Crete, the largest of the Greek islands and the fifth biggest island in the Mediterranean, lies 318 kilometres south of Athens' port, Piraeus. Rimmed by more than 1,000 kilometres of coastline, it combines dramatic mountains with deep rocky gorges and blissful golden sand beaches. The most southerly outpost of Europe, its south coast extends to the Libyan Sea, looking to Africa, while cultural influences from Asia Minor can also be felt from the period spent under Turkish rule. Thanks to its fertile soils and warm, sunny climate, the local economy is based on agriculture, with tourism coming in a strong second. Crete's ancient archaeological sites, centuries-old harbour towns, and beaches attract visitors from all over the world.
1 Samaria Gorge
Contained within the Samaria National Park, this impressive 18-kilometer gorge is on the UNESCO World Heritage Site's tentative list. From Xyloskalo, just outside the mountain village of Omalos, the gorge descends 1,250 meters to arrive at the Libyan Sea in Agia Roumeli on Crete's sunny south coast. The river Tarraios, which dries up in summer but floods in winter, runs the length of the gorge with high rocky cliffs to each side. The stony path is quite challenging and not recommended for people with knee problems, but it's a must-do for athletic visitors to Crete. On the busiest days, up to 3,000 people hike through the gorge. The walk can take four to six hours depending on how fit you are. It is open to visitors from May through mid-October.
Chania (Hania, Khania) is the main town in Western Crete, and was the capital of the island until 1971 when it moved to Heraklion. Overlooking the Aegean Sea and backed by the White Mountains, which are snow-capped in winter, the old town's appearance dates from the centuries spent under Venice (1204-1645). Chania is a lovely place to explore on foot. A warren of romantic alleys with pastel-coloured buildings enclosed within the remains of 16th-century defensive walls, the town extends to a pretty fishing harbour. The agora (covered market), built in 1911, is worth a look for its fresh seasonal produce and gifts such as Cretan cheese and honey. Chania has an airport (12 kilometres northeast of town on Akrotiri peninsula) and is served by regular ferries from Athens' port, Piraeus. It makes a fine base for visiting the beaches of Elafonissi and Balos, and hiking the Samaria Gorge.
3 Ayios Nikolaos
Along the north coast of eastern Crete, about 65 kilometres east of Heraklion, Ayios Nikolaos (Agios Nikolaos) is home to Crete's most popular modern resorts. Rimmed by beautiful beaches, it sits on the slopes above Mirabello Bay near the posh beach hotels and villas of Elounda. Highlights of a visit here include a stroll along Lake Voulismeni, with its many waterfront cafes and restaurants, and a boat trip to Spinalonga Island, the location of the Greek TV series spawned from the book The Island by Victoria Hislop. Near Ayios Nikolao, you can also visit the Diktean Cave with its stalactites and stalagmites or venture into the mountains to the charming village of Kritsa where local artisans sell traditional crafts such as leather goods, ceramics, and hand-woven rugs. On the way to Kritsa, stop by the little 13th-century church of Panagia Kera (Our Lady of Kera) to admire the superb Byzantine frescoes.
4 Palm beach
On Crete's isolated east coast, the lovely golden sands of Palm beach (Finikodasos) are backed by a dense grove of towering palm trees. According to local legend, the palms grew from date stones washed ashore from Saracen ships in the ninth century. Whatever their origin, the palms certainly flourish in Crete's balmy Mediterranean climate, with relatively mild and wet winters and completely dry summers of subtropical heat. The beach is lined with blue sun beds and straw umbrellas, and tourists will find a cafe and basic water sports facilities here. To the south end of the beach, a rocky outcrop with a viewing platform affords fine views down onto the shore and is ideal for taking photos. The nearest sizeable resort is Ayios Nikolaos 96 kilometres away on the north coast.