Crete: What the Travel Guides Don’t Tell You

Chania’s harbour front

Crete is a brilliant travel destination with its sunny weather, beautiful beaches, and archaeological treasures.

Like most Greek holiday destinations, it’s a relaxing and laid back experience – less frenetic than Italy and Spain, and more chilled out than most Mediterranean countries.

But like any holiday hotspot, there are petty irritations and happy surprises, especially if you’re a first time traveller to Crete.

As a Greek travel virgin, I thoroughly enjoyed my first Cretan holiday, but knowledge is everything, as they say.
Here are 10 important things “to know before you go”…

1. “Hot as Hades”

My travel companion Jenny loves the sun, sea and Greek heat, but even she had to admit that the weather can be as “hot as Hades”. It’s worth booking your Cretan holiday early or late in the season when it’s slightly cooler, especially if you’re pale-skinned like me.

Late May is perfect for pleasantly warm weather and sightseeing, with temperatures consistently between 24-32C. During the summer the thermometer can shoot up to well over 30C, especially with global warming kicking in.

Once on the island, my top tip is to plan trips to outdoor sites like Knossos and Phaistos in the early morning or late afternoon. Both are open 8:00-20:00 during the holiday season. Get there early (or late) to avoid the worst of the crowds and tour parties.

Another way of avoiding the excessive heat is to visit one of Crete’s excellent museums. The impressive, new Archaeological Museums in Heraklion and Chania both have refreshing air conditioned galleries and shaded gardens.

Alternatively, take an extended siesta or relax in the shade at one of the many charming cafes on the island.

Get ahead… get a hat. There are dozens of hat shops everywhere in Crete, particularly in touristy areas – make sure you buy something stylish and practical, if you’re wandering around in the fierce heat.

I brought two of my own hats including a chic straw one which I wore on the plane (an annoying habit of mine) and another wide brimmed, Indiana Jones affair with a chin strap which squashes down into my suitcase.

Don’t forget the high SPF sun block. I went for maximum protection 50 UVA because I have super sensitive skin.

2. We Need to Talk about Toilets!

OK, there’s no easy way of saying this… Greek toilets are crap! This is largely down to antiquated and poor plumbing.

It’s ironic that a Minoan king of Crete invented the first flushing toilet more than 2,800 years ago, a major leap forward for ancient sanitation. Historians have also discovered a flushing toilet at King Minos’ palace at Knossos.

Unfortunately, the Minoans failed to anticipate the advent of toilet paper which came along much later. There are signs everywhere in Crete telling you not to throw paper down the toilet because it clogs up the system.

I heard about this problem about 25 years ago, but thought it was an urban myth. I hadn’t realised it’s still a fact of life for toilet users today, even at modern airports.

Instead, every toilet has a ‘poo bin’ where you’re supposed to deposit your toilet paper after you’ve done your business. Just don’t look inside when you lift the lid on the bin – and hold your breath and count to five.

Early in our holiday, my travel buddy Jenny explained that it would be a good idea to avoid using the toilet in our apartment for “number 2s”. Far better to use the nearby museum loos for major poos. Sorry but this is true!

All a bit gross but it’s the Grecian tradition… apparently.

3. Food, Glorious Cretan Food

Greece has a reputation for its hearty and tasty cooking but isn’t usually seen as sophisticated as French cuisine. Don’t expect “Masterchef” style dinners unless you’re somewhere ‘top end’.

On the plus side, there is plenty of authentic food, often given an interesting twist using Cretan honey and herbs such as sage, fennel, cumin, rosemary and thyme.

In terms of dishes, I’d recommend the seafood with my favourite dishes including squid and octopus as well as Crete’s version of a fritto misto.

Local delicacies include Cretan snails, Loukanika (a type of spicy Cretan sausage), pan-fried red mullet and Lavraki (baked sea bass).

Lamb also features heavily including a delicious variant on kleftiko baked in salt in an oven (pictured above right). This was my favourite dish of the entire holiday, served simply with a baked potato dribbled with oil and rosemary (above right).

