A bit of a guide to a bit of Crete
The main facts you need to know about Crete are that, at 160 miles long and 35 miles wide at its widest point, it's the biggest of the Greek islands and the most southern, with a high mountain range dissecting the island from east to west.
Because of all that, rather than spending all your time on the island travelling - and although there's a pretty good bus service across the country, the best way to see what you want is to hire a car, or if you're feeling adventurous, a motorbike - it makes more relaxing holiday sense to confine your exploring to the general area where you're staying.
All of which meandering preamble explains why I describe this as a 'bit of a guide'. And why, because we were based near Chania in the north west of the island, my expeditions and recommendations focus on that bit of this rugged, beautiful country.
Oh, and I should also add that on a sun and sea holiday, which my visit predominantly was, I happily become a cultural vaccum, so I'm afraid with one exception I haven't included any of Crete's rich selection of archeological sites or ancient monuments. If those kinds of things are your holiday bag, there's loads of information on line, but theculturetrip.com is as good a place to start as any.
So, lets begin with the most important element of a Greek island holiday - the beach.
This is probably the best known beach on Crete and arguably one of the loveliest in the world (it was voted in the top 25 on Trip Advisor, so that's not just my opinion). This glorious, shallow lagoon, on the south western tip of the country, is actually an island connected to the mainland by a sandbar that's submerged under water at high tide. Although it does get very busy during the high season, because part of it is also a nature reserve where no sun umbrellas or loungers are allowed, it's possible to wander along the seashore and find a quiet cove.
Thanks to the tiny pink shells that line the sea bed, parts of the soft sand can look pinky in colour. The crystal clear, azure water is the perfect temperature and offers safe swimming in a selection of protected bays.
The main beach has umbrellas and loungers that can be hired, as well as a few stands selling basic food and drink. The only buts to be aware of are the risk of losing your car in the vast sprawling car park which meanders around the vegetation with no apparent order or direction; and the drive across the island if you come by car from the north, which is through the mountains and, well, let's say, challenging, in places, with narrow winding roads occasionally no more than a single car width, and sheer drops to the side.
But don't let those put you off. This is the jewel in Crete's beach crown and rightly so.
Balos and Gramvouia
Compact white sand, clear turquoise water, converging lagoons backed by rugged mountains and a nearby island topped with the remains of a 16th century Venetian castle, Balos can be reached by car, but the roads are pretty rugged and it's a long steep walk down (and back up again) from the car park.
Far better to arrive like the majority of visitors, on a boat. We took one of the three daily sailings with Cretian Daily Tours from Kissamos. The boat ride is about an hour and first stop is Gramvousa, where we climbed the rugged steep path to the castle 137 metres above the sea (I can confirm that whilst it's not ideal to do it in flip flops, it's possible if they're sturdy. You're welcome). The views from the ruins of the vast fortress are more than worth the climb.
Back on the boat, it's a short hop to Balos where you have nearly three hours to relax on the beach and enjoy paddling in the warm shallow waters or swimming further out into the protected lagoons.
The boat has a bar selling drinks and food and also, cleverly, offers sun umbrellas which you can rent for four euros (with a refundable five euro deposit).
Dragging yourself away from the glorious coast, the island's only freshwater lake is worth a visit
Lying in a beautiful valley backed by hills, the best way to enjoy the lake is on one of the pedalos you can hire from the shore. Mine was 7 euros and there didn't seem to be any time limit on how long I could have it. I peddled comfortably around the lake in about 45 minutes, then found a lounger tucked in the shade of the trees where I spent a couple of hours reading and relaxing (no one seemed interested in charging me, so I thought it best not to ask). There are a number of tourist shops and tavernas around one side of the lake, where I was treated to the sight of an exuberant group of local diners dancing traditional Greek dances in the street.
Our trip wasn't entirely devoid of historical exploration (see castle visit above), but rather than explore any more of Crete's ancient history, we chose to visit a site of more recent historical interest.
Just outside the small and attractive fishing port of Kolymbari, (which is also worth a visit. We ate a fresh tasty lunch at the newly refurbished Mylos cafe), above the hamlet of Malame, is a remarkable war cemetery. Beautifully landscaped and maintained, on a peaceful hill overlooking the sweep of the coast, it is the burial place for nearly 4,500 German soldiers brought here from all over the island.
What makes it so extraordinary, and for me a combination of moving and unsettling, is that this was an invading force who by all historical accounts treated the Creteans brutally during their 4 year occupation, and yet the island has found it in it's heart to allocate this extensive area of land for the burial of their fallen German enemies.
As our nearest city (and the second largest in Crete) we spent several hours happily wandering round and eating in Chania. Its touristy but enjoyably buzzy old town has narrow winding cobbled streets lined with shops, that meander round the 14th century Venetian harbour, overlooked by a restored 16th century lighthouse.
Station yourself facing the harbour mouth to watch the spectacular sunsets then chose from a huge selection of bars and restaurants to while away the warm evening.
We ate at Tamam in the back streets of the old town, Christomos just behind one end of the port and one of the many, similar, restaurants on the waterfront, all absolutely fine, but I wouldn't describe any of them as outstanding. For the most part our meals were fresh and hearty, but I can't say the food was a highlight of our trip, until we got to the last night when we ate at Portes Restaurant at Nea Hora Harbour just beyond Chania. What a gem of a spot - you can sit overlooking or on the harbour front and the food is delicious. They don't have a website but you can google them and their number is (00 30) 2821 076261
Finally, for the physically adventurous amongst you, a mention of Crete's stand out geographical highlight, the
At 16km it's either the longest or second longest in Europe depending which records you believe, but it's majesty isn't in any doubt. What also isn't up for debate is that hiking along its rocky base takes at least five challenging hours and definitely isn't for the faint hearted. Which is why I didn't do it! But my other half, who loves nothing more than a physical challenge, did and declared it to be incredibly demanding but also incredibly beautiful and dramatic. Thank you to him for the report and the picture.
Time to finally pack away my summer holiday clothes and start dreaming about next summer's adventures. Any suggestions?
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