We are now wrapping up our 5-week stay in Crete so it seemed like a good time to recap everything we’ve seen and done here. Well, not everything, you don’t need to hear about every pork souvlaki (me), Greek salad (Laynni) or narrow winding road we’ve driven on (hint: all of them). But I do feel it would be the perfect time to discuss our personal Best of Crete Greece list – everything we loved, why, and some of the stuff we didn’t, ah, like so much.
Overall, Crete is a very unique place in the way it combines holiday beach towns (and so, so many beaches) with heaps of history – from ancient to medieval to 20th century stuff- and fascinating terrain that sometimes makes you wonder if there is a single flat spot on the entire island.
And more scenic hills/mountains and more gorges than you can shake a stick at (although I probably can’t speak to your specific stick-shaking abilities, so I’m really just guessing on that one).
The Best of Crete: Stuff We Liked
Truly stunning. For tips and advice you can check out this post dedicated to all things Balos Beach.
Lots of other great beaches
Although don’t just take my word for it – the Vai Beach tourism department knows what people want:
Village Heights Resort
A posh hotel (by our standards) where our neighbours were a nice Danish-Canadian family who were fun to drink with but kept humiliating us at mini-golf.
Who would have expected a former leper colony to be such a cool place to eat a packed lunch?
Amazing views of the Libyan Sea from our terrace near historic Anapolis.
I’ll hand it those conquering pirate bastards, they know how to put together a pretty little harbour. Usually with an pretty old town around it.
And I don’t think the one in Sitia is Venetian but it’s a bit of a looker, too, at least when the sun comes out.
Hiking the E4
The E4 long-distance path runs from Tarifa in Andalusia, Spain to the east end of Cyprus (with a few ferries mixed in, obviously), including going all the way across Crete. We hiked a 5-day section of it in Spain where it overlapped with the GR7, then did a few day-hike sections of it here in Crete. The highlight was the wild coastal path just east of Paleochora.
So many scenic drives. The one super-windy coastal road to Elafonisi Beach really stood out.
So many road goats. The one super-cute baby goat with the harpy cry really stood out.
Yes, I know they are called “kids” but cut me some slack, I had a whole literary gimmick thing going on there.
When a suspicious mole sent me searching Chania for a dermatologist on short notice, the very helpful and accommodating Dr. Doulaveri was kind enough to squeeze me in. Which set off a whirlwind Amazing Race-style scenario which started with me standing on the street at 11 am, completely lost while getting directions by phone, to a quick checkup, to an impromptu surgery by a nice man in what appeared to be the den of his apartment, to me at a lab personally dropping off a bag containing a piece of my body for testing.
All of this was complete by 1:15 pm and we were eating gyros by 1:30. Now that’s efficiency.
P.S. The results came back in Greek and they just Google translated to “Niiiice”, so I think it’s all good
Hey, why not kill two birds with one stone? Actually, it’ll be bats, more likely.
Our choice for the best of Crete cave churches was Agia Sofia on the road between Paleochora and Kissamos. Who doesn’t love saying the word “stalagmite”?
The most Greek-looking of all the Greek beach towns. By which I mean white and blue.
Most of them still in use. Which meant we were never allowed upstairs in a monastery and there was always at least one old, bearded dude wearing all black glaring at us suspiciously whenever we approached a no entry sign. It’s like they could read my mind.
In most cases, all that is left of the Minoan palaces are stone walls that reach your knees. I get that they are thousands of years old but, seriously, other tourists must be better than us at imagining former grandeur and all that, because these sites always have the highest entrance fees on the island and we always walk away going “eh, you know, it was all right”. With a shrug, in case that wasn’t clear.
At least Ancient Zakros had that cool ocean-adjacent location, and Knossos (or the Knossos Heraklion Archaeological Museum, as it is known to mere acquaintances) has some pretty fancy murals and frescoes, something even troglodytes like me can get into. Plus some woman walking around dressed like Tomb Raider. The whole thing was win-win, really.
Crete is full of outstanding hikes down steep, spectacular gorges.
