“Megalónisos”, the “Great Island”, is the Greek moniker for Crete and indeed it is almost a country in 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.
When to go?
The seasons in southerly Crete stretches to late October. For discounted room rates, better taverna service and moderate weather, mid-May to late June, and all 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 is Réthymno on Crete.
By air from overseas
Crete has three airports: from west to east, Haniá, Iráklio (Heraklion) and Sitía. EasyJet (www.easyjet.com) flies to Heraklion (Iraklio) from Gatwick, Bristol and Manchester and to Chania (Hania) while Jet2 (www.jet2.com) offers services to Heralkion (Iraklio) from Blackpool and Leeds Bradford.Aegean Airlines, Thomas Cook, Thomson, Monarch and FlytoAir also fly to Crete from several Uk airports.
By air from within Greece
Athens is linked to all eight islands except Hydra and Pátmos by up to 11 flights daily on either Olympic (www.olympicair.com, tel 801 8010101) or Aegean (www.aegeanair.com, tel 801 1120000), though frequencies will reduce if their proposed merger is approved by the EU in early 2011.
The pair also currently provide flights from Thessaloníki to Iráklio, Rhodes to Sitía (eastern Crete) or Iráklio, while Sky Express (www.skyexpress.gr) offer links from Iráklio to several other Greek islands, but their baggage rules are stricter and space for carry-on luggage nonexistent.
Transfers: From Haniá airport, about six daily buses ply to and from town but a taxi (€20) is a more likely option; from Iráklio, a public bus goes into town until 11pm, otherwise a taxi (€15); Sitía has only taxi links (€8).
Ferries call at Kíssamos (from the Peloponnese; www.lane.gr), Haniá (from Athens; www.anek.gr), Iráklio (from Athens, Santorini and Rhodes; www.anek.gr and www.minoan.gr) and Sitía (from Rhodes on Anek). At Iráklion (the only Cretan port of call for cruises, thanks to nearby Knossos) and Sitía, the town is a moderate walk inland; the port for Haniá is Soúda, about six miles east (regular buses or €10 taxi into town). No Cretan port has any significant amenities or information available.
By sea within Greece
The most useful companies, all with online booking facility, serve the following routes:
Blue Star (www.bluestarferries.gr) offers fast services between Piraeus and Iráklio and Haniá. Anek (www.anek.gr) runs regular services from Piraeus regularly to Crete (Iráklio, Haniá and Sitía), while Hellenic Seaways (www.hellenicseaway.gr) links Santoríni with Iráklio induring the Summer season.
Public transport: Buses (www.bus-service-crete-ktel.com) along the north coast between the main towns are frequent, but scarcer heading through the hills and to the south coast.
Taxis: These are plentiful, taking up to four passengers each, with the cost thus shared reduced to nearly that of a bus ticket.
Walking: Crete makes an excellent spring/autumn hike destination, with recognised trekking routes concentrated in Haniá’s Lefká Óri (White Mountains); Loraine Wilson’s The High Mountains of Crete (Cicerone, £14) is the definitive guide.
Much of it describes long-distance trail E4, which traverses the island from end to end at altitudes ranging from coastal to high-mountain – allow at least a month for the whole route.
Car hire: In Crete, this can be expensive, especially on spec at airport arrivals. Of the consolidator sites, www.auto-europe.co.uk and www.comparecarrentals.co.uk are among the best for advance booking.
Know before you go
UK Embassy, Ploutárhou 1, 106 75 Athens: tel 210 7272 600, http://ukingreece.fco.gov.uk/en/
The Greek National Tourist Office (www.visitgreece.gr) has UK offices at 4 Conduit Street, London W1S 2DJ (tel 020 7495 9300)
Urban fire brigade 199
Forest fires 199
Telephone code: 0030
Time difference: + 2
Flight times: from 3 hours (London to Corfu) to 4 hours (Scotland to Rhodes).
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.
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 and order a soda, which makes even the harshest wine quaffable.
Bar bills can bite: whilst cover charges are rare, beers cost €4.50–5, cocktails €7–8. The only budget tipple may be island rakí or mainland tsípouro in a small carafe.