just 10km long and has three main villages. Daily activity should consist of no more than snorkelling from a bobbing boat and strolling down to dine at a waterside tavern.

Crete – Our Guide

Crete is the largest and most populous of the Greek islands, and the fifth largest in the Mediterranean. Known as the cradle of early European civilisation, Crete is famed for its ancient palaces and archaeological ruins which bask in the golden glow of one of the longest summers in Europe.

The most southerly of the main Greek Islands, Crete is barely 200 miles from northern Africa. There are golden sandy beaches and warm waters, but also high mountains which receive up to a meter of snow in the winter, keeping the interior surprisingly green and fertile in spring. The beautiful beaches and fine climate are an obvious draw, but it is the history and culture which make Crete such an intriguing holiday destination for all ages and interests.

Crete – History & Culture

Palace of Knossos
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Birthplace of Zeus, and inhabited since Neolithic times, Crete is a land extraordinarily rich in legend and mythology. From King Minos and the Minotaur to the seven labours of Hercules, the so-called Great Island claims a place in many of the most famous tales from the ancient world. Minoan Civilisation – which emerged in Crete around 3000BC - is recognised as Europe's earliest recorded literate civilisation.

Excavated ancient stone tablets show hieroglyphic records of highly organised administration and tax processes. Findings also reveal that Minoans produced delicate pottery and art pieces and built grand palaces.      

 

Minoan civilisation is thought to have ended after key sites were destroyed by an earthquake. The island was then annexed to the Roman and Byzantine Empire before being briefly captured by Arabs from Spain.

In 1251 the Venetians ruled, bringing with them a renaissance in the arts, but they were later pushed out by the Turkish Ottoman Empire invasion of 1669. After more than 250 years of bloody and complex history and many uprisings, Crete was officially united with the Kingdom of Greece in 1913, though the island remains strongly independent in spirit.

Venetian style harbour at Chania
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Crete – Climate

Beaches are best enjoyed between June and August
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The best time to enjoy the beaches is between the months of June and August, though spring and early autumn are warm, with colourful displays of wild flowers. In July and August, temperatures can reach highs of up to 35°c, accompanied by a glorious 12 hours of sunshine. The sea is mild during summer, and is at its warmest in August when it reaches 25°c. The south of the island is part of the most southerly region in Europe and overlaps into the northern African climate, making it the hottest and driest area. 

Autumn starts off pleasantly. The average temperature drops to around 23°c by the end of September, perfect beach weather for young children.       

 

In October you can expect some occasional rain, though most days remain sunny and warm, and this is the ideal time to hike or explore the many outstanding archaeological sites.

December to March can be mild but generally averages between 12 – 15°c with wet and blustery conditions. Temperatures pick up quickly as April approaches, climbing back up to 20°c by the end of the month with rainfall easing off. In May, the wild flowers begin to bloom and the weather is calm while sea temperatures rise to 20°c. The air temperature increases to the mid- 20°c range by the middle of May before averaging back up to 27°c by June.

The sea reaches 25°c during summer
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Crete – Activities

One of around 60 archaeological sites
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Crete is a mountainous island with around sixty archaeological sites dating back several thousand years. The Palace of Knossos in Heraklion was the centre of Minoan civilisation which, according to legend, was commissioned by King Minos, and is woven with the tale of the Labyrinth and the Minotaur. Artefacts discovered in the palace can be seen at the Iraklio Archaeological Museum along with fascinating frescos, pictographic tablets and sarcophagi excavated from surrounding ancient sites.

The White Mountains, or ‘Lefka Ori’, occupy most of the central region of Chania. Here you can discover the Samaria Gorge, thought to be the longest in Europe at roughly a 6 hour walk and towering 300 meters overhead.    

 

The surrounding national park area is home to the endangered Kri-kri wild goat and 450 species of native plants and flowers protected by law. The village of Agia Roumeli awaits at the end, with an inviting beach and plenty of tavernas, along with transport for the return journey.

If the Samaria Gorge seems too challenging, there are also plenty of caves to explore, many with a tale to tell. According to Greek mythology, Dikteon Cave was the birthplace of Zeus, and has spectacular stalagmites and stalactites where the Minoans gathered for cult worship. Underwater, there are diving sites including the Cave of Elephants, where 60,000 year old mammal bones have been uncovered, and the El Greco reef, teeming with colourful and exotic aquatic life.

The National Park at Samaria Gorge
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Crete – Feasts & Festivals

Country churches host traditional celebrations
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There is lots going on in Crete to fill up the long Greek summers. Traditional festivities are usually celebrated in customary embroidered clothing with lots dancing, either in large circles or with a partner, to music played from the lyre. There are hundreds of small country churches that still gather in this way every year to sing traditional ‘rizitika’ songs and host feasts in celebration of the saints. The Greek Orthodox calendar observes traditional religious occasions, with Easter and the Festival of the Assumption taking centre stage.

