When it comes to Greek islands, Crete was my first love. With its picturesque coastline of laid-back beaches and rocky coves, its stunning mountains and fascinating archaeological sites, I quickly fell for the charms of Greece’s largest and southernmost island. Though I’ve flirted with other Aegean hot spots, I’ve come back to Crete again and again. Nearly 20 years on, each trip still brings new discoveries.

Crete is a fantastic place for a summer holiday, thanks to its sun-drenched shores and beautiful beaches

Crete is a fantastic place for a summer holiday, thanks to its sun-drenched shores and beautiful beaches. Spend the day soaking up the rays from your lounger, getting lost in a good book. Bliss.

Step into the past

On a recent visit, my husband Mike and I stayed near Rethymno, on the north coast. Crete’s third-largest city has a warren of old-town streets rife with architectural remnants from the island’s past rulers. We strolled past a handsome loggia and lion-head fountain from Venetian times, minarets and shuttered balconies from the Turkish occupation.

Rethymnon harbour is a charming place for a wander around. If you want to put your feet up for a bit, sit and have a bite to eat and a refreshing drink and watch the boats bob on the water.

Rethymno harbour is a charming place for a wander around, or to put your feet up while having a bite to eat and a refreshing drink as you watch the boats bob on the water.

​There’s a lovely Venetian harbour and a massive fortress towering above with splendid views over the tiled rooftops and out to sea.

Rethymno is an atmospheric place to shop, dine and stroll. Best of all, it’s well placed for exploring. About an hour’s drive in any direction brings you east to the capital, Heraklion, west to Chania, or across the island to the south coast.

Rethymnon is a beautiful city filled with Venetian charm and plenty to do

Rethymno is a beautiful city filled with Venetian charm and plenty to do. There is beautiful architecture at every turn and an abundance of shops and restaurants where you can sample some of the local cuisine.

Ancient sites

Crete was once home to the Minoans, Europe’s oldest civilisation. Their rich culture flourished here from about 3,000 BC until their grand palaces and cities were destroyed by catastrophic events, thought to have been triggered by a volcanic eruption on nearby Santorini in 1,450 BC.

Crete is one of Donna's favourite places to travel to as there is so much to do. After 20 years of holidaying on this beautiful island, she still finds new discoveries and places to explore.

Crete is one of Donna's favourite places to travel to as there is so much to do. After 20 years of holidaying on this beautiful island, she and her husband, Mike, still find new discoveries and places to explore.

We had already seen the impressive ruins of the major Minoan palaces, including Knossos, Malia and Phaistos. But there are hundreds of lesser-known archaeological sites scattered throughout the island.

Crete’s arguably most famous - and important - historical attraction is the Palace of Knossos.

Crete’s arguably most famous - and important - historical attraction is the Palace of Knossos. The palace had an impressive 1,500 rooms, including throne rooms, a theatre and living quarters. Definitely worth a visit.

Just 8km south of Rethymno, the Late Minoan cemetery of Armeni is the largest ever found on Crete. Here, spread beneath an ancient oak forest, 231 chamber tombs are cut into the subterranean rock.

The tombs are open, and if we had had a torch we might have ventured inside. Sites like these are a peaceful alternative to the bigger, well-known sites, which can be crowded and hot, having little shade.

A fascinating sight is the Late Minoan cemetery of Armeni that has been unearthed. The 231 tombs are open and you can wander in and take a look around.

A fascinating sight is the Late Minoan cemetery of Armeni that has been unearthed. The 231 tombs are open and you can wander in and take a look around - it really is quite something.

A pottery village

For many Cretans, the connection to these early ancestors is very much alive, as we discovered in Margarites. This delightful village was a pottery centre as far back as Minoan times, and today around 20 potters have studios here.

The pretty village of Margarites is well-known for its beautiful pottery. There's plenty of little shops and studios dotted around the village, where you can buy a souvenir or two to take home with you.

The pretty village of Margarites is well-known for its beautiful pottery. There's plenty of little shops and studios dotted around the village where you can buy a souvenir or two to take home with you.

Most days, at Keramion Yorgos, you can find George Dalamvelas sitting at his potter’s wheel, demonstrating his craft. His father and uncle were potters, and he carries on the trade using techniques that go back to ancient times.

“We start by digging the ancient clay which is found just a few kilometres from here,” he told us. “It’s the only kind that will hold water without glazing. We prepare it to the right consistency, and just fire it once."

