A Greek island vacation usually means enjoying small island life, hanging out on the beach, taking a walk through a village, and perhaps renting a scooter for a day. But Crete is a bit different from the small islands of the Cyclades. Crete is big! Crete is Greece’s largest island and is almost the size of Hawaii’s Big Island, taking about five hours to drive across east to west and an hour and a half north to south. Its large size also means there are a lot of fun things to do in Crete.
We loved the diverse mix of things to do on the island of Crete. It’s an island, so of course there are beaches, but there are also nature, history, and wine. What we found to be unique from any other island we’ve visited is that we could be driving along a road with sea views on one side and snow-capped mountains on the other.
Palace of Knossos
Visiting the Palace of Knossos is one of the most popular things to do in Crete. Crete’s history goes back even farther than that of the ancient Greeks of Athens. Crete was the home of Europe’s earliest civilization, the Minoans. The Minoan civilization was named by Arthur Evans, the archaeologist who excavated the Palace of Knossos. The Minoans inhabited Crete approximately 2600-1150 B.C. Evans named the Minoans after the king Minos.
The Palace of Knossos is the largest palace in Crete and is located just outside of Crete’s largest city, Heraklion. The area was first settled during the Neolithic period and the first palace was built around 1900 B.C. It was destroyed and a new palace was built in its place around 1700 B.C. The palace isn’t one large building, but rather a grouping of multiple buildings surrounding a central court. The palace continued to be in use after 1450 B.C. when the other palaces of Crete were destroyed.
The Palace of Knossos is a very controversial archaeological site. Excavations began in 1878, but systematic excavations were run by Arthur Evans starting in 1900. The palace needed conservation as the materials unearthed were very susceptible to weathering. At first Evans and his team worked on protecting the ruins, but after 1925 he decided to attempt to interpret the functions of the spaces and restore the palace to what he believed it once was.
Large amounts of concrete were used, entire buildings were reconstructed, wooden beams and Minoan columns were made, reinforced with concrete and painted, wall paintings were restored, and copies of paintings were created and installed. On one hand, intervention was necessary for the protection of the site, but on the other hand the reconstructions are irreversible and are not all supported by archaeological evidence.
Heraklion Archaeological Museum
After visiting the Palace of Knossos, head into the town of Heraklion for a visit to the archaeological museum. The Heraklion Archaeological Museum holds antiquities found during the excavation of the Palace of Knossos along with items from other parts of ancient Crete.
Like some of the decorations of the palace, the wall of dolphins, for instance, some of the antiquities displayed in the Heraklion Archaeological Museum have marine themes. There were many different sizes of vessels made of clay which were decorated in the naturalist marine style, adorned with an octopus whose tentacles wrapped around every curve.
One of the most important pieces in the museum gets its own room. A lekythos, or piece of Greek pottery used for storing olive oil, from the 5th century B.C. depicts Theseus slaying the Minotaur.
Later Minos’ son Androgeos was killed by the Athenians. To pay for this, Minos ordered that Athenian youths be fed to the Minotaur. Theseus, the son of Aegeus, volunteered to kill the Minotaur. He told his father if he was successful, he would raise the white sail of his ship on his return home and, if not, the crew would raise the black sails. Theseus was successful, but forgot to raise the white sail on his return voyage. When King Aegeus saw the black sails, he assumed his son was dead and killed himself by jumping into the sea, which is why the sea is called the Aegean Sea.
Holy Monastery of Arkadi
Greece is a very religious country and churches and monasteries can be seen all over the country, even in some of the most out-of-the-way places. The Holy Monastery of Arkadi is one of the most important monasteries, not only on the island of Crete, but in all of Greece.
During the Ottoman occupation the monastery turned its wine cellar into a storeroom for ammunition. Cretan revolutionaries, including their families, lived in the monastery. On November 9, 1866, the monastery was besieged by Turkish fighters. The resistance fighters fought, but were unable to prevent the takeover. Rather than being taken as prisoners, some of the survivors of the battles locked themselves in the powder magazine where the women and children were hiding, set fire to their own ammunition, and blew themselves up. This act made an impact and became a symbol of the fight for liberation.
Reminders of this battle still survive. The bullet tree, a burnt cross-shaped cypress, has a bullet embedded in its dead bark. The refectory, which now houses the museum, was where 36 men were slaughtered by the Turks. The powder magazine where the Arkadi Tragedy occurred also remains.
The monastery is still a working monastery of the Greek Orthodox Church. The church, dedicated to “The Transfiguration of Our Saviour,” is open to visitors. The monks’ cells are still used by the monks for prayer and meditation.