The Cretan moussaka is also very good, much better than the standard replica served in the UK, although their version comes with herbs and drizzle (pictured below right).

I was hugely impressed by the Cretan cheeses which are less well known than their famous Greek counterparts. Particularly impressive are Staka, Myzithra, Malaka (soft cheese) and Tyrozouli (a hard cheese).

Restaurants are reasonably priced compared with France and Italy. If you’re on a tight budget, look for tavernas just off the back streets. They’re often located behind the main trawl in Heraklion or Chania, or in residential areas. Follow the locals to their favourite haunts for the best value, good quality food.

For a cheap lunch, order small plates like Tzatziki (a dip made from yogurt, cucumbers and garlic), a bowl of fresh bread, and sharing portions of Saganaki (made from graviera cheese), fried mixed seafood, and olives.

4. ‘On the House’

Everyone loves complimentary treats and Crete is a great place for this, thanks to the generosity of tavernas and restaurants. Many will bring you free “kerasma” at the end of dinner – a delicious dessert.

It’s also common to be given a free cake with a breakfast coffee. But my favourite freebie is a lollipop ice cream covered in rich white chocolate which I enjoyed after dinner at Il Padrino on Charnia’s harbour (pictured above left).

In most tavernas, you’ll also be treated to a free, small bottle of raki. This fiery spirit contains between 30 and 40% alcohol and tastes a bit like firewater. It’s definitely an acquired taste!

Raki is the national drink of Crete – it’s obtained from the pressed residue of grapes during wine making. It’s then distilled to produce a crystal clear liquid which packs a real punch.

Rakomelo is a pink/rose version of spirit which is infused with thyme honey, grape syrup and herbs. I found this slightly more palatable than the average raki. It’s claimed that just one sip is enough to fill you with euphoria!

5. Enjoy Cretan Wines

Being a wine guru, I’m always keen to try something new so I was desperate to get my hands on Cretan wines.

I’m a fan of Greek wines so was intrigued to see what Crete could offer, and I wasn’t disappointed. Many of Crete’s vineyards use unusual local grape varieties, whilst others rely on conventional Cabernet or Merlot blends.

A safe bet is anything moderately priced from the Boutaris Winery, the largest vineyard in Crete not far from Heraklion. They also run wine tasting sessions and tours which can be booked ahead of your visit.

If you’re staying in an apartment, drop into the SYN.KA. Super Market (a popular chain) which has a brilliant selection of Cretan wines from cheap plonk to high quality wines.

Why not book a wine tasting? I’d heard good things about the Manousakis Winery located in the hills south of Chania. Sadly, it’s a tortuous bus trip (infrequent buses) or a £35 taxi each way from Chania so we never made the journey. But it’s easy to reach if you’re using a hire car or have time to book an organised tour with a local operator.

6. Finding Your Way Around

Finding your way around a small island like Crete should be straightforward but we found ourselves completly lost on numerous occasions. It didn’t help that our tourist map was out of date and a bit sketchy… or that Heraklion town centre was being dug up and pedestrianised.

I’d strongly suggest getting a decent map(s) before you leave for Crete. I recommend downloading street plans on your phone before arriving on the island. All of Crete’s tourist information offices are currently shut and there are very few tourist leaflets and maps (as of May/June 2022).

Following Brexit , there are now higher charges for UK citizens using mobile phones or devices. You could find yourself on the receiving end of a hefty bill if you’ve running ‘Data Roaming’ when out and about. Switch it off – is my advice.

Free wifi in a local cafe

A good option is to use free wifi which is available in most hotels, bars and restaurants. But we came unstuck when wandering around places where we couldn’t pick up free WIFI. This meant that we couldn’t access Google Maps without getting clobbered for extra mobile charges.

Free street maps are hard to find. On the last day of the holiday, I found a glossy, free street map in a tour guide office, much to my joy… bus sadly, it was a little late. The maze of streets in Heraklion and Chania means that a decent map is like gold dust.

Many streets and signs are in Greek script so a basic knowledge of Greek letters can be helpful. Public street plans are few and far between, and are sometimes indecipherable because they’re in Greek or covered in graffiti.