There are folk celebrations to enjoy throughout the year too. The Yakinthia Festival in Anogia is inspired by Yakinthos, the patron Saint of Love and Youth, and is celebrated with events that focus on the culture of the island.      

 

Many festivals centre round music, with the Kornaria Festival, the Houdetsi Festival and the Xanthoudidia Festival all holding outdoor concerts in village squares with plenty of food and art exhibitions.

Contemporary culture features too: the En Oiko Festival in Heraklion recently filled the public park to promote alternative lifestyles and ecological sustainability, and the Sitia Mediterranean Festival organises live improvised music concerts to be broadcast on independent radio stations. The much longer standing tradition of wine production has been celebrated annually since 1976 in the village of Dafnes with feasting and, of course, lots of music and dancing.

Wine producing traditions have their own festival
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Crete – Food & Drink

Citrus fruits were said to be a gift from the Gods
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With one of the healthiest diets in the Mediterranean, it seems fitting that many foods in Cretan gastronomy are said to have been gifts from the Gods. According to the legends, citrus fruit was a gift offered by the Earth at the wedding of Zeus and Hera, and wine is said to come from the great god Dionysos. A wine press thought to be over 3,500 years old has been discovered here.

Olive oil is produced and served with pride. Salads are doused in it, and Cretans believe strongly in its health benefits. With grains, legumes, cheese and honey, this is a diet that hasn’t changed drastically since the Minoan period.      

 

Main courses often include slow roasted goat or poultry, accompanied by locally produced tomatoes, peppers and courgettes. A lot of meals are accompanied by bread. In Crete, bread is hard and dark, and baked from barley and rye. It is sometimes served as a delicious starter topped with some chopped tomato, cheese, olive oil and oregano.

Tsikoudia, or Raki, is often served with meals too, a clear and fragrant alcoholic beverage drunk straight and ice cold. Made from the crushed grapes left behind from the wine making process, Tsikoudia is particularly popular in the autumn, accompanied with a few chestnuts.

Olive oil is served with pride in Crete
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Crete – For Families

Spinalonga Island
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Children will love exploring the caves dotted along the coastline, especially when they learn the mythology of gods, heroes and monsters that surround them. If a cool respite from the sun is needed, the Heraklion area has help at hand. The Natural History Museum has a Discovery Centre specially designed for children under 15 years, complete with earthquake simulator. The cool depths of Skotino Cave are interesting to explore, as well as the Cretaqaurium marine-life park, full of Mediterranean sea-creatures.

Calm, clear waters are ideal for boat trips. Across from the port of Heraklion is the small island of Dia. Rocky and sandy, it is inhabited by the native kri-kri wild goats. Regular sailing trips depart from Heraklion for tours around its caves.

 

Spinalonga Island, only about 800m from the shore, is where one of Crete’s most impenetrable fortresses stands, ideal for clambering around and breaking for a picnic. Read Victoria Hislop’s novel The Island for an insight into Spinalonga’s rather melancholy history.

Beaches are family-friendly in Crete, with many having Blue Flag status. The main areas provide plenty of facilities including sun-lounger and parasol hire and lots of friendly tavernas. If you venture off the beaten track you might be lucky and spot an endangered Mediterranean Monk Seal or a dolphin. The region of Palaikastro is home to the Forest of Vai, where Europe’s largest pine forest leads to pristine sands, and the beach of Ammoudara is just minutes from Agios Nikolaos with its assortment of shops, stalls and cafes.

Agios Nikolaos
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Crete – For Couples

Evening at the waterfront
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The whitewashed villages of Crete are perfect for a romantic stroll along the waterfront. Agios Nikolaos is a favourite of many visitors, where a picturesque lake connects to the sea. Drinking is a way of socialising to be savoured in Greece, and towns come alive in the evening with tavernas, bars and fine restaurants bustling with visitors from surrounding resorts. It isn’t hard to track down a strong shot of local raki and selection of appetizers known as mezes.

To the north of Agios Nikolaos is the luxury resort of Elounda where the rich and famous have been known to set their beach towels before heading out to the cocktail bars. 

 

There are quieter areas to discover too. Across the bay is the town of Sitia, accessible by ferry, a sleepy village with a pretty bay that receives a lower number of foreign visitors. There are streets to wander and cafes to rest at, as well as a small archaeology museum, folk museum and remains of Roman fish tanks.

With twenty percent of Greek wine coming from Crete and grape cultivation dating back to the early Minoan civilisation, vineyard tours are a must-do in Crete. The hills of Heraklion and the southern Chania region have vast stretches of vines producing distinctive sweet wines, their high natural sugar content a by-product of the reliably hot sun.

Sunset at Chania harbour
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Crete top properties