Crete has been on my bucket list since I could remember. There were so many feelings rushing through me as I thought back to my time as a kid, fantasising about adventuring through an intricate labyrinth to escape the ruthless appetites of the minotaur, and being in awe of the Minoan civilisation that, before it eventually fell, once was the highlight of Western world. As part of my bachelor's degree, I did some courses on Classical Civilisation, so it was just a dream come true (as corny as that sounds) to step on the rich fertile soils of Crete (it is known for its delicious produce - note that even a plain tomato salad, with lettuce leaves, sprinkled with feta cheese and drizzled with olive oil, tasted amazing!) and have a dip in the warm and wonderful Mediterranean seas.
We stayed on the Northern coast, in Stalis, at a lovely little mountain top hotel as part of a package trip. Possibly the best decision ever was when Han, my love, decided to rent out an ATV. They're not ridiculously expensive, you can pay about 15 Euros per day (although I'm not sure if that's a particularly good deal locally!). We had the best time hopping from beach to beach! Stalis beach is probably, and solidly, one of the loveliest beaches I've had the chance of experiencing. There's just pure, unadulterated sand everywhere - no bumps and weird things that stick to your feet - just granules of sugar-like grains that soothe your little toes as you enter into the water.
Food was really reasonable, we'd spend approximately 10-15 Euros per meal, which would often include a delicious glass of red wine. Everything was so ridiculously tasty. I'd recommend having seafood, but the oven-roasted lamb just blew my mind. Olives are so fresh, that they have an initial bitter taste, but really delightful (which is strange, because I often don't care for bitter flavours). Han quickly became a fan of the local brew, the Greek beer Mythos (which is refreshing and smooth). Crete, like many parts of Greece, is filled with adorable cats. Han seemed to be feeding them more than himself...
Crete has a real mix of offerings for any holiday-goer, family friendly activities, very touristic parts with clubs and restaurants and then something a bit more cultural and historical for artsy-types. I hounded Han about going to the Palace of Knossos, as it was somewhere that I had my eye on for ages. The Palace of Knossos, for those of you who might not know, was where many Greeks believe the story of the Minotaur originated. It was an important centre of the great kingdom of the Minoans, a civilisation that came before the Ancient Greeks as we know them, and apparently one of their main centres in Knossos was laid out in the form of a maze-like layout. The civilisation worshipped the bull as a holy creature, and you can see that the animal features heavily in their frescoes and art. Put the bull and the labyrinth together, we get the myth of the great Athenian hero Theseus, who slain and escaped the clutches of the minotaur. To get a better idea of the actual civilisation that lived in this impressive palace, with 1,300 rooms, a theatre, extensive store rooms and impressive aqueducts, the Archeological Museum of Heraklion is a must for any keen historian or lover of Antiquity. There you will see great examples of Minoan art and beautiful golden pieces such as jewellery and the famous Minoan honeybee pendant.
Just note that there's a bit of controversy surrounding the Palace of Knossos site, which is often considered the "Disney Land of Archaeology" (and I don't mean by way of rides...). Brit Sir Arthur Evans, responsible for most of the excavation of the site, was said to have overdone it with large scale restorations. The idea was to replicate parts of the ruins so viewers across the ages could imagine what it actually looked like back then. I didn't think it was too bad, but I understand quite a lot of historians and archeologists considered this an attempt at washing away the authenticity of the site.
We also visited the old leper colony, which was eventually abandoned following the discovery of the cure for leprosy. Spinalonga was carved out as an island by the Venetians, who ruled Crete in the 16th Century. The Venetians built fortifications there and the architecture is impressive and imposing. In the early 1900s up until the late 1950s, it acted as home for a quarantined, functioning society for those who were unfortunately living with the disease. Lepers were able to live together peacefully, have children, receive worship and start businesses on the island. It's definitely worth a visit! You'll have to get a boat (often available through a tour package) to the island and buy a ticket for entry.
Another real highlight was exploring the caverns in Mount Ida that were said to have housed Zeus. According to myth, Zeus (who later became the king of the Olympian gods) was prophesied to overthrown his father, Chronos, one of the titans. Chronos was suspicious of all his offspring so would swallow each and every child that his wife, Rhea, would produce. In a defiant attempt to save her baby, Rhea hid Zeus in Mount Ida where she arranged for him to be raised by a goat (or other variations of the myth say he was raised by nymphs or Gaia, another deity that is the primal mother goddess under Greek mythology). Rhea fooled her husband Chronos by providing him with a rock, passing it off as the newborn, which Chronos swallowed whole. Long story short, Zeus grew to his full size, defeated Chronos and managed to save his previously eaten siblings and restore them to life, then rightfully taking his kingdom. Note that the caverns are really interesting and there are amazing rock formations. One word of warning would be however is that there are two paths up, one newer one and one older one. I'd recommend the newer path up, as it's a bit easier to hike and much safer. I would also recommend wearing comfortable shoes!
If you have time, it's also worth visiting a small village named Mochos up in the mountains in the North. It's charming and quiet. We ate at a fantastic little taverna named Portego, run by a lovely little family. The food was incredible, extremely affordable and accompanied by (if you're lucky to catch it) Greek dancing in the main square. The dancing tends to take place on Wednesdays and if you're sitting close - be warned! - you might end up taking part yourself (Han and I ended up dancing with adorable local children dressed up in intricate and well made traditional dress).
Overall, it was a really eye-opening and wonderful trip. On our last night, what was lovely was we had the chance to visit Malia. We were totally taken away by the beauty of it. If you're closer to the coast, it's quite noisy and filled with lively bars and more commercial businesses, but if you could towards the older parts, like the old town, you'll find peaceful alleyways boasting stunning tavernas with delicious smells.