When one thinks of an island, the image conjured up is usually a small dot in the ocean, but Crete is anything but! The largest of the Greek islands, Crete is five hour drive end-to-end and has six cities! Nearly 50% of the population of Crete live in the cities and major towns and this – combined with its isolation from the mainland – has given Crete the most incredible unspoilt natural environment. Hire in Crete with easyCar and take in the cities and the stunning surrounding landscape on a driving tour.
Built on three hills, Agios Nikolaos is pretty port town on the east side of Crete. Like the rest of the island Agios has plenty of sandy beaches, but what sets it apart is its circular lake, Lake Voulismeni. Situated in the centre of town, the lake has a harbour used by brightly coloured fishing boats and is known as the ‘sunken’ lake because of its incredibly deep waters. Possibly created by an ancient volcano, the lake has many legends associated with it, from the myth that Greek goddesses once bathed there to the story that German weapons from World War II were sunk to the bottom. From the lakeside tavernas you can watch Greek families promenading before their supper or you can wander up to the park to relax whilst looking over the still waters. From the lake’s harbour it is also possible to take a ferry to Spingalonga island, the site of a former leper colony. An amble round this Venetian fortified island can be done in an hour leaving plenty of time to enjoy the museums, shops and bars back in Agios Nikolaos.
Head west from Agios Nikoloas to Heraklion, Crete’s biggest city. Heraklion’s charm lies in the lack of distinction made between visitors and locals. There are few tourists traps and the restaurants all serve good, reasonably priced Cretan food. Go to the buzzing market to pick up some fresh produce and then sit with Heraklion residents in the sunlight by the tickling fountains in Eleftheriou Venizelou Square (Lion Square). A twenty minute drive east of Heraklion are the ruins of Knossos Palace. Take a guided tour through the bronze age site and then return to the city to complete your picture of ancient Greek culture with a visit to the Archaeological Museum. If you are keen to earn your history-buff stripes, then Koules Fortress cannot be missed. Protecting the entrance to the harbour, the formidable Venetian fortification has stunning views out over the old town, the sea wall and the crystal blue waters of the Aegean sea.
Continue your passage west from Heraklion to Rethymnon. Like Crete’s other cities, Rethymon is furnished with the usual Venetian harbour, old town, and fortress – but this city’s offerings are a little bit special. The bubbling fountains, overhanging balconies and old buildings are truly a photographer’s dream! Steer clear of the most built-up areas of the city and delve, armed with your camera, in to the narrow pedestrianised streets for some snaps of the local shops and ancient mosques. To get some perspective on it all, clamber up to the Fortezza on Paleokastro (Old Castle Hill) to see the city’s patchwork of sand coloured roofs laid out beneath you.
Once you’ve ticked Rethymon itself off your to-do list, make a pilgrimage to the Sacred Monastery of Arkadi. A thirty minute drive from the city proper, the monastery is of particular historical interest due to the vital role it played in the Turkish invasion of 1866. This incredibly tranquil spot has delightful gardens which are ideal for stroll. If you are looking for a more of a hike, however, then St. Anthony’s Gorge is the place. Located a similar distance outside the city as Arkadi, the gorge has some great walks for all the family. Pass by waterfalls and over wooden bridges for a visit to the tiny church of St. Anthony, nestled in the shelter of a cave.
Chania is a great place to finish your tour of the island, as you can easily adjust your activities based on your remaining energy levels. If you are in need of a little relaxation, wander the sunny streets of the old town admiring the Venetian and Turkish buildings or gaze out from the waterside restaurants at the 14th Century harbour. If, however, you are feeling more active then take the drive down to Samaria Gorge and spend a day or two hiking in the National Park. A walk in the park will lead you through towering cypress trees and vertical stone cliffs until you reach the white shingle beach at Agia Roumeli, a great spot to kick back and view your trip.