7. Buses – Lost in Translation

Typical Cretan bus stop

Taking the bus in Crete can be a cheap way of getting around the island, but information about the services is thin on the ground. Bus stops don’t have timetables and most don’t even indicate the bus numbers.

It’s possible to check Crete bus times online but many of the travel company websites are confusing and hard to use, even though they can be translated into English.

For intercity bus timetables, it’s perhaps best to pop into the main bus stations in Heraklion or Chania to check times ahead of travelling. But even these often just have photocopies of the times rather than proper timetable information boards.

The regional bus between Heraklion and Chania leaves hourly at 8:30, 9:30, 10:30 and so on… and takes 2 hours 40 minutes. There is no toilet on board but you can request a ‘loo stop’ midway at Rethymno Bus Station.

8. Making a Song and Dance

Traditional Bouzouki music

Greece is best known for its traditional music and Crete is no exception with plenty of bouzouki and folk instruments. The bouzouki is a fretted instrument with a long neck resembling a lute. The cheerful sound it makes reminds me of the soundtrack to the film, “Zorba the Greek”.

I was lucky enough to catch an impromptu performance of this instrument by two performers on the harbour at Chania although many local bars also feature this style of music.

I was less successful trying to find anyone playing the Cretan bagpipes or the lyra, a weird cross between a mandolin and an ukulele.

I also had no joy seeing any folk dancing although perhaps I should have looked in the villages of east Crete which are renowned for the local pidiktos dance involving great athletic leaps.

9. Keeping Cool

Don’t forget to keep well hydrated in Crete, and I don’t mean drinking too much beer or wine. It may sound obvious but it’s very important to drink more water than usual so your body doesn’t get overheated.

Cretan water is some of the finest in Greece because it comes from natural springs and fountains. Most restaurants and cafes will bring tap water, often bottled in glass containers. This is brought to your table free of charge.

Discover what the guide books don't tell you about your holiday to Crete. From ancient toilets to complimentary food and drink.
Cool for cats

During the hottest times of the day, why not take a siesta or enjoy a dip in the sea or swimming pool to cool off?

Alternatively, a ‘shaded’ horse and carriage ride might work for you, if you’re staying in Chania. Rides start near the old mosque at the harbour front.

10. Pandemic Rules

Crete is open for tourists since the pandemic regulations were relaxed but it has still kept a number of measures in place. This is the case in May/June 2022 at the time of writing.

For UK travellers there is no requirement to have a lateral flow test before entry to Greece but you may be required to show evidence of your Covid passport or vaccinations. In reality, nobody asked me for these during the holiday.

It is still mandatory to wear a face mask in public buildings, museums, galleries, churches, shops and on buses.
Some tourist attractions will deny you entry without a mask so make sure that you keep one with you.

As pandemic measures start to be relaxed or scrapped, remember to review the latest situation on the Government and travel websites.

And Finally…

Don’t miss Crete’s astonishing archaeological treasures and historic buildings… from ancient palaces and ruins to Venetian forts and harbours.

There is a whole world of history waiting to be discovered beyond the island’s beaches and resorts. The island also has a wealth of World War Two history relating to the Battle for Crete, especially around Souda Bay and Chania.

Another surprising find is Chania’s Jewish Quarter whose population was decimated in the Second World War. Today you can still wander around its narrow alleys and drop into the restored synagogue.

For sea lovers, there are plenty of boat trips from glass-bottomed vessels and steamers to yachts and cruisers which can be chartered.

The clarity of the water means you can spot creatures such as sea urchins and silvery fish . You can even see these creatures in the old harbour at Chania if you look down into its clear, azure blue waters.

For those who love wildlife, take to the hills and the Samaria Gorge to discover mountain walks and wildlife. I still haven’t managed to see a Cretan wild cat or Eleonora’s Falcon – both are incredibly rare.

Sadly, I didn’t make it to the mountains on my short trip but I will be back to enjoy the Cretan countryside on my next journey… and perhaps I’ll even discover some Cretan dancing.

Enjoy your adventures in Crete!

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