The largest – over 250 km (160 mi) long – and most southerly of the Greek islands, Crete joined independent Greece in the early 20th century, and it retains strong cultural traditions. Its spine of impressive mountains – the highest, Psiloritis, is 2.456 m (8.060 ft) – is snow-covered in winter. The south-west is barren and impenetrably rocky, though the east and south are very fertile – Crete exports a range of agricultural produce to mainland Greece.
The extraordinary Minoan civilization which flourished from 2800 until 1450 BC, was followed by a succession of great powers including Greece, Rome, Byzantium, Venice and the Ottoman Empire. Now the island’s archaeological and architectural heritage sums up its history, for here are Minoan sites – Knossos is one of many – and villas and towns, churches and forts, mosques, ghost villages, ancient harbours and cities with fascinating old quarters. Modern invasions too have left their mark – atmospheric spots redolent of the German occupation during World War II and the almost continuous resort development of the north coast which mass tourism has brought.
But Crete offers more than package holidays and archaeology. Inland, for the serious walker there are the challenging mountains and gorges, for the rambler, marked tracks through verdant valleys and spacious uplands, passing a less-visited site or a traditional hill village. In spring the island blazes with wildflowers and hundreds of migrating bird species pass through.
Beaches are not all packed. The far west is remote, empty sands, the south coast small resorts often reached by a spectacular road journey, sometimes by boat.
Crete’s cities, Iraklion, Rethymnon and hania, provide museums, markets, nightlife; they buzz with life and character.
Population: 540.045 (2001)
When to go: April, May, June, September and October
How to get there: Direct and domestic flights to Iraklion and Hania; domestic flights to Sitia. Ferries from the mainland and inter-island ferries.
Highlights: Knossos – Arthur Evans’s reconstruction is unmissable; Malia, Phaestos and Zakros are fascinating; they have not been rebuilt.
The Archaeological Museumin Iraklion – for an overview of Minoan civilization.
The Samaria Gorge – Europe’s largest gorge, home to golden eagles and Cretan ibexes.
Rethymnon – the back streets of the old town with wooden Ottoman houses, leaning balconies and old mosques.
The Lasithi Plateau – the windmills may not be working but this is a lovely green plateau with pretty villages and the birthplace of Zeus.
You should know: A real escapist spot, the small island of Gavdos, some 50 km (31 mi), off Crete’s south coast, is the most southerly landmass in Europe. A few fishermen live there, and it is possible to stay.