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Crete: If stones could talk

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; www.yogaplus.co.uk) 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; samariagorge.eu; €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; ramblersholidays.co.uk) runs half a dozen guided walking tours starting at £820pp, including flights, B&B-style lodging and dinner. Inntravel (01653 617001; inntravel.co.uk) 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; happywalker.com) 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; explore.co.uk) 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; avli.com) 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; easyJet.com/holidays) 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; eloundabeach.gr) 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; lato.gr) 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; veneto.gr) 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; casa-leone.com) 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; minosbeach.com), 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; easyjet.com) has flights from Gatwick, Luton, Manchester and Bristol to Heraklion and flights from Gatwick to Chania.

Jet2 (0871 226 1737; jet2.com) flies to Heraklion from Glasgow, Manchester, Newcastle, East Midlands and Leeds/Bradford. Thomas Cook (0871 230 2406; flythomascook.com), Thomson (0871 231 4691; thomson.co.uk) and Monarch (08719 405 040; monarch.co.uk) also fly from several UK gateways and offer packages.

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

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

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

KTEL (bus-service-crete-ktel.com) 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 lonelyplanet.com, price £16.99