[Disclosure: I was invited on a free trip with Jet2, which offers flights to Crete, and Incredible Crete, the Cretan tourist board, to explore the island. Everything on this trip was complimentary, but I’ve done some extra research on things we didn’t do and places we didn’t go so there’s something for everyone here]
Azure blue water, beaches aplenty, historic villages, tavernas and restaurants where food just seems to keep coming. History, culture, fun, food and drink, and some of the loveliest people I’ve ever met. As a lover of Greece anyway, I knew Crete would be lovely, but not THIS lovely.
Over the years, I’ve visited a fair few places in Greece – mainly the islands. Zante was my first ever holiday with Jamie, and we fell in love with Kefalonia after visiting pretty much by accident thanks to cheap flights and serendipity that led us to the gorgeous tiny village of Assos. We’ve partied in Corfu, stayed in a windmill on Lefkada, but never quite got to Crete.
What an error. Perhaps the fact it’s the largest island in Greece, and the fifth largest in the Med, made us swerve it. But its size means Crete is reputed as offering a whole continent in one easily-explorable place, mixing up the stereotypically beautiful beaches, with mountainous terrain further inland. And on top of that, its location further south means it stays hotter for longer – perfect if you’re trying to avoid stereotypical summer holidays.
There’s history and culture abound, with archeological discoveries mixing with Greek mythology to make for a storyteller’s heaven, but there’s a lighter side too, with tourism offering sprawling resorts for those who are here simply for the weather and a break, along with all the fun stuff for families as well as the places where you can party if you really want to, then escape back to peace and quiet.
Obviously, food and drink is a big thing, and one of the reasons I love Greece anyway, but Crete seems to take it up a level. There’s the chance to visit traditional tavernas and dive into all the faves from gyros to souvlaki, or hearty slow-cooked meat dishes to fresh fish. Or you can go high end and try some of the more refined restaurants in the big cities like Heraklion.
Either way, the food culture here is carefully cherished, and you can experience it yourself, whether that’s tasting the liquid gold that is olive oil in an olive grove, visiting a Cretan winery where the wine is aged in traditional amphorae, or nosing at the beehives where glorious Cretan honey is made.
I’m waxing lyrical because I was genuinely blown away by how much Crete has to offer – and am already keen to go back. So here’s everything you need to know if you’re thinking about looking into holidays to Crete. Well, not everything, but at least a starting point.
When is good to visit Crete?
Some might say all year round. Because an island this beautiful, with this much to do, really can be a destination no matter what time of year it is. But if it’s sunshine and warmth you’re after, you might not want to go in the depths of winter.
In summer, temperatures in Crete are up in the high 20s, which makes it perfect for lounging around. But if you’re into exploring and don’t want to melt into a puddle of sweat while mooching round a village or taking in some culture, try ‘shoulder season’ – spring or autumn – which is still shorts and t-shirt weather, just without the crowds and any oppressive heat.
That said, when I went in mid-October I was overjoyed to find that it was definitely still sunbathing weather, with 28C some days, but also find to do some adventures. The perfect balance if you ask me.
What can you do in Crete?
Where to start with this one. There is genuinely so much to see and do in Crete, whether you want a hotel holiday, activities, city vibes or to escape into a village up in the mountains far from the madding crowds. Here are some ideas, broken down depending on what you might like.
Visit historic sites and cultural locations
Crete is jam-packed with history – especially around the Bronze Age ‘Minoan civilisation’ which originated in Crete and is regarded by many as the first civilisation in Europe.
Even for non history buffs, a wander round the ruins of the epic Knossos Palace or museums set up to show off artefacts from the period that were discovered in Crete, are guaranteed to be of interest.
Take a trip inland to the famous ‘Zeus’ Cave’ where you can hike up a hill to the hidden cave then descend into what very much does feel like a Marvel movie set. For youngsters and families the history still gets a look in in the form of a ‘thematic’ park full of Greek mythology and history that pretty much suits all ages (including this 41-year-old).
Perhaps the most memorable place to visit is the island of Spinalonga. This small island reachable by boat was once fortified to protect Crete from potential invaders. Its history includes many an invasion, but perhaps the saddest chapter is its time as a leper colony in the early 1900s, with sufferers sent to live there.
The Leper Hospital on Spinalonga was shut down in 1957 and it has been uninhabited since, but is now designated an archaeological site and is one of the most visited sites in Greece. It’s beautiful, though somehow tinged with sadness, but well worth a visit.
Whether you’re into your history or not, I’d suggest trying to join a tour or take advantage of the many knowledgeable tour guides you can find on Crete. They don’t just know lots of stuff, but have a way of using stories and anecdotes that bring it to life in a way you simply won’t get from a guide book.
Try some of Crete’s great food experiences
Exploring a new place’s food scene is always great, but Greek food definitely has a special place in my heart. And Crete in particular is perfect if you’re into food and drink.
Not only are there the usual joys of Greek cuisine, the thrill of eating your way from taverna to taverna, but there’s also the chance to get involved, seeing some of Crete’s amazing produce actually being made and learning about it firsthand.
Honey is big in Crete, and instead of just buying a jar, get yourself to Fourni where you can ride horses through olive groves up to see beehives and meet the beekeeper who tends to them, before trying the honeycomb itself.
If wine is your thing, Crete has a growing number of wineries producing wine that I’m told is on the up. At Agelakis winery you can hear about their operation, see how they store some wines in traditional amphorae, and obviously the best bit – taste it with a few nibbles. I hear you can even go truffle-hunting too.
Olive oil is everywhere here – and apparently the Cretan people consume double the amount per year that the rest of us do. There are more than 200 olive mills on Crete, plenty of which you can stop and do a tasting at. Ours was at the Kokolakis Family Mill not far from Agios Nikolaos.
