Road Trip Adventures 8
This is the eighth post in our series of Adventure Ideas for European family road trips, brought to you in conjunction with Avis Car Hire. This time we voyage to Crete. Why Crete? Well, there are few places in the world that so effortlessly blend coast with culture and history with hedonism like the largest of the Greek Islands. Why don’t you come with us on a quick guided tour of an island that sparkles in the Mediterranean sun…
Explore Cultural Crete
If you are looking for a holiday destination that blends good food with quality time in the sand, sea and sun, while throwing in an mix of historical and cultural treasures, then Crete might fit the bill. Part of the charm of this Greek island is its substantial cultural heritage; from the Greek Gods to the earliest civilisations, Crete has been the physical and spiritual home to many different populations. It’s also been invaded by a few others; the Turks and the Romans being the most notable.
Where is it and how do you explore Crete?
Crete lies just short of 100 miles south of the Greek mainland. And while the island is small enough to get to know in a week, renting a car is probably the best way to do that. It has more than 600 miles of glorious coastline alone to exercise your wheels, your legs and your camera lens. Talking of stretching your legs, Crete is mountainous. But these are not any old mountains. The caves are said to be where Zeus was born. (The big cheese of the Greek Gods if you didn’t study them at school.)
Ten reasons to visit Crete
Crete is an island simply made for exploring; from tiny inlet to expansive gorge. Interested? Here’s ten places to visit that might whet your appetite further..
1 Heraklion and Knossus
Heraklion (also called Iraklion) is one of the largest Greek cities. It goes back to the 9th century and is a lively port, with plenty of fish taverns to keep you well fed. It’s a good place to pick up a car and start your journey. The huge fortification wall of the Old City and the Turkish and Venetian fountains are some of the local treasures, along with the Archaeological Museum; one of the most important in Greece. But the main reason for staying in the capital is to visit the ancient city of Knossus. These excavated Bronze Age ruins that were once the centre of Minoan civilisation lie just five kilometres down the road. But be wary of city centre drivers; they can be a pretty determined bunch. The ruined palace is the centre of classic myths including the legend of the Labyrinth. Read up on a few before making the journey.
2 Lassithi Plateau
On the road from Neapoli, beyond the party town of Mali (which can satisfy a craving for junk food and bars) is the Lassithi Plateau. It is picturesque, flat and dotted with pretty villages that give you a sense of traditional rural life. And there are some great tavernas to while away a few hours in.
3 Dicteon Cave
How often do you get to visit the cave of a god? Dicteon is the cave where Zeus is said to be born (or was hidden from his father depending on which account you read) and it can’t help but raise a few hairs on the back of your head; it is deep and beautiful and full of geological treats. Bring a torch and prepare for a steep hike up if you want to see around this space loaded with mythology. Or check out the donkey option.
4 Aghios Nikolaos
Aghios Nikolaos, a town to the east of Heraklion, is best known to families for its lake, surrounded by red rock and trees. In Greek mythology it is said that Athena and Armetis bathed in its waters. The lagoon features a small park with a trail, boats, all the cafes you can drink in and all the birdlife your kids can chase after. It even has a little open air theatre. And if you fancy more culture than that, you can visit the outdoor summer cinema, also based in the town.
You might like to hang out in one of the posh hotels and admire the up-market breed of tourists in Elounda (or Elouda) in northeastern Crete. Or you can stare out to sea and try to spot the mermaid patron of the town who is believed to live in the peaceful lagoon waters. You might also spot a sunken city; when the water is calm you can sometimes pick out the city walls and in the summer you can sign up to scuba dive them. One of the main reasons to come to Elounda is to do an excursion to Spinalonga. If you’re a fan of Victoria Hislop’s The Island (If you haven’t read it yet, it’s a great holiday read) you’ll already be familiar with the island that housed a leper colony. The fort that adorns the island is well preserved yet eerie and wandering it and picturing the past makes you realise how much we take modern medicine for granted.
Itanos is home to the palm beach of Vai. If you are going to do one beach then this one should be on your shortlist. It has golden sands and the largest natural palm forest in Europe forms its backdrop. Once the advert for Bounty, it became backpacker territory for a while but has now been cleaned up and designated a conservation area. Despite this, in peak season you’ll find it littered with sunbathing tourists.
Set in a landscape of Olive trees, the ancient Kandanos is a small settlement with a big history and an even bigger attitude. Former residents played a healthy (or perhaps unhealthy for some) part in the revolts against the Ottomans. They then resisted the German occupation of World War II. This didn’t have a happy ending; it resulted in a wipe-out of the village, but it makes for an interesting past. You can visit commemorative stones and if you go in May you can take part in some of the activities held in memory of the “Battle of Crete.”
8 Samaria Gorge and National Park
The Western third of the island has the best walks. The most rewarding is the Samaria Gorge, near the seaside resort of Agia Roumeli. There’s a 16 km trail, but if you don’t have the whole day to spend, or you have people with little legs, you can do a potted walk along the rocky path to the trail head and gorge.
Chania is Crete’s second city and a former Minoan settlement. The highlight, without a doubt, is the old Venetian harbour. Wander the waterfront at the magic hour or or walk to the lighthouse. Both the modern and old cities have a real charm and a lively nightlife and there are some good museums including the naval museum and the archaeological museum.
At Rethymno you should rest the car for a while and go walking. This city feels more like a town, and if you don’t like a busy beach strip it has a 15th century fortress and Old Town full of little lanes and backstreets with architecture ranging from Venetian to Ottoman. It also has turtles for some of the year. (If you’re lucky you can catch them between June and August.) Irresistible huh?
Have you been to Crete? Got an idea or suggestion for a place to eat or visit, something interesting to see or do? Why not share it with us as a comment.
Disclosure Note: This post was brought to you thanks to the support of Avis Car Hire. All the research, ideas and opinions remain, as ever, entirely our own.