The birthplace of Zeus, Crete is a vast and multifaceted island whose sun-blessed landscape is a quilt of soaring mountains, dramatic gorges and stunning beaches.
The northern coast, with its nearly uninterrupted strip of beach resorts, has built-up infrastructure and gets the most visitors.
The rugged interior, by contrast, is largely untouched by mass tourism. A dreamy mosaic of sleepy villages, terraced vineyards and fertile valleys, dotted with Byzantine churches and historic monasteries, the interior invites exploration at a leisurely pace.
Those with a sense of adventure will be enchanted by the largely untamed south, where serpentine roads dead-end in isolated coves and the landscape is sliced by steep gorges where rare plants and animals thrive.
The splendid Venetian port of Hania is bursting with colour and the time-tested pomp appropriate to the former maritime empire of Venice. Trace your way down the massive stone walls, past the arsenals and shipyards, and along the historic mansions (now housing stylish hotels), to gaze over the waterfront, drink in hand.
Embraced by the open Mediterranean (next stop, Spain or Africa!), western Crete has pristine, crystal-clear waters, heated to almost tropical temperatures on pink-sand beaches like Elafonisi, Balos and Falasarna.
The Lefka Ori (White Mountains) south of Hania comprise Crete’s wildest terrain, interspersed with deep gorges, labyrinthine caves and raw cliffs. Whether you’re after white-knuckle driving, gorge trekking, rock climbing or even (way) off-piste skiing in winter, this is the place to go.
Endowed with the greatest concentration of Minoan ruins, Iraklio is a mecca for archaeology fans. Stand in awe of the achievements of Europe’s oldest civilisation when surveying the palaces of Knossos, Malia, Phaestos and Agia Triada, plus scores of minor sites.
Life’s a Beach
From the spectacular gorges at Rouvas and Agiofarango to the trails connecting hidden chapels and monasteries around Zaros, and the olive groves and tombs around Kamilari, Iraklio promises top walks.
Not only do Cretans love kids, in Iraklio they have also come up with myriad ways to entertain them in grand style, be it by letting them frolic at the sea or by taking them to enchanting aquariums, adrenalin-packed water parks, placid playgrounds and hands-on museums.
Lasithi may not have the painted and polished ruins of Knossos, but the Minoan sites of Gournia and Kato Zakros evoke a sometimes deeper awareness. Their wild surroundings and the haunting sense of a lost world fire the imagination towards a more personal sense of place and of the past.
Beyond the Main Beach
Although famous venues such as palm-lined Vaï draw thick summer crowds, Lasithi’s beaches are generally free of too much organised lounging. You’ll find myriad hidden coves and small sandy bays where you’ll luxuriate in blissful isolation, such as Almyros and Xerokambos.
Some of Crete’s finest mountains dominate the Lasithi skyline. Their airy summits and deep gorges offer superb hiking and trekking and put you amid the heady scents of wildflowers and aromatic herbs. Hiking the spectacular Valley of the Dead to the sea is one of your options.
All phases of Cretan history are omnipresent in Rethymno, whose eponymous main town is itself a pretty pastiche of Venetian and Ottoman architecture. Monasteries that stood firm against the Turks and remote mountain villages drenched in age-old traditions will leave you wanting more.
There’s something otherworldly about Rethymno’s corrugated southern coast, where craggy inlets embrace perfect little beaches that are often footprint-free. This is the place to dig your toes in the sand and indulge in island dreams.
Lorded over by Crete’s highest peak, the often snow-capped Mt Psiloritis, Rethymno will delight shutterbugs with dazzling vistas of dramatic gorges, tranquil valleys and velvety hills blanketed with olive groves, vineyards and wildflowers.