Greece’s largest island – Crete has a bit of a reputation for package-holiday vibes but step just outside the well-known tourist hubs and there are deserted beaches, sprawling mountains and quaint little villages aplenty. And, with a year-round mild climate, this is the perfect spot for some summer-stretching sun. With 10 days to play with, our resident travel expert, Roxane, went off to explore – here she shares where she stopped off, some great restaurants, stunning beaches and the best boutique hotels.
Arriving late into Heraklion we picked up our hire car and headed straight out to Elounda on Crete’s west coast. A car is essential to explore the island and we were impressed by how good the roads were. Crossing the causeway out to a little islet, we arrived at our charming home for 3 nights – Elounda Island Villas, a sweet little cluster of white washed cottages. It was only on awaking the following morning that we could really appreciate the beauty of our surroundings – with views out over the sea, back onto Elounda and no sound other than the waves lapping the shore and the crickets chirping.
The benefit of staying on the islet, was being able to explore before any day-trippers arrived and long after they had left. I will never forget the turquoise colour of the water that we enjoyed in total solitude at the beginning and end of our days there. This was the perfect spot to just switch off and unwind and the hotel owner Lida, her husband Costas and their family could not have been warmer hosts.
Food was of the best kind: fresh, simple and delicious – with plenty of great restaurants and tavernas to choose from. We enjoyed the fresh fish and waterfront setting at Kanali (the only restaurant on the islet) and the low-key, local vibe of Perigalis on the road towards Plaka (be sure to order the stuffed courgette flowers and lamb chops) and Paradisos (just over the causeway). The glitzier options over by the marina held less appeal for us but there is a fun buzz to the place if you’re keen for a few drinks.
We spent a very hot but happy morning exploring the neighbouring island of Spinalonga. Made famous by Victoria Hislop’s The Island, the former leper colony offers a fascinating bit of recent history as well as a spectacular setting – the crumbling reddish stone offset by the blue of the sky and sea and the smell of pine hanging sweetly in the air. Frequent boats run from nearby Plaka (15-minute drive from Elounda) and we’d recommend going early to avoid the worst of the crowds.
We decided to take the long way round on our journey south – following the coast with a stop off at the archeological site of Gournia before arriving in the sleepy little village of Mochlos for lunch. Despite adding a fair whack onto our journey, our afternoon spent wandering the bougainvillea bejewelled streets, enjoying fresh calamari and cold beers at one of the seafront restaurants, followed by a snooze on the beach and a swim were well worth it.
Driving over the mountains and dropping down onto the south coast, we were spoilt for wonderful views – from the sparkling coastline, to row after row of elegant olive trees.
Our next 3 nights were spent at the charmingly rustic Koutsounari Traditional Cottages – the perfect base from which to explore the beautifully unspoilt south. The lovely Long Beach just down from the cottages was unfailingly quiet – just a few clusters of sunbeds and umbrellas across an otherwise deserted beach of dark pebbles, with rolling waves and backed by mountains.
We ventured a little way back up the coast, towards Makry Gialos and beyond discovering the delightful Green Beach, dotted with a few palm frond cabañas and hammocks and an accompanying taverna with mismatched tables and chairs set beneath an ancient tamarisk tree right on the waters edge.
We embraced the self-catering set up at the cottages, using the great fresh local produce to cook simple meals that we enjoyed out on our terrace. We headed out one night, venturing up into the hills to the pretty little village of Pefki and enjoyed delicious local dishes and wine as the sun dropped from the sky.
Had we had longer, I’d have liked to visit Chrissi Island – an uninhabited island just over the water from nearby Ierapetra boasting white sand and even clearer sea – but we were headed back up to the north and out to the west. Perhaps a mad decision – Crete is deceptively big and we could easily have spent our whole time just in the east but we were keen to see Chania and there were plenty of wedding memories to debrief on the drive. We stopped for lunch in Rethymno, a historic town on the north coast – its Venetian-Ottoman quarter a mass of winding, cobbled lanes and despite swathes of tourists a bustling local feel thanks to the large student population. We enjoyed rather a gourmet lunch at Petite Fleur – the Hilopites Al Ragu an absolutely to-die-for dish of slow cooked beef in creamy white wine sauce on homemade Greek pasta washed down with delicious local beer – Brinks – from a nearby brewery.
