It’s hard to pick our favourite Greek island, but Crete – the largest and most diverse of all – is undoubtedly a top contender for the title. As well as the usual Greek staples like amazing sunshine, cuisine and beaches, Crete boasts a truly distinct culture, rich heritage and breathtaking landscapes. From Venetian towns to dazzling mountains, Crete’s diversity makes it really stand out from the crowd.
Visitors choose sun-kissed Greece for their holiday for many reasons, but the beaches are a given. Crete’s coastline is laced with gorgeous beaches but all are spectacularly distinct from the next. In Elafonisi to the south-west, the warm, aquamarine water laps rose-pink sand; while further north in Balos, swathes of turquoise sea surround Gramvousa island – home to an ancient Venetian fortress. Over in the east of Crete, Vai beach is like something straight out of the Caribbean with its unusual palm trees, and nearby Kouremenos is a windsurfing hotspot, with strategically placed tavernas strewn behind the sandy shores - perfect for some much-needed refuelling.
Crete is a picturesque pastiche of contrasting landscapes, with the mighty White Mountains towering 2,000 metres over lush valleys and quaint country villages. At the heart of the island is the impressive Samaria Gorge, the largest of its kind in Europe and achingly beautiful. The downhill hike starts early in the day (to avoid the heat) from Omalos plateau where the views are staggering, to Agia Roumeli which hugs the Libyan Sea, taking around four to seven hours to complete. With trickling waterfalls and resident Cretan goats scampering around (known as Kri Kri’s), the hike is absolutely worth it – you’ll find it hard to believe you’re on an island in the middle of the Mediterranean.
History buffs will be in awe of Crete’s historical tapestry. From the Minoan Age to the Venetians’ reign, Crete’s historical relics are scattered across the island. No visit to Crete is complete without a visit to the famed archeological site of Knossos, the capital of the Minoan empire that is thought to date back to 1900BC. The ruins have been painstakingly preserved and a dedicated museum in Heraklion, the Cretan capital just 5km away, helps to depict an image of what this ancient world would have looked like. In addition to this, Crete lived under the rule of the Venetians some centuries ago and as a result historic towns like Hania and Rethymnon are laced with fortresses and Renaissance mansions, in turn rubbing shoulders with Byzantine churches and mosques from the Ottoman era.
And then, there’s Spinalonga. Anyone who has read Victoria Hislop’s novel, The Island, will know a thing or two about this small island cast off the coast of Plaka in the east. In the 20th century, the old Venetian fortress here was used to shelter lepers, and the now abandoned houses and streets make for an amazing day trip.
Sweeping sea views, infinity pools and lip-smacking Greek cuisine: this is what to expect from a luxury hotel in Greece. For Exsus, Blue Palace is the ultimate Cretan hideaway, with its dreamy hillside setting overlooking the azure waters at Elounda in the eastern side of the island. After a day out exploring Crete’s treasures, we recommend taking a dip in your private infinity pool, reenergising in the spa and feasting on delicious dishes in one of the hotel’s five restaurants. Don’t be surprised if you find it impossible to tear yourself away from the hotel though – with a private beach, water-sports centre and kids club, Blue Palace has countless treasures of its own.