Why is this? Well, think of Crete as a high, sort of roundish cake with a top point in the middle that slopes down to the edges. Then when you cut it into pieces, each of the parts where the knife went is like a steep river gorge leading down to the ocean. Oh yeah, did I mention that the table around the cake represents the ocean? And most of the gorges are dry in the winter so I guess that can still make sense, sort of. Because there’s no water coming out of the cake, right?
Yeah, analogies are kind of my thing.
Either way, here is a way oversimplified review of the gorges we hiked in Crete:
Aradena Gorge (toughest)
Steep and rocky, with lots of tricky scrambling, some ladders, some cables and some spots where it was just “pick the best of some bad options”. Very scenic, though, and it felt like more of an accomplishment than the others.
Imbros Gorge (narrowest)
It isn’t always narrow but there were a few sections where the walls really closed in. In a good, photogenic, gorg-y sort of way, not the “stuck in an elevator with some guy who really loves talking about pipelines” sort of way you’re probably thinking.
Patsos Gorge (wettest)
Not wet with rain but in terms of it actually having a river running through it (even in fall), lots of crystal clear pools and several little waterfalls. The first half-hour was easy, then we had to start using ladders, cables and good old-fashioned agility (as much as we have, anyway). Fun way to spend a morning.
Richtis Gorge (greenest)
Other than the gale force wind that was howling through when we hiked it, lesser known Richtis was just a nice stroll up a lush, forested path to a waterfall and, supposedly, an ancient bridge (we decided we’d had enough before making it that far).
Zakros Gorge (easiest)
Really simple and scenic, never that narrow but with tall cliffs riddled with caves that were apparently used as tombs (a long time ago, one would hope). At the bottom we had a great meal at the only restaurant still open in November (Glaros Taverna) – moussaka and meatballs, as one does – then discussed COVID stuff with the Scottish woman owner.
At least I think she was Scottish – usually that’s one of the easiest accents to recognize but there is a very good chance she’s been in Greece for decades, completely messing with my (admittedly fairly weak) linguistic perceptiveness. It would have been helpful if she had suddenly yelled “Heed! Pawnts! Neew!” Or “We’ve gaw a pipair doon!”, because then I would have known for sure.
Samaria Gorge (most famous)
Even though we didn’t hike it, no best of Crete list would be complete without Samaria Gorge since it is the most famous attraction on the island. But it shuts down for the winter at the beginning of November and although we tried to visit every day during the last week of October, the weather didn’t cooperate. And it is possible that some park officials were a little too happy to throw up the “closed” sign because of strong winds and a few suspicious clouds. Anyway, I’m sure it was quite lovely.
Stuff in Crete We Could Live Without
People smoking in restaurants. We were usually outside, but still.
Toilets that won’t accept toilet paper. Unable? Or simply unwilling? That’s what I’d like to know.
Driving in the cities. Don’t get me started. For real.
General Observations from Crete
The first thing to remember is that Crete is part of Greece, meaning it is also part of Europe (although it’s best not to get Merkel started on that particular topic), which means it is fully first-world (as long as you ignore some of those most recent balance sheets). My point being, there aren’t really many things that come across as baffling oddities or strange customs to someone born and raised in Canada. I mean, it’s not like travelling to the far corners of Mongolia, or maybe Bhutan, places we could blather on about for days, just listing off weird shit:
“I kid you not, they ferment mare’s milk, and drink it, too.”
“Yeah, that’s right, an entire wall of penises”
Nonetheless, both Greece as a whole and Crete in particular have their own little quirks and eccentricities. From our point of view, of course. From their point of view, I assume all of the things I’m going to talk about are perfectly normal. While, on the other hand, they probably find my stubborn insistence on using signal lights while driving to be the equivalent of going to bathroom in a restaurant and announcing to everyone “don’t worry, it’s only Number 1”.
Anyway, here are some things about Crete we found interesting:
Almost everyone on Greek beaches use “sun beds”, what we would call “loungers”, and hardly anyone ever just lies on a towel. Which makes sense on the many beaches that are comprised of rough sand, pebbles or even just full-on rocks. But what about the nice, soft sand beaches, why not then?
