“Travel far enough that you meet yourself”
The largest Greek Island, a jewel in the Mediterranean beautiful enough to make your eyes feel as if they’re going to burst into tiny little hearts and spill out all over the turquoise sea. This gem is an absolute paradise. Everyone hears about the hype of islands such as Mykonos or Santorini, but in my opinion they are overrated. They are touristy, pricey, crowded and filled with cruise ship passengers who just want to take the perfect Instagram photo, gain some bragging rights, and leave. Crete seems to be the well-kept secret amongst locals and wilderness/nature travelers and beach-goers. If you are planning a trip to Greece, my advice is to skip the hype and spend some quality time in Crete. You certainly won’t regret it. There is something here for everyone, whether you prefer the all-inclusive beach resort, doing a 30-day trek across the E4 trail, hiking rugged gorges, exploring mountainous village towns, trying delicious local fare, or swimming in crystal clear turquoise waters. I have a feeling that this beautiful island will start showing up on travel guides and blogs across the country. And I am happy to be one of the contributors to share knowledge of this wonderful paradise.
People & Culture
Greeks, especially on Crete Island, are some of the friendliest people I have ever encountered in all of my world travels thus far. Most people speak enough English to ask you where you are from and how you are enjoying your stay, and the folks who work in the service industry speak English very well. They are extremely hospitable and I found them to be trustworthy. Being an island, the culture is laid-back and slow-paced. Nearly everybody on the street will say hello to you, and it is helpful to know at least a few words such as “good morning” (kalimera), “good evening” (kalispera) and “thank you” (epcharisto, pronounced “ef-har-eesto”). And the food…be warned, it’s best to view this post after you have eaten, otherwise you may very well attempt to jump through the screen or book the next flight out from wherever it is you are currently reading this article. Crete will always hold a very special place in our hearts, especially because this is where we got engaged! We returned a little over a year later to get married here at Manousakis Winery. We had a destination wedding with 28 guests from 9 different countries all over the world. It was the happiest day of our lives, and filled with the most amazing wines. 🙂
Where to Stay On Crete
There are three major cities on Crete Island:
Chania (Western Crete)
Rethymno (Central Crete)
Heraklion (Eastern Crete, the capital) – also the coolest name ever. It reminds me of a Sci-Fi movie.
The two major airports are in Chania and Heraklion. We stayed in Chania in one of Sasha’s friend’s parents’ house (free accommodation helps us out a LOT during our six months of travel, as it can be one of the biggest expenses!) The house was just a 15-minute drive from Chania Airport (where we flew in from Athens), and a ten-minute drive from the Harbor, so we were close to shopping, beaches, nightlife, supermarkets and relatively close to all the beautiful hikes.
Transportation & Driving in Crete
We reserved a car online through Expedia as a backup, but when we arrived to Chania Airport, we negotiated rates with the companies who were physically there (most of them want your business and are willing to negotiate a rate, even if you are visiting during peak tourist season (we visited in July).) We used a company called Avance (yes that is spelled correctly without the “d”), and we paid 280 euro (around $320 USD) for ten full days. This included insurance, taxes and fees, and unlimited kilometers. We got a white Fiat Panda (most cars are white on the island because it is so hot.) Nearly all cars are manual, though for extra money you can request an automatic. If you have a European or American drivers license, you do not need an international drivers license. We simply cancelled our Expedia reservation, though you should always have something reserved in advance just in case they are sold out upon arrival (which happened to us in Athens.)
A car was the best option for us as we like to go off the beaten path and be away from the tourist crowds and busses. A car gave us the freedom to get lost on dirt roads and stumble upon the coolest-looking furry goats like these guys (click on each photo to enlarge it and see description):
Driving on Crete is quite easy and laid back because of the slow, windy roads. We learned the driving etiquette very quickly, which is to allow others to pass on the left of you down the center line and for you to move over to the right side. Most Greek drivers actually drive at all times halfway into the shoulder lane and halfway in the actual lane so that fast drivers can pass on the left if they so wish. It was a strange concept to us as American drivers, but it worked and we felt safe and comfortable at all times.
What’s with all the honey? There are plenty of local artisan goods and products on Crete, but they are most well-known for two things: oranges and thyme honey.
You will see orange trees everywhere; on the side of roads, and even while hiking, growing in the wild. July must be the ripe season for them, because we picked at least a dozen oranges off of a tree while hiking and squeezed our own orange juice. Or, you can purchase a glass for 1 or 2 euro at any taverna you pass.
Because there are gorgeous flowers and thyme bushes everywhere, bees are ubiquitous. Along your mountain drives you will see hundreds of boxes like these. They are beehives. I found it so wonderful to see so many bees. Bees = pollination = food for humans.
Cretan food is so delicious it deserved its own blog post. Check out my post on the 12 Must-Try Foods in Crete, Greece.
Tipping – Are You Meant To Tip In Greece?
As in most European countries, tipping is minimal (10% of the bill or less), or typically just a few coins. For example, if your dinner bill is €30, you may tip €2. Coming from American culture where servers often expect a minimum of 20% in a tip, I actually felt guilty leaving so little, but I have to remind myself that it is a different culture here.
For the most part, we had top-notch service. And not the kind you would get in a five-star fancy shmancy restaurant, but the type you get when you’re staying with family. Tavernas on the island are owned and run by families and generations of children, so it is not uncommon to see the owners or the chef sit down with their friends and drink some wine while they have customers present. Don’t be concerned if you arrive to a taverna and there are no other customers inside. Because there are so many options and tavernas are so spread out, it is common that you will be the only people in the restaurant. In America, having nobody in a restaurant is usually a bad sign, but in Greece, consider yourself lucky because you’ll get full attention.
Crete is a special place when it comes to tavernas, because most of them are either on the beachfront, in a quaint cobblestone village, or overlooking a scenic mountain beautiful enough to drop your jaw to the floor. Here were some of our favorite views:
You can always stop for a mid-day Greek coffee (beware, it is extremely strong!) or ice cream. You can stay as short or as long as you’d like. Locals run on Greek time (verrrrry slow.) Each taverna is decorated differently and has a different ambiance and vibe. Some are next to caves, some look out over the ocean, some have a natural spring flowing right through the middle of it, and some are just off a hiking trail. I don’t know of many places in America where the restaurants are outside in the middle of nature with the birds and cicadas singing and trees swaying in the warm breeze.
At one of the restaurants we went to, the chef himself actually came out, apron on and all, and started chatting with us (mind you, he only spoke a few words of English but we managed to get by somehow with lots of smiling, nodding and hand gestures.) He ended up sitting down at our table and helping himself to the raki he brought us, and had a couple shots with us. He also took the liberty of pouring extra olive oil over ALL of our food (it’s okay, we didn’t mind.) This was one of those situations where if we didn’t say we had to leave, we would have been there all night long chatting with the owner and chef in a language we didn’t understand. That’s the beauty of Greek people; they don’t need to literally communicate with you. Just connecting with you is enough. And boy, did we sure feel welcomed everywhere we went!
The person who took our order would always write everything down on a pad of paper, so our orders were always correct. In mountain and village tavernas, expect the service to be longer because nobody is in a hurry. Remember they’re on island time. You will have to ask for the bill when you are finished versus them checking up on you. Be sure to carry plenty of cash, as many of the tavernas do not accept credit cards.
Bottled Water – Can You Drink Tap Water on Crete?
Bottled water is recommended on all Greek Islands, especially because it can get very hot, so it is important to drink liquids with minerals so your body is well hydrated with electrolytes. Greece is hot during the summer. Really hot. In the 30’s hot (high 90’s – 100’s F). And because tourism is one of the top industries here, water is a commodity. Because of the need for potable water, bottled water is extremely cheap (€,50 – €1) for one liter, or €2 – €3 for a huge jug; even at the airport they can’t gouge you. While this is a nice change (spending money on bottled water in many countries is necessary and can certainly add up after a while!), it breaks my heart because of how much this encourages careless waste of plastic bottles. I only saw a few recycling receptacles, and most tourists just threw away their empty plastics in the trash. The trash cans are placed right next to the harbor, which means that when the wind blows, they go straight into the water and out to the sea. 🙁 So please bring several reusable water bottles and fill up whenever you can.
Historic Sights on Crete
Crete is the site of Knossos, the largest Bronze-age archaeological site on the island, located in Heraklion on the East side. Since we did not venture past central Crete (Rethymno), we did not visit this site, however, we did visit the Phaistos Minoan Palace, located in Southern/Central Crete.
Entry fee is 8 euro per person. If you visit during summer, be sure to wear your hat and sunscreen as it is HOT!
I purchased a cute rose gold-plated sterling silver bracelet from Chania Harbor that has the disk of Phaistos, not knowing at the time what the significance was (I just thought it looked pretty and was something unique and hand-made in Greece.) I later learned during this visit to the ruins, that the disk is a bit of an enigma.
The original disk was found in the Minoan society and was made of clay. Its average diameter is 16 cm and is 2.1 cm thick. Its mysterious inscriptions are made of 241 symbols in spiral pattern. There appear to be 45 distinct symbols (with repetitions). The symbols were pressed onto wet clay and the disk was then hardened by fire. The signs belong to what scientists and historians believe to be a syllabic script, which has not yet been deciphered despite numerous attempts over the years, using diverse methods of study. Researchers have proposed widely diverse speculations about the purpose and where the creation came from, but the true meaning remain unknown to this day. Muahahahaha…sorry, the tone sounded like it warranted an evil laugh. Anyway, moving on…
Monasteries & Churches
Monasteries and churches are everywhere, especially in mountain towns (each village has at least one) and mostly open to the public to explore. Ladies must cover their knees (skirts are provided at no charge upon entry.)
