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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 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.
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."
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.
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.
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.
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.
“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.
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.
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.
“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.
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.
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.
Silva Daskalaki Winery. Siva village. Award-winning wines, produced by the first female winemaker on Crete.
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.
If you like the taste of Crete Donna has given us here, in her blog, click on the RCI Resort Directory button below where you can search for the perfect place to stay and have a fantastic holiday of your own...
Experience the magic of Crete for yourself: RCI Members can enjoy holidays in the seaside village of Makry-Gialos at Villea Village resort. View availability
If you own timeshare and you're not an RCI member, you're missing out on travelling to some of the world's most incredible places. Find out how to join our Holiday Exchange programme in a few simple steps...