We continued on our way, stopping for a swim at Episkopi beach – a long stretch of sand and sea set just back from the highway. Arriving in Chania in the early evening sun, we were immediately struck by its beauty – a photo to be snapped at every turn. Our hotel – the gorgeous Alcanea Boutique Hotel – was set right on the harbour front and we enjoyed soaking in our new surroundings over a glass of local wine beneath a trellis of vines in the hotels popular wine bar.
After a good long sleep in our huge room, we woke early and jumped back in the car to head out to Balos Beach – one of the most photographed sights in Crete and for good reason. We arrived early, taking the rough track from Kaliviani before parking up and embarking on the 2km walk down to the bay to a soundtrack of birdsong and the jangle of mountain goat bells. It was spectacular – and we were thrilled to be there ahead of the tour boat crowds.
We’d have liked to visit the amazing pink beach at Elafonissi the following day but couldn’t face the drive (around 1.5 hours), so instead after a leisurely breakfast and a morning spent browsing the streets and shops (amazing olive wood, pottery and jewellery) we headed up to Stavros and enjoyed a late lunch at the heavenly Sunset Café of seafood and salad and an afternoon on yet another gorgeous beach.
The staff at the hotel couldn’t have been more charming and their recommendations were unfailingly good. Over our stay we enjoyed so many great meals – from the understated Karnagio to the romantic Tamam (the Iranian rice is incredible). Along with plenty of sunsets enjoyed with views out over the harbour entrance.
As our flight home neared, we headed back towards Heraklion to spend our final night closer to the airport. We made our final beach stop mid-way – pulling off the highway and parking up on the hard shoulder by a rickety metal gate, wholly unsure that we were in the right place but luckily the arrival of a sweet German couple with snorkels and flippers reassured us. There are three bays that make up Glaros beaches and we headed over the headland to reach the furthest from the road – finding a sandy beach folding into more crystalline sea and the place all to ourselves.
Our final night was spent at the wonderful Scalani Hills Residences – a lovely little boutique hotel in the heart of the Boutari Winery just south of Heraklion. The perfect end to our amazing trip – we enjoyed a tour of the vineyard followed by a glass or two of the delicious local wine out on our private terrace as the sun set and the moon came up. Supper was also served to us on our terrace and we felt truly pampered – enjoying course after delicious course, bathed in candlelight and the sound of cicadas.
With an afternoon flight we had just enough time to swing by the famous Minoan Palace at Knosos before a final beer on the beach at Karteros (surprisingly lovely considering its proximity to the airport). Only after a final long, leisurely breakfast – of course.
Where to stay
Below are the four properties that we stayed at on this trip. All of our Crete properties can be seen here>
Elounda Island Villas – North East Coast
Set on an otherwise uninhabited islet across a causeway from Elounda, the villas are rather a special spot indeed. Simple in design – the 10 cottages offer plenty of space, self-catering facilities and wonderful terraces and/or balconies, perfect for making the most of those views. We only spent 3 nights here (this is the minimum stay) but could have happily stayed the duration of our trip – this is a place to relax and unwind.
Address: Elounda 72053, Crete
Koutsounari Traditional Cottages – South East Coast
This cluster of traditional cottages down on the unspoilt south coast offer a chance to enjoy a truly authentic slice of Crete. Set just back from Long beach and along the coast from Ierapetra, there’s a beautifully slow pace of life and you are well placed to explore the nearby beaches of Makry Gialos, Chrissi Island and natural mud spa at Xerokambos beach.
Address: Koutsounari, Ierapetra, Crete 722 00, Greece
Alcanea Boutique Hotel – Chania
Housed in a beautiful historic building, a stay at the lovely Alcanea Boutique Hotel is rather like staying with a very stylish friend. With only 8 rooms, the vibe here is delightfully understated and the service couldn’t be friendlier. Set right on the waterfront – you couldn’t be better placed to explore and with stunning views out over the harbour, lighthouse and fort it really makes the most of its picturesque location.
Address: Aggelou 2, Chania 731 00, Greece
Scalani Hills Residences – Near Heraklion
Just a 15-minute drive from the airport, this is a perfect base for the beginning or the end of your trip to Crete. Set in rolling vineyards, lined with Olive trees – it is a picturesque spot indeed and with wonderful food served alongside the impressive local wines, it’s the perfect choice for a foodie traveller and just a 10-minute drive from the infamous Minoan Palace at Knosos.
Address: Skalani, Crete 70100, Greece