The birthplace of Zeus, the cradle of Minoan civilization, the site of Zorba's feats -- Crete is steeped in at least 5,000 years of myth, history, and culture. Greece's largest island sometimes feels more like a country: You can go from the palm grove of Vai to the snowy heights of the White Mountains in a day. The Minoan palaces, the splendor of Venetian Rethymnon, the precipitous Samaria Gorge, the luxury beach resorts -- if ever an island could claim it has something for everyone, it is surely Crete.
With their sugar-fine sand and water the color of a tropical lagoon, you'll love Elafonisi at the southwest corner and Vai at the tip of the northeast. On the south coast, Matala's crescent beach is embraced by promontories into which legendary chambers have been carved, while Kommos Bay attracts both nesting loggerhead turtles and nudists. But just driving along almost any stretch of coast will reveal beaches that can offer anything from complete solitude to a full menu of amenities.
Things to Do
Slip back to the Minoan world at the labyrinthine Palace of Knossos, legendary home of the Minotaur. View the treasures of the Minoan palaces in Iraklion's Archaeological Museum. Later Greek remains are at Gortyna; frescoed Byzantine chapels dot the land; see El Greco's birthplace, Fodhele; and enjoy elegant Venetian structures. Then there are the minarets and mosques that remain from the 250 years of Ottoman Turkish rule. And then there are the villages that still host a traditional but vibrant way of life.
Eating & Drinking
Crete's cuisine is natural, straight from the land and sea. Although some restaurants now cater to more "cosmopolitan" tastes -- Chania's Well of the Turk, for one -- you can find traditional fare such as sautéed goat, snails, marathopita (fennel pie) in villages such as Anoyia. Have the fresh seafood special along Rethymnon's Venetian harbor. There are so many specialties to be sampled -- try a bougatsa (sugar-sprinkled cheese turnover) in Iraklion's Fountain Square, but above all, indulge in tomatoes, strawberries, watermelons, cheese, and yogurt.
One of the great pleasures of traveling on Crete is seeing the gorgeous mountains that form its spine -- and provide trails for hikes and peaks for climbs. Mt. Idha tops out at 2,456m (8,058 ft.). Then there's the Samaria Gorge, a deep rift about 16km (10 miles) long, that thousands of people explore annually. Bird lovers will have a chance to see many species, familiar and unfamiliar, and what everyone can enjoy will be the wild flowers and flowering bushes that bedeck the landscape.
Per square mile, Crete must be one of the most "loaded" places in the world -- loaded, that is, in the diversity of its history, archaeological sites, natural attractions, tourist amenities, and just plain surprises. In a world where more and more travelers have "been there, done that," Crete remains an endlessly fascinating and satisfying destination.
An elaborate service industry has developed to please the many thousands of visitors to Crete each year. Facilities exist to suit everyone's taste, ranging from luxury resorts to guest rooms in villages that have hardly changed over the centuries. You can spend a delightful day in a remote mountain town where you're treated to fresh goat cheese and olives, then be back at your hotel within an hour, enjoying a cool drink on the beach.
To be frank, Crete isn't always and everywhere a gentle Mediterranean idyll -- its terrain can be raw, its sites austere, its tone brusque. But for those looking for a distinctive destination, Crete never fails to deliver.