The holiday island of Crete, or Kriti has two things that distinguish it from most other Greek islands – it's magnificent mountains and a remarkably rich culture and history.
Crete is the fifth largest island in the Mediterranean, with a population mainly confined to the north coast by the huge mountain ranges that make up the backbone of this long, slender island.
Much of the eastern area of Crete is now lost to package tourism but the west of the island has the magnificent mountains, the more rugged coastline and the less crowded beaches.
But whichever part of Crete you choose for a holiday there is sure to be a good range of quality Crete hotels to choose from as this is one of the most popular of the Greek holiday islands.
The long summers and the warm, mild winters ensure that Crete holidays attract visitors throughout the year. Those heading inland will find monumental mountains, an abundant archaeological heritage, spirited social history and some spine-tingling scenery.
Those looking for a Greek beach holiday will also find plenty to choose from with luxury hotels a firm favourite. Beaches vary from quiet, deserted coves with a single beach cantina to long swathes of golden sand packed with sunbeds and every kind of tourist facility.
In short, Crete holidays have just about everything for everyone, while the locals have a well-justified reputation for friendliness to foreigners.
The beaches of western Crete are strung like washing along the north and south coasts with a mighty mountain range between. The northern beaches are the more popular, served by a major highway that runs the length of Crete. All-inclusive hotels and neon-lit tavernas tend to cluster around the city of Chania but elsewhere resorts are small and comfortable with a low key family holiday air. The far west beaches are remote and spectacular while those over the mountains to the south are quiet and peaceful.
#Rethymnon port Crete
The approaches to Crete's third largest city of Rethymnon, about 60 kilometres from Chania, have a scruffy air of urban sprawl – but what a difference in the heart of the city with its aristocratic air of arched doorways, crumbling balconies and faded facades.
Charming Venetian buildings nestle next to the slender minarets of Turkish mosques and almost every street has an abundance of cafes and restaurants intermingled with craft and antique shops.
The most picturesque part of Rethymnon is the old Venetian harbour where romantic if pricey, taverna tables line the quay and the Venetian lighthouse stands sentinel on the long harbour wall.
The beach lies to the east, a large flat triangle of palm-fringed packed sand backed by hotels, shops and cafes, The water is generally calm and shallow with watersports on offer.
The Fortezza is the jewel in Rethymnon's crown. The largest fort ever built by the Venetians is an impressive sight and at the main entrance is a good archaeology museum where exhibits include helmets, bronze axes, an extensive coin collection along with many finds from Minoan tombs.
Other notable city sites include the Arimondi fountain, built in 1623, and the slender Nerantzes Djani minaret attached to a former Venetian church and visible from almost anywhere in the city.
Nightlife in Rethymnon is fairly lively and there are plenty of waterfront tavernas for a quiet, romantic meal. By day there are 'pirate ship' cruises to see dolphins, caves and offshore islets.
Rethymnon Carnival has three weeks of parades in the run-up to Lent. The Renaissance Festival is in July/August with music and drama while the Wine Festival, in July, has music, dancing and barrels of local wine.
Panormo, also called Panormos, is an extremely attractive village on the north coast of Crete about 21 kilometres east of Rethymno that manages to blend Cretan character with low-key tourism.
A trio of beaches is all firm sand – a small harbour beach; the popular 'middle beach' with a taverna; and the hotel beach to the west. All three are protected by stone breakwaters making swimming safe even when there's a strong northerly wind.
The beaches are gently sloping and ideal for children. There's a dive centre on the western beach and some low key watersports. If you prefer more seclusion head west past the Marine Grecotel for a sprinkling of pebble coves.
A dozen or so tavernas, a few pleasant bars, two decent mini-markets, a bakery, newsagents and a welcome absence of tacky souvenir shops, makes for an extremely pleasant small resort with lots of character.
There are regular bus services to Rethymno and Iraklion and a 'little road train' from Panormos offers a choice of trips inland into the Cretan countryside.
Three rivers run into the sea at Georgioupolis which lies about 21 kilometres west of Rethymnon and 39 kilometres east of Chania, and flat sand stretches east from the village for almost seven kilometres.
The main river runs into a small harbour where derelict boat hulks lie rusting. A second cuts through the middle of the long sandy beach and a third reaches the sea at a small cove to the west.