I’m not a fan of shopping, but when it’s outdoors on cobblestone streets and each turn is a hidden alley lined with artisan shops selling locally-made goods and products, I couldn’t help but feel a sense of wonder and connection to this land and all that surrounds it. I particularly appreciated (especially after having traveled in South America), that the shop owners don’t harass you as you walk by or try to lure you in. Just walking around the harbor is calming and a prime spot for people-watching.
Chania Harbor was built in Venetian style with a lighthouse marking the start of the crescent opening. There are countless restaurants, shops and buskers about, and night time is when everyone comes out to enjoy the cooler weather, stars and moonlit dinners on the sea. One evening we went for a walk along the seawall and stumbled upon a live tango band playing under a full moon and several couples dancing in the open area. It was heaven.
Beaches in Crete
Nearly every beach on Crete seems to have a gorgeous cove with crystal-clear turquoise water and a pebbled bottom with underwater visibility as far as the eye can see in your very own personal giant swimming pool.
Here were some of our favorite beaches in Crete:
Falassarna – sometimes good for waves, though can get windy. Surfboards, kayaks and umbrellas available for rent
Sougia – super relaxed, calm and quiet vibe. This is a nudist beach, but just on the other side is a small harbor with the most turquoise water I have ever seen in my entire life. I was bedazzled.
Right?!? I know, absolutely mesmerizing.
Sougia has a wonderful little village where you can select from several restaurants right on the beach to watch the sun set and moon rise.
Most of the restaurants serve fresh seafood.
Paleochora – unreal crystal-clear waters and visibility for over 25 meters (great for snorkeling). This water…seriously, it was like a swimming pool!
There are also neat pebbles permanently etched in the sand in cool shapes like sail boats and spirals.
Matala – cute hippy town with a nice sandy beach and cave walls that you can climb on, explore and jump off of into the water. There’s also a beach volleyball net!
Elafonissi – Perhaps one of the most touristy beaches on the island and most popular, but absolutely spectacular and worth it. I recommend going later in the evening a few hours before sunset, as most people are leaving then, so you get the beach to yourself. This is also where you can find pink sand!
Elafonissi will forever be a very special place to us, as this is where Sasha proposed to me. You can read about that and see more photos of the beach and our engagement here: Elafonissi Beach Proposal.
The sunsets are epic.
Some other beaches that I can’t remember the name of because we just stumbled upon them while driving and pulled over:
A floppy hat is a necessity here. Luckily, they are sold all over stores and shops for relatively cheap.
There are endless mountain villages with spectacular views left and right. One of our favorite little cozy towns for a quick stop for avocado/orange juice was Anogeia. On the way to Amari Valley in Central Crete, lies the third most picturesque town (according to “Crete’s Top 10”, a guide book I highly recommend if you can get your hands on it!)
This quaint village felt just like the set of the opening scene of “Beauty And the Beast”, so, being the musical theatre nerd I am, I had Sasha film me on the GoPro singing “Belle” which is when everyone opens the shutters and sings “bonjour!” when the clock chimes.
Hiking in Crete
Apparently there are well over 30 gorge hikes in the area of Chania alone. I had no idea there was so much incredible hiking here! Here are the hikes that we did:
Samaria Gorge (entry: €5)
Samaria is the most popular gorge hike in all of Europe. That was surprising to me, as I thought surely it would be somewhere in Norway with all the stunning fjords. But nope, it’s right here in Crete. And tourists come each year in droves to check it off their bucket list. Sasha and I intended to conquer this hike earlier on in our stay, but we got too comfortable with beach life that we put it off until our last day, and I didn’t feel like hiking 13 kilometers in one day when we had to wake up at 4:00 AM the following morning for our flight back to Athens. We wanted to skip the crowds and buses, so we decided to wake up early and hike only part of it, then hike back up again. We ended up doing six kilometers total (3 down, 3 up) in just under three hours, and that was plenty, though we are bummed that we missed seeing the most beautiful part of it once you reach the bottom.
This is normally a full-day excursion. Hikers are driven on large motor coaches (an unsightly interference to a beautiful mountain backdrop, but nonetheless it’s tourism and Greece certainly needs it) to the start of the hike. They hike the entire 13 kilometers down (which isn’t too challenging because it’s down the entire way and the first steep part has hand rails made of natural wooden branches).
Can You Hike Samaria Gorge With Kids?
We saw a few families with kids doing it, so it’s certainly not an advanced hike. There are fresh water springs along the entire route, though I’m not certain if they’re suitable for drinking. I did see some folks filling up their water bottle, which is good because your body will require a lot of hydration during this mostly-exposed sunny and hot hike. Once they reach the bottom, they board a ferry that shuttles them to the town of Sougia (where the nudist beach is located that I included in the beaches section above). They then get a taxi or bus transportation back to their hotel. The ferry is around 13 euro per person and I was told the ride is around 30 minutes. This gives us another reason to return to Crete.
Imbros Gorge (entry €2.5)
Sarakina Canyon (free entry)
Crete is one of those magical places on Earth that you won’t feel ready to leave. This is a place that people return to time and time again because there is something special and lulling about an island gem in the middle of a sparkling deep blue sea.