By Annick Dournes & Frederic de Poligny
Crete is an enticing island with many faces where there is plenty to experience. Crete is the largest Greek island and it needs several visits to see it all. Today we take you to 10 of the best places to discover in the eastern part of the island. Food, nature, beaches and culture… make your choice!
1- Elounda, your chic “base camp”
With 300 days of sunshine Elounda can welcome tourists most of the year and you’ll have plenty of sunshine even in the low season. Settled at the bottom of the magnificent Mirabello Bay it has been a trendy seaside resort since the 1970’s while being able to keep its original Cretan soul. With an inviting sandy beach, a busy fishing port and a lively waterfront filled with shops and restaurants Elounda is an ideal starting point to explore Eastern Crete. Renting a car is the first thing you’ll have to do to explore the area at your own pace. The roads are very good in Crete and you will easily and quickly get to the following places of interest.
2- King Minos Palace
Knossos area was inhabited since the Neolithic period and is said to be the place where the first European civilisation, the Minoans, was born. It flourished for about 2,000 years and had its heyday under the rule of king Minos. It was a major centre of trade making its inhabitants wealthy. They were thus able to build luxurious palaces surrounded by extensive workshop installations. With interesting archaeological ruins and beautifully ornate rock-cut caves and tholos tombs Knossos is a paradise for historians and researchers.
The king’s palace is associated with the exciting myths of the Labyrinth and the Minotaur, Deadalus and Icarus. Today you can visit the site that has been extensively renovated with “newly re-painted frescoes”. You may like this “modern touch”, or not, but the site definitely is worth the visit.
3- Spinalonga Island
Spinalonga became world famous when Victoria Hislop wrote her million-copy number one bestseller “The Island” in 2008. This small islet has been inhabited since Antiquity when a first fortress stood watch from 3,000 till 900 BC. The Venetians built a second fortress in the late 16th century to protect the nearby port and trade place of Elounda from Turkish raids. In her novel Victoria Hislop’s novel relates the story of the island when it was turned into a leper colony from 1904 to 1957. In those years there was no cure for this awful disease and lepers had to be isolated from healthy people. Three to five hundreds people were deported there losing freedom and Greek citizenship. Today the island is deserted but has been listed as archaeological and major touristic site. You can go to Spinalonga Island from the nearby Plaka fishermen port where small boats take you to the islet in a few minutes for a few Euros or from Elounda and Agios Nikolaos for a pleasant day cruise.
4- Kritsa village
Kritsa is only a few miles away from Elounda but it will take you to a totally different Crete. Stretched like an amphitheatre on a mountainside it is one of the oldest villages in Crete. It’s a lovely village with nice pedestrian cobbled streets, typical white and blue houses, welcoming kafeneions with outside terraces shaded by tall plane trees, and small shops selling local products. A group of women from Kritsa have created a cooperative in order to maintain the traditions of the village and you can buy their renowned extra virgin olive oil, wild herbs and teas, honeys or embroidery creations.
5- Vai palm forest
Feeling like going to a tropical beach? Go to Vai sandy beach. The legend says that a vast palm forest was planted here by Egyptian soldiers during a war opposing Itanos to Praisos in the 3rd century BC. Actually Vai palm trees date way back before that. Minoan frescoes from the 2nd millennium BC depict palm forests covering most of the island coasts and the present Vai forest is the last remain of this ancient native vegetation. Vai beach is the ideal place for a relaxing day on this long beach nestled at the bottom of a small rocky bay. The emerald waters are more than inviting, there are deckchairs and parasol for rent and a nice restaurant overlooking the bay.
The only problem with Vai beach is its popularity and you may find it overcrowded during the high season. If you’re looking for peace and quietude, there are many deserted beaches along the coast near Vai. Although there are no palm trees growing on along their shore, they are very picturesque. We went to Itanos Beach that is only 3 miles away from Vai. Don’t expect deckchairs, restaurants or ice cream truck! The few people who go there are looking for pure nature and you will enjoy swimming and snorkling… and your picnic basket. Next to the beach you will discover a few interesting remains of the antic city of Itanos, that belong to the Dorian time.
