Updated: Jul 29
Crete is the largest island in Greece and the second largest in the Mediterranean. We took a two night, three day road trip around the island to explore. We were staying in Chania, which is on the northwestern side of the island. With places like, Knossos Palace, Spinalonga, and Agios Nikolaos beckoning us, we headed out to explore the eastern side of the island.
CaptK is an experienced European driver. He can maneuver the narrow streets of an old town with ease, so off we went. The highway that runs east to west in Crete is well marked and easy to drive. I love the rest stops. You can get a frothy cappuccino and a fresh pastry or a cold drink and a gelato as well as gas at these one stop places. Here is a navigation tip, instead of putting the town center into your map app, search for public parking near the town center and use that as your destination instead of actual the town center. Most places have every limited or no parking in their town centers. This tip will keep you from driving around narrow, congested, one way streets looking for parking once you get to your destination.
As you can see from the photos above, the vistas along the east-west highway are stunning. You see beautiful beaches, crashing waves and ocean views on north side of the highway. The south side has serene olive groves and small farms with towering, craggy mountains as the backdrop.
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Our first stop was Knossos Palace. Just outside Heraklion, in central Crete, this archeological site was the largest of Minoan Palaces and home to the King of the Minoans. The Minoan culture existed on Crete from 7000 BCE to 1300 BCE. They were a sophisticated culture who traded with the early Egyptians and had a written language. It was the place that imagined the Labyrinth and Minotaur which were later featured in Greek Mythology. The site was discovered in 1878 and excavated between 1900 - 1931. The artifacts that were unearthed can be found in the Heraklion Archeological Museum in Old Town Heraklion.
The site is easy to find and there is lots of free parking. The line is very long to purchase tickets. We did not purchase tickets in advance, I would highly recommend purchasing the tickets in advance to avoid the lines. We decided to join a small group guided tour with head of the line privileges to avoid the waiting in the line. The cost of the small group guided tour and skip the line tickets was 40 euro. The tour was very good. I would recommend this option if you are unsure which day you will want to visit the Palace. If you can plan in advance, there are lower cost options available to you at the Ministry of Sports and Culture. Knossos Palace opens at 8:00 am daily and closes between 3:45 pm and 7:45 pm depending upon the time of year. There are restrooms, a gift shop and a small cafe on the premises.The entrance fee is 15 euro. I would highly recommend advance purchase of your entrance tickets with skip the line privileges, it is worth the 5 euro and you get a downloadable audio tour..
The Palace is a multiple story complex that takes up the space of two football fields. There are Royal bedrooms, a throne room, storage facilities and craftsmen workshops. The excavation was done by the British Archeologist, Arthur Evans. He attempted to recreate the Palace as he excavated it. With the hindsight of 100 years of archeological advancements, the recreation receives criticism. However, it does give the average visitor great insight into the lives of Minoans.
There are more questions and mysteries than answers surrounding Knossos. The original palace dates back to 1950 BCE. Whether it was damaged in an earthquake or simply expanded and renovated, the new palace is the structure we see today. Around 1300 BCE, the Minoan society ceased to exist. The best educated guess is that there was a Tsunami that killed most of the population and the surviving population assimilated into Mycenaean society.
There is a small grouping of very touristy shops and restaurants that lines the road into Knossos. You can purchase tee shirts, sunscreen and kitschy souvenirs in these shops. We did have lunch at Russakis, a small taverna with a second floor balcony, overlooking the main road. It is a great place to get a cold drink and do some people watching.
We continued on the the eastern side of Crete and spent the night in Agios Nikolaos. This is a charming seaside town. Besides a lovely small beach, Agios Nikolaos is home to an inland brackish water lake, Lake Voulismeni. It is said the be the bathing place of the Greek Goddess Athena. It is also said to be bottomless. While that is just a myth, the lake is incredibly deep, about 210 feet deep. In the early 20th century a channel was dug to connect the lake to the sea. Many cafes line the lake today, it can be quite lively in the evenings.
The downtown area has several tree lined streets. There are many shops, high end boutiques, coffee bars, jewelry stores and souvenirs stands along these shady streets. There are also stair step streets and contemporary art installations through the town. It is pleasant to wander around and enjoy the international, beachy atmosphere.
On Elounda Bay, just around the corner from the Ferry Pier, are these two stunning statues. The first is the Abduction Of Europe. Europe is a beautiful young woman, in Greek Mythology. Zeus fell in love with her and turned himself into a bull to gently woe her. This statue depicts Zeus and Europe as they head up the coast of Crete to live happily ever after.
The second statue is the Horn of Amalthea, a symbol of abundance. In Greek Mythology, after Rhea gave birth to Zeus, she hid him on Crete. He was raised by a Kris Kris goat named Amalthea. One day he was playing with Amalthea and broke off her horn. As a sign of respect to Amalthea, Zeus blessed the horn and granted the gift of abundance to anyone who found the horn. Even today, the cornucopia or horn of plenty is a symbol of abundance.
