Outline There are brochure-pretty, well-groomed little Greek islands, and then there’s mighty Crete, which could be its own country: mountainous, remote, widely untamed by tourism and fiery of spirit – in both senses. Of course, if you want a switch-off package break, Crete can deliver. But there’s more…
A-line Suave Elounda Bay lures well-knowns of the Lady Gaga, Rihanna, Charlize Theron and Leo DiCaprio order. Bed down at Elounda Peninsula (eloundapeninsula.com, from around £340 a night) for private pools and – if you’re calamari’d-out – Japanese menus. Further south, Daios Cove (daioscovecrete.com, from around £590 a night half board) is Architectural Digest-glossy.
Bottom line Crete is a budgeteer’s delight. Case in point, The Old Phoenix (old-phoenix.com): a smattering of unfussy balconied rooms (from around £40), with a bougainvillea-clouded taverna, where Crete’s western mountains plunge south to the sea. It’s walkable from the southern port of Loutro – itself an affordable, real-feel place. Or there’s tiny Kato Zakros – an east-coast beach haunt below peaks with a skein of no-shoes, no-news bars. Here you’ll find Studios Stella (stelapts.com): a clutch of £70-a-night boltholes in pin-drop-quiet grounds of palms.
Beeline Built around 1500BC and still standing tall, the Palace of Knossos, 5km south of the capital Heraklion, is top of every tourist’s to-do list. Mythic home of the ancient Minotaur – half-human, half-bull – it still bears the lurid colours of a clumsy 1900 restoration. Yet the towering scarlet columns and leaping-dolphin frescoes are catnip for Instagrammers. Want to mix and match sightseeing and slobbing? Preveli Monastery, on the south coast, has a dazzling blue-and-white beach. Take a picnic.
Storyline The legend of the Minotaur isn’t Crete’s only (in)famous tale. Victoria Hislop’s page-turner The Island is all about Spinalonga, the notorious leper outcrop marooned in the Bay of Elounda. Visit by boat tour and absorb the eerily silent colony ruins.
There are brochure-pretty, well-groomed little Greek islands, and then there’s mighty Crete, which could be its own country: mountainous, remote, widely untamed by tourism and fiery of spirit – in both senses. Stock image used
Hotline Aim for June or September. No clouds or crowds, and a nicely unhurried vibe.
Waistline In Crete, depending on what you eat, you can keep it or kiss it goodbye. Island olives, onions and sweet tomatoes make the ubiquitous Cretan salad as delicious as it is healthy. Ditto fresh lemon-drenched seabass. However, too much galaktoboureko – creamy custard in filo, laced with lemon or rose – and you can reckon on serious (swimming) costume drama.
Decline Island-wide, carafes of grape-based spirit raki are offered free at the end of every meal but be afraid, be very afraid: you could run a four-wheel drive on the stuff.
Song line ‘Come on down to the Mermaid Cafe/And I will buy you a bottle of wine’ sang Joni Mitchell on her heartbreak 1971 album Blue (she’d been hanging out with hippies in caves in Matala). That joint is gone – but there is a terrific tiny shack with a mermaid mural on Sweetwater Beach, 20 minutes by public boat from Loutro. Swim in transparent shallows, then order lunch: fridge-cold white wine and herby stuffed tomatoes.
Feline Crete means cats, nowhere more so than in the honeycomb backstreets of the postcard port town Chania. They’re photo-fabulous, curling around your feet as you neck frosty Mythos beer at a shady taverna table.
Offline Beyond the resorts and towns, wifi can be patchy. Make the most of the downtime.
Airline Take your pick between Heraklion (best for Brit-favourite Elounda and the east of Crete) and Chania (for the rural mountainous west). You’ll be landing in either airport in four or so hours, whether you opt for BA, Easyjet, Wizz Air or Ryanair.
Next in line You’ll be back, so fly to Heraklion and head three hours east to Vai, a demerara-sand beach backed by palms – grown, they say, from dates discarded centuries ago by Arab pirates. Lunch? Fried octopus with ouzo (around £12) at Hiona (hiona.gr). The sweetest little taverna in Crete has about four tables on a rocky outcrop under tamarisk trees.