Crete: If stones could talk

view gallery VIEW GALLERY

Traveller's Guide: In the final part of our Greek island series, produced in association with Lonely Planet, Andrea Schulte-Peevers reveals ancient history, gourmet treats and stunning beaches

Closer to North Africa than to Athens, Crete is a world unto itself. Landscape and history have collaborated to make it one of the most evocative and multi-faceted of the Greek islands, with a rich tapestry of canyons, mountains and, of course, blissful beaches lapped by crystal-clear water that bring a gurgle of joy to sun-starved holidaymakers .

Thanks to its strategic importance, Crete is littered by the remains of occupying civilisations. The oldest are the Minoans, a Bronze Age people who ruled large parts of the Aegean from their capital in Knossos some 4,000 years ago. This vast site, excavated by English archaeologist Sir Arthur Evans in the 20th century, is one of Crete's essential experiences.

After the Minoans, control passed to the Myceneans, Dorians, Romans and Arabs, but it wasn't until the Venetians arrived in the 13th century that Crete reached its next cultural and political heyday. The historic quarters of coastal Chania (Hania) and Rethymnon hum with their legacy.

The Venetians built fortresses and harbours, lordly churches, palazzi with grand portals and proud stone mansions fronted by arches. Quite a few of the latter are now atmospheric boutique hotels while others harbour romantic eateries, fine shops and galleries. To this day, a contagious light-heartedness bubbles throughout the tangles of lanes in these two charming towns.

Despite – or perhaps because of – repeated occupation by foreigners, modern Cretans have a reputation for being fiercely proud and ruggedly independent. Tourism fuels the economy but, thanks to flourishing agriculture, it does not dominate. Age-old traditions are honed and cherished, especially in remote mountain areas.

In Anogia at the foot of Mount Psiloritis, Crete's tallest peak where Zeus, it is said, was reared in a cave, elderly men still gather in the kafeneia (cafés) wearing black shirts with baggy pants tucked into their boots, just as their fathers and grandfathers did before them. Far from the conspicuous tourism along the north coast, life slows to a crawl here and everyone, it seems, has time for a chat, coffee or raki at the drop of a hat.

Crete's corrugated south coast is just as untamed by mass tourism. Roads corkscrew through sparsely populated mountains before dead-ending in the deep blue Libyan Sea. Craggy coves cradle footprint-free beaches, many reachable only by boat or walking trails. Villages are little more than tiny clusters of whitewashed houses basking in splendid isolation, such as Loutro, wedged into a glittering crescent where days move gently. At Agios Pavlos, serenity and lack of development make it a favourite for escapists and yoga devotees. From mid-May to September, Yoga Plus (00 30 28320 41554; runs one- and two-week retreats from £483 per person, including tuition, meals and shared accommodation.

More restless types are drawn to rambling through gorges, especially in spring when temperatures are moderate and wildflowers push up from the hard-baked soil. The Samaria Gorge (00 30 28210 45570;; €5), reputedly Europe's longest canyon, may be the best known, but there are plenty of others. The shy kri-kri, an endangered mountain goat that survives only on Crete, thrives in this tough terrain.

Ramblers Holidays (01707 331133; runs half a dozen guided walking tours starting at £820pp, including flights, B&B-style lodging and dinner. Inntravel (01653 617001; has self-guided hotel-to-hotel tours between April and October, starting at £570pp, including hotels, breakfast, dinner and car but not flights. Rethymnon-based Happy Walker (00 30 28310 52920; has guided day walks from €32 and week-long treks from €580pp, including lodging and meals.

Gorge-ous walks

Samaria may hog the spotlight, but with up to 3,000 people tackling the epic 16km-trek on a busy summer's day, it's hard to appreciate the scenery. There are plenty of other gorge trails no less spectacular.

The Imbros Gorge follows a dry river bed past cliffs with caves, and ancient oaks, narrowing to just two metres at one point. Agiofarago Gorge skirts ancient olive trees and hermitages before emerging at a lovely pebbled beach. Zakros Gorge, known as the Valley of the Dead because the Minoans used its caves as burial sites, ends close to Zakros Palace, the smallest of Crete's four Minoan palaces.

On 22 September, Explore (0845 291 4541; has an eight-day guided walking holiday including Samaria and Zaros, from £620pp land-only, £899pp with flights, including B&B, guides and transport.

Minoan marvels

If stones could talk, what would they tell about life at a Minoan palace? Archaeologist Sir Arthur Evans helped spur our imagination by partially (and controversially) recreating the complex at Knossos, above (00 30 28102 31940; €6; 8am- 7.30pm, April to October), outside Heraklion (Iraklio). Its wall paintings, sophisticated drainage, even a theatre, point to civilisation on a level not previously known in Europe.

Key to understanding the Minoans is the Heraklion Archaeological Museum (00 30 28102 31940; 1-8pm Monday, 8am-8pm Tuesday-Saturday, 8am-3pm Sunday; €4) that is emerging from a six-year renovation. Hundreds of treasures from various digs open up a fascinating window. A visit here will also help you get to grips with the many other Minoan ruins whose wild and splendid surroundings may actually evoke a deeper sense of awe of this lost world.

Local flavours

To paraphrase Admiral Farragut: "Damn the waistline. Full speed ahead!" – at least while holidaying in Crete. The food is simply too tasty. And, as numerous studies show, it's healthy too.

The secret is in the ingredients, among them wild greens picked fresh from the mountain, sun-kissed tomatoes, homemade olive oil and hand-churned cheeses.

Some of the best eating is to be had in mountain taverns such as Iliomanolis (00 30 28320 51053; mains €5-9) in tiny Kanevos, where you enter the kitchen and take your pick of Maria's fragrant stews and delicious casseroles.

In Chania, Portes (00 30 28210 76261; Portou 48; mains €7-9.50) delivers a taste of modern Crete with international influences, while in Rethymnon, Avli (00 30 28310 58250; Xanthoudidou 22; has a loyal following for its creative local classics.

Bewitching beaches

From secluded pebbled coves to bar-lined strips and exotic lagoons, Crete has fabulous beaches. On the south coast, Preveli Beach is a sandy sliver of Eden at the mouth of a canyon, backed by a thriving grove of endemic palm trees.

There's another natural palm forest at the beach in Vai, in the far north. In the west, the remote Balos Lagoon, pictured left, shimmers like a tropical mirage at the end of a bone-rattling ride or a more gentle boat cruise. To the south, Elafonisi beckons with whitish-pink sands and turquoise shallow waters where you can walk to an offshore islet.

In Istron, just east of Agios Nikolaos, Voulisma is the most stunning of three beaches in Kalo Chorio Bay and is nicknamed "Golden Beach" for good reason. easyJet Holidays (0843 104 1000; has a week's B&B at the Elpida Aparthotel in Agios Nikolaos with flights from Gatwick to Heraklion on 11 August for £546pp.

Where to stay

The Elounda Beach Hotel (00 30 28410 63000; has some of the island's most luxurious digs, with sea-facing suites and private villas, myriad restaurants and a spa (doubles from €278, with breakfast). In Heraklion, the chic Lato Boutique Hotel (00 30 2810 228103; offers style without attitude (doubles from €66, with breakfast).

Chania and Rethymnon offer lodging in Venetian and Ottoman townhouses. At the Hotel Veneto (00 30 28310 56634; in Rethymnon you'll dream sweetly in a former monk's cell or a converted Turkish hammam (doubles from €75, room only). Chania's Casa Leone (00 30 28210 76762; has classically furnished suites with balconies overlooking the Venetian harbour (from €95 per double, B&B).

Luxury is taken very seriously at the Minos Beach Art Hotel, above (00 30 28410 22345;, just north of Agios Nikolaos, with its own art gallery, Ayurvedic spa and dive centre (doubles with sea views start at €206, with breakfast).

Travel Essentials

Getting there

The two main airports are Heraklion and Chania. easyJet (0843 104 5000; has flights from Gatwick, Luton, Manchester and Bristol to Heraklion and flights from Gatwick to Chania.

Jet2 (0871 226 1737; flies to Heraklion from Glasgow, Manchester, Newcastle, East Midlands and Leeds/Bradford. Thomas Cook (0871 230 2406;, Thomson (0871 231 4691; and Monarch (08719 405 040; also fly from several UK gateways and offer packages.

Ryanair (0871 246 0000; serves Chania from Stansted, Bristol, Glasgow, Leeds/Bradford and East Midlands.

Crete-based Sky Express (00 30 2810 223800; links Heraklion to Athens and various Greek islands, including Rhodes and Kos.

Aegean Air (0871 200 0040; has year-round daily flights to Heraklion from Athens.

KTEL ( operates an extensive bus network throughout Crete. The frequency of services changes seasonally; services may be reduced or non-existent on weekends.

Andrea Schulte-Peevers is a Lonely Planet author. Lonely Planet's Greece guide is available from, price £16.99

The Independent travel offers: Discover a world of inspiring destinations

Ian Thorpe had Rio 2016 in his sights
world cup 2014A history of the third-place play-offs
Tommy Ramone performing at The Old Waldorf Nightclub in 1978 in San Francisco, California.
peopleDrummer Tommy was last surviving member of seminal band
Life and Style
Swimsuit, £245, by Agent Provocateur

Diving in at the deep end is no excuse for shirking the style stakes

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
The Mexico chief finally lets rip as his emotions get the better of him
world cup 2014
Spectators photograph the Tour de France riders as they make their way through the Yorkshire countryside
voicesHoward Jacobson: Line the streets for a cycling race? You might just as well watch a swarm of wasps
Life and Style
lifeHere's one answer to an inquisitive Reddit user's question
Life and Style
Several male celebrities have confessed to being on a diet, including, from left to right, Hugh Grant, Benedict Cumberbatch and Ryan Reynolds
...and the weight loss industry is rubbing its hands in glee
peopleDave Legeno, the actor who played werewolf Fenrir Greyback in the Harry Potter films, has died
Arts and Entertainment
'Eminem's recovery from substance abuse has made him a more potent performer, with physical charisma and energy he never had before'
arts + entsReview: Wembley Stadium ***
ebookHow to enjoy the perfect short break in 20 great cities
Independent Travel Videos
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Amsterdam
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in Giverny
Independent Travel Videos
Simon Calder in St John's
Independent Travel Videos
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

ES Rentals

    iJobs Job Widget
    iJobs Travel

    Sales Manager (Fashion and Jewellery), Paddington, London

    £45-£55k OTE £75k : Charter Selection: Major London International Fashion and ...

    Volunteer Digital Marketing Trustee needed

    Voluntary, reasonable expenses reimbursed: Reach Volunteering: Are you keen on...

    Java Swing Developer - Hounslow - £33K to £45K

    £33000 - £45000 per annum + 8% Bonus, pension: Deerfoot IT Resources Limited: ...

    Corporate Events Sales Manager, Marlow,Buckinghamshire

    £30K- £40K pa + Commision £10K + Benefits: Charter Selection: Rapidly expandin...

    Day In a Page

    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: Peace without magnanimity - the summit in a railway siding that ended the fighting

    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

    Peace without magnanimity - the summit in a railway siding that ended the fighting
    Scottish independence: How the Commonwealth Games could swing the vote

    Scottish independence: How the Commonwealth Games could swing the vote

    In the final part of our series, Chris Green arrives in Glasgow - a host city struggling to keep the politics out of its celebration of sport
    Out in the cold: A writer spends a night on the streets and hears the stories of the homeless

    A writer spends a night on the streets

    Rough sleepers - the homeless, the destitute and the drunk - exist in every city. Will Nicoll meets those whose luck has run out
    Striking new stations, high-speed links and (whisper it) better services - the UK's railways are entering a new golden age

    UK's railways are entering a new golden age

    New stations are opening across the country and our railways appear to be entering an era not seen in Britain since the early 1950s
    Conchita Wurst becomes a 'bride' on the Paris catwalk - and proves there is life after Eurovision

    Conchita becomes a 'bride' on Paris catwalk

    Alexander Fury salutes the Eurovision Song Contest winner's latest triumph
    Pétanque World Championship in Marseilles hit by

    Pétanque 'world cup' hit by death threats

    This year's most acrimonious sporting event took place in France, not Brazil. How did pétanque get so passionate?
    Whelks are healthy, versatile and sustainable - so why did we stop eating them in the UK?

    Why did we stop eating whelks?

    Whelks were the Victorian equivalent of the donor kebab and our stocks are abundant. So why do we now export them all to the Far East?
    10 best women's sunglasses

    In the shade: 10 best women's sunglasses

    From luxury bespoke eyewear to fun festival sunnies, we round up the shades to be seen in this summer
    Germany vs Argentina World Cup 2014: Lionel Messi? Javier Mascherano is key for Argentina...

    World Cup final: Messi? Mascherano is key for Argentina...

    No 10 is always centre of attention but Barça team-mate is just as crucial to finalists’ hopes
    Siobhan-Marie O’Connor: Swimmer knows she needs Glasgow joy on road to Rio

    Siobhan-Marie O’Connor: Swimmer needs Glasgow joy on road to Rio

    18-year-old says this month’s Commonwealth Games are a key staging post in her career before time slips away
    The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

    The true Gaza back-story that the Israelis aren’t telling this week

    A future Palestine state will have no borders and be an enclave within Israel, surrounded on all sides by Israeli-held territory, says Robert Fisk
    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments: The German people demand an end to the fighting

    A History of the First World War in 100 Moments

    The German people demand an end to the fighting
    New play by Oscar Wilde's grandson reveals what the Irish wit said at his trials

    New play reveals what Oscar Wilde said at trials

    For a century, what Wilde actually said at his trials was a mystery. But the recent discovery of shorthand notes changed that. Now his grandson Merlin Holland has turned them into a play
    Can scientists save the world's sea life from

    Can scientists save our sea life?

    By the end of the century, the only living things left in our oceans could be plankton and jellyfish. Alex Renton meets the scientists who are trying to turn the tide
    Richard III, Trafalgar Studios, review: Martin Freeman gives highly intelligent performance

    Richard III review

    Martin Freeman’s psychotic monarch is big on mockery but wanting in malice