Pink sand, turquoise water, modern cuisine, and ancient history make Crete the ultimate island getaway

Microtripping has taken on a whole new meaning for us now that our travels include a tiny human being. After a long search for a fall vacation destination with a 5-month old, we discovered the new parent dream getaway: the Greek island of Crete, with direct flights from Geneva to Heraklion in under three hours.

Just hearing the name “Crete” conjures exotic fantasies. Crete is Greece’s biggest island and it’s incredibly easy to spend a couple weeks (or more) exploring its hidden corners, tasting the best of Greek cuisine, and basking in the Mediterranean sun. As the heart of Europe’s first advanced civilization, the Minoans, the island is a historical treasure trove full of mystical Greek legends. If history’s not your thing, the coast offers some of the world’s most beautiful beaches, with pink sand and turquoise water, while the mountainous interior boasts a huge network of hiking trails. Add to this a focus on fresh, local cuisine, including the oldest wine in the world, and homemade honey and olive oil no matter how remote the location, and Crete is easily one of the best destinations to please any kind of traveler. With two weeks at our disposal, we chose four bases located around the island: Archanes, just outside of Heraklion for sites in and around Heraklion; Loutro, for secluded beaches; Chania, for the city itself; and Kissamos, for the exquisite west-coast beaches.

Public transportation is fairly common and easy to use in Crete, but traveling with a baby means a somewhat unpredictable schedule, so we rented a car for flexibility. We chose one of the local rental companies, a much more affordable alternative to the standard international companies, and had no problem with a quick pick-up just outside baggage claim once our flight landed. Our car ran fine but looked as though it hadn’t been cleaned since many customers ago, and had plenty of minor dents and scratches. Making sure to photograph every possible surface to avoid being scammed, we set out through the dry, red mountains for the small town of Archanes, just 15 minutes away.

Unlike Heraklion, Crete’s large, loud, and rather gritty capital city, Archanes was a welcome respite – a tiny village that was recently renovated to replicate its past grandeur, oozing charm and local flaire. It turned out to be a perfect tranquil base for our arrival to Crete and from which to explore Heraklion and Knossos Palace. We spent the first day relaxing in the lush garden of our airbnb, exploring the cobbled streets of Archanes, and sampling some of the local tavernas to get a feel for the cuisine. The Cretan diet is relatively standard across the country, consisting primarily of fresh, local bread, cheese, meat and produce. The tavernas in Archanes weren’t outstanding, but the hospitality always was, and it was hard to ever be disappointed since staple items such as a greek salad, bread and olive oil, stuffed grape leaves, and grilled meats were always available and always fresh. And meals always come with a free dessert and raki, a strong spirit, at the end, so it’s impossible not to leave  feeling satisfied.IMG_6108The next day we drove into Heraklion to explore the incredible archeological museum and get our historical bearings before heading to Knossos. The museum offered a mesmerizing selection of artifacts from all periods of Cretan prehistory and history, covering over 5,500 years, including the unique Minoan collection. After a few hours browing the galleries, Isaac asleep in his front pack for most of it, we needed sustenance. A quick Google search led us to the nearby restaurant Peskesi for  a late lunch.

Unbeknownst to us, Peskesi has a reputation as the best restaurant in Heraklion. Despite that, it remains remarkably casual and accessible, especially if you visit during non-peak hours. We found the entrance down a tiny alley and ducked into a stunning, recently renovated brick building with high ceilings and plenty of natural light. The menu was a work of art, based on traditional Cretan ingredients and recipes, the result of a ten-year study to document the characteristics of the Cretan Diet, such as the collection of food, the cooking methods, and the product seasonality. The restaurant started its own farm, where it now grows all of its own produce and eggs, and conducts its own snail collection, using traditional techniques to avoid chemical fertilizers and pesticides.

Overwhelmed, we inhaled the basket of fresh breads and award-winning olive oil placed on our table while we browsed the menu. Then, based on the waiter’s recommendations, we started with fried phyllo rolls stuffed with salty cheese and sweet local honey, a massive salad of fresh farm-picked vegetables topped with soft mizritha cheese, followed by slow cooked pork in honey, olive oil and herbs that fell off the bone it was so tender. Dessert was an incredibly rich, buttery carob mousse that gives France’s chocolate mousse a run for its money. 

