Greece holiday Destination Guide
“Megalónisos”, the “Great Island”, is the Greek moniker for Crete and indeed it is almost a country unto itself. Noted as the cradle of Minoan civilisation during the second millennium BC, Crete has since then – in the words of the British writer Saki – “produced more history than it can consume locally”.
Today it also produces a surplus of edible goods owing to the longest growing season in Greece. And one of the longest beach-lounging seasons as well; north-coast beaches tend to be long and sandy if a bit exposed, while others are apt to be shorter but more secluded.
For those of a non-beachy disposition, there’s plenty of interest inland: exquisitely frescoed country chapels of the 14th and 15th centuries, ruined Minoan palaces and towns, plus top-drawer hiking and botanising opportunities.
“Megalónisos”, the “Great Island”, is the Greek moniker for Crete and indeed it is almost a country unto itself.
When to go
The season in southerly Crete stretches to late October, and everywhere September is still high season. For discounted room rates, better taverna service and moderate weather, mid-May to late June, and the latter half of September, are the best times. During July and August everything is fully functioning, and the sea thoroughly warmed up, but you’ll contend with crowds and either intense heat or the meltémi, the infamous northerly wind which buffets beaches all afternoon. The best winter options for city-breaks are Hania, Réthymno and yes, even gritty Iráklio.
Crete had an exceptionally wet 2014-15 winter at lower elevations – close to (or over) a metre of rain around Haniá, at Plakiás on Réthymno's south coast, and even in the usually arid far east. Equally prodigiously, over a metre of snow fell on the White Mountains; the countryside looks its perkiest in late spring and early summer, with streaks of snow still visible on the highest peaks into early June.
Where to go
Iráklio (Heraklion) Archaeological Museum is the world's greatest showcase of Minoan artefacts, even more so in the wake of an eight-year refit. Stop in before visiting nearby Knossos, despite
much speculative restoration the most impressive of several Minoan palace complexes. Fast-forwarding in time, the medieval old towns of Réthymno and Haniá are redolent of the Venetian and Ottoman tenures on Crete. For hikers, the Samarian Gorge is the most spectacular of about a dozen canyons slashing through rugged mountains to arrive at the sea.
Know before you go
UK Embassy, Ploutárhou 1, 106 75 Athens; 210 7272 600; gov.uk/government/world/organisations/british-embassy-athens
The Greek National Tourist Office (visitgreece.gr) has UK offices at 5th Floor East, Great Portland House, 4 Great Portland Street, London W1W 8QJ (020 7495 9300)
Urban fire brigade 199
Forest fires 191
Telephone code: 0030
Time difference: + 2
Flight times: from 4 hours (London to Heraklion) to 4.5 hours (Leeds Bradford to Haniá)
During July and August everything is fully functioning, and the sea thoroughly warmed up, but you’ll contend with crowds.
Local etiquette and tips
Mikró ýpno (siesta, 3–5pm) is legally mandated quiet time.
Dress code is casual, but shorts on men except near the beach is infra dig.
Local driving habits leave much to be desired – beware especially of people emerging from side-roads without stopping, trundling down the middle of the road and reckless overtaking. The coastal 'motorway' (more like a UK A-road) is not for the faint-hearted, and east of Iráklio is still largely under construction.
Traffic fines are draconian - eg, €350 for not wearing a seat belt, €700 for jumping a red light - though reduced by half if you pay within 10 days (something almost guaranteed as traffic police are likely to hold foreign driving licenses to ransom at the nearest station).
Eating out, get an assortment of mezédes (appetizers) to share, rather than expensive mains for each diner. Bulk (hýma) wine (by the quarter-, half- or full kilo) is cheaper than bottled and usually drinkable. If in doubt, start with just a quarter litre (a katroútso in slang) and order a soda, which makes even the harshest wine quaffable - though interestingly, this will get you tiddly faster.
Bar bills can bite: whilst cover charges are rare, invariably small beers cost €4.50–6, cocktails €7–9. The only budget tipple may be Cretan rakí or mainland tsípouro in a small (187-200ml) carafe - which can be very cheap indeed, less than bottled water and frequently offered on the house as a digestif. When on Crete, especially in or near Réthymno province where the brewery is, be sure to sample the excellent, affordable Brinks organic beer (4.8%), in both blonde and (even better) dark varieties.
North-coast beaches tend to be long and sandy if a bit exposed, while others are apt to be shorter but more secluded.