One of Crete's many influences from Minoan times, pottery plays a big part in the lifestyle and decor of the country. The clay is dug close by, keeping the creativeity very local.

One of Crete's many influences from Minoan times, pottery plays a big part in the lifestyle and décor of the country. The clay is dug close by, keeping the creativeity very local.

As George described the stages of production, we watched him throw vessels on the wheel, shaping, polishing and decorating them with instruments as simple as a pebble. Looking around at the stone walls laden with vases and pots, he pointed out traditional styles and classic motifs. In the centre of the shop, giant clay storage jars, the sort used for centuries to hold olive oil and wine, served as tables to display modern souvenirs.

If you want to learn how to throw a pot, there are around 20 studios in the village of Margarites and plenty of helpful artists who will give you a lesson.

If you want to learn how to throw a pot, there are around 20 studios in the village of Margarites and plenty of helpful artists who will give you a lesson.

A few blocks away, Konstantinos Galios makes these large storage jars. Villagers in the nearby Amari Valley still use them - not plastic - for oil and water. “One man has ordered a jar for raki,” he told us with a grin.

On display at the front of the studio, beautiful pieces of Galios’s ceramic art, with intricate textures and sea-green and azure glazes, are both timeless and contemporary. In another shop, Emma & Aras turn classic pottery styles into bright pieces of modern art.

The beautiful village of Margarites is a great little place for a walk around to explore all the local ceramic art.

The beautiful village of Margarites is a great little place for a walk around to explore all the local ceramic art.

Wine tasting and touring

Driving around Crete is one of my greatest pleasures. The interior of the island is studded with mountains, and scenic roads wind through rugged old villages and idyllic rural valleys. The cloud-covered summit of Mount Ida, its highest peak, towers majestically over the centre. We headed beyond, south of Heraklion, to explore the island’s leading wine region.

Crete is not generally known for quality wines. But that is rapidly changing. In 2016, Crete was shortlisted by the esteemed Wine Enthusiast magazine for Wine Region of the Year, alongside Champagne, Provence, Sonoma County and the winner, Oregon's Willamette Valley.

Mount Ida - or Psiloritis - is Crete's highest peak. It is a challenging trek to the top, so only attempt it if you are physically fit enough, but if you do, you will be rewarded with incredible views across the island.

Mount Ida - or Psiloritis - is Crete's highest peak. It is a challenging trek to the top, so only attempt it if you are physically fit enough, but if you do, you will be rewarded with incredible views across the island. Even today, you can visit the stone church of the Holy Cross at the top, which is well worth the hike.

Wine has been made on the island since Minoan times. At the ancient site of Vathypetro, we saw the oldest known wine press in the world, dating back to about 1,500 BC. Today Crete has some 53 wineries, and small brown signs have been springing up in recent years, pointing the way to those that offer tours and tastings.

We started at Lyrarakis, the region’s oldest and largest winery. Located near the village of Alagni, it was founded by two brothers in 1966. Today it is run by five of their children. They now produce a million litres of wine a year, half of which is exported.

Lyrarakis is the region’s oldest and largest winery, which produces an impressive million litres of wine a year.

Donna and Mike enjoyed exploring some of Crete's best wineries on their holiday to Crete. They headed first to Lyrarakis, the region’s oldest and largest winery, which produces an impressive million litres of wine a year.

“On Crete, the first generation made wine based on experience, with knowledge passed down from their parents,” Areti Valtadorou told us on a tour of the vineyard. “Now, their children are bringing new ideas and science into it. They are coming into the business as trained oenologists, and the wine is much better for it.”

Walking down a path between the vines, Areti showed us clusters of Plyto and Dafni. The family started cultivating these two old varieties of local grapes, which were in danger of disappearing as nobody was growing them 50 years ago. Now they are used in some of their most distinctive wines.

Lyrarakis winery has managed to save two types of grapes which were almost extinct 50 years ago. These two varieties are now harvested for many of the wines they produce.

Lyrarakis winery has managed to save two types of grapes which were almost extinct 50 years ago. These two varieties are now harvested for many of the wines they produce.

Inside, we tasted the fresh, delicate Plyto wine, perfect as an aperitif or with light meals. The golden Dafni, with hints of rosemary and lavender, is especially good with herbed dishes. It’s now sold in the UK by Marks & Spencer.