Just habit? Trying to keep towels clean? A fear of ants?
We’d heard drivers on Crete were “crazy” but I wouldn’t really say that, not compared to lots of other places we’ve driven. In fact, in Crete many of the roads are so narrow that there is only room for one car at a time (often because other cars have parked on the road, but I’ll get to that later) yet most people are very considerate about letting each other go first. Basically, everyone has to be willing to give and take if any of us are ever going to make it through a Cretan village.
Get out onto the highway, however, and things feel a bit different. Speed limits are rarely posted. Often there will be a number with a line through it to tell you the speed limit is no longer, say, 50, but offering no guidance as to what the limit might actually be now. And even when they are posted, people mostly ignore them. And since, in 5 weeks, we saw a total of about three police cars, I suppose that’s only logical.
There are quite a few photo radar signs, too, though, but those might just be there to trick tourists, considering they have about as much affect on the locals as those “Drink Responsibly” posters you see everywhere in Saskatchewan.
In addition to driving quite fast, many also have no qualms about passing across a solid line directly into oncoming traffic. Usually, though, they don’t actually have to encroach much because cars driving slower tend to drive mostly on the shoulder, unofficially doubling the highway from 2 to 4 lanes.
Of course, that “mostly” can feel pretty important at times. But since oncoming traffic sticks “mostly” to the shoulder as well, you usually have more room than you should. Bottom line is, it may not be pretty but it seems to work. And I admit it didn’t take long for my natural impatience to “mostly” overcome my fear of a head-on collision.
Overall, I have come to really enjoy passing whenever and wherever I want. We’ll see if I can/should break that habit when we get to Cyprus and I have to reacquaint myself with driving on the left side of the road (although I’m really more concerned about re-learning to shift with my left hand).
Of course, whatever the situation, you need to be alert to the type of cars around you. The vast majority of tourists on Crete rent a car, meaning there are a lot of people on the road who don’t entirely know where they are going, what they are doing or what is expected of them. And the vast majority of those people are driving tiny white compact cars – you can spot us a mile away. The parking lot at every tourist attraction resembles a car dealership with an intense aversion to colour.
One classic Cretan driving method which I have not been able to master – and probably never will – is the “meaty arm hanging limply out the window” as one blogger put it. Unlike the method we prefer in Canada – the vaguely smug “elbow on the door, two fingers casually draped on the edge of the roof” – a certain group of Cretans always have an arm draped out the driver window with their hand reaching halfway down to the road, fingers flapping in the wind while the thick, dark arm continues working on its impressive tan.
These are always men, usually fat men, and, for some reason, they are usually driving on the shoulder, much slower than the rest of traffic. To keep their arm from getting buffeted too much, maybe? Who can say?
Getting into a detailed discussion about all the different levels and conditions of road we’ve seen in Crete would take far more time than we have (and that’s allowing for the fact that, as a general rule, we have lots of time). I must say, though, that from a pavement point of view the roads in Crete are usually in pristine condition, to the point where I shared my bafflement with Laynni just the other day:
Why haven’t we seen any road construction?
When did they re-pave all these roads?
Surely not during summer in the middle of tourist season?
So does that mean they were done last winter and still look this new?
Is it a weather thing?
Or is it because the cars are all so tiny?
Are they really as new as they look or have they just never faced any real adversity?
Of course, as soon as you get off the main routes, the situation changes rather drastically. And never with any warning. One minute you’re on a smooth, perfectly functional road (maybe it’s only 1.5 cars wide, but still) and suddenly you round a corner and you’re on rough disaster of a path that looks like it leads to a rock quarry or, more likely, another goat farm. And in order to reach all of the coolest, remotest beaches, we have spent a lot of time bumbling along at about 15 km/hr on terrain that barely classifies as a “track”, let alone a “road”. In a tiny white Toyota.
Which is why we were so surprised – and morbidly curious – when we were driving through a tiny, mountain village and came across a turn-off marked with a large, aggressive, hand-painted sign declaring “Bad Road”.