The village has grown into a moderate-sized resort, popular with Brits and now offers more than 3,500 tourist beds.
The resort is pleasantly shady thanks to massive eucalyptus trees and high curtains of bamboo that sprout at every turn.
The flat beach is exposed to the northern winds but the sand is good and fine, if flat and featureless as it snakes off into the distance.
The best of the beach is at the western end where a long stone walkway reaches out to a tiny chapel perched on the rocks.
Marshy flats lie behind the sands, an ideal habitat for birds, turtles and that mosquitoes that once gave the village an unhealthy reputation. Some hotels and apartment owners still boast of anti-mosquito netting.
The growing resort of Almyrida is just around the headland from the slightly more popular Kalives. A sandy beach curves around in a wide crescent from a small breakwater which serves as a simple harbour.
Almyrida is a pleasant family beach resort, within striking distance of Chania, with a bakery, mini-market, car rental and a string of tavernas along the shore.
The fine, golden sand shelves gently at both ends but it's stony underfoot in the middle. A line of tamarisks behind the beach provides some natural shade.
A growing number of apartments, and more recently a small hotel, threaten the resort's tranquillity but this is still an attractive spot.
Several coves can be found along the cliff path to Kalives and there are good walks in the area with views over the bay of Souda.
Inland from Almyrida lie the hill villages of Kokkino Horio and Plaka, notable both for their location filming in the movie Zorba the Greek and for the fine tavernas set in shady tree-lined squares.
The resort village of Kalyves, also spelt Kalives, has scruffy main street that runs parallel to the coast lined with crumbling, unkempt buildings flanked by more modern apartments.
The beach at Kalives, however, is very fine. It sweeps around the medium-sized bay with a small harbour at one end and the twee Kalives Beach Hotel, with its kitsch fake windmill, at the other.
The sands are deep and soft and backed by trees and benches that line the narrow road behind which are good tavernas and shops.
The sand at Kalives slopes steeply to the sea in places and currents can be strong so children must be watched. But this is still a very good family beach.
Kalives is a working village so there is a good complement of shops with a bakery, ironmongers and so on – even a barrel maker, as well as taverna and cafes.
Just outside Kalives is the remarkable Koumos or Stone House, a private home where buildings are covered in small stones in a Gaudi-style extravaganza.
The large cauliflower peninsula of Akrotiri, north-east of Chania, is a strange mix of scruffy suburbia, bare wilderness and mushrooming luxury resorts.
The scruffy bits lead to the regional airport and nearby military base while the resorts capitalise on fine sandy beaches at Kalathas and Stavros both now full of apartments and villas. The rest is pretty much a barren wilderness
The beach resort of Stavros sits at the northern tip of Akrotiri with two sandy beaches beneath a large rock outcrop. This is where many scenes were shot for the movie 'Zorba the Greek'.
Inland are a few monasteries that are a popular target of tour buses. They include the fortified 1530 monastery of Gouvernetou, one of the oldest in Crete, on a remote plateau that sits above the 17th-century monastery of Agia Triada, Byzantine on the outside and decorative Greek on the inside.
Nearby is a hermit cave called Arkoudiotissa, after a huge bear-shaped stalagmite found inside, and beyond that is the cave of the hermit St John, approached down 150 steps carved into the rock.
Noted for its profusion of wildflowers there are any number of excursions on Akrotiri for amateur botanists.
The capital of Crete until 1971 Chania is Crete's most charming city and for many its best-loved. The centre is a wonderful mix of Turkish and Venetian architecture that, for the most part, miraculously survived the bombers of World War II.
Laid out like a crucifix, the Agora market, built in 1911, is a delight with everything from buckets of sliced pig heads to gift-wrapped herbs, from delicate mountain tea to Superman comics.
To the east is the busy outdoor leather market in Odros Skridlof and the splendid archaeological museum, housed in the old Venetian church of San Francesco, with its Minoan pottery and artefacts.
North of the museum lies the heart of Chania – the two Venetian ports. The eastern harbour has the slender Venetian lighthouse and the squat Mosque of the Janissaries built in 1625 with strange egg-shaped domes and spider leg arches.
