The island of Crete is Greece’s largest island and home to Europe’s first civilization more than 5,000 years ago. Located 175 mi/280 km south of Athens, it has become one of the most popular vacation destinations in the Mediterranean. Millions of vacationers from around the world choose this island every year for its excellent beaches, natural beauty and active nightlife. The island is scattered with world-class heritage sites ranging from the 3,500-year-old Minoan palaces and Roman cities to medieval castles, Renaissance towns and historic monasteries.
In an earlier blog post, we indicated that Jennifer Aniston is set to wed in Crete. We promised a destination/hotel review and here it is!!
Dry and mountainous, Crete also has flowing streams that cut through rocky crevices and many pretty, sandy beaches. The island is ruggedly beautiful, and its historical sites have elegant architecture, notable statuaries and fine mosaics. Crete is one of our favorite Greek islands.
Most visitors stop first in Iraklion because the main airport and seaport are located nearby on the island’s northern coast. As a result, the capital city can be very noisy and crowded during the summer. We recommend using one of the smaller towns as a base if you’ll be staying on the island for several days.
There’s plenty to see in Iraklion. The Archaeological Museum displays only Cretan artifacts and has one of the world’s best collections of Minoan relics. It’s a must-see, particularly if you plan to visit Knossos, Festos and other archaeological sites on Crete. Many of the original pieces—sculpture, art, mosaics, pottery, jewelry—found at the sites are on display in the museum. It’s well lit and well organized, taking visitors chronologically through the island’s history. Among our favorites are the frescoes and the snake-goddess statues from Knossos. Plan three hours in the museum, which is open daily.
If you have time, visit Iraklion’s fascinating historical museum (local history, folk costumes and paintings) and St. Minas, one of the largest churches in Greece. (The ceiling frescoes are painted in vivid colors.) We also recommend a stop in El Greco Park, a shady relief of greenery that contains a bust of the native Cretan artist. You can also walk along the old city walls and visit the fortress the Venetians built at the port.
A few miles/kilometers southeast of Iraklion is Knossos, the most visited site on Crete. Once the capital of the ancient Minoan civilization, its ruins date back to the 15th century BC. In addition to its age (it’s 10 centuries older than the Acropolis), what’s notable about Knossos is that some of the buildings have been reconstructed. The wealthy amateur archaeologist Arthur Evans, who uncovered the ruins in the early 1900s, wanted visitors to see what King Minos’ Palace actually looked like. The reconstruction has been controversial with many archaeologists, who believe ancient sites should be left as they were found.
Most visitors, however, find Knossos fascinating—you don’t have to use your imagination to envision what the palace’s throne room looked like. Instead, you can walk through partially reconstructed buildings painted in authentic colors (black and red were common), with copies of mosaics and other artifacts in their original places. (Many of the authentic items are in the Archaeological Museum in Iraklion.) Knossos is well worth a stop—you can take a public bus from Iraklion or go as part of an organized tour. If you go on your own, be sure to pick up a good guidebook or hire an official guide at the entrance.
Crete is such a big island (about 160 mi/260 km long by about 35 mi/60 km wide) that you could spend several days in various areas without getting bored. East of Iraklion is the fishing village Agios Nikolas and the adjoining luxury resort Elounda, home to some of the country’s most exclusive hotels and rightly called the St. Tropez of Greece. In Agios Nikolas, stroll around the lake, where you’ll find several cafes with outdoor seating.
From Agios Nikolas (and also from Elounda) you can take boat tours to Spinalonga, a tiny island where the Venetians built a castle-fort in the late 1500s to fend off pirates and the Turks. Crete isolated (imprisoned, really) its lepers there from the early 1900s until 1957. Visitors can tour the fortress, walk along the battlements and view the tiny medieval buildings where the lepers resided. It’s a starkly beautiful and unusual place.
If you have time, we recommend a driving day trip through the scenic Lassithi Plains, a verdant expanse that spreads across a lofty plateau high up in the Dikti Mountains at the eastern end of the island. A trip to the plains may be combined with a stop at the Diktean Cave, the legendary birthplace of Zeus.
Try to visit at least one of the small old coastal towns on the island, such as Paleochora (on the southwestern tip of Crete) or Matala (on the southern coast, near Festos, the second-most important Minoan ruin on the island), where boat excursions run daily to islands in the bay and to palm-fringed Preveli beach. The small town of Vai, located on the far northeastern corner of the island, is also pretty, but tends to be overcrowded with tourists. It also has the only natural palm grove in Europe.
