Crete, Greece’s largest island, is one of the most fascinating destinations in Greece. It has unique qualities that you will taste in its cuisine, and hear in its music and in the listing voices of the Cretans themselves. This island has a brave history and a bold personality – rugged, uncompromising, and as noble as the Cretans themselves.
We had an amazing experience of Crete with Travel Bloggers Greece on an unforgettable exploration of Crete. We saw its villages and mountains, monasteries, wineries, and museums. And of course we visited the world famous beaches and wore ourselves out on rugged hikes. That’s fine because we then revived ourselves with extraordinary culinary experiences, and relaxed with plenty of shots of raki, and fine company. This was our second International Bloggers Trip and we had our members Mansoureh, Bruno and Todd join us.
The Cretan experience starts as soon as you leave Piraeus, if you take a ferry, which we did. Let’s Ferry arranged our travel with Blue Star ferries. We dined very well and then slept in comfortable rooms, complete with a private bath and hot shower. Pulling into the port of Souda bay in the golden light of the sunrise is a fantastic way to arrive in Crete.
Waiting for us in the harbor was a friendly representative from Rental Center Crete, with two cars in excellent condition. Crete is dramatic and hilly – you don’t want to skimp on safety here.
We had great brakes and excellent tires. We set off at once for our private villa in a charming village outside of Rethymnon.
Stay in a Private Villa in Crete
Asteri is a gorgeous and tiny village, full of authentic character and wonderful traditional stone architecture. It only got better when we opened the door to our villa. Our host, Argyri, had restored his family’s ancestral home. The walls are raw golden stone, and beautiful wooden beams support the soaring ceilings.
Our two story villa slept 8 comfortably, with 4 private baths. The kitchen was beautifully stocked. And I think I didn’t mention the large swimming pool. Amazing Villas in Crete has another three villas – each individual but with the same elegant blend of tradition and chic modernity.
Our first night there, Argyris came and made lamb in the wood burning oven outdoors. It was smokey and delicious, and a true experience of Cretan hospitality.
This is a narrow part of the island. Getting to the south coast of Crete, on the Libyan Sea, is an easy drive. It’s also a dramatic one, taking us through the mountain passes. The views are thrilling as we make our way to Preveli.
We reached the famous Preveli Monastery in less than an hour. Set on a cliff high over the sea, it has the views usually enjoyed only by birds. This monastery, built in 1594, has played an important role throughout the history of Crete. The monks sheltered rebels and fought bravely themselves in various uprisings against the Ottomans and again against the Germans in WWII.
Besides this proud history, Moni Preveli is a beautiful destination. A museum at the monastery has an excellent collection of icons, including examples of the famous Cretan School, which flourished when Crete was under Venetian rule.
Not so long ago, this magnificent beach was something of a secret, difficult to access by a path over a cliff, or a long hike through the Preveli gorge.
We walked down many, many stairs to reach this magnificent beach, and our reward for the climb down – and back up – was a thrilling view of the coast. And also of the palms! The banks of the river flowing to the ea here are covered with a forest of palm trees, an exotic sight.
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Did you know there is a palm forest next to a beach in Crete? We were surprised when we found this palm forest on our short walk in the Preveli beach. Isn’t it beautiful? اینجا جنگل نخل در کنار یکی از سالهای جزیره کریت در یونان است. ما در حال قدم زدن بودیم که این جنگل را پیدا کردیم، جنگلی که همه ما را غافلگیر کرد . . . #TWMansoureh #cretegreece
Day 3: Exploring Rethymnon and the Enchanting Village of Margarites
It is hard to pull yourself away from the beaches of Crete, but the villages inland make wonderful destinations with a true traditional character. One of the best of these is Margarites. This village outside of Rethymnon is famous for its pottery.
Near the village is a deposit of clay of unusual quality, prized since antiquity for its ability to be watertight without glaze. The artisan ceramicist Giorgos Dalamvelas makes beautiful objects, including several extremely inventive designs that come from ancient times.
We enjoyed having traditional Cretan specialties in the town square, and seeing the fine examples of classic village architecture, painted in charming pastels.
The capital of the regional unit, Rehymnon is prized as one of Crete’s beautiful port towns with a distinctively Venetian flavor. We enjoyed its Castra – the fortress – and the famous Rimondi fountain.
Then we wandered in the old town and visited the traditional phyllo factory of phyllo master Kyrios Giorgos. He spun a small disc of phyllo into a thin billowing sheet right before our eyes. Then we visited the Venetian port which is filled with chic and casual cafes and bars.
Day 4: Crete Urban Adventures
We had an introduction to Cretan Culture and history here, then enjoyed some strong Greek coffee and traditional sweet cheese pies before starting out for our next stop – the Arkadi Monastery.
This splendid example of Cretan Renaissance architecture has a brave and tragic history. Now, its enclosed grounds are one of Crete’s most serene places.
After this we went to the village of Thrones – “thrones” – so named for its glorious spot overlooking lush valleys. We had a cooking class, learning to make “Gemista” – stuffed vegetables – with that splendid view. After this we saw the frescoes at the 14th century Church of the Assumption.
The family-owned and very new Kourkoulou winery was our next destination. Here we learned about the indigenous grapes of Crete. These grape varieties – many of them ancient – are ideally suited to the rugged terrain of the island.