Behind the mosque lies the Kastelli quarter with seven recently restored vaulted shipyards of the Venetian Arsenal built around 1600 – there were once 17 of them.
The rectangular west harbour is generously lined with tavernas and cafes beneath the faded and crumbling facades of Venetian houses and tipped with a solid, unattractive fortress of the Firkas Tower.
Chania beach strip at Agia Marina a few kilometres to the west although there is a small strip at the western end of the Venetian walls called Nea Chora that's popular with the locals and has cafes and sunbeds. Less popular is a beach to the east is noted for the water pollution – best stay away.
Agia Apostoli is the first beach heading west out of Chania – actually three good sandy beaches, very popular with the locals, especially at weekends.
It's named after the small chapel that sits at the head of a peninsula that contains three linked bays of fine golden sand with clear, shallow water making it a great beach for families with children.
The biggest beach is Chrissi Akti or Golden Beach, so called for the soft sand. It has ranks of sunbeds, beach tavernas and cafes, music bars and water sports.
There is a small, shady park of pines, palms, oleander and eucalyptus. Trees stand the back of the beach and on the headland and the area has a preservation order slapped on it.
The other two beaches are just a stroll away and are just as fine and a little quieter. There is a frequent bus service to the beach from the central market in Hania.
Agia Marina is the first big popular beach west of Chania, a long coastal ribbon of ugly low-rise resort development behind the long stretches of flat sand.
It sits on a very busy coast road where tavernas and bars tangle with gift shops and supermarkets to tout for the passing tourist trade
The beach is wide, flat and exposed, with all the usual facilities expected of a heavyweight beach resort with loads of sunbeds and watersports galore.
The busy centre is thick with restaurants and gift shops aimed at cheap souvenir hunters. At dusk an array of nightspots, bars and clubs open making this, along with Platanias, one of the longest beach bar strips on Crete.
Just offshore is the islet of Agi Theodori, now a nature reserve for the rare kri-kri Cretan mountain goat. Legend has it that the island was once a whale that tried to swallow Crete but was turned to stone.
Slightly larger than neighbouring Agia Marina, the busy resort of Platanias has a long sandy beach, flat and featureless and backed by low dunes and a busy main road.
The beach is clean and sandy and there are plenty of sunbeds and watersports. Visitors are never far from a taverna or bar, most of which advertise wide-screen TVs and karaoke nights.
The Blue Flag section is near the main Platanias village. Further west the beach turns to shingle backed by banks of bamboo and there are quieter spots away from the crowds.
The road behind is lined with tavernas, rental outfits and souvenir shops and traders selling pottery and cheap leather goods.
The old village of Platanias perches quietly up on the hillside and is visited by the Platanias tourist train, a good bet for those heading to the nearby Limnoupoli water park.
The beach resort at Gerani or Kato Gerani is much less developed than its busy neighbour, Platanias, although there are a number of big hotels on this stretch.
Gerani extends from the Platanias bridge to the village of Pirgos Psilonerou and it's not only a lot quieter than its neighbour it also lacks any atmosphere.
But then all the night-life offerings of Platanias are just a short walk away and there are regular buses to Chania.
Gerani has a long pebble and sand beach with plenty of facilities – sunbeds, showers, watersports and so on.
The nearby inland hamlets at Pano Gerani, Modi, Loutraki and Manoliopoulo are good examples of traditional Cretan villages.
The main road runs on from Platanias to Maleme in a virtually unbroken chain of hotels, apartments, tavernas and snack bars that makes it difficult to judge when one resort starts and another ends.
Maleme is basically the rough end of Platanias beach with banks of stone and shingle running down to an unkempt shoreline with a flat plain behind.
Near the shore is an indifferent shelf of shingle and sand, quite exposed and with little shade. Swathes of scrub cover barren strip between beach and hills that rise up behind and where a German war cemetery overlooks the long, straight shoreline.
Holidays here are mostly hotel pool and bar-based with lots of sports facilities and all-inclusive hotel entertainment. There are several tavernas in the village and a couple of bars at the western end.
This small fishing port of Kolymbari lies at the base of the Rodopou peninsula and is relatively free of mass tourism, although a number of tour operators now promote the resort.
