Imagine a mellow onslaught. On Greece’s biggest island, Crete, you can schlub on a picture-postcard beach all day or unleash unholy FOMO on your hiking and history-fan followers. Why?
If you were to add Ontario’s UNESCO-recognized Niagara Region to the GTA, it would equal about the same square mileage — except Crete has four mountainous UNESCO regions and seven UNESCO World Heritage sites. All with a tenth the populace, many of whom are organic farmers.
Visit in the shoulder seasons of tourism. You’ll recall in the summer of 2023 how much of Earth, most especially Greece, was aflame or underwater. Between this crises, stressed tourists melted in lineups getting to and sight-seeing Greek islands.
I’ve been to Crete twice: once in October 2017 for a short press trip, test-driving Porsche Cayennes on the narrow bendy mountain roads. Wowed, I vowed to return soon with my wife. We’d planned a visit for our anniversary in May 2020 but, like you, ended up celebrating in our den, watching Tiger King and washing the mail.
We did get there this May of 2023, though! The experience was even lovelier than I’d hoped.
Arrive by Plane, Not Boat — Then, Rent a Car
You’ll want a rented car on Crete. Period. Cheek-by-jowl compact and often built on hills atop natural harbours, its cities can get kinda sticky after a few hours, even in May. Opt, instead, for any of thousands of idyllic country holiday rentals, accessible only by car.
Why fly? It takes just an hour versus the ten-hour ferries from Athens and costs barely twice the price. We paid under €100 each way for flights while ferries range from €36 to 43 just for a ticket. Floating a rented car on the ferry is chokingly expensive — and driving one in Athens is a death wish. Athens’s public transit is excellent. The airport is a cheap and easy subway ride from the middle of town.
Moreover, the Heraklion (Hercules City!) airport is surrounded by acres of car rental lots. This island is used to mass tourism but thinly populated enough to hide us — during the shoulder seasons. Not large, the airport’s infrastructure is comfortable accommodating package holidaymakers from the UK, Germany and the like. You’ll hear everyone communicating in English, the 21-century lingua franca, but with few Canadian or American accents. Book your rental well ahead and drive with care.
Heraklion Is Just 15km (and a Couple Thousand Years) From Knossos
Your car’s a time machine. See your high school history textbook for the ancient Minoan Palace at Knossos’s significance; this is as important to your nerdly bucket list as the Colosseum, the Great Wall or Route 66.
Buy timed tickets online or be prepared to wait. Even before the true arrival of tourist season, Europe’s first examples of civilization, the Minoan Palaces of Knossos and Phaistos, are overrun with selfie-sticks and tour buses full of waddling last-minute clubbers. But, barely an hour’s drive between them, these two sites are so utterly worth visiting.
Human settlement at Knossos dates back 7,000 years. Mind, the height of Minoan civilization was around 1600 to 1400 BC. Consider those numbers: you’d have to live all Canadian history ten times over just to arrive at the BC calendar. Then, another nine to see Minoa’s demise. Minoans had indoor plumbing and paved roads to other cities. Canada had neither in 1867.
Knossos is the more impressive of the two palaces, though both require some imagination. Its remaining mosaics, pillars, pottery, grand staircases and layers of storeys, the deepest not accessible to the public, are enough to fill in the gaps. There was refreshingly little discussion of nor any cartoon signs depicting minotaurs.
You could easily spend a day here without seeing everything twice. But an hour into our visit, we experienced one of the few days of spring that gets rain. So, while we almost had the whole place to ourselves, we also learned how slippery decades of trudging tourist traffic makes marble and other chiseled stone floors. After another hour, we made like a wet bull-man and stampeded back to the car.
Feel the African Winds Blow In on Matala
In Crete, you’re about as far south as Europe goes. Picture a whale for its dimensions: it’s so wide, you’d have trouble driving east to west in a day. But cruise for 80 minutes from Heraklion in the north almost straightish south to Matala and you’re plunk in the middle of the Joni Mitchell anthem, Carey.
Mitchell escaped her supercharged fame bubble of the late ‘60s and briefly settled here. You can see why. It’s stupidly beautiful. The winds do blow in from Africa, gently, and the blue-green sea’s waves rhythmically lap the shore, lulling you to sleep after you’ve enjoyed a boozy barbecued lunch of calamari caught hours earlier. Restaurants crowd the cove on the edge of the village, populated by Earth-crafty hippy shops. But Crete’s in the middle of the Mediterranean, which literally means middle of the world.
All sorts of peoples have been sailing and setting up shop here for thousands of years. On Matala’s beach, you’re in the shadow of a pockmarked cliff. These manmade caves are ancient tombs dug out thousands of years ago, repurposed as burial plots by those relative newcomers, the Romans. The hippies camped in these caves in the ‘60s, enjoying free love, free rent and doing far-out irreparable archeological harm.
It’s hard to take it all in on a full stomach. Especially because every visit to a restaurant or home across Crete will entail measures of raki, a distilled grape concoction you’ll grow to love. Following the heavy rain, the late afternoon was hot, dry and, for us frost-bitten hosers, just perfect.
Driving Through Crete Is Never Boring
We spent our second night in nearby Kalamaki, another small seaside town, because our ten-day rental came available the following day, just 50km from Matala and another 40km from our destination of Triopetra. Those distances bely the effort.