We ended our day with Crete Urban Adventures with a short hike in the Patsos gorge, site of an ancient temple to Hermes, and the cave temple to St. Anthony.
Then a farewell tsikoudia – no occasion on Crete can be considered complete without a tsikoudia.
Day 5: Argyroupoli Village
Giannis of Arcus Suites arranged a fantastic day for us in this hilltop village. We started out at the Cretan Gastronomy Center, in a large traditional house.
The Cretan Gastronomy Center seeks to preserve old food ways, indigenous ingredients, and the secrets of the wholesome Cretan diet. It was filled with drawings from the young school children who visit throughout the year.
We made “dolmadakia” – stuffed vine leaves – with Aspasia and Kyria Ziveli. While they cooked, Aspasia treated us to an unusual event – an olive oil tasting. Extra Virgin Olive oil flows like water in Crete. We found that fine oils are every bit as nuanced as wines. Each had its own character. Moreover, they are rich in polyphenols, inducing a state of mild euphoria. Or maybe it was just the excellent company.
After our cooking lesson and tasting, we set off down the calderimi – the donkey paths – through a wooded area, then we went for a magnificent Cretan lunch, featuring all the specialties – “sfakianopites” with honey, “staka” with fries, “apaki” – the smoky cured pork of Crete, and “cochilous” – snails – a Cretan specialty.
After lunch, we visited Arcus Suites. Set in a restored traditional building of stone, with vaulted ceilings, the chic private suites were dramatic and spectacular. Fragrant gardens surrounded them.
We were right by ancient Lapa, and we walked to the Church of the 5 Virgins, and also saw the ancient Roman tombs.
This was out last evening in the Rethymnon prefecture. Full as our day had been, we gathered enough energy to go to Poliou House again, where there was live Cretan lyra music and folk dancing, and of course tsikoudia.
Day 6: Elafonissi Beach and Chania at Sunset
We set out early to check in to Top Hotel Chania in Stalos, a beach town just west of Chania. Our kind hostess Sophia was there to meet us. This is a terrific family hotel, spotless, with great views down to the sea and a large swimming pool. We found it was a perfect home base for exploring.
We left our things and set off at once for Elafonissi – one of the most famous beaches of Greece and, indeed, the world. This pink sandy paradise in the southwest corner of Crete has a lagoon and an island.
You can wade through warm shallow waters to the island, which is covered in silvery white sands and rare wildflowers. The beach of Elafonissi has pink sands, from small shells. It’s the most photogenic beach you can imagine. Happily, this unique biotope is part of the Natura 200 network.
A Sunset Tour of Chania
In the evening, we had a sunset tour of Chania with Giannis of Crete Urban Adventures. Chania is probably one of the most romantic cities in Greece. The narrow passages of the old town are scented with jasmine and decorated in boughs of bougainvillea. Beautiful Venetian boatyards line the eastern side of the harbor, and an Egyptian lighthouse stands at the end of the large jetty protecting the marina.
We learned much about its history, and then went and enjoyed some wine together, and more stories – Giannis is a superb guide, very well informed.
Day 7: Vamos
We went to the village of Vamos to meet Rebecca of Crete Urban Adventures, and also the Deputy Mayor. After coffee and conversation, they took us through the historic village.
We then went to see the European Sustainability Academy in Drapanos devoted to investigating ways of sustainable, humane living.
After a lunch of traditional foods at Eleonora’s Taverna, we drove to the coast to a spot where the future diving center is planned.
Day 8: Balos and a Chic Farewell
Our last day in Western Crete was a combination of rugged adventure and… absolutely shameless luxury. We found that Crete is full of surprises!
Even though we had superb cars, we needed to rent SUVs for the next leg of our adventure. Like Preveli, the beach of Balos was once a local secret. Unlike Preveli, it is still really challenging to reach, unless you want to take a boat with many other people from Kissamos. We didn’t. We rose extra early to beat the crowds. At the end of a long and dusty drive to the very end of the narrow peninsula, we hiked down to the beach, with only goats for company. Balos has an island and a lagoon that shimmers like a jewel. The photos from above alone were worth the hike. Balos is a fantastic destination.
Some of us already had evening flights. Our hearts were heavy, after such an adventure. However, they lightened a little when we saw where we would have our farewell lunch. Mr. & Mrs. White, a luxury hotel in Stavros. We had the honeymoon suite, perched directly over the sea. Really, it was more like a honeymoon palace. In addition to an elegant bungalow done in the best beach style – high ceilings, white painted one, minimalist flair, and an enormous marble bathroom – we had a private pool, and a veranda the size of a small city park, all to ourselves.
Lunch in our private cabana – white curtains all around billowing in the breeze – was like a dream. Then, our private masseuse showed up – our hosts had thoughtfully booked each of us a massage.
And that was our sweet farewell. Crete amazed us at every turn. The range of landscapes we experienced was stunning – rugged hikes, deep gorges, lush forests, and amazing beaches and biotopes. We were also amazed at the range of diverse experience Crete offers. From the traditional villages, to the monasteries, to the wineries, and the elegant hotels, we loved it all. We also loved dancing in a village taverna, hiking with the goats, and exploring the beautiful Venetian port cities. Of course, we loved the people most of all. Cretans are passionate people, brave and full of heart. And they are also the warmest hosts of Greece.
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