Now early evening, the sun low in the sky and dusk settling in, we arrived at the nearly empty ruins of Knossos palace, once part of Knossos, Europe’s oldest city and the centre of Minoan civilisation and capital of Minoan Crete from around 2000 BC. The site was controversially restored by a British archaeologist in the early 1900s, enabling tourists to enter some reconstructed parts of the palace, complete with replica wall-paintings and frescoes. Armed with our knowledge from the archeological museum we were able to interpret the ridges of stones and rebuilt rooms covering the plateau outside the city, re-imagining the ancient Greek myth of King Minos’s labyrinth hidden under Knossos, built by the inventor and master architect Daedalus to contain the Minotaur, a half-man, half-bull who prowled the labyrinth and was eventually killed by the Athenian hero Theseus.

IMG_6182IMG_6201The next morning we set out on a two and a half hour drive that took us along the north coast of the island before turning inland through an iconic winding road through the White Mountains to the southernmost part of Europe, still the wildest and most natural part of Crete, where we were staying in the tiny seaside village of Chora Sfakion, or Sfakia. Sfakía is famous as one of the centers of resistance against the occupying forces of both the Venetians and the Turks. The impenetrable White Mountains to the north combined with the rocky beaches on the south helped the locals fight off all invaders, and gave the townsman a reputation as fierce warriors not to be messed with. These days, Sfakia is a sleepy village filled with fish tavernas, primarily serving as a port city for many of the nearby beaches and coastal towns such as Loutro, Sweetwater beach, and Paleochora. Every day around 9am and 6pm a large ferry docks and momentarily floods the town with hundreds of tourists, but most stay only long enough to walk through the town to their cars. We decided to spend two nights in town to give us time for a hike through Imbros gorge, the next most hiked gorge after Samaria (not recommended with a baby), just a 5 minute drive along the coast.

Our hotel was basic but clean, with a clear view over the water. After settling in we decided to eat at the hotel Taverna just below our room, in case Isaac wasn’t in the mood for eating out. This turned out to be a good decision, both for the fresh, whole roasted fish and Cretan salads, and so that one of us could run upstairs with a crying baby. We fell asleep with the window open and the sound of waves lapping the shore, the room bright from the moon’s brilliant reflection off the black water.

We got a late start the next morning, finishing breakfast well after the sun’s blazing heat could be felt beating down on the arid landscape. We bought some homemade granola bars from the local bakery and headed to Imbros gorge anyway, hoping that the tall, narrow canyon walls would provide enough shade for us to hike. The gorge can be hiked in either direction between Imbros and Komitades, with private taxis or an infrequent shuttle providing transportation from one end to the other for those hiking only one way. From Sfakia, Komitades is an easy 5 minute drive, so we began our hike there. Not only was the scenery beautiful, but Imbros has great historical significance: this hike follows the route by which Allied soldiers were evacuated when the Nazis conquered Crete.

The sun was high and hot, but the walls were narrow and as soon as we entered the canyon we were mostly shaded. However, we carried an umbrella as an extra measure to make sure Isaac stayed cool no matter what, garnering some intersting looks in the scorching dry heat. The hike was very pretty, with tall red rock cliffs covered ocassionally in trees or goats perched high on a ledge peering down at us. We hiked approximately halfway to Imbros before turning around and heading back towards Sfakia, arriving in the late afternoon, just in time for a dip in the ocean before another fresh seafood dinner while the sunset lit up the mountains behind us.IMG_6775IMG_6282fullsizeoutput_a506The following morning we boarded one of the daily ferries to Loutro, a tiny fishing village only accessible by boat or three hour hiking trail through the mountains from Sfakia. The trip took just 20 minutes, but we felt like we were at the edge of the world when we docked. As we exited down the pier, it was impossible not to instantly fall in love with the picturesque village, a jumble of whitewashed buildings adorned with blue shutters, set against a backdrop of red mountains, in magnificent contrast to the emerald sea.

Our hotel greeted us with a tall glass of fresh squeezed orange juice and showed us to a spacious room with exposed wooden beams and a seaside balcony where we could eat our meals while looking out over the harbor. The only activities in Loutro are relaxing at the beach and visiting the local restaurants, so we set out to do our best at both; every morning we woke up just before sunrise and took Isaac for a swim in Loutro’s calm, warm waters as the sun peeked over the mountains. Then it was off to a new beach for the day, returning in the evenings to explore the takeout options of Loutro’s finest seaside restaurants. Though remote, Loutro proved a particularly deft choice of vacation destinations with a baby because it turned out that each restaurant showcased all of their home cooked traditional Cretan dishes in a clear display case at the front, making it easy to point to the best looking options and take them to go. So instead of trying to eat meals out with a tired baby, one of us would put Isaac to bed while the other browsed the cases, bringing home a hot fresh meal to slowly enjoy on our balcony while Isaac slept.