My first experience of driving here happened in luxurious German SUVs, on roads plotted by PR professionals. But even that wasn’t without incident. They’d arranged an insanely steep offroad climb to demonstrate the vehicle’s Sherpa-like handling but hadn’t anticipated us losing satellite signals in the sheer canyons, or even in the highest valleys between steep walls.
When that happens and you can’t read the signs, slow down. Especially if you find yourself following a ‘road’ that’s becoming a goat track then nothing before a sudden drop of hundreds of metres. Nervous drivers may not leave Crete with the warmest memories.
Another warning: if you haven’t yet, learn to drive stick. There should be at least another twenty years before the electric revolution clears all gas-powered cars from the road. (Gearless electric vehicles have no need for a shifter.) In the meantime, most Europeans, especially in the south, still drive with standard transmissions.
Oh, and pack light. You won’t need many changes of clothes in Crete. Even the most ardent detractors of beaches like me — I kinda hate beaches — are gobsmacked by the beauty of southern Crete.
Find Heaven In Triopetra
For ten days our lives slowed to a crawl. In early May, of the twin homes for rent on our gated plateau, only ours was occupied. Yay! You’d swear the view was painted by Cecil B DeMille’s most flamboyant born-again set decorator. We overlooked a valley plunging from the Earth Mother Mountain to sea, with vistas punctuated by the odd sheep farm and taverna. George our host was a retired navy man who welcomed us with hugs, cookies and raki.
Sparsely populated, mostly by farms, Triopetra has no town centre, just a blunt peninsula of three beautiful hunks of stone (hence the name) formed over millennia by Poseidon. They divide the two beaches. We visited both but favoured the eastern one. Imagine. You’re cossetted between two tall rocky outcrops, sheltered from wind and nestled in front of two small and charming family-owned tavernas. Each run a couple of levels of outdoor patios, shaded by a canopy in front and old trees closer to the beach. The scene is perfect calm. The meal finishes the trick. See you after this nap.
Relax (and Still See Loads)
We used Tiopetra and this featured beach as home base for ten soporific days. One time we drove to Rethymno — “RAY-teem-NOH” — a medieval Venetian colony (see above re thousands of years of conquerors). While definitely worth a visit and walkabout, it gets a bit claustrophobic, especially for us after days of Triopetric peace. Don’t linger in Rethymno unless you’re a lazy history buff.
Agios/agia is Greek for saint. You’ll see the word in many town names. On another day we drove the harrowing coastal road to Agia Galini. This town’s a steep drop down testicle-retracting cliffside drive, centered on a scenic if tightly packed harbour.
Enjoy the walk along the shore, past the dozens of touristy restaurants fronting the beach. Then walk its newly installed bike bath further along that suddenly stops beneath a cliff where a few nude Germans frolic in the surf.
Maybe they finished building the path this summer. Maybe they ran out of money and simply stopped for good. Such sights aren’t uncommon. The last time we were both in Greece was another island near Turkey in 2016 during the height of their economic crisis. How dire was it? For two weeks during the peak of summer, Greek people couldn’t withdraw more than €200 from their banks. Other tourists stayed away. Things had simply stopped. Yet, our mellow island life on Samos was almost unaffected but for the odd screaming headline and oddly deserted seafront restaurant patios.
Up for a Hike? See Samaria Gorge
Pictutre a UNESCO World Heritage Site with indescribably beautiful cliffs you’d expect of a movie about The Battle of Thermopylae. We didn’t go there. Despite being just 120km from Triopetra, accessing Samaria by car would’ve required harrowing three-hour drives there and back, plus a long day’s actual hiking. Why do that when we can park our vacationing carcasses on God’s prettiest beach and drink free raki?
Besides we were just an hour’s still-harrowing drive from Kourtalioti Gorge. Just 30km as the crow flies, the route zigzags up and down blind switchbacks on narrow mountain roads that cause blisters from all the warning horn honks a careful driver emits. And remember the disappearing satellite signals we mentioned? How did people get around here for the 7,000 years before the smartphone tipping point of 2010?
Anyway, Kourtalioti Gorge’s hike makes a beautiful descent on carefully chiseled steps between walls of rock hundreds of feet high. Falcons and vultures float lazily on upward air currents. For May 14, it sure was hot and crowded. You’d die in July. But the bottom offered a refreshing jump in a natural pool beneath the gentlest waterfall you’d cast for the filming of Blue Lagoon Two.
Despite All This, the Best Part of Crete Is the People
You’ve read about George our host. Like a lot of the people we met here, he’d moved to Crete from another part of Greece, loved it and loves sharing it with others. In every place we visited, we were greeted openly by the countless Georges. The owners of a favourite local hilltop restaurant are pleased to walk you around their sustainable organic farm where they make everything by hand. The beachfront café you read about serves the same local stew that their grandmother was raised on, two miles inland.
People here are friendly and welcoming without smarming up to become “your waiter for the evening.” They’re just chill and seem to revel in seeing how blown away we visitors are with the 360-degree experiences. It’s your mellow onslaught.
Epilogue: Day 12, we drive back to Heraklion on Wednesday, May 17, the unofficial third day of Euro-tourist season. And, wow, have things picked up! The airport’s at least five times as busy as when we arrived. I’m happy to board our commuter flight to Athens. We’ll be back, just not at the height of visiting time.