“Exploring Eastern Crete, Greece: 9 Things Not to Miss on Your Next Visit”
Crete is the largest and most populous of the Greek Islands and the fifth largest island in the Mediterranean Sea, which makes it an enticing place to visit. From food and nature to history, beaches and culture, Crete has enough to keep you busy for a while. Here are BSY’s 9 things not to miss on your next visit.
With 300 annual days of sunshine, laid-back Elounda on the northern coast of Crete is pleasant year round, and picturesque too. Settled at the bottom of the magnificent Mirabello Bay, Elounda was a quiet fishing village but has been luring more sophisticated travellers since the 1970s, when Elounda welcomed its first luxury hotel, the legendary Elounda Beach Hotel & Villas. Despite its popularity, there’s still a lot of Cretan soul to be found on its sandy beaches and lively waterfront full of shops and restaurants.
The Knossos area has been inhabited since the Neolithic period and is said to be the place where the first European civilisation, the Minoans, was born. The Minoan Palace at Knossos is massive and impressive, with about 1300 rooms connected by corridors, and more than 20,000 square metres, making it the largest of all Minoan palatial structures, as well as the most famous on Crete. It’s estimated the palace was built around 2,000 BC but was destroyed by an earthquake in 1700 BC. The newer palace was built almost immediately after the first one was destroyed. Legend has it that Knossos Palace was where King Minos of Crete had a labyrinth designed and built to keep away the mythical Minotaur.
3. Spinalonga Island
Located in the Gulf of Elounda, Spinalonga Island was put in the spotlight when author Victoria Hislop published her bestseller The Island in 2006. This small 8.5-hectare island is well-stocked with history and archeological sites, as it was first as fortress standing watch from 3,000 until 900 BC. The Venetians built a second fortress in the late 16th century to protect the nearby port of Elounda. The Ottomans came next and in 1715 overtook the small island. Eventually, after the Cretans evicted the Turks from Spinalonga, the island became a leper colony in 1904, one of the last active leper colonies in Europe, which, at its peak held around 400 inhabitants. The trip to Spinalonga Island by boat from nearby Plaka takes just few minutes. Once there, you climb the old fortifications, explore the ghost town and visit a small museum.
Kritsa is only a few miles away from Elounda yet a visit takes you to a totally different Crete. Cascading like an amphitheatre down a mountainside, Kritsa is one of the oldest villages in Crete. Its pedestrian cobbled streets are picture-perfect, including those lined with Cyladic white-and-blue houses reminiscent of those seen on Santorini or Mykonos. The irresistible charm of the village is punctuated by welcoming Greek cafés, or kafeneions, with outside terraces shaded by tall plane trees, and small shops selling local products. Be sure to check out the shop created a women’s cooperative of Kritsa, where you can buy extra virgin olive oil, wild herbs and teas, honey and embroidery.
You’d be forgiven for thinking you’ve landed on a tropical island when you first see Vai. Its sandy beach is home to a grove of palms that have grown here for the last 2,000 years, and believed to have sprouted from date pits left by Egyptian soldiers or Roman legionnaires. In fact, Vai is Greek for Palm. However the trees got here, we are grateful. Vai is one of the most beautiful beaches in Eastern Crete, and its emerald waters and palms make an idyllic backdrop for a relaxing day out. There are also sun loungers and parasols for rent, as well as a restaurant overlooking the bay. Be warned: it is popular!
The tiny fishing village of Mochlos (population around 100) offers a respite from Crete’s crowds, and it’s worth the five-kilometre twisty drive to get there. Luckily, once you arrive, you’ll find a handful of tavernas on the water’s edge with their daily specials listed on their blackboards, and a small sandy beach.
Lost in what feels like the middle of nowhere between Elounda and Vai, the Monastery of Toplou founded in the 15th century and is dedicated to the Virgin Mary and St John the Theologian. At first glance, you might mistake it for a fortress since it is surrounded by imposing high walls, which were built to protect the monks from invaders. Its 33-metres-high belfry and beautiful windmill are also impressive. A few monks still occupy the monastery and make organic products such as wine, raki and a tasty extra virgin olive oil, labeled Toplou.
Ierapetra is an ancient city located on the southeast coast of Crete and is said to be the sunniest place in Greece, with almost no rain. It’s also the southernmost city in Europe. Its notable long beaches covered with black pebbles, which make an interesting contrast to the clear blue sea. Ierapetra’s waterfront is lined with traditional kafeneions that bustle with residents and tourists. Ierapetra is also the launch point for ferries to the beautiful beaches of Chrissi Island, 15 kilometres off shore.
9. The kafeneions, Greek Cafes
As Paris has its café culture, so to does Crete, and you’ll never pass through a village, town or city where there isn’t a traditional kefeneions dishing out simple dishes, catch of the day, and friendly conversation. They’re not sophisticated in the Michelin-star sense of the word, and that’s just how its meant to me. The cuisine and service come from history, culture and family, and you’ll always be warmly welcomed and generously fed with authenticity and the freshest local products.
BeSeeingYou In: Eastern Crete
Good to Know: Like many places in Europe July and August is hot and crowded. Consider May, June or September travel.
WOW! Factor: Crete has four UNESCO sites
Tip: Crete is large and it takes a full six hours to drive across it, without traffic. Plan accordingly.
Author bio:Annick Dournes & Frederic de Poligny
Photos: ©Frederic de Poligny or ©Annick Dournes