There is a lovely little beach just south of the statues. There are sun beds and umbrellas available to rent. Several cafes and tavernas have seating directly on the beach. It is a delightful place to spend an afternoon or enjoy your morning coffee.
If you are staying in Agios Nikolaos, Ikaros Art Hotel makes a nice, budget friendly home base. This hotel is just up the street from the beach. The rooftop Breakfast area has panoramic views of Elounda Bay and the city. We stayed in the room next to the Breakfast area. We had two balconies with outdoor seating, giving us panoramic views of the bay and town to the north and the east.
Before dinner, we stopped in at Alexandro's Rooftop Bar for a cocktail. We were treated to a full moon rising at sunset over Agios Nikolaos. There are several rooftop bars in town, all of them have beautiful views!
Dinner at Pelagos
In Agios Nikolaos, don't miss dining on the beautiful patio of Pelagos. This stylishly decorated restaurant is open for lunch and dinner. They serve traditional Cretan dishes and fresh seafood. The atmosphere, food and service was excellent.
CapK had the seafood pasta with mussels, calms and shrimp in an olive oil and white wine sauce. I had the grilled Sea Bream with pureed chickpeas and pomegranate seeds. Both dishes were delicious and upscale hippy vibe on the patio made the dinner that much more fun.
We left Agios Nikolaos early the next morning, heading to Elounda, This pretty little fishing village is the departure point for Spinalonga, the Venetian fortress island and former leper colony. You can catch a boat to the island from the main harbor. The harbor is more than a tourist jump off point. It is a commercial harbor. The little fishing boats bring in the day’s catch to supply the local restaurants and tavernas. The fish and seafood is especially good here.
Spinalonga, the island of mysteries and ghosts, of sickness and war. Located in the Bay of Elounda, in northeastern Crete, this now deserted island has been under the control of Venetians, Turks, and Greeks. Its history has inspired books, movies, and television shows. It rises majestically out of the sparking aquamarine sea, visual but not accessible. Today Spinalonga is open for visitors daily from April 1 till Oct. 31. They are in the process of being named a UNESCO World Heritage Site
During the 16th century, the Venetians ruled Crete. In 1578, in response to the threats of piracy and the Ottoman Empire. The Venetians built a fortress on Spinalogha to protect their interests in the area. In 1715, the Ottoman Empire defeated the Venetians and took over control of Crete and Spinalogha. By 1903, the Cretans had won their independence from the Turks and Greece was united. At this point Spinalogha because a Leper Colony. It remained a leper colony until 1957 when a cure was widely available. The last inhabitant left Spinalogha in 1962. Today Spinalogha is open for visitors daily from April 1 till Oct. 31. They are in the process of being named a UNESCO World Heritage SiteSpinalogha is only accessible by boat. There are three places where you can get a boat the Island, Plaka, Elounda and Agios Nikolaos. Plaka is the shortest ride, only 10 minutes. It has very limited parking. The cost is 10 euro. There are boats that leave from Elounda. The ride is 30 minutes long and cost 12 euro. Both the boats from Plaka and the boats from Elounda are part of a collective, so you can stay on the island for as long as you like and take the next available boat back to the port where you started. Larger ferry boats sail from Agios Nikolaos,
During the rule of the Venetians, salt was harvested from the shallow areas called salt pans, surrounding the island. The people who worked those salt pans were the first inhabitants of Spinalonga. In 1578, in response to the threats of piracy from the infamous Pirate Barbarosa and the Ottoman Empire, the Venetians built a fortress on Spinalonga. In 1903 after Crete won their independence, Spinalonga became a Leper Colony. Inhabited until 1957, Spinalonga's Leper Colony has inspired the imaginations of many writers including the best selling book, "The Island" and the television show "Lost."
Lunch at Ferryman
Once we explored the island, we were ready for a cold drink and a meal. My favorite place to eat in Elounda is within walking distance of the ferry pier. You can get a delicious meal at The Ferryman. They serve the most delicious Lamb Kefta I have ever had!
The outdoor seating area has views of the bay and Spinalonga. The breeze off the water keeps you cool while you are dining. Their outdoor kitchen was so picturesque, I could not resist taking a photograph.
After lunch we explored the alleyways and shops of Elounda. The waterfront is dotted with restaurants and cocktail bars. There are interesting shops, with offerings that are unique and reasonably priced.
If you are staying in Elounda, the Elounda Heights Hotel with it's beautiful pool area is an adults only, budget friendly place to stay. Breakfast is included with your room. The pool bar is open for snacks, lunch and drinks from late morning to late afternoon.
