The Greek Islands (Part 02): Crete

The Greek Islands: Crete | Sea of Atlas

After spending three nights on Santorini, we set our sights on Greek’s largest island: Crete. We left Oia (but not before grabbing some more truffles from Melenio Cafe!) via bus toward Santorini’s port. We arrived at some kind of bus hub still a ways away from the port with no clear direction of how to get there. We decided to hail a cab but quickly realized that we were competing with another couple. An agreement was made to join forces and before we knew it all four of us were stuffed in a cab with all the windows down barreling toward Athinios. We boarded our ferry bound for Rethimno at 5:40pm and were scheduled to arrive at 8pm. About three-quarters of the way there we realized that timetables didn’t mean much to the Greeks (we should have noticed this earlier considering the busses on Santorini ran on what appeared to be a completely arbitrary schedule even though they provide firm timetables for the routes) and there was no way we were going to get there before 9pm which happened to be the time our car rental agency was closing. We had planned to drive to Chania from Rethimno upon arriving, but by the time we got there we were stranded!

The Greek Islands: Crete | Sea of Atlas

That night was spent, unexpectedly, in a cheap hotel in Rethimno, but we wouldn’t let it dampen our spirits! After a mediocre breakfast (at least it was included) we got ahold of our car and set off for Chania. Chania’s old town is a beautiful and raw collection of crooked streets around an old Venetian harbor surrounded by a sprawling, bustling new city. We stayed in a spacious Airbnb loft in the thick of the old town just a minute’s walk to the waterfront and were greeted by the girl in the shop downstairs who let us in and gave lots of recommendations, both on places to eat in Chania and things to do in the surrounding area. Our five nights were spent crisscrossing the western quarter of Crete seeking out the most beautiful beaches and serene natural landscapes.

The Greek Islands: Crete | Sea of Atlas
The Greek Islands: Crete | Sea of Atlas
The Greek Islands: Crete | Sea of Atlas

Seitan Limania Beach was our first destination and was quite the introduction to what this island had to offer in the way of beaches. The drive there from Chania was an experience in itself. Though only a 30-minute ride, the journey included a stop to get out and move a fence blocking the road (still not sure if we were meant to bypass it or not) and careful navigation of a series of harrowing hairpin turns. The journey was not over when we reached the car park—the only way to get down to the beach is via a steep hike on loose rocks that is not for the faint of heart or unfit. We were rewarded handsomely with crisp, blue water fit snugly within a zigzagging, rocky cove. Plus, the difficulty of getting to the beach also meant it was not overrun! We spent hours floating in the salty water and cliff jumping off of the jagged walls of the cove.

The Greek Islands: Crete | Sea of Atlas
The Greek Islands: Crete | Sea of Atlas
The Greek Islands: Crete | Sea of Atlas
The Greek Islands: Crete | Sea of Atlas
The Greek Islands: Crete | Sea of Atlas

Another crazy journey for the books is the drive and hike to Balos Beach. The day we visited was Brittany’s birthday and we wanted to celebrate in style! After spending what seemed like forever driving down the last stretch of a rough, rocky dirt road, we were greeted with a long hike that zapped us of energy and hydration in the intense summer heat (make sure to bring water!). It was so hot that even the goats dotting the landscape desperately searched for shade (underneath the cars of the many visitors proved to be a go-to choice for many of them). But, as with Seitan Limania Beach, for all of our hard work we were appropriately rewarded. The beach offers chairs and umbrellas and is large enough to fit the many visitors that come to this iconic spot (it’s also a favorite spot of medium-sized tour boats to drop off their patrons for a few hours).