7- Toplou Monastery
Toplou Monastery is lost in the middle of nowhere in between Elounda and Vai. It was founded in the 15th century and is dedicated to the Virgin Mary and St John the Theologian. At first you may mistake it for a fortress since it is surrounded with high walls meant to protect the monks from pirates and invaders. It nonetheless is one of the most beautiful monasteries in Crete. With its 33 metres high belfry and its beautiful windmill you will spot it at once. The monks make a tasty extra virgin olive oil renowned worldwide and you can do a good deed buying a bottle in the monks’ shop.
8- Golden Beach
The Golden Beach,near Vathi, can be a good option for a relaxing stop on your way back from Kritsa village. You’ll need to walk down a steep path to get there but it’s worth the effort. The long sandy beach is free access but you’ll have to pay for deckchairs and a parasol. There are lovely big waves to jump into but be cautious with children. A bar on top of the cliff, the “Voulisma”, has a nice terrace that is just fine for a drink and a light meal enjoying the view over the bay.
9-Ierapetra, the southernmost city in Europe
Ierapetra is an ancient city located on the southeast coast of Crete and is said to be the sunniest place in Greece with almost no rain and a hot weather. It is both a seaside resort with long black sandy beaches and a town with a rich historical heritage. Paralia Ierapetra is the main beach covered with black pebbles vividly contrasting with the clear blue sea. The long waterfront is lined with traditional kafeneions as well as brand new design bars and restaurants. It is always busy, filled with locals and tourists. Ieraêtra also is the starting point for sail trips to the beautiful Chrysi Island and its lovely beaches.
10- Our four favourite Cretan kafeneions and restaurants
# In Elounda, Poulis is a great choice for a traditional Cretan restaurant where the waiters are great people and the food delicious. Located right on the port it has an outside terrace and a long wooden pontoon built over the clear blue sea from where guests have a nice view over the fishing boats going in and out of the harbour.
Simple Cretan recipes, catch of the day, authenticity… this may not be a sophisticated cuisine but it’s done with the heart. When we had lunch there the people sitting at the other tables were all locals-mostly families- and this is always a good sign! This is far from being the case in many other restaurants located on the seafront! Grilled shrimps, fava, tsatsiki, fried zucchini, houmous, moussaka, giouvetsi, lamb kleftiko, octopus stifado, pork, chicken or lamb slouvaki… everything is homemade with fresh products. Why not have a glass of Tsipouro -taste like raki- to nicely pair this typical Cretan cuisine?
# We got to Kritsa village in the middle of the afternoon after skipping lunch and we were starving. Fortunately it’s all day dinning at Platanos a lovely kafeneion shaded by a huge plane tree. An authentic tasty Cretan cuisine is served on plain wooden tables by a nice and smiling waiter. We enjoyed typical skioufichta pasta that look like small tubes rolled up on themselves cooked with meat and vegetables. We also had chortopitakia kind of small pastry pies filled with feta cheese and wild herbs, slouvaki that are grilled meat and vegetable skewers, local sheperd’s cheese… and a complimentary cake for dessert! Who could ask for more to feel nicely full?
# Overlooking Vai palm forest and the beautiful crescent beach is the Palm Beach Vai restaurant. A tortuous stairway that goes up a rocky hill will take you to the restaurant. Try to get a table on the edge of the vast terrace to fully enjoy the magnificent view over the forest and the sea. The food is OK, service is kind of overwhelmed since the place is very popular and crowded any time of the day. Be patient, enjoy the view and you’ll get a decent Greek meal.
# Ierapetra seafront is lined with restaurants and kafeneions overlooking the beach. But when we got there we didn’t feel like having lunch shoulder to shoulder with all the other people crowded there. So we got back in our car and drove east along the long, very long Koutsounari Beach. After driving for approximately 9km east of Ierapetra, we saw a sign pointing out a restaurant and decided to try our luck. We thus discovered a huge straight beach almost completely deserted and the Alatsi, a lovely restaurant lost in the middle of nowhere. The decor, the food and the kindness of the staff were all typically Cretan and we had a very good time enjoying our lunch and the huge empty beach.
Eastern Crete is definitely an outstanding area for a one week- or more – holiday. During our stay there, we tested five different luxury hotels, all located in charming Elounda, or close by, that are perfect starting points to discover Eastern Crete. Here are the links to our five previous articles and reviews of these great hotels:
5-star St Nicolas Bay Resort:
5-star Royal Marmin Bay Hotel:
5-star Elounda Beach Hotel:
5-star Elounda Mare Hotel
5-star Minos Palace
Text ©Annick Dournes
Photos: ©Frederic de Poligny or ©Annick Dournes