Have you ever been to Crete? This amazing Greek island stole our hearts! Come along on our 4-day trek to Crete. You will fall in love too. (photos & video)
There’s something about Crete…
If you’ve ever been to Crete, you know exactly what I’m talking about. If you’ve never been, move this Greek island to the top of your list!
Now, each island has its own distinct charm, but there is something about Crete. I’d been there once before – with two friends, back in 2000. We spent four days exploring the Rethymnon area. One night we had dinner at the Old Venetian Harbor in Chania. While we enjoyed Rethymnon, there was a different energy in Chania. There was something there that called to me. I knew I had to get back there and spend some more time. Over the years, like a Siren calling, I couldn’t get it out of my mind. My husband, who had once traveled to Crete with friends, also only spent a few hours in Chania. When discussing Greek islands, Crete would always come up. It was something that we both wanted to experience. So, with our two daughters in tow, we took an excursion to Crete. Chania was to be our home base, where we could meet up with Chicago friends, a WindyCity Greek contributing writer, and a couple we’d recently interviewed. The only bad part was that it was only four days.
Come along on our adventure!
With inexpensive flights from Athens to Crete, and with our limited time frame, we opted to fly. An Olympic Airlines flight took just under an hour and was only around $100. We decided to fly into Heraklion instead of Chania because there were many more flight options available. Getting our luggage and the rental car was easy. The airport is small, so you don’t need to take a bus or tram to reach the cars. There’s a lot going on in Crete’s largest city, which also serves as the administrative capital. Heraklion is a bustling city, but we came here for one reason – the Palace of Knossos.
We met up with a tour guide arranged by Kids Love Greece, a family travel planning agency started by three Cretan women (one now based in Boston) whose tours are specifically designed for kids. There are tours available all over Greece, but since we were here, and wanted to see Knossos, this was the perfect opportunity.
History and mythology come to life
The Palace of Knossos is the largest Bronze age archaeological site in Crete, and according to Wikipedia, it’s been called Europe’s oldest city. It was discovered by English archaeologist Sir Arthur Evans. He’d come to Crete in the late 1800s, finding a connection to some jewelry that came from Crete to Knossos. Once the Turkish occupation ended in 1898, it was full speed ahead. He made plans, brought workers, and began his work in 1900. He quickly realized that this was the center of Minoan Civilization, one that existed well before Mycenae and Tiryns. Evans is best known for his discoveries at Knossos.
Recall the myth with the mighty King Minos — he built an elaborate labyrinth to hide his son, the half-man/half-bull known as the Minotaur. This story has many dimensions and also tells us how the Aegean Sea got its name.
Our ‘Kids Love Greece’ tour
Our tour guide Maria was wonderful and on this long tour, she managed to keep the kids (ages 11 and 9) engaged the entire time, and that’s no easy feat! She began the tour asking the girls if they knew the myth of the Minotaur. My daughters love mythology, so this was right up their alley. If your kids aren’t, no worries. There’s plenty here to keep them interested. Maria asked specific questions relating to the myth, and she was surprised when the girls responded correctly – almost every time. My 9-year-old even knew how many youths King Aegis had to send each year! I didn’t even remember that!
I was surprised at the size of the site and just how advanced the Minoans were – can you say indoor plumbing? In 2000 BC? Yes! In various places, Maria showed the kids a tablet with augmented reality images of what the palace would have looked like. She addressed the children directly and made it all very entertaining – enough to hold their attention for three hours, and in the heat. And that was just at the site! Our tour included about one hour in the Archaeological Museum (Xanthoudidi & Hatzidaki 1, Heraklion), where artifacts found at Knossos are on display. The museum is about a 15-minute drive from the site.
Is it true?
But now, an important question. Is the myth true? Is there more to the story? Well, you must visit Knossos to find out. My husband and I are museum-goers, and we like to visit them and other sites, but the kids can only do it in small amounts. But when we return to Greece, we will definitely plan another tour with Kids Love Greece. They made it one of the most memorable excursions – for us and our kids.
Chania at last
We rented an Airbnb in Chania Town on Samouil Chaou Street, a cute neighborhood, about two blocks from the sandy beach of Nea Chora. Street signs here explain why the person is commemorated. This one was a named after Samuel Howe, an American PhilHellene doctor who brought aid to Cretan refugees during the Cretan Revolution.
In the mornings, I worked while the rest of the family slept. Constantino’s (Kokkinou 64) has studios for rent, and on the main floor there’s a welcoming café right in the neighborhood. Kostas is a Greek-Canadian, who moved back to his homeland after 35 years. The amiable man prepared me an amazing coffee, and we chatted while I was supposed to be working. He’d lived in Montreal, but Chania kept calling him home, and he moved back several years ago. He said he will never leave again. I can see why.
From this location, it was just a 2 km (about 15 minutes) walk along the coast to the Venetian Harbor and all the action. If you rent a car, leave it at your place. Parking is limited and always full. Skip the taxi if you can. Sea breezes and salty air with refresh you, and the walk will be a delight.
“Remnants” of previous occupiers evident throughout the island, are continual reminders of Crete’s storied past. When you’re here, you can easily see why this land was so coveted, and why so many fought for it.