The Greek Islands: Crete | Sea of Atlas
The Greek Islands: Crete | Sea of Atlas
The Greek Islands: Crete | Sea of Atlas
The Greek Islands: Crete | Sea of Atlas
The Greek Islands: Crete | Sea of Atlas
The Greek Islands: Crete | Sea of Atlas

Elafonisi Beach often shows up in “World’s Most Beautiful Beaches” lists and for good reason. The drive from Chania was long, but this is one beach that does not require any hiking once you’ve parked your car (that likely, at least in part, explains its popularity). This place is full service—chairs, umbrellas, a snack shack, etc., but all for a fee. It was worth it though to take in the pink sand and varied rock formations and landscapes—there’s even a nature preserve on a small island right off the coast of the beach.

The Greek Islands: Crete | Sea of Atlas
The Greek Islands: Crete | Sea of Atlas
The Greek Islands: Crete | Sea of Atlas
The Greek Islands: Crete | Sea of Atlas
The Greek Islands: Crete | Sea of Atlas

One of western Crete’s gems that isn’t along the coast is Samaria National Park which is home to the gorge of the same name. The drive from Chania through the heart of the island was stunning, offering mountain views, plentiful orange trees and farms set on rolling hills and plains. We realized we did not properly plan for our visit here, as the recommended method of visiting is to take a bus from Chania, hike down the 10 miles or so to the base of the gorge and then take a ferry to a nearby town where you can catch another ferry (or the bus) back to Chania. We arrived via car, so that wasn’t an option for us. Instead we hiked down a couple of miles and then looped back up, which although not nearly as fulfilling as the former was still breathtaking and well worth the trip!

The Greek Islands: Crete | Sea of Atlas
The Greek Islands: Crete | Sea of Atlas
The Greek Islands: Crete | Sea of Atlas

We very much looked forward to each evening spent in Chania as the town was buzzing and offered some of the best food we’ve ever had—period. The old town was small enough to become comfortable with after a couple of days but large and interesting enough to merit wandering around. Canea was a cute gift shop we stumbled on where Britt could not help but buy one of their lovely bags and Roka Carpets was a blast to window shop in—the lady weaving in the back even talked to us about the work that she does and the history of the store. One night we walked to the lighthouse on the harbor which offers nice views of the old town on one side and the open sea on the other, stopping to appreciating the old shipyard buildings on the way.

The Greek Islands: Crete | Sea of Atlas
The Greek Islands: Crete | Sea of Atlas
The Greek Islands: Crete | Sea of Atlas
The Greek Islands: Crete | Sea of Atlas
The Greek Islands: Crete | Sea of Atlas
The Greek Islands: Crete | Sea of Atlas

As was the case with Santorini, Crete afforded us many opportunities to eat delicious food and we’d be committing a crime against humanity if we did not go into detail. Based on recommendations from the lady in the shop downstairs from our Airbnb, we had dinner at Tamam twice—the first time we split a baked potato with garlic yogurt sauce, tzatziki and giant beans in a garlic sauce and the second time we split tzatziki and meatballs and another baked potato. On Brittany’s birthday we tried out To Koutourouki where we split tzatziki, sundried tomato and sesame seed salad in an avocado sauce, pork sausage with pita and mustard, and a couple of baked potatoes with chicken and bacon. We had to try some Greek fast food as well, so we grabbed French fry-stuffed gyros at To Souvlaki for lunch one of the days. We couldn’t ignore dessert either, so we made it a nightly habit to grab lemon tarts and chocolate treats from Sketi Glyka right by our apartment and also indulged in gelato at Delizia Gelato Italiano.

The Greek Islands: Crete | Sea of Atlas
The Greek Islands: Crete | Sea of Atlas

We still dream of our time spent in the Greek Islands and we know we will be back someday soon. The sun, the warmth of the people, the food, the pace of life (even the ferries…)—there is something magical about it all. One thing that struck us was how intensely and vividly blue this special corner of the world is: the dark blue painted domes against the whitewashed buildings holding on for dear life along the cliffside, the deep, deep blue waters of the sea, and the brilliant blue skies overhead dotted with little blots of white clouds. Hell, even their flag is blue and white! Suffice it to say, we have left a part of ourselves among these scattered little blue islands in the eastern Mediterranean.