Not exploring further to learn the true Cretan definition of “bad road” is surely going to be my greatest regret from our time here.
While Cretan drivers seem surprisingly considerate while behind the wheel, when it comes time to park the feeling is more: “Yes, I’m leaving my car here and if you don’t like it, well, I can shrug if you like, how’s that?”
Then, in another small village we came across a sign that officially summed up what I believe should be Crete’s official motto:
“Welcome to Crete, park anywhere”
Raki is the national drink of Crete, and sharing it is the Cretan way of being friendly and social. It is some sort of grape brandy and normally contains, like, 50% alcohol. I’m told there are many varieties and flavours and blends but I have simple tastes, and an equally simple palate, and to me it usually tastes pretty much like tequila. Or zambuca. Or ouzo. Or a combination of tequila, zambuca and ouzo. I don’t really know.
Anyway, most of the time when you eat in a “traditional Greek taverna” – which basically describes 90% of all restaurants in Crete – at the end of the meal they will bring a small desert (usually yogurt with fruit) and a small bottle of raki (free of charge). I guess it’s how they like to complete their meal and cleanse their palate, or some such shit, I’m not sure.
Of course, it is very generous and we certainly appreciate the gesture. But I also know is that it often makes me choke and always makes my face screw up like I just got seriously intimate with a sour lemon. And I basically never want to down 5 shots of raki right after I finish eating, especially if I will soon have to contend with some narrow, winding roads (spoiler alert: that’s always).
So we’ve spent a lot of time apologetically trying to explain “we’re just full”, tapping our stomachs by way of universal explanation. Unfortunate.
First of all, every restaurant in Crete (like, seriously, every one) uses disposable paper table cloths. Most of them featuring a cartoonish tourist map of Crete. And usually it has to be pinned or clamped down on all four sides of the table because most of the time we’re outside and wind is an issue.
So, is switching out the tablecloth every time (and having to employ the help of customers to hold all the stuff that was sitting on the table while they pin it down) really that much easier than wiping a real tablecloth with a soapy rag? Is it in any way cost-effective? How do the forests feel about them? Just kidding, there aren’t any forests left here. Oh, wait, that makes sense now.
Secondly, the food is fantastic here. Laynni can’t get enough of the Greek salads (which are, in fact, called “Greek” salads here, not just salads). And I love simple meat and potatoes meals, which could easily be used as the cover image on Crete’s official tourist brochure.
“Come to Crete and eat our meat”
No, in fact I’m not in marketing, why do you ask?
Anyway, you can choose pork, chicken or lamb. You can order skewers, chops or legs. You can have it with tomato sauce, olive oil or mushroom sauce. And those are just the options I can usually understand. You name it, it’s possible.
But whatever combination you choose, you better damned well believe it’s showing up with some fried potatoes, son.
Finally, Cretan restaurant servers are a different breed. I mean, they are nice enough, happy to chat, they basically always get the order right and all that. But more than anywhere we’ve been they have mastered the invisible blinders that allow them to never, ever, under any circumstances, make eye contact with an actual customer in the restaurant.
They will gladly seat you, bring you a drink, take your order and then, eventually, your meal. So far, so good. But after that, my friend, you are entirely on your own. So plan ahead.
Now, don’t be alarmed. They do use beds here just like anywhere else. Often slightly small double beds – even for finicky couples who aren’t so good at compromising when it comes to sheets, blankets or touching in the dark – but beds, nonetheless.
The weird part is that roughly 50% of the places we’ve stayed don’t use a fitted bottom sheet. Just another regular sheet, typically not even tucked in. So, of course, it stays in place for roughly, oh, 90 seconds or so. Or as long as it takes me to roll over twice, fluff my pillow for the third time and for Laynni to eventually sigh in a way that clearly signals the last shred of her patience.
How nice must it be to fold them, though? Would I trade a million annoyed tourists for never having to attempt to fold a fitted sheet again in my life? You better believe it.
There are so many cats here, I can’t even.
Next up, the Republic of Cyprus.
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