I’m guessing that you’ve never seen an island that veers from empty to so full of promise as Crete, which for Greeks is the megalonisos, the great island. This domain of ancient Minoan kingdoms and spectacular modern resorts runs more than 250 kilometers from east to west, with rugged mountains that sometimes crash down to the sea so dramatically that a boat can be a better option than a car. In a cave near Mount Dikti, high on the Lasithi Plateau, the most powerful of Greek gods was born. He was none other than Zeus, and in my view, he never left. Spend a few days on this very large and mythic island and you may come to feel the same. “Crete may be an island, but it’s big enough so that it almost feels like a separate country from Greece,” my friend Kostas Filippakis, an Athens-based architect who hails from Heraklion, tells me. What are some of the key ingredients that make the Cretan feast so memorable?
Beaches and Gorges
As would befit a Mediterranean island with a long and varied coast, Crete boasts some pretty spectacular beaches. Some of these in the north and west of the island, such as Balos Lagoon and Elafonisi, may look spectacular on Instagram but guess what? They are even better up close! There are beaches almost everywhere there’s a coast, whether organized or a bit more untamed. The island is also a paradise for hikers. Crete is more about mountains and gorges than wide open spaces and plateaus (though there are a few of those) and the most spectacular ravine is the Samaria Gorge, nestled in the White Mountains on the south coast of the island and part of a protected biosphere. The popularity of the gorge’s 10-mile-long walking path does nothing to diminish the setting’s remote and rugged appeal; the trail starts at an elevation of more than 4,000 feet and culminates at the shore of the Libyan Sea.
Ancient Ruins, Modern Cities
The most famous ruins in Crete are the ancient Minoan palace ruins of Knossos, located outside the capital city of Heraklion. In general, the ruins sites in Crete are less well-preserved than those you’ll find around mainland Greece — they’re generally just a lot older — but the settings are often spectacular. A good example is Phaistos, another palatial, open-air Minoan site less than an hour’s drive south of Heraklion. There are even a few beaches fringed with archaeological sites, often unmarked, such as the ruins of a Hellenistic harbor at Falasarna in the “far west” of the island. The major cities of Crete, which are the capital city of Heraklion, Rethymno and Chania, are all situated on the north coast. Heraklion, situated along the midpoint of the island’s north coast, takes its name from Herakles — better known as Hercules. Though encircled by sturdy Venetian ramparts, it’s a vibrant city with a robust nightlife that never fails to surprise and delight. Crete’s main airport is here, too: Heraklion International Airport “Nikos Kazantzakis” is named for the celebrated Cretan author of Zorba the Greek (the movie version, by the way, was filmed in Chania and elsewhere in Crete).
Cretan Cooking Will Amaze You
With some 35 million olive trees and wine presses dating as far back as 1500 BC, it’s no wonder that the gastronomy of Crete is downright epic. According to my colleague Stefanos Pertsemlides, a Greek nutritionist based in Athens, “While the Cretan diet does not differentiate much from the Greek/Mediterranean diet, what is unique is the very wide variety of ingredients that Crete has.” So whether you find yourself tucking into an herb-suffused Cretan pork sausage, chicken souvlaki marinated in yogurt and garlic, or dakos (a kind of bread rusk with chopped tomatoes) or go for more adventurous stuff like skioufikta pasta or—yes!—local snails in olive oil, the Cretan table is off-the-charts dynamite. Excellent restaurants include Ferryman in Elounda, Peskesi in Heraklion and Ta Chalkina in Chania. But even the humblest Cretan taverna turns out harmoniously prepared dishes you’ll probably want to dig into again and again. As for Cretan wines and spirits, oh my, how many pages do I have?