One of the natural highlights of a trip to Crete Island is hiking the Samaria Gorge. Samaria Gorge is one of the longest gorges in Europe and is located in Crete’s only national park. Hiking Samaria Gorge is a full-day adventure as the hike is 16 kilometers starting high in the mountains and ending in the town of Agia Roumelia along the Libyan Sea. Note that the hike is only accessible May through October.
Our favorite town on the island of Crete was Chania. We made Chania our home base and stayed at the beautiful Porto Veneziano Hotel in a room with a view of the stunning Venetian harbor. There are numerous things to do and see in Chania, including the maritime museum, multiple churches, and an old market. It’s also a beautiful town to just wander through.
Crete Olive Oil and Wine Tasting
The news is full of stories about Greece’s economic crisis. One story which grabbed my attention was a segment on NPR’s Planet Money. Greece produces some of the best olive oil in the world and the country is covered with olive trees, but I’d be willing to bet you thought, like me, that the honor of best olive oil went to Italy. It turns out that 60 percent of Greece’s olive oil is shipped to Italy, where it is packed in Italian bottles with Italian labels and shipped around the world to be sold as an Italian product. Greece isn’t packaging and selling its own oil because no one in Greece makes bottles and, because of the economic crisis, it is difficult to get loans to pay for bottles made in Italy.
You may also not know that Greece produces some very fine wines, some of which are made with grapes that are indigenous to Greece and aren’t commonly found in other parts of the world. Thankfully, the export of Greek wine is on the rise.
Crete has both of these Greek culinary products and visitors to the island of Crete can taste and learn more about their production at Anoskeli. Anoskeli has been making olive oil for 20 years and recently dived into making Greek wine as well.
Travelers on holiday in Crete can add a visit to Anoskeli to their itinerary and take a tour of both the olive oil and wine production sides of the business before visiting the tasting room for tastes of the olive oil and wine.
Olive oil is produced from November to May when 10 tons of olives are crushed and turned into olive oil. Anoskeli makes three categories of olive oil: virgin, extra virgin, and organic. The olive oil spends four months in Anoskeli’s huge stainless steel tanks before being filtered and bottled. Anoskeli’s olive oil has won awards in Italy and the US and is exported to Russia and the US. In the United States Anoskeli’s olive oil is sold under the Blue Olive Oil brand.
Anoskeli produces 20,000 bottles of wine a year made with organic grapes grown in and around the village of Anoskeli. The varietals they grow are Cabernet Sauvignon, Syrah, Grenache Rouge, Assyrtiko, Vidiano, and Vilana. In addition to wine, Anoskeli also makes raki, the most popular alcoholic beverage in Crete.
When you’re on one of the Greek islands, you have to go to the beach. There are a number of Crete beaches to choose from. Some of the highly recommended beaches on the western side of the island are Balos Beach, reachable by a dirt road, Falassarna Beach, and Elafonisi Beach.
As we didn’t have much time for beach going, we visited a beach a little closer to home which had been recommended by our hotel. Marathi Beach is on the same little peninsula as Chania and the Chania airport, about a 25-minute drive from the old town of Chania. Marathi Beach has the impossibly clear blue waters Greece is known for, and we shared the beach with only a few others. Even with our short visit, we were successful in our snorkeling endeavors not far from the shore. While we relaxed on one of the beach’s lounge chairs we snacked on a gyro and gazed at the snow-capped mountains across the bay.
Crete Car Rental
If you’re going to enjoy a driving holiday on the island of Crete you’ll need a rental car. With a little research I found a Crete car rental company, AutoClub Car Rental. AutoClub Car Rental rents cars out of both the Chania and Heraklion airports and will also deliver and collect their cars all over the island, whether that is at an airport, port, hotel, or villa. Prices start as low as 20 euros a day. Included in that price are taxes, unlimited kilometers, full comprehensive insurance with an excess of 300-450 euros, roadside assistance, vehicle replacement, second driver, and more.
One of AutoClub Car Rental’s staff members met us in the airport after we collected our luggage, sat with us in the airport to go over all the paperwork, walked us out to our car, and then went over the map of Crete with us, not only to show us how to get to our hotel, but also to provide insider advice on things to do in Crete and places to eat in Chania. You just need to return the car with the same amount of fuel as it had when you received it, and while we did a walk around on the car, we were told they’re not quite as strict about small dings on rental cars in Greece as they are in the United States. Not that I suggest running into a tree or anything, but it’s nice to not have to worry about someone else giving you a door ding.
Thank you to Anoskeli for providing us with a tour and tasting and Porto Veneziano Hotel and AutoClub Car Rental for hosting our time in Crete and making this post possible. As always, all opinions are my own.