Crete, the largest of the Greek islands, is spoiled with splendid beaches, colourful mythology, charming towns and mountain villages, and beautiful scenery wherever you look. And let’s not forget the food!
For our two week roadtrip we decided to focus on the Western part of the island, here is our itinerary.
Heraklion and Knossos
The capital of Crete, Heraklion, is Crete’s major airport and the perfect starting point for our road trip. Located on the north coast of the island, the port city offered plenty to keep us busy for a couple of days, exploring the archaeological Museum, the Fortress, port and the city’s monuments and churches. We stayed at the Kronos, a simple but clean hotel very close to the seafront and walking distance into town.
On leaving Heraklion, our first stop was the astonishing Palace of Knossos – dating back to the Minoan period, around 1900 BC, the site of this ancient city spreads over 14,000 square metres and provides the setting for many legends around King Minos, the Minotaur, Daedalus and Icarus. As with all archaeological sites, it is difficult to understand the meaning and history of a place like Knossos without the help of a skilled guide – which you can hire at the entrance.
After a dusty morning at Knossos, we headed for the mountains, however not without a quick stop in Matala, a once quiet fishing village 75km south of Heraklion, favoured by hippies in the 60s and 70s. Now a tourist hotspot, it makes for a lovely stop, with impressive sandstone formations overlooking the beach. Legend has it God of the Gods Zeus once swam ashore here, in the guise of a bull…
Crete’s mountainous inland to Zaros
Our stop for the next couple of nights was Zaros, a charming and unspoilt village in the mountains, famed for its spring water. We rented a rustic cottage room with the Petrakis family, who spoilt us with sweet and savoury pastries for breakfast. Lake Votomos, just above the village is a wonderful spot for a hike, and if you like you can climb to the St Nikolaos monastery.
We had dinner at Vegera in the village centre – the best meal of our stay in Crete, and we enjoyed a lot of good food on this trip! There is no menu, ‘mama’ just serves up whatever is available, course after course. Delicious and plentiful home cooked food, and fantastic value for money.
Kommos, Gortyna and Spili
From Zaros, we took a trip to the wonderfully quiet beach of Kommos, where we spent a restful morning before heading to the archaeological site of Gortyna.
Gortyna, in the plain of Messara, dates back to the Roman and Byzantine periods and was once one of the most powerful cities in historical times.
The next morning, we left Zaros and headed to the little town of Spili for lunch, sitting outside on the beautiful square, surrounded by dozens of fountains.
Plakias and Preveli
Travelling through the scenic Kourtaliotiko Gorge, we finally reached Plakias, where we stayed at the Lamon Hotel, which offers very simple and cheap accommodation right by the beach. Plakias turned out to be a nice seaside town, where we found some awesome gyros in pitta.
The next day, we headed straight to the Preveli Monastery, a large, living monastery high on the cliffs. From there it is a very steep, but so rewarding climb down to Preveli beach – one of the most memorable beach I’ve ever visited. A freshwater stream reaches the sea at Preveli beach, which not only makes it an unusually green place to sunbathe, but also means there are both sweet and salt water options to swim in.
Frangokastello to Paleochora
Out next stop was Frangokastello, where we found some simple but again very cheap accommodation at Maria’s Studios, a couple of steps from the beach. The sand here was soft and the water incredibly clear and shallow. Frangokastello is not really a town, rather a few holiday homes around the old fortress, but there are several nice restaurants around, as well as a supermarket.
The next morning we headed straight to the ferry port at Hora Sfakion, After Hora Sfakion it is not possible to continue driving along the coast, and the only alternative route to get around the vast Samaria Gorge region is to return to the north coast and drive back south across the mountains which doesn’t make much sense. So the car ferry it is – it stops at Agia Roumeli, a charming little hikers town which forms the mouth of the Samaria Gorge. We didn’t hike the Gorge, so instead spend the couple of hours wait for the next ferry wandering the town and relaxing in the shade.
The ferry dropped us at the port in Paleochora, where we stayed in a simple room at Oriental Bay right by the pebbly beach. We loved our evening at the restaurant next door, tasty food and a romantic atmosphere. In fact, we really enjoyed Paleochora, a cute little town. In the morning we took a hiking trip to the village of Anidri, where we stopped at Sto Scholeio for a light lunch before returning downhill through Anidri Gorge to Gialiskari Beach.
Elafonisi and Innahorion
Our next, and final stop took us back to the north coast of the island, to the wonderful port town of Chania. But not without detour. Our lonely planet guide mentioned a driving route to Elafonisi from Paleochora, so we set off early in the morning hoping to beat the crowds – if you’re tempted to do the same, don’t! What started off as a windy, narrow mountain road eventually turned into a rocky downhill path, so thin and bumpy we expected our little hired car to drop down the steep rocky cliffs any second. The pot holes were so deep and the rocks in the road so sharp, it is a miracle we made it to Elafonisi in one piece (read more about driving in Crete here). By the time we finally reached the beach we were mentally and physically exhausted, and the (admittedly gorgeous beach) disappointingly overcrowded.
Back on the road we chose the scenic route through the Innahorion mountain villages and briefly stopped in one of them, Elos, for a late lunch before reaching our final destination in Chania.
Our hotel, the Corinna Mare, was located on the shore just 5km west of Chania and exactly what we needed after over a week on the road. There wasn’t a beach as such, but a generous jetty with plenty of deckchairs and a stepladder into the sea. In general, we’ve experienced the coast on the north of the island to be much rockier and the sea much choppier, than in the south. Nonetheless, it was the perfect place to simply relax with a good book. The restaurant at the hotel served delicious food (room service!) and there were a couple of eateries nearby. The bus into Chania takes around 10 minutes. Chania is a delightful little town, with a near perfect promenade for an evening stroll, romantic cobbled alleyways, and full of bars and restaurants.
With the area around Chania being a main site of the Battle of Crete in 1941, there are two major war cemeteries in the area – the German cemetery at Maleme, where nearly 4,500 German soldiers are laid to rest, and the Commonwealth cemetery at Souda Bay, hosting over 1,500 graves of Commonwealth soldiers.
After a few chilled out days in Chania we returned to Heraklion to catch our flight home.