Being notoriously a late planner when it comes to summer vacations, it was already August and I was still indecisive about where to enjoy a couple of relaxing days under the sun. After some brainstorming and excluding options, I finally booked a ticket to the neighboring island. After all, Crete was in my bucket list for a while now. However, due to its close proximity to my home island – Cyprus and because of my presumption that both islands would look very much alike, I was always procrastinating my visit to Crete. In the end, I was wrong; to my surprise, Crete offered me new experiences and unforgettable memories.
Why to visit
Crete is the fifth-largest island in the Mediterranean and the largest island in Greece; it combines the facilities of a big city and the beauties of a Greek island. Crete is the island of a thousand faces, offering to the visitor an ever-changing landscape ranging from exotic beaches with crystal clear waters to impressive gorges and breathtaking white mountains.
In addition, Crete has the most distinctive cultural identity of all Greek islands. It is worldwide known for its history, myth, and civilization. The island is an open museum with numerous ancient monuments and archaeological sites with the most important being Knossos, a magnificent remain of the Minoan civilization.
Crete is also renowned for its cuisine which is based on local products including mountain herbs, virgin olive oil, flavored cheeses, fresh fish and meat. These Mediterranean ingredients are combined together to create the delicious, yet healthy, Cretan cuisine.
Having said that, it is no wonder that Crete is an attractive destination for the lovers of nature, history, and Mediterranean food. It is not a typical island! Even one week is not enough to get the most out of Crete. Hence, visiting the island for four days only, I decided to focus on the Chania region with a day trip to the City of Rethymno. Chania is the second-largest city in Crete. The charming Old Venetian Port, the beautiful Old Town, the proximity of the city to exotic beaches and the numerous food and entertainment options, set Chania as the most popular holiday destination in Crete.
What to see
The Old Venetian Port is the ‘reference point’ at Chania, with the Egyptian Lighthouse being the most famous landmark. Stroll along the historic port and relax by gazing at the sea and the people passing by. However, bear in mind that the majority of the restaurants and other shops on the front line on the port are considered touristic and overpriced; hence opt to discover the real gems at the backstreets of the Old Town which offer, among others, quality food in fair prices.
It is a must to stroll along the narrow and colorful streets of the Old Town and discover the architecture and the mixture of three civilizations. It is a mystery how the alleys of the Old Town come even more alive at night; they allure you to discover them and get lost in their magic.
As far as I am concerned, beautiful beaches are the most essential element for summer vacations. As a result, I cannot recommend highly enough to experience the exotic peninsular of Elafonisi. White sand and turquoise waters prevail around, giving you the impression that you are transported from the Mediterranean straight to the Caribbean Sea.
The name Elafonisi derives from the Greek word ‘Λαφονήσι’ which means ‘Treasure Island’ since pirates used to hide their spoils here. Nowadays, a Natura 2000 protected peninsular, Elafonisi convinces you that a heaven is a place on earth. However, do not be fascinated by the indeed amazing scenery that you will face from the parking area as soon as you arrive. The hidden gem is the non-organized beach line on the islet after you cross on the other side of the lagoon. Fewer people and noise, more striking azure colors, and even more enchanting landscape will give you the feeling of absolute relaxation and freedom. Elafonisi paradise is around one and a half-hour car drive away from Chania. Alternatively, you can reach it by bus.
Balos is another exotic lagoon with shallow turquoise waters that you cannot afford to miss. This picturesque landscape is Natura protected area and it is less easily accessible than Elafonisi. The most convenient way to enjoy the magnificent Balos is to take the morning ferry from Kissamos port. However, in case you are sensitive to motion sickness, make sure to check the weather forecast before you book your ferry ticket. Alternatively, you can reach Balos by car, after driving with caution the 10 km dirt narrow road along the edge of Cape Gramvousa. Definitely, not for me!