IMG_6716IMG_6742IMG_6732IMG_6559fullsizeoutput_a357IMG_6421While Loutro’s town beach provides a beautiful setting for a day of sunbathing and swimming, there are numerous secluded beaches reachable by foot or boat that make excellent day trips. The closest are Phoenix, Sweetwater and Marmara beaches, all incredibly gorgeous and well worth the effort. An easy trail leads from Loutro to Pheonix beach, so the next morning we hiked 30 minutes around the corner of the island, across the volcanic rock and desert landscape, to this peaceful, uncrowded, rocky beach with shade, clear water, and the on-site Old Phoenix Tavern for basic rooms, fresh food and cold drinks. We spent a wonderful day under a shady tree, taking turns reading and floating in the calm crystal waters before making the return trek back to Loutro in the late afternoon. On our way back we stopped for a beer at one of the world’s most picturesque bars, Cafe Snack Kastela, a tiny outdoor structure built of sticks and overlooking the town and brilliant blue sea, where a 12 year old girl served frosty pints of beer and crudite to a handful of customers sitting at outdoor wooden tables.IMG_6491IMG_6509IMG_6485fullsizeoutput_a503IMG_6531Acting on a tip from a Danish tourist we met at Pheonix beach, we set out the next morning on a small taxi boat for Marmara beach, a secret beauty tucked away a few coves farther down. Marmara is about as close as it comes to paradise. The beach is formed at the exit of the stunning Aradaina Gorge, where its crystal, azzure waters provide access to a series of sea caves along the cliffs that visitors can swim through while looking tens of feet down through the clear waters to the bottom of the ocean floor.

For us, just as exciting as the beach was the incredible Dialiskari Taverna of the famed Chrisostomos Orfanoudakis, one of the best and hardest tavernas to reach in Crete, perched on the side of a cliff overlooking the beach. This charming little taverna is the ultimate locavore’s dream, serving up authentic Cretan cuisine like thick, chewy, hand-kneaded bread, family grown vegetables cooked with local olive oil and lemon, cheese produced by the family cheese-dairy, and lamb and goat reared by the owner’s brother in the White Mountains and roasted in a wood-fired oven until the meat melts off the bone. For dessert, the complimentary Loukoumades (greek donuts) with Cretan honey will blow your mind. After a day at Marmara, we immediately cancelled all but one night of our stay in Chania in order to repeat this day again and again.IMG_6647View of Marmara from the tavern aboveIMG_6470fullsizeoutput_a352

A huge storm was threatening the coast on the day we were set to leave, and all boats were cancelled beginning that afternoon, so despite our better judgement, we boarded the first ferry back to Sfakia and headed towards Chania to explore the famous harbor town for one night before continuing to the west coast. Having cancelled our previous reservation, we scoured for a last-minute hotel in Chania and found an incredible deal on the stunning Monastery Estates Venetian Harbor, located right in the center of town. After a blustery but otherwise uneventful drive, we found a paid parking lot on the outskirts of town; following a 10 minute walk, we found our hotel tucked away in a small alleyway. The friendly staff took our luggage and showed us to a magnificent two story room, complete with private rooftop patio and hot tub. They then encouraged us to make a complimentary booking for a private session at the hotel spa, which we took advantage of immediately, sipping fresh juice and champagne while taking turns jumping between the heated pool and the sauna, while Isaac slept soundly on the lounge chair.

Crete was part of the Republic of Venice for more than 400 years, and both Chania and Heraklion were fortified with huge walls encircling and protecting the city which are still standing today. The Venetian harbor is therefore the landmark most associated with this beautiful town, and we had booked a dinner reservation a block away from the harbor at the main Chrisostomos restaurant, located in downtown Chania, in hopes of combining exceptional food with exceptional views. Both delivered. We took turns walking around the harbor at various stages of dusk and sunset during dinner, alternating between stunning views and incredible bread, slow cooked meats and vegetables, and the signature Loukoumades for dessert.