The rooms are spacious, with a sitting area and kitchenette. Every room has a beautiful view of the bay and a private outdoor space to enjoy a coffee or a glass of wine.
The pool area is spacious with sun beds and beach towels. There is a bar in the lobby that is open in the evening with a nice selection of wines and cocktails. With advanced reservations you can enjoy dinner prepared by the owners father/chef, in an open air palapa. We did not stay long enough to have dinner on-site, however other guests were very complimentary about the food.
We walked down the hill to enjoy another meal by the bay in Elounda. The hill to Elounda Heights is steep. We worked off much of our dinner hiking back.
Dinner at Rakomelo
One of the things we were told to try in Crete was the snails. We headed down the the waterfront restaurant Rakamelo, to give them a try. This family owned restaurant serves up Cretan dishes and seafood for lunch and dinner. They have outdoor seating directly on the bay.
I enjoyed a large bowl of snails cooked in a unique blend of white wine, olive oil and rosemary. They were absolutely delicious. If you are an adventurous eater, I would highly recommend them. Add a glass of wine and a greek salad, you have a superb seaside meal! We were able to watch the sunset and moonrise as we dined.
Heraklion Archaeological Museum
We left Elounda early the next morning so we could enjoy the Heraklion Archaeological Museum before it got crowded. This museums houses ancient artifacts that have been found on Crete. Specifically it covers 7000 BCE to 200 ACE. The museum was founded in 1908 to showcase the artifacts found with the excavation of Knossos Palace. The current museum was built between 1937 and 1958 on the site of a Venetian Monastery that was destroyed in 1856 by an earthquake. The walls of the monastery can be seen in the garden of the museum today. The centerpiece of the museum is the extensive Minoan Collection. The entire ground floor and part of the first floor are dedicated to these pieces.
I would highly recommend that you visit the archaeological site at Knossos first before visiting the museum. To see the size, grandeur and detail in this neolithic Palace gives you a better appreciation for the sophistication of the people who used and created these works of art.
The museum is open daily from 8:00 am to 6:00 pm. On Tuesday's the museum is open from 10:00 am to 6:00 pm. The regular admission is 12 euro and can be purchased in advance for a specific day and time at https://etickets.tap.gr/.
We arrived at the museum at about 8:30 am in late July and shared the museum with one other visitor. The afternoons are significantly more crowded than the mornings. Check the links below for skip the line and guide tour options.
After absorbing ancient life on Crete in the museum, we headed out to see what modern life was like in Heraklion. We had parked just outside of the old city, although there did not seen to be a strong delineation between old town and new town Heraklion. Heraklion was built in the old Venetian style of having the street radiate out from a central square usually with a fountain in the center. It is the capital of Crete and it's largest and most modern city.
We walked around the old town area, which reminding me more of Athens than Chania. There were lots of modern buildings, construction and automobile traffic. We did find some touches of Heraklion’s Venetian past in the architecture of older buildings and the multitude of open air cafes. Overall we left with a feeling of gratitude that we had decided to spend most of our stay in Chania.
Our next stop was Rethymnon. If Heraklion reminded me of Athens, Rethymnon reminds mine of Cannes or Ft. Lauderdale. There is a distinct beach resort area, a distinct old town area and a distinct new town area. If you are looking for a beach vacation with good food and a bit of history, Rethymnon is your place.
The beaches are sandy and wide. There are sun beds, umbrellas and cabanas and all types of water sports equipment available to rent. Many of the resorts have beach set ups available for their guest. The resorts are across the wide street from the beach, many have beach side pools and restaurants.
Rethymnon has an interesting old town. There is a Venetian port, lined with restaurants and shops. The old town spreads inland and along the coast as you walk away from the port. As you move inland. there are shops, guest houses and small hotels. As you walk along the coast there are restaurants and bars.
I love the creative displays of the catch of the day! Seafood tavernas dot the Venetian Port in Rythemnon.
The interior streets are twisty and meandering. There are many building that retain their distinctive Turkish feel. The cascades of brightly colored flowers and greenery soften the golden hued buildings.
Our final stop on our Cretan road trip was Aptera. Although there is evidence that the Minoans had a settlement on this site, it is the Roman Ruins that draw visitors to this site. It is strategically overlooking Souda Bay making it one of the strongest city-states from Minoan through Hellenic times.
The Roman Theatre and Cistern are some of the best persevered and intriguing features. In the 12th century, a monastery was established on the site and it was inhabited until 1964. The Greek Orthodox church is still maintained today.
Visible from the archaeological site and directly on Souda Bay is the Ottoman Fortress. Because of its strategic location, it is still used by the Greek Military.
We used Safedrive Rental Car in Chania. They are located in Old Town Chania. They were by far the least expensive option for a rental car. Stephanos and his family were easy to work with and the car was just a block away from their office.
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