If you are a blogger/influencer/instagrammer who respects himself, do not neglect to visit the Stefanou beach at Seitan Limania. There lays a narrow cove shaping an elongated beach with deep blue crystal waters surrounded by cliffs. Seitan Limania is petite, non-organized and crowded beach, yet with unparalleled beauty different from all the other beaches in Crete. The downhill path to the beach is challenging but the whole sensation and the photos you will take are absolutely stunning.
Where to eat
A visit to Crete can be worthily described as a culinary travel experience. Nowadays, apart from the old-school Cretan cuisine, the ingenious chefs at Chania have taken the local dining one step further, mixing traditional recipes with international elements and serving Cretan dishes with a twist.
Throumpi sti Ladokolla is a modern meze tavern in the center of Chania, serving excellent Cretan food with a fresh twist that never fails to capture the imagination. Everything we tried was perfect. I highly recommend the chicken on the frying pan with kataifi. Ice cream topped with a biscuit, served as complementary dessert, is superb. However, based on my experience the service is below average at peak times.
Next door is Mezedoscholeion; it can ‘teach’ you a lot about Greek cuisine. It serves a modern version of traditional dishes. You should try here both kololokithokeftedes (pumpkin balls) with cornflakes and snails with rosemary and vinegar. Fortunately, regardless of how busy the place is, the staff remains fast and helpful.
Ta Chalkina is located at the Old Port of Chania. Having live traditional music regularly and serving good Cretan food, it is no mystery that the place is crowded all the time. Standards are good but not the top I have experienced at Chania. However, the place is very popular and is worth visiting.
Having lunch at Kouzina EPE feels like eating home-cooked food in the kitchen of your Cretan grandmother. Here you can find every day a variety of freshly casseroled recipes along with the standard dishes on the menu. Have in mind that the kitchen closes at 19:30 and at peak times don’t be surprised if the waiter asks you to switch table, while eating, in order to make space for new customers. Of course, you have the right to refuse.
If you visit Rethymno and you want to take a break from exploring the Old Town, you can find a food oasis at 1600 Raki Ba Raki where you will enjoy quality dishes in a relaxing atmosphere under the vineyard.
How to move around
Although the road network can take you almost everywhere, you will be disappointed if you expect to find modern highways across the island. Since Crete is quite large, renting a car will give you extra flexibility and comfort to discover more places on your own pace and convenience, without worrying about bus routes and timetables. However, you should also consider the hassle of finding parking in the narrow and busy streets of Chania, especially in the high season.
On the other hand, public buses named KTEL serve quite an extensive network of routes. Although KTEL offers an alternative and safe way of visiting the most important landmarks of the island, I must confess that the drivers and other employees of the public bus company were not the best representatives of Cretan hospitality…
Where to stay
Chania offers numerous and various types of accommodation based on your budget and personal preferences. Nevertheless, the most important consideration you need to take before booking accommodation is the proximity of the lodge to the Old Town of Chania. It is ideal is to stay only a short walking distance away from the Old Town of Chania, since it is there that all the happening and the majority of amenities are located. In case you will use the public bus as your way of exploring the beauties of the island it is also crucial to stay also close to the central station of KTEL.
Tips and tricks
Crete is famous for its unique hospitality. However, do not expect to experience the Cretan hospitality to the fullest if you are visiting Chania during high season, due to the fact that the city is overflowing from tourists and locals’ main concern is to meet the excessive touristic demand. Alternatively, you can enjoy the island’s warm hospitality if you choose to visit one of the small and traditional villages on the mountains where people still live an old fashioned life, wearing traditional costumes, carrying knives on their waist and cultivating the natural resources of the Cretan land.
– A. Yemenaris
How to arrive:
Frequent direct flights to Chania international airport ‘Ioannis Daskalogiannis’ (CHQ)
Where to stay:
Old Town and around (city center)
What to see:
Old Town & Venetian Port
Seitan Limania, Elafonisi, Balos
Where to eat & drink:
What not to miss:
Enjoy the non-organized beach line at Elafonisi
Take pictures of Balos from the hill
Stroll the narrow streets of Old Town