Crete has eleven indigenous grape varieties, seven white and four red. White grapes tend to grow better on the island because of the altitude. But Lyrarakis also produces excellent reds, blending local kotsifali and mandilari grapes with other Mediterranean varietals.

We tasted our way around several wineries. Most were family-run and all used organic methods and local grapes. The quality of today’s Cretan wines is impressive, and it’s well worth getting to know them.

Donna and Mike like to get out and explore whenever they holiday in Crete. They visited some of the diverse historical sites, wineries and pretty villages on their travels.

Donna and Mike like to get out and explore whenever they holiday in Crete. They visited some of the diverse historical sites, wineries and pretty villages on their travels.

More fruits of the vine

Wine isn’t the only product of Crete’s glorious grapevines. On this island, nothing is wasted. Vine leaves are stuffed with rice to make the delicious starter, dolmades. And many locals, like Rena Paspati, make a delicious grape molasses called petimezi from the grape must left over from winemaking.

Petimezi is traditionally made from sweet soultani grapes, which were brought to the island, along with the recipe, by Greek settlers returning from Turkey in 1922. Over many hours, it is purified and boiled down to the maker’s taste, then cooled and bottled. Cretans swear by it as a cure for sore throats and chesty colds.

 Ever the environmentalists, the Cretans don't like to waste anything, so dolmades - vine leaves stuffed with rice -  make for a delicious starter.

While holidaying in Crete, give the local cuisine a try. Ever the environmentalists, the Cretans don't like to waste anything, so dolmades - vine leaves stuffed with rice - make for a delicious starter.

“We use it like honey too,” Rena told us. “You can have it on yogurt, in herb tea as a sweetener, or mix it with vinegar to make a salad dressing. You can marinate meats in it, or use it instead of sugar in cakes and sweets. It goes well with tahini on bread - it's a superfood!”

Since the finest petimezi is made locally, the best place to buy it is in small village shops or markets.

The leftover pomace from winemaking is also used to distill a strong alcoholic drink, rakı. This traditional spirit is not to everyone’s taste. But at the Mylos Café in Agousseliana village, after delicious plates of organically grown vegetables, we discovered another superfood - rakomelo.

From the grapes also comes one of Crete's most popular drinks, Raki. The strong spirit is sometimes given as a complimentary drink at the end of the meal, though you could try variations of the drink at small local eateries.

From the grapes also comes one of Crete's most popular drinks, rakı. The strong spirit is sometimes given as a complimentary drink at the end of the meal, though you could try variations of the drink at small local eateries.

This special type of rakı is made with mountain herbs, honey and cinnamon, and it’s said to have many health benefits. Yorgos Kourmoulis spent two years perfecting his rakomelo, which is made to an old village recipe. Sweet, warm and tasty, it goes down a treat.

Like petimezi, rakomelo is mostly made in small batches for personal use. So the place to sample it is at small, local establishments.

Throughout Crete, from food to wine to art, the old traditions are evolving into exciting new forms for the present day. And for me, that’s the magic of this timeless island.

Crete makes some delicious wine so a wine tasting tour or two is definitely something that should be on your Crete bucket list.

Crete makes some delicious wine so a wine tasting tour or two is definitely something that should be on your Crete bucket list.

Top tastings

Stilianou Winery. Kounavi village. A small winery making high-quality wines using only Cretan grape varieties, including a special dessert wine from sun-dried kotsifali grapes.

Mesarmi. Choudetsi village. For a good overview of Cretan wines, Stella Vassilaki offers informative tastings of wines from several regional producers and topical seminars.

Zacharioudakis Winery, near Plouti village. Greece’s newest winery, producing organic wines on stunning mountainside terrain overlooking the Roman ruins of Gortys.

Holidaymakers Donna and Mike enjoyed exploring some of Crete's beautiful vineyards and tasting some of the local products.

Silva Daskalaki Winery. Siva village. Award-winning wines, produced by the first female winemaker on Crete.

In the picturesque village of Siva, you will find the Silva Daskalaki Winery. Kept in the Daskalakis family since 1920, it has produced a number of award-winning wines.

In the picturesque village of Siva, you will find the Silva Daskalaki Winery. Kept in the Daskalakis family since 1920, it has produced a number of award-winning wines.

Manousakis Winery. Near Alikianos, Chania region. Attractive, boutique winery offering sophisticated wines and food and wine tastings.
Agia Triada. Akrotiri, Chania region. Atmospheric tasting in a 16th-century cellar, with wines made by this historic monastery.

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