The largest island in Greece, Crete is a fascinating place. It’s hard to appreciate the island’s size from looking at a map, especially when evaluating driving distances; because Crete is so mountainous, it can take an hour or more to drive just twenty-five miles. And there’s every chance that the goats and sheep on the roads will slow you down even further.
When visiting Crete, it’s worth noting that lots of cars drive half off the road, half on the shoulder:
This makes for a big, bi-directional passing lane right in the middle of the roadway, which is efficient, but also sometimes terrifying.
You could try to see just half of Crete in a single week, but you would be exhausted. So you’ll either need more time or you’ll have to do some picking and choosing. My sister and I stayed entirely on the west (venturing out one day to central Heraklion), which is far more developed than the rugged east. Many people come here for the long, sandy beaches, so it can feel pretty crowded.
As far as towns go, we thought that Kissamos was underrated and that Rethymno was overrated. We were impressed by the beaches of Paleochora, which seem to have something for everyoen. But this is a pretty populated part of the world, so if you want to get away from it all, we would recommend going up into the mountains (we especially liked it up near Omalos).
If we return, we would like to explore Crete’s eastern half. It doesn’t sound like much goes on there, and that has its own appeal.
Before visiting Crete, it’s worth spending some time learning about the island’s history — not all sites have good interpretation, so the more context you have before you go, the happier you’re likely to be. You’ll want to know about the Minoans, of course (Knossos will probably be on your itinerary) …
and it’d be good to have a passing understanding of the Mycenaeans.
Then it’s worth having a smattering of knowledge about the Romans, the Byzantines, the Venetians, and the Ottomans … you get the picture (as with so much of southern Greece, Crete saw its fare share of invaders). And the history blogs and books don’t always seem to agree on what happened here, so be prepared to take your reading with a grain of salt.
There is a lot to love about Cretan food; we were huge fans of apaki (smoked pork), soft mizithra cheese, sfakianopita (honey and cheese pies), kalitsounia (cheese and/or veggie pies), and Cretan salads (these are basically Greek salads with impossibly hard croutons and mizithra instead of feta).
In the beverage department, I was pleased to find retsina (a pine resin-infused wine) on nearly every menu, plus plenty of fresh orange juice.
On the downside, every meal at a Cretan restaurant ends with a serving of raki (think moonshine on a bender). I hated it every time, but the servers would not let me send it away. “It makes you happy,” insisted one gentleman.
One of the most delightful things about Crete is the shocking pink oleander that is planted along so many roadways and grows wild in seemingly every ravine (here are some shrubs in the Samaria Gorge):
We loved how wild Crete could be, but we had trouble figuring out how the whole island hung together and felt like we needed more time to understand the place. If there weren’t so much more of Greece to explore, we’d like go go back!