In the western part of the island is Chania (sometimes spelled Khania), where you can stop for lunch or dinner and watch the parade of people strolling along the charming curved Venetian harbor quayside (especially at night). Most of the city’s interesting sites are found in the old Venetian quarter, which is one of the most romantic places in the Mediterranean. Many of the old town’s 15th- and 16th-century mansions have been transformed into cozy inns. Also in the western part of the island is Europe’s longest gorge, Samaria Gorge, which was formed by a stream that runs 11 mi/18 km to the town of Agia Roumeli. The gorge, which has one of the most spectacular landscapes on the island, is a lovely but challenging place to hike.
Crete is the place to go for watersports, including windsurfing, snorkeling and waterskiing. People fond of hiking and mountain biking will especially appreciate the wild landscape and breathtaking scenery of the island’s tall mountains, gorges, sleepy villages and rugged southern coast. There are also less adventurous pastimes available, such as guided tours of Crete’s unique heritage sites and treatments at world-class beauty spas. Accommodations range from restored farmhouses to luxurious resorts offering every imaginable comfort.
We think it’s best to rent a car on Crete, although drivers are aggressive and island roads are narrow and winding. Signage in the interior is often in Greek or nonexistent, but on the main roads it is in both Greek and English. Bus tours, which can be arranged at most hotels, are available to many of the island’s main attractions. Most are reasonably priced. Public bus service around the island is quite good and cheap, once you figure it out.
Jennifer Aniston has chosen the Elounda Beach Hotel to host her nuptials. The video belows shows the luxury of this hotel chain.
Nine kilometers from town, this hotel is one of the best of the big lavish resorts clustered along this tony stretch of coastline, along with Porto Elounda and its adjoining sibling, The Peninsula. Elounda Mare Hotel offers more personality, however, and its small scale is a definite plus for escapists.
All four of the Elounda hotels were built by the same architect, who apparently had an elegant, but very limited, idea of what a resort should be. The buildings’ stone and whitewashed look is, nevertheless, appealing and evocative. Commanding 16 hectares, this sleek complex is a veritable village unto itself.
Guests register in an airy, stylish, well-lit reception room of polished stone. The staffers are a well-rounded group of professionals.
The variety of dining options here is impressive, with seven restaurants and seven bars. Men are requested to wear coats, if not ties, in the pricey gourmet restaurant, Dionyssos, that scans the bay, and diners on its lovely terrace look out on the serene pool and sunken rose garden. The popular open-air restaurant next to the beach and dock, Blue Lagoon, serves Polynesian fare, oddly enough, though a few international dishes fill the gaps. Kafenion highlights local cuisine. Three more venues serve Italian, Mediterranean fusion, and seafood and sushi. Drinks are served poolside, in the lobby lounge, and in the pleasant jetty bar surrounded by the lapping waves.
Sailing, sailboarding, waterskiing and canoeing please the splash set, and a fitness center, five tennis courts (three clay, two artificial grass), an 18-hole mini-golf course, a beauty salon, shops and alfresco cinema tempt the land-bound. Lavish spa services range from massages to beauty treatments, and the indoor pool is a great place to relax after a treatment.
Meeting space, shared with sibling Elounda Bay Palace, hosts gatherings of up to 600. Conference halls and suites, along with an amphitheater, are supported by a business center with secretarial, translation, faxing, copying and courier services. Computers are available and Internet access is both wired and wireless.
The sophisticated guest rooms show a striking combination of Greek-contemporary and maritime decor that would not look out of place on the isle of Capri. The mostly teak parquet floors bring out the best in the blue or cream and white fabrics, spreads, and drapes that accent the rooms. Enormous glass windows survey the surrounding sea and greenery while minimalist arm chairs and sitting areas are well-positioned to take advantage of the views. High-quality wood appointments, handsomely trimmed sisal rugs, and large furnished sitting areas are standard. A few units have marble floors, and all supply air-conditioning, TVs, CD and DVD players, minibars, safes, marble baths with TVs and hair dryers, and superbly furnished balconies with views. Baths boast extras like scales, magnifying mirrors, robes and slippers. The scattered bungalows offer a range of high-end services and amenities, such as private pools, whirlpool tubs, and terraces fronting the rocky shore. Because of the hotel’s sprawling setup, rooms are divided into categories, with the Comfort VIP Club being the most basic with more traditional furnishings. Garden view rooms are the most affordable.
Royal Suites are spacious, lavish, amenity-rich bungalows with such lures as fully equipped kitchens, full bars, flat-screen TVs, stereos, gyms, saunas, steam baths, indoor and outdoor pools, and whirlpool tubs. Serious sybarites can engage a butler, chef, chauffeur, personal trainer, and even a personal pianist. Room service operates round-the-clock, and turndown service visits nightly.
Occasional maintenance oversights detract little from this generally plush and well-served hotel. Staffers also can exhibit a slight sense of entitlement that is unbecoming for a hotel of this price range and stature. This resort operates on a seasonal basis from the end of March until the end of October.
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