Off-the-beaten-track in Crete

From the idyllic east to the wild west

Crete is at once a paradise and a paradox. It’s one of Greece’s most popular tourist destinations, but one of the least spoilt. It’s home to infamous ‘party resorts’, as well as intimate boutique hotels. Crete’s got snow-capped peaks and perilous gorges, as well as some of Europe’s best beaches.

It’s an island with enough room for even the biggest imaginations to run riot. You could play Indiana Jones and go treasure hunting at ancient sites like Knossos or Phiastos. Unleash your inner Bear Grylls and hike rugged gorges. Or get the true ‘Greek goddess’ treatment at one of the island’s super-luxurious spas.

To really get to know both sides of this large island, it’s best to have two bases – one east of the capital Heraklion, the other on the west coast. That way, you can cover a lot of ground, without running out of steam.

The best of the West

Any trip to the west of Crete has to start with Rethymno. This energetic city is ideal for wandering on foot with lots of inviting bars, cafes and shops. Don’t miss the Venetian fortress.

Built in the 16th Century, it was once an important citadel, designed to accommodate the city inhabitants. It was actually too small to house the entire city. And these days it’s home to a friendly population of local cats, as well as visiting day-trippers.

The best of the West

Top Tip To get up close and personal with the city’s history, stay in the Rimondi Boutique Hotel. This grand palazzo features 16th-Century architecture, a cobblestone courtyard, plus a large pool and Jacuzzi.

A couple of hours drive from Rethymno and you reach the western tip of the island – and the incredible beach at Falasarna. Brave the hairpin bends and you’ll arrive at a golden peninsula of sand, stretching out into the ocean. The sea is crystal clear. The beaches are (usually) surprisingly quiet. And there are plenty of great quality tavernas to choose from.

Exploring the interior

Crete’s beaches may grab the headlines, but it’s when you head inland that the island’s character really shines through. Here you’ll drive past olive groves, through untouched rural villages, and – at the right time of year – fields of wildflowers. As you wind your way up into the hills the air gets cooler, the crowds diminish and the views unfold.

For a touch of history, head for the Arkadi Monastery. Tucked away in the hills, this Venetian church is a baroque treasure. 

Or don your walking shoes and make a beeline for one of the island’s famous gorges. Serious trekkers will go for the Samaria Gorge on the southern coast. But, for something smaller yet just as breathtaking, there’s the Gorge Agios Antonios.

Right in the heart of Crete are the Lefka Ori – the White Mountains. Tall, dramatic and snow-capped (even in June) they feature awe-inspiring walking and – for most of the time – your only company will be the goatherds. If you’re planning a hike, most hotels can pair you up with a local guide.

The alluring East

The east of the island is home to some of Crete’s most stylish boutique hotels. Once local fishing hubs, Elounda  and Agios Nikolaos have become hotspots of luxury and indulgence.

You could happily while away your days with water sports, beach bars and spas. But – as with all of Crete – a bit of mystery and adventure is never far away.

The alluring East

Many of the hotels in the area have their own, outstanding restaurants. But, if you can tear yourself away from the pool, Elounda has plenty of excellent eateries.

Two of our favourites are The Hope (for traditional food and panoramic views) and Kanali Restaurant. If you’ve done the full west to east adventure, this would be the perfect place to stop and raise a glass of Raki to this majestic island.

Regular boat trips run from Elounda to the eerie island of Spinalonga. The Venetians built a fortress here in 1579 and the island was used as a leper colony in the 20th Century.

The atmospheric island has inspired writers and artists for generations – and, more recently, was the setting for Victoria Hislop’s bestselling novel, The Island.