Here, sat outside in the sun amid the olive trees, Michaelis from Cretan Ark – an organisation that offers foodie experiences for visitors, including tastings – took us through several locally-produced oils. We learned aout the oil, how it’s made, how to taste it properly and discern different elements.
And most importantly, we tried it in various dishes. The perfect way to learn about the liquid gold that’s been at the heart of this island’s food for centuries.
If you’re not quite happy lying horizontally for your whole holiday, there’s plenty for you to do. And something for everyone too.
Horse-riding was a great way to soak up the landscape, and I hear quad biking is another popular way to explore. There are boat excursions, balloon trips, and all sorts of water-based activities.
There’s also plenty on offer for families, from theme parks to water parks, and child-friendly activities. So no, there’s no chance you’ll get bored.
Another option is to have a go at making some of Crete’s traditional pottery. Think of it as your own personal ‘ghost’ moment. Or you could just watch the experts at work and treat yourself to one of their creations afterwards.
Take in traditional villages, big landscapes or busy cities
Say ‘Crete’ or the Greek Islands to most people and various stereotypes spring to mind. For some it’s all about cute villages, traditional tavernas, and a break from the busy-ness of normal life. For others, there was ‘that’ holiday to Malia once upon a time and Crete might remind them of late nights, a busy ‘strip’ and a cheap gyros before bed.
Crete is both of these – and a billion things in between.
Yes, there are traditional villages that you will fall in love with after a few minutes mooching around. In Archanes I found myself mesmerised by its narrow streets and wall murals, while Old Hersonnisos Village with its picture-perfect square full of bars and tavernas was the perfect place for a final feast on our last night.
There’s also big landscapes and stunning scenery. If you do go to Zeus’ Cave your journey will take you across the Lasithi Plateau, which has an almost wild west feel to it. And don’t forget to go windmill spotting on your way. If you’re heading to Spinalonga, make sure you take in the views over nearby Elounda, a gorgeous fishing village.
For a more cosmopolitan feel, Agios Nikolaos sits on the coast near to Spinalonga – essentially further east of Heraklion. Popular with tourist, and apparently with a vibrant nightlife, it’s worth a visit just to look over its famous lake and take some pics.
Further west, Crete’s capital Heraklion is a vibrant city where historic buildings sit alongside modern creations, and you’re more likely to find a swanky restaurant or bustling bar than a quiet taverna.
Where to stay in Crete
Like most places there days, Crete offers a whole range of accommodation from 5* hotels and big resorts to smaller hotels and guest houses, Airbnbs and more.
We stayed at the gorgeous King Minos Retreat Resort & Spa, which you can book through Jet2holidays, which is just up the hill from Hersonissos and a stone’s throw from a lovely little beach. Not that you need a beach when you can book yourself a room with your own private pool, or take advantage of the main pool area complete with pool bar and Bali-style beds.
I’m no hotel expert and often end up self-catered, but if I was going to book a hotel for a treat, I’d absolutely book this one. There’s a gym, a spa and other great facilities. Plenty of places to sit and chill, good food in several different restaurants, and live entertainment in the evening.
As for the rooms – even if you don’t have a room with a private pool or jacuzzi, you can enjoy your own private terrace, walk-in shower, coffee machine, spacious room, robe, and pretty much any mod con you could ask for. Staff can’t do enough to help you, and the location means it’s fairly easy to get into Hersonissos or to get to other places, either on an organised trip or in your own hire car.
Of course, there are other places to stay, and I spotted a few lovely looking Airbnbs as we explored the island. But of course, if you want to keep things simple and book everything as a package, take a look at Jet2holidays to see what they offer.
What to eat in Crete
The short answer? Everything.
Okay, I exaggerate, but even the fussiest of eats will be hard pushed to say they can’t find something that’s amazing.
The Cretan diet is full of all the joys – plenty of veg and fruit, meat – but not every day. Fresh fish straight from the sea. All of the good stuff, which might explain why everyone is so happy and seems so healthy.
Of course, there are the traditional tavernas where you’ll find classic souvlaki, slow-cooked meats, dips and freshly baked breads, grilled meat, fritters (try the tomato ones and thank me later), omelettes. The list goes on – and so do the meals, with dish after dish emerging from the kitchen, each one tempting you into ‘one last mouthful’ even when you really can’t manage it. It’s too good not to try.
In some of the cities you’ll find modern takes on the classics. Peskesi, an upmarket restaurant in Heraklion, has taken the tried and tested flavours and added a sophisticated twist, along with a swanky setting and flawless service, and a reminder that Greek food isn’t to be dismissed as ‘simple’ or ‘rustic’ but can be just as naunced and complex as elsewhere in Europe.
I’ve mentioned the produce, and you’d be a fool not to try Crete’s own olive oils, wine and honey. Everywhere you turn, this produce is served up simply, full of the taste of the sun, or someone is transforming it into a treat, whether that’s a simple cheese pie with honey for a mid-morning snack or a freshly-squeezed juice from one of its many fruits.
Wherever you turn, there’s food or drink to die for. Your only problem is working how out to try it all in just one holiday.
How to get to Crete
Crete is a fairly easy flight from the UK, at around four hours. Jet2 do flights from London Stansted and at a glance they’re not unreasonable at all – especially if you go out of season, which is kind of the perfect time to go if you want good weather and a bit more space to breathe once the crowds go home.
Once in Crete, if you’re on a package holiday you’ll get transferred to your hotel, and I noticed lots of people with hire cars so that seems a fairly common way to get around.
Of course, all of this is literally a starting point but hopefully has whetted your appetite for a trip to Crete. You can find tonnes of information online, and Jet2 also have a travel agent finder resource on their website, so you can consult the experts on how to plan the perfect trip to Crete.