Love the limani
The lighthouse beckons as you turn the corner. One of the oldest lighthouses in Greece and the Mediterranean, the Chania Lighthouse (faros in Greek) was built by the Venetians in the late 1500s. During the Egyptian period (1831-1841), it was altered to look like a minaret. The last restoration, in 2006, leaned more toward the original Venetian design. The lighthouse is no longer in use today. It’s only for show – you cannot go inside.
You’ve likely seen the limani in Greek TV shows, movies, or in magazines. The picturesque scene, with shops and restaurants lining the port, takes on new character at night when the lights reflect off the water. It’s the perfect setting for photos, people watching, and just to take in the scene and daydream.
Like most islands, there are narrow paths jetting out from the port, beckoning you to explore. Years ago, on my first island adventure, someone told me that early island settlers purposely designed their towns in a maze to confuse any wandering invaders from reaching the people or the town. It sure can be dizzying, as you lose your way and aren’t quite sure where you are. I say that’s part of the adventure.
Dining in Chania
Like everywhere in Greece, the food is fresh, flavorful, and irresistible. The first night, we met some Chicago friends at To Xani (Parados Kondilaki Street), tucked away in one of those narrow, winding streets.
The second night, we dined at Salis (3 Akti Enoseos), at the opposite (and quite lively) end of the limani. Owned by incredibly talented Chef Afshin Molavi, husband of Alexandra Manousakis (of Manousakis Winery—more on that soon), this dining experience is reminiscent of a trendy Miami spot. Modern meets traditional here, in a marriage made in Heaven. The sophisticated décor welcomes you to dine on a menu of traditional favorites taken to new heights. This place will please the foodies as well as those who prefer traditional cuisine.
On the last night, we sought a place with live, traditional Cretan music. All our senses drew us to Ta Xalkina (29-30, Akti Tombazi Street). This place was rocking! A duo played to a packed house – inside and out. People sang along and enjoyed traditional Cretan fare. We sat outside, but could still hear the music, and see the sights and sounds of the port. From kalitsounia, to local Cretan beers, to a huge (and I mean huge) kontosouvli served on its mini spit, the food was too good to not finish. Thank goodness for the walk back!
Hanging out with the locals
While in Crete, it was wonderful to meet up with Contributing Writer Gabi Ancarola and her two handsome young sons. We wanted to go where the locals go. Gabi, who’s also a tour guide, met us at the edge of the limani, and took us through meandering backstreets that were not touristy, and through the “Turkish section”. Another turn and we were on a street with offices, a bookstore, and shops selling anything but souvenirs. We arrived in the Splantzia District of Old Town, to 1821 Square, named for the year Greece declared independence from the Ottoman Turks. The locals refer to the square by its original name, that of the district. The historic square is the site of two gruesome events during the early days of the Revolution. To exert their might, here on the plane tree that still stands, the Turks hung Christians, including the Bishop of Kissamos, Melchizedek Despotaki, and later the deacon from Veria, Kallinikos. There’s a plaque in the square commemorating these horrific events.
The plateia was full of locals communing at tables, eating, drinking, and singing. We dined at To Kafenio, at the end of the square, near the church. There, on that beautiful night, we had another fantastic meal. Each dish was better than the last.
Most memorable wine tour ever
When you go to Chania, you must take a tour with Chania Wine Tours, owned and operated Vasilis Kokologiannakis and Anna Maria Kambourakis – you may remember them from a recent Greek-American in Greece profile. This was one of our favorite days on the trip, and one we’ll never forget.
They picked us up in their van at 9:00 am. Once settled in, Anna Maria opened a cooler and began to serve – mimosas for the adults, juice for the kids, and fresh tyropita from the local bakery. We got the VIP treatment all day on our private tour. You can take a half day tour if that works better for you but go for the full day. You won’t want to leave this lovable couple.
Before heading to the beach, check the weather, because if the winds are high, you’ll want to adjust your plans. If that’s the case, “You’ll just eat sand,” as the locals told us. Such was the case on the day we planned for stunning Elafonisi (73 km from Chania, known for its pink sand), and alternatively, lovely Falassarna (40 km). Gorgeous Balos Beach (52 km) was another option, but it was very crowded, so plan to arrive early.
What would Zorba say?
Gabi suggested we check out Stavrós Beach (16 km). A.k.a Zorba’s Beach, the breathtaking scenery provided the setting for the final scene in the film ZORBA THE GREEK. This Blue Flag beach offers crystal clear, blue-green waters. We spent our final day there, swimming, lounging, and attempting to locate the exact spot of the celebrated scene. We were so relaxed, we didn’t even leave our sun loungers for lunch – it was delivered with a smile from Sea View Beach Bar (Spirou Lera).
That Siren continues to call – perhaps louder than ever. I can’t stop thinking about this amazing place — and we haven;t yet explore the ENTIRE island! We absolutely love Crete! We’ll be back. Just not fast enough for me.
BOOK REVIEW: ‘Guerrillas of Crete’ by Colin Janes
Greek Start-Up: Destination Crete
Traveling with Kids? Choose Family-Friendly Crete!
HISTORY: Commemorating the Battle of Crete