A long pebble beach has been artificially improved with lorry loads of sand, and a pleasant seafront promenade is lined with tavernas, shops and waterfront cafes.
It has a small and pretty harbour, recently extended and there are a growing number of hotels in the village as well as new apartment units built closer to the beach.
The fortified 13th-century monastery of Monastery of Panaghia Odigitria, better known as Moni Gonias, is often visited. The present buildings date from 1618-1634 and are still in decent condition. It has a good collection of Byzantine icons and other religious relics.
There are boat trips to see ruins of the ancient town Dyktinna, the island of Gramvousa and the beach at Balos.
A mountain road leads up the Rodopos peninsula where the village of Afrata is the gateway to the wild mountainous area. Hikers often head out from here. Tracks north are for four-wheel drives.
Confusion over several other Kastellis on Crete has led to this fishing village being called Kastelli, Kissamos or both.
Located 42km west of Chania the resort marks the end of the main east-west Crete highway and sites at the edge of a very large bay.
Kastelli Kissamos has a worn out air and a long, pebble and sand beach relieved somewhat by several good tavernas.
Local excavations unearthed a 2nd-century floor mosaic and there is a good archaeology museum here. About 8km inland is the old village of Polyrenia, as quaint a Cretan village as you will find with a history that predates the Romans.
Kastelli Kissamos was the centre of fierce fighting in the Battle of Crete, and the use of pitchforks and knives by the Cretans who took on the Nazi paratroopers earned savage reprisals, including the execution of 200 villagers.
The far west coast of Crete provides some of the most remote, dramatic, some argue the finest, beaches in the whole of Crete. Many are spectacular indeed, the subject of many of the island's postcards, and even just a drive down the dramatic coastline is worthwhile. But facilities here are few and many prefer to join one of the many day trip offers from coach tour firms and boat owners.
Far off the beaten track, the striking spike of islets at Gramvousa, once the haunt of pirates, is now a favourite target of day-trippers.
Spectacular sandbars and shallow waters stretch out to the islet from the beach at Balos where there sits the ruins of a large Venetian fortress, built in 1582 but destroyed six years later when lightning set off a gunpowder store.
The castle was rebuilt in 1630 and garrisoned by English and French soldiers in 1828. Today only the ruins remain.
It is possible to walk out to the island across the sandbanks on quiet days, though this should never be attempted when the wind is up.
Wild and uninhabited, Balos beach is best visited by boat as it has few facilities and the road is poor. Its sheer beauty attracts visitors in numbers although they must now pay to see it.
The local authorities in Kissamos have imposed a small charge to cover beach maintenance costs.
To the west of Kastelli lies some of the finest coastline in Crete. Tracks down from the main road to Falasarna certainly provide wonderful views of wrinkled rocks, clear blue sea, white sand.
Views can be spoilt however by row upon row of green plastic greenhouses, this being tomato and cucumber growing country.
There are several wide sandy coves here the main Falasarna beach is at the northern end of the bay, a long stretch of clean sand with rocks and rock pools to add interest.
On cliffs above are some basic tavernas and a smattering of apartments. Wooden steps lead down to the beach where the shallow sea and large rock pools are ideal for children.
The northern end of the beach is quieter, away from the tavernas with scrub-covered dunes and sheltering cliffs behind.
There are some archaeological ruins nearby but they are widely scattered and difficult to find.
The tiny uninhabited islet of Elafonisis looks like a desert island paradise but the beauty generates a relentless influx of daily coaches and visiting boats.
Visitors can wade out to the islet along a shallow reef through sun-warmed waters that rarely reach more than a metre in depth. It's a magical place – if you can avoid the crowds.
The beach is flat white sand and the shallow waters take on a pink hue from the protected coral reefs that grow here. The coast is littered with coves, bays and rock pools.
A couple of small beach cantinas open in the summer and a walk north will reveal secluded coves of naturist sunbathers.
The area is rich in rare plants and animals, including frogs, lizards and snakes. The beach is also a breeding ground for sea turtles and the last European stop for birds migrating to Africa.
Those visiting by road will pass through the impressive Topolia Gorge and the neighbouring mountain villages of Topolia, Elos, Kefali and Vathi – all worth an extended stop.
Much of Crete's south coast is composed of sheer cliffs that plunge sharply into the sea from the Lefkas Ori mountains above. But what beaches there are, are among the best in Crete and they enjoy some of the best weather too, facing south and well protected by the mountains behind. Resorts tend to be more relaxed than in the north and visitor numbers much smaller. The weather is so mild here that resorts such as Paleochora have a tourist season that lasts through the winter.
The resort at Paleochora lies on the south coast of Crete about 73 kilometres from Chania with a harbour on one side, a long, sandy beach on the other and ancient Venetian ramparts towering above.
Busy rather than crowded, with taverna tables spilling out into the streets, Paleochora has a pleasant and relaxed atmosphere.
The Venetian fortress that sits on the tip of the small peninsula was destroyed by pirates in 1539 but subsequently restored and is now open to the public.
West of the fort is a big sandy beach with plenty of sunbeds and stands of tamarisk at the back for natural shade. Further west it gets quieter with sheltered coves further along the coast.
To the east of the port is a small beach of pebble and stone with a clutch of tavernas and cafes around the small port. Boats leave here for Gavdos island, the most southern part of Europe.
Paleochora is one of the few Greek resorts that remain open to tourists all through the winter.
The beach at Sougia appears to the scoured out of sheer cliffs with a long stretch of steeply banked pebble that dips sharply into the sea.
Sougia beach is backed by cliffs and a clutch of ugly cement buildings, relieved somewhat by a delightful church that has Byzantine mosaics dating from the 6th century.
Sougia derives from the Greek word for 'pig', so named for the pigs that were once reared in the woods behind and not a crude reference to the naturists who favour this remote spot.
Arrivals by road will pass through the attractive mountain villages of Agriles and Moni and numbers on the beach are supplemented by daily caiques sailing from Paleochora.
A small taverna supplies the basics but those who prefer it even quieter can head for Lassos along the cliff path to the west, a renowned healing centre in ancient times but now just the relics of bathhouses built over mineral springs.
Agia Roumeli is the gateway port for walkers heading in and out of the hugely popular Samaria Gorge which runs north into Lefka Ori and up to the Omalos Plain.
It's not much more than a staging post for tired walkers as they trickle out of the gorge or the disembarkation point for those heading into the gorge for the heavily advertised shorter walking trips.
Cafes and tavernas have sprung up to service the passing traffic and there are plenty of rooms available.
Agia Roumeli has along, thin strip of pebble and shingle that drops very steeply into the sea. Sunbed umbrellas offer the only shade at this very exposed spot.
Little more than a stopping place for passing boats the port at Loutro has no road access and all visitors arrive on daily boats.
Perched in a horseshoe bay and overshadowed by looming cliffs. Loutro suffers from the lack of a decent beach – it is just a small and exposed strip of pebble and shingle west of the harbour.
Touted as the ideal out-of-the-way resort Loutro can get rather crowded. A bank of tavernas line the shore near the harbour ready to net any passing trade.
About three to four kilometres west of Chora Sfakia is the remote and beautiful beach of Glyka Nera, also known as Sweetwater or Freshwater. It is a beach of white pebbles with very clear and fresh water that bubbles out of the ground from nearby springs.
A small beach cantina opens in the summer with basic food and drink and there are sunbeds and umbrellas for protection but nothing in the way of natural shade.
The beach is popular with naturists and most arrive on boats that advertise the daily trip to 'Sweetwater'. There is a coastal footpath from Chora Sfakia that takes 30-40 minutes to walk and a much more difficult path from Loutro, in the west, that takes about 60 minutes. Boats leave Chora Sfakia at about 10 am and return for pick-ups at about 4.30 pm.
Those who fancy a glimpse of old Cretan culture, away f ass tourism, the hillside village of Anopoli, in the mountains behind Loutro and Glyka ,is the place to head for.
Anopolis is a village of about 350 inhabitants on a small, fertile plateau at the foot of the White Mountains or Lefkas Ori.
The 12-kilometre road snakes west from Hora Sfakion and a bus leaves at about 4 pm returning to Hora Sfakion at 6.30am the next day. There are rooms for rent and a taverna in the shady square.
Expect breathtaking scenery and several good hiking trails. It's a 90-minute walk to Loutro beach and there is a mountain trail to Pahnes where 47 mountain tops are said to be visible. About 2 km west of Anopolis is the abandoned village of Aradena and it's a 30-minute walk to the Aradaina gorge.
The hair-raising descent to this jumping off port for the Samaria Gorge is not for the faint-hearted with precipitous zigzag bends full of reckless local drivers and a steady stream of tour coaches.
Hemmed in by mountains, the seaside village of Hora Sfakia lies about 74km from Chania. This is the ferry port for walkers heading to Agia Roumeli and the Samaria Gorge.
A row of cafes and souvenir shops lines the narrow street that leads west from the small harbour and there is a small pebble beach around the headland with a beach cantina and sunbeds.
Also nearby is a long pebble beach at Vritomartis which boasts a licensed naturist resort and hotel.
The Sfakia region of Crete was noted for banditry and it was once said that no Sfakian ever left home without a gun. Local families were often embroiled in bloody feuds and even today the roadside signs are obvious targets for gun practice.
In World War II, Sfakians were instrumental in helping evacuate retreating Allied troops from the island, an action for which the Germans made them pay dearly.
A monument on the harbour wall commemorates the evacuation while a memorial above the village honours the local families who were summarily executed by the occupying Nazis.
A wide flat plain lies beneath the mountains from Chora Sfakia to Plakias. Behind a long flat beach stands the castle of Frangokastello, a severe rectangle of brown and orange stone.
Imposing from the outside, the castle is little more than a shell inside and a full tour takes no more than a few minutes.
The beach lies in front of and beneath the castle, a fine stretch of gently shelving white sand with a few rocky outcrops at one end and a sheltered boat bay at the other. The sea here stays very shallow for a good 100 metres out.
A few sunbeds are scattered about around a beach taverna beneath the castle and there is plenty of natural shade from stands of tamarisks than run the length of Frangokastello beach.
Frangokastello makes for a tranquil spot, with the added bonus of a towering backdrop of blue-grey mountains.
The former fishing village at Plakias, 92km from Chania and 36km from Rethymnon, has undergone a bit of a tourist boom with apartments scattered over the wide coastal plain.
Despite the influx, the resort remains low key with some restaurants and bars, a few shops and, more recently, a couple of discos.
Plakias is set in a large bay with a 1km beach of sand and pebble backed by shoreline tavernas. The beach is mainly pebble near the resort but gets much sandier as it stretches east and there are showers and sunbeds.
To the east are beaches at Paligremos and at Damnoni, the latter now a popular tourist resort in its own right. About 2km to the west is another small sandy beach called Souda, noted for its palm trees and a small cove at Gavdoliman.
It's picture postcard stuff at the beach of Preveli where a spectacular lagoon lies between the sea and a steep gorge and a long spit of shingle provides room for sun loungers.
Access to Preveli beach is difficult and not suitable for those with mobility problems. Steep steps drop from the car park on the cliff directly above and it's a long trek down the narrow gorge to the seashore. Many arrive at Preveli beach by boat.
The beach sand here is sharp but it shelves gently into the sea. A small cantina offers the basics although the popularity of the beach and the captive audience do push up the prices.
Unfortunately, a fire in 2010 destroyed many of the rare Cretan palm trees that once populated the gorge but the fire-ravaged palms are now making a good recovery.
Dirt tracks trace back around the lagoon – ideal for swimming and boating – and lead up the steep gorge to Preveli Monastery.
A picturesque setting and tight village layout make Agia Gallini, 114 kilometres from Chania and 54 kilometres from Rethymnon, the pick of the popular package holiday companies.
The taverna-lined harbour provides focus while the narrow streets that climb up the hill are thick with cafes and souvenir shops. Although obviously tourist-centred, Agia Galini has not sacrificed all of its charms. However, the predominance of English signs in a Greek resort can be depressing.
It is a long walk to the beaches which lie around the headland to the east. The first beach is small and, although very pleasant, is often crammed to capacity. There is a longer stretch of coarse sand beyond it to the east.
Further east still is a coastal plain hidden beneath acres of polythene greenhouses and a concrete sprawl of agricultural buildings given over to the semi-industrial growing of tomatoes and cucumbers.