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One Week in Crete, Greece

Greece is one of my favorite countries in the world. Actually, currently, it might just be my favorite. I’ve been there three times already and every single time I fall in love with the food, culture, history, sights, people, and landscapes all over again.

I had been to Athens, the Peloponnese coast, Santorini, Tinos, Naxos and Mykonos in the past but this year I made it to Crete.

It was a family trip to celebrate my parents’ 30th wedding anniversary. What better place to celebrate than on a Greek island?! They had to get there first, all the way from Boston, with a stop in Paris.

Unfortunately Crete can be quite a pain to get to from the US, which is exactly why a high quality travel pillow is a must, to make the long journey more comfortable. A travel pillow makes sleeping on an airplane so much more comfortable and this one made with Tempur, a temperature sensitive, visco elastic material, forms to the shape of your body.

We had one week together in Crete, so naturally I insisted we rent a car to drive around and see as much of the island as possible. Our itinerary as well as highlights are as follows:

Day 1: Lyrarakis Winery, Archanes, Heraklion

As always we were off to a late start, heading out from our airbnb apartment rental in Heraklion around 2pm. We are not an early rising crowd. To escape the heatwave in the city (the day we arrived in Heraklion temps were close to 40 degrees C) I decided it would be a good idea to drive up into the mountain villages for some wine tasting. We barely made it there on time since our rental car had almost no pull and at times I was concerned we wouldn’t even make it up the small hills.

The wines were lovely and we got to sample some traditional Cretan dishes at the winery as well, and of course purchased a couple bottles to bring with us. Most memorable was the wine with hints of bay leaf (which you actually could taste)!

From there we made a quick stop in the small village of Archanes were we got to witness an interesting sight; large crowds of elderly Greek men sitting outside coffee shops. No women in sight. Just large groups of old Greek men. They sat and stared at us, and we stared back. I had read in the guide book that traditionally this is the men’s hangout spot, local women are not exactly welcome and this is how the men will spend their afternoons, sipping coffee and chatting. My parents were bold enough to snap a few pics of these men, but I was slightly intimidated.

For dinner we made our way back to Heraklion to Kastella, where we were treated to fresh seafood and complimentary raki to finish off our meal. It was here we first tried raki together and we quickly got used to the Cretan hospitality and kindness of always serving this alcoholic beverage free of charge after every meal. We also got to sample the Cretan delicacy of snails – not something we would order again. We then strolled around the city at night, when the temperature had dropped somewhat but not significantly. Heraklion is a hot city.

Day 2: Agia Pelagia, Rethymno, Chania

The following morning, after heading back to the airport to switch to a more powerful car, we were off for our first dip in the ocean at Agia Pelagia. This place was crowded – not a single beach chair or umbrella left unused by the time we arrived. The stretch of sand is quite narrow so the beach felt insanely crowded but after a bit of fussing about the heat once we had a dip in the water and all our worries faded away. A few glasses of wine didn’t hurt either.

Then it was a short drive to the small town of Rethymno for lunch. For a town of only 40,000 people there are plenty of super picturesque little lanes as well as a cute strip of restaurants by the water.

I had done my research beforehand and picked Zefyros as our lunch spot. It did not disappoint with enormous delightful grilled prawns served in a cabbage basket, as well as grilled sardines, octopus, and calamari. My parents also happened to love the miniature pitcher used to serve our raki and insisted on purchasing it from the restaurant.

shrimp

That night we stayed in an apartment right by the local beach just outside of Chania’s historic center and were so stuffed from our late lunch that we didn’t even need to venture out for dinner.

 

Day 3: Chania

Our day was off to lazy start with a dip in the ocean followed by yet another seafood fueled meal at the amazing Akrogiali restaurant. To our surprise we met the owner, a woman of Greek heritage who was born and lived in Russia until she was 20, who proceeded to entertain us (in Russian) with all sorts of tales of running a restaurant in Greece as well as sharing the various idiosyncrasies of the Greeks. I love traveling and being able to meet the owners of establishments and chat with them so this was a super rewarding and interesting interaction that we all enjoyed. It didn’t hurt that the food was delicious too. Post food coma, we waddled back to our apartment, planning on heading into the old city later in the evening when things got a bit more lively. As we had witnessed in Spain and Italy, cities virtually shut down in the summer afternoons – this is known as nap time. It’s too hot to be out and about so this is the time to rest.

We walked over to the historic center of Chania around sunset and were simply amazed by the old historic lanes and the gorgeous Venetian harbor. In order to avoid any tourist trap eating experiences we made our way back to Akrogiali for dinner, arriving past 10pm and being the last customers to leave around 1am. This time we were really treated to Greek hospitality with 1 liter of free wine, 2 .5 liter free beers as well as a free molten lava cake for dessert. Needless to say we had a grand old time.

Day 4: Terra Creta Olive Mill, Cabana Mare, Plakias

We started the day with a tour and tasting at the Terra Creta Olive Mill. Crete is a huge producer of olive oil and has the highest olive oil consumption per person in the world at 30 liters per person (compared to less than 1 liter per person in the US). We learned all sorts of fun facts, such as that extra virgin olive oil must have an acidity of 0.8% or below, versus virgin olive oil has an acidity of 0.9-2. We couldn’t leave without sampling all the olives and olive oil, and of course walked out with a bag of three of the most expensive bottles of olive oil that this mill creates. Most interesting of all is the transparency of this company – each bottle of olive oil has a 5 digit numerical code that you can look up online to learn everything about the olives used in that bottle, including what farm and region the olives come from as well as more information about the harvest. So cool!