A hotel like Venetian Harbor is as much a destination in itself as the city, something we’ve come to appreciate and seek out more with a baby, so instead of hitting the bars for an after dinner drink, we headed back to the hotel for an evening soak in the hot tub under the brilliant stars, with Isaac peacefully sleeping on the cushions beside us. In the morning, we returned to the rooftop to soak in the morning sunshine while the restaurant brought up fresh squeezed juice and a hot cretan breakfast before heading out for a city tour, getting lost in the winding alleyways and spilling out into the beautiful harbor in the daylight. Our adventures ended with the amazing discovery down a small cobbled alley of Phyllo cafe – an establishment that still makes their phyllo dough by hand every morning. The exuberant baker convinced us to buy one of everything, so we stuffed our pockets with pastries for the road and headed to the car for a short drive west to Kissamos, our final destination of the trip. fullsizeoutput_a360fullsizeoutput_a364IMG_6901IMG_6862Breakfast at Monastery Estate Hotel

We met our Airbnb host at his hotel in downtown Kissamos, where he offered us free coffee and access to the hotel pool throughout our stay, before leading us down a series of tiny one lane roads into the countryside where our villa lay just kilometers from the sea. It was a beautiful stone house in the middle of nowhere with a view of the mountains and a hiking trail leading through them to Falasarna beach for the more adventurous guests. Our main reason for basing ourselves here was to spend our last three days visiting Crete’s famous western beaches to the north, west and south of us. As a bonus, another of Crete’s best and most famous tavernas, Gramvousa, happened to be located just a 3 minute drive down the road.

Our Airbnb was located on the road to Balos Lagoon, one of the most famous and beautiful beaches in Crete, and probably the world. There are two ways to access the lagoon: a 30 minute drive up a bumpy, winding, mountain dirt road; or an hour-long, crowded, once-daily ferry from Kissamos. Our host and a few odd blogs told us that despite most websites and car companies’ warnings that a 4×4 vehicle is required to drive to Balos, it was perfectly doable in a sedan, so the next morning we set out early to see they were right. It turned out that we were not alone – a long caravan of cars was headed in the same direction and nearly every car was a small sedan; and as long as we stayed under 15km an hour, the road no problem. We arrived early enough to park in the main lot at the top of the mountain, near the entrance to the trailhead, a spectacular 30 minute walk down the mountain to the Lagoon.  Just a few minutes into the walk we came around a corner and caught our first glimpse of the lagoon – it was breathtaking –  a surreal panorama of brilliant aqua and blue pools fringed by white and pink sands. Seeing it up close at the end of the hike was no less spectacular. At this hour, the beaches were nearly empty and we set up our shade tent in the shelter of the snack shack, the only spot where the brutal wind wouldn’t blow it across the lagoon, and took in the view.

An hour later, the tourist barges arrived, emptying their bowels onto the pristine beaches. But even with the crowds now covering the main sandy strip between the lagoons, there was still plenty of open space to spread out and admire this natural wonder. We took turns wading through the warm shallow lagoons, marveling at the contrast between the pink sand, green mossy rocks, and turquoise water. The sun was harsh, so we didn’t swim, and after a few hours we decided to beat some of the traffic home and hiked back to the car to make the slow trip down the mountain. Gramvousa was directly on our way, and we stopped in for the first of  many wonderful meals. Here was another magnificent taverna in the middle of nowhere. The food was fantastic, the decor stunning, and the waitstaff oustanding – the waitresses whisked Isaac back to the kitchen to play with the chefs while we ate. IMG_6946IMG_6963IMG_6957fullsizeoutput_a367IMG_7010fullsizeoutput_a36dfullsizeoutput_a36e

We spent our last full day on the island at Falasarna beach, known for its calm clear waters and long sandy beach with plenty of family activities. It was beautiful, but too commercial for our taste, so after a few hours we made our way back to Gramvousa for a leisurely late lunch before returning to our Airbnb to relax for the evening.

We had a late flight the next evening from Heraklion, allowing us to eat one last meal at Peskesi on our way to the airport. The 3 hour drive from Kissamos was an easy straightshot along the main highway giving us plenty of time before dinner for one last stop at a beautiful hidden beach just 30 minutes from Heraklion, a perfect farewell to the ocean before saying farewell to the island. Our second meal at Peskesi was just as memorable as the first, and it was with heavy hearts and heavy stomachs that we headed to the airport. But this once exotic island now felt remarkably familiar, thanks to the incredible hospitality of the locals and tourists alike, and there is no doubt in our minds that we will return year after year to explore more hidden corners, and return to our favorites.

Leave a Reply

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

Powered by

Up ↑

%d bloggers like this: