The most beautiful aspects of Crete
Experience the wild west, the tranquil east and the exceptional nature in the middle
Hinterland of Réthimno: nature and history
Travel through the hinterland of Réthimno, enjoying the landscape as you go – an experience that will remain the focal point of the journey, which can be made just as easily by moped or scooter. At the same time, you'll discover important national memorials, traditional crafts, rustic taverns and an ancient town. Length of the tour to and from Réthimno: approx. 100 km, time required by car: at least 7 hours.
It's the best to leave Réthimno by the old coastal road through the hotel district as there are no signposts at the improvised exits from the highway.
A signposted road to the Arkadi Monastery branches off the coastal road in Platanias. The first side trip is possible shortly before Adele. This side trip takes you to the old VenEtián village of Maroulas where the numerous historic houses have been predominantly bought and beautifully restored by foreigners.
After a stroll through the village, you can return to the main road, which continues uphill through several villages before leading through a narrow valley. Almost all of a sudden you finally find yourself standing before the secluded Arkadi Monastery, which is situated on a plateau. For this visit, you should allow nearly an hour.
From the Monastery, the asphalt road continues in the direction of Eleutherna, crossing the plateau at first. Any of numerous points along this stretch offer a photogenic view of Arkadi and its surroundings. The detour continues along the quiet road, through the bleak desolate maquis landscape with its grazing goats and sheep, to the village of Eleutherna where you'll find four rustic cafés serving food. From here, there is a good view of Psiloritis, the highest mountain on the island. Eleutherna has around 250 permanent residents and lies at 400 m above sea level.
On continuing the journey, you arrive at the neighbouring village of Archea Eleutherna, which lies in the region of the important ancient town of Eleutherna. Systematic excavations first began here in 1985; every summer, scientists from the University of Crete carry out further excavations. A drive out from the village square down to the I Akropolis tavern is well recommended – from there, you'll be able to see the ancient sites. A 10-minute walk along the remains of the old town walls brings you to two enormous cisterns, which were hewn into the rocks some 2,300 years ago. If you follow the signpost to “Ancient Eleutherna” just on the road leading to Margarites, you'll reach another excavation area.
Margarites is the next destination. Here, on the right-hand side of the road, you can visit the first pottery where you can see how man-sized storage vessels are produced. The Cretans call them Pithoi. Many other ceramic workshops also offer pottery that is more suitable for the journey home by plane. In any case, the only tavern in the village square in Margarites is worth a visit as the food there is particularly good. There are other taverns directly on the street at the foot of the village.
The road now leads steadily down towards the old national road, which even up to the early 1980s was the only link between Réthimno and Iráklio. On this road, turn right towards Pérama. At Pérama, turn left heading towards the coast, rumble over a narrow bridge crossing a river (the water only flows in winter) and then turn right towards Melidoni immediately after the bridge. Shortly before reaching the village, you can visit an olive oil press on the right, where you can also buy good-quality olive oil. From the village square, continue another two to three kilometres in the direction of Aghia – on this road, there are numerous charcoal kilns in operation. You can rest in the village square in Melidoni before driving up to the Melidoni stalactite cave.
From Melidoni, you'll finally reach the sleepy hamlet of Exantis. At this point, you need to take the road leading up on the right to join the new national road, on which you can either turn back towards Réthimno or continue to Iráklio.
Out and about in the wild west
A day on the winding trails that are still almost untouched by tourism in the west and south-west of the island offers opportunities for hiking and swimming. Stretches of this road have not yet been asphalted; despite this, a Jeep is not necessary. Length of the tour to and from Chaniá: 230 km, minimum time required: 12-14 hours.
To find your way out of Chaniá, follow the signposts inland towards Ómalos and the Samaría Gorge. Pass through Aghia, which sadly became famous during the second world war for its German military prison, where Cretan resistance fighters, as well as many German Wehrmacht soldiers, were tortured and executed. In Foúrnes, leave the main road and head for Néa Roúmata. From there, part of the route leads through densely-wooded mountains towards the south. The chestnut trees are particularly beautiful in the autumn, lined up along water veins on otherwise bleak hillsides. At the southern end of Agía Iríni, you can take a short hike through the upper reaches of the Iríni gorge. Even this short stretch is enough to give you an impression of how beautiful the gorge is. On the main street in Epanochóri, the next village of just 40 inhabitants, there are some particularly rustic cafés where you can relax.
After passing through Rodovani, continue to Temenia and, from there, up an unpaved road to the village of Azogires with its adventure-packed caves. The landlord in the Alfa-Café directly on the main street is always keen to provide information about the cave and other possible activities in the area. Once back on the asphalt road, you'll soon find yourself in Paleochora on the Libyan Sea. Here, you can eat in one of the many taverns, take a swim on the long sandy beaches and even stay the night if needed.
Leave Paleochóra by the road parallel to the sandy beach, but turn right into the mountains before the end of the road. Go through Kondokinígi and Voutás, which is situated in a green basin, continuing towards Strovles. It's worth taking a break 6 km further along the route at Elos, the Cretan centre of sweet chestnut growing. Soon after, you'll reach the west coast.
After swimming on the south sea beach of Elafonísi, you can still visit the Monastery of Christoskalítissa before heading back through élos and Topólia to the north coast. You'll quickly reach Chaniá again if you take the motorway, passing Kolimbári and Máleme with its military cemetery.
In the east: quiet villages, small towns
The holiday resorts on the Cretan “Costa Turistica” between Iráklio and Ágios Nikólaos are just one aspect of a multifaceted island. Many other aspects are revealed in this tour through the east of the island, which takes you over to the Libyan Sea and into Crete's alpine world. Length of the tour to and from Ágios Nikólaos: 180 km. Minimum time required: 10-12 hours.
In the first half hour of the journey, the constantly changing view of the Mirabéllo Bay is particularly spellbinding. Then the road turns inland and sweeps past the excavations of the Minoan town of Goúrnia, whose inhabitants were enjoying the view of the bay as long as 3,500 years ago. A few kilometres beyond Pachiá Ámmos, the road begins to climb uphill. For the next hour, it leads up above the coast, following the coastline. From Plátanos, you'll enjoy a particularly beautiful view along the bluff. The white slopes opposite belong to a gypsum mine. The constantly winding route then continues through the quiet mountain villages towards Chamési. Shortly before the entrance to the village, a signposted country lane leads off to the right to the nearby ruins of a Minoan country house, which was built at the top of a hill giving a panoramic view. From Chamési, the road leads down to the port town of Sitía. Take in the atmosphere of the sedate little town with a stroll along the harbour and through the market streets. The Archaeological Museum makes for an interesting visit.
Whoever starts out early enough can still make a two-hour trip to the Chandrás plateau and visit Chandrás, Arméni, Etiá und Voíla. It's particularly lovely in September, when grapes are on display in the fields and on the streets, drying in the sun to form sweet sultanas. In a good year, approximately 600 tonnes are produced on the Chandrás plateau. After Etiá, return to the main road. At Makrígialos/ Análipsis, you come to the Libyan Sea where you can swim on the long, child-friendly, shallow sandy beach of Analipsi.
The view alternates between the sea and the strange peaks of the Thriptís mountains as the journey continues towards Ierápetra, the unique Cretan town on the south coast. You should have a look at the old town with its mosque and then stroll along the waterside promenade with its many cafés and taverns until it's time to head back to the north coast.
If it's already late, then it's best to take the direct route, which is a good-quality road leading through the narrowest part of Crete. But if you still have at least two hours, then the stretch through the foothills of the Lassíthi mountains is more interesting.
In the latter case, you'll need to leave Ierápetra towards the west, but branch off immediately in the direction of Bramianá. Just past Crete's largest reservoir, which has been supplying water to the many greenhouses in the Ierápetra area since 1983, the road leads uphill to the watery mountain village of Kalamafka at a height of 450 m above sea level. This village of 1,700 inhabitants has become very popular with tourists recently. The rocks in the vicinity are bizarre. From the village square, 225 steps lead up to the chapel of Timiu Stavrou on the top of a steep rock. The view from the rocks is quite an experience.
In the Kastelos taverna in the village square, the mother herself cooks, whilst her son Geórgios socialises with his guests over a glass of Raki, which he distils himself (open daily from 09.00 | €). If you don't spend too long there, you can end the day in neighbouring Prina, a typically Cretan village: in the tavern Pitopolus (open daily from 10.00 | €), the landlord Dímitris sometimes plays his lyre. From here, you need to drive a maximum of another half hour to Ágios Nikólaos.