From there we made our way to Cabana Mare – a beachside spot, with waves too intimidating for everyone but my dad. After a few iced coffees at the cafe we were off, to tackle the mountain road and local taverns.

The place we stopped at for lunch seemed like a super authentic homemade cooking spot where you simply follow the server into the kitchen and pick from dozens of pots and pans what you want for lunch. We picked a lot.

Then we hit the Southern coast of Crete, spending the night at Plakias. Here we were met with seriously strong Cretan winds. Our house rental was located on a small hill with sweeping views of the ocean and nearby mountains and we could literally hear the wind howling at all hours of day and night.

We had a seafood fueled feast at Tasomanolis an old family owned restaurant where the family still catches it’s own fish. The whole snapper, sea bass and local fish were all delicious, as well as the fried small fish, marinated anchovies, etc. We pretty much always ordered the same combination of fish and seafood everywhere we went and it never got old. With a half liter of the local house wine, beers for the boys, and then raki to finish off the meal, it was impossible to leave dissatisfied.

Day 5: Hora Sfakion, Loutro, Sweetwater Beach, Plakias

My initial plan was to take my parents via ferry to Agia Roumeli from Hora Sfakion in order to hike the Samaria Gorge, but with the late start that we normally got, and our slow pace, I scratched this from the itinerary. Instead we would take a shorter ferry to Loutro and just enjoy the day there, drinking and eating. That was of course if we could even make it on the 2pm ferry. And make it with did, literally running to the ferry (after a haphazard parking job up on a hill which carried with it a mini collision with the small old car in front of us). Luckily the car seemed to have some sort of elastic bumper that literally bounced right back and straightened itself out even after our mini crash. My nerves on the other hand do not calm down so quickly. I don’t know what happens to me but when a rental car and tight parking spot are involved my mind goes into panic mode immediately. I pretty much become unbearable in these situations and always border on hysterical. Luckily no harm was done and I had a pretty boat ride to get back to normal mode.

We hopped on to the ferry and were off to the most magical village of all time – Loutro. I mean this place is your quintessential Greek paradise. It feels like you’ve arrived on a tiny island even though you’re just in this small seaside hamlet that has no land access whatsoever. The white and blue standard Greek hues were everywhere. Each mini hotel, restaurant, cafe was on the same page with the look and color scene. I simply loved it, at first sight.

Naturally we immediately plopped down at a picturesque cafe for a round of beers and wine. Then we made our way over to our lunch spot Ilios. Another seafood feast followed.

After a quick stroll around the area with my mom (the boys were in a food coma state and couldn’t muster up the energy to walk with us) we were on a water taxi to Sweetwater beach – a secluded pebble beach only accessible by water. We enjoyed a refreshing cool swim, during which we got to admire a seemingly suicidal goat stuck on a rock on the edge of a cliff. As it turned out the goat had some seriously advanced climbing skills and was able to save itself from a tricky situation. Then it was back to Hora Sfakion and Plakias.

We made our way down to dinner a bit late – around 10:30pm and didn’t have a lot of options to choose from so ended up at a restaurant with a Finnish pie as their item of the day. Just kidding, it was Dave who though the pie was Finnish after the man said so, what he really mean was that the pies were finnishED for the day. Taken aback by Dave’s response of “iiiiiinteresting…” the man finally confessed to still having a small piece of spinach pie left. This made for quite the funny encounter and lesson in foreign spoken English pronunciation.

The strong winds in Plakias could be heard all throughout the night.

Day 6: Preveli Beach, Agia Galini, Stalis

We packed up and made our way to the monastery in Preveli for sweeping views of the entire coastline and then parked for a short hike down (during which my dad moaned and groaned about the trip back up) to Preveli Beach – a beach that a river flows in to as well.

So the sight is quite magical with both the sea water and river water visible. There are even palm trees! You can easily take a dip in both. The water is quite cold though! For lunch we stopped in Agia Galini a small fishing village where we sat at Onar, a tavern with seating on the second floor overlooking the bay. The food was spectacular with some off the menu recommendations from the staff including freshly caught tuna carpaccio, and freshly marinated sardines. Everything was excellent and this was truly a foodie spot. The small town is quaint and has a nice strip of beach just across the corner. Perfect for nap time.

From there we crossed the mountain range back to the Northern coast of Crete and settled for the night in the small seaside town of Stalis, where we rented an amazing house. From the living patio door we could see the ocean directly and the roof top terrace had an epic view of the coast.

Day 7: Stalis, Agia Nikolaos 

Our last day in Crete together we spent lazily – beach, lunch, naps with a quick nighttime trip to Agia Nikolaos, yet another picturesque city with a Venetian style harbor and a small lake.

Overall we had an absolutely amazing time in Crete. It is truly a gorgeous island with super friendly and hospitable locals, delicious seafood and cuisine as well as jaw dropping landscapes and dreamy beaches.

If you’re looking for the perfect vacation spot Crete just might be it. I would love to go back and spend a month there.

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