Where to go on Crete (Greece)
I stayed in Crete for two or three weeks in May 1995, but I think my information is still helpful.
We had booked a complete package in a department store's travel agency. Therefore, it would not be exactly an adventurous trip - hotel with food was included.
Crete is a lengthy island - about 120 miles from West to East and 10 to 20 miles from North to South. I think all planes on Crete arrive in Heraklion - the only airport. The English spelling for this town is Iraklion, but you won't see that when you're there.
We stayed in a hotel about 15 miles East of Heraklion, the town's name was Chersonisos (Greek: 'Hersonissos'). As said, we were there in May and it was pre-season. Things were not quite ready for the masses :-) for example we noticed that the beach was lacking sand. Yes, you read that right, the shore on the North Coast naturally is full of stones and not exactly good to swim either. Before the tourists arrive, they seem to bring a few truckloads of sand (within a radius of 250 yards around the hotels).
On the island, I recommend to rent a scooter (or a car, but a scooter is much more fun). If you want to go Southwards - there are some mountains, but the scooter will do it.
About the time to visit.. May is fine, it will be very warm already.
I would not go in July/ August, because in case you want to stop also on the mainland, it will be too hot there. On Crete itself, it is probably tolerable warm from May to October. People die on the mainland in summer from the heat.
We checked out these spots:
* Lasithi Plateau
this is very famous. You'll see the white windmills (hundreds of them)
They're pretty small and they are used for irrigation.
There are many caves in the area (over 3000 on Crete total) which prove that this plateau was inhabited in ancient times. At least in May these places were not filled with tourists - so: go there!
You probably know that according to Greek mythology Zeus was born on Crete; in one of those caves. We did not find that specific one :-( but you will get the feeling that you are at historical places all the time. To get to many of those caves, you will have to do a little hike.. up to 30 minutes one way.. often a steep path.
You should definitively visit the 'Psichro Cave', we found it outstanding beautiful and impressive. Get a map and look for the village 'Psichro'. It is pretty much in the center of Crete. I vaguely remember that it was considered one of the most important caves in prehistoric Greece. You'll get on a steep path up to a narrow entrance to the cave. There is an upper chamber and - going 'downstairs' an underground pool and various lower chambers with stalactites and stalagmites.
* Go to the Southern Beach!
Besides the Lasithi Plateau, this is the second MUST!
There is a famous beach with - surprise - old caves - where hippies lived in the sixties. This location is called Matala and it is a little more to the West. By that time, I thought that it was the most beautiful place in the world. (I've been to Kauai/Hawaii later which is not so bad either). At least in May, you will find there plenty of beaches where you are completely by yourself. The water has this blue-green color and is chrystal-clear. We stayed one afternoon on a formation of rocks (sandstone cliffs) which had a bunch of natural tubs. The sun was heating the water in these 'tubs' all day.. alternatively you could get jump in the ocean to cool off.
But don't get me wrong. Matala is more than a beach.
I recommend that you stay a few nights on the campground at Matala or get a room either in Matala or in Pitsidia (a few miles before Matala; another place with hippie history)
In general, the South is not as 'developed' as the North. I suspect that many visitors get a hotel on the North side. There they sit in their glass-surrounded hotel's pool area (protected from the wind) and never leave except for a guided tour to the Lasithi Plateau maybe. I can only guess that because of the landscape, it is much cheaper to build hotels on the north side which is rather flat while the south side is rocky (cliffs).
* City of Iraklion:
walk around the harbor, ummm.. trying to find back to the parking lot.. we had no map :-)
I was not really so excited about this part, but at that time it seemed to be a good contrast after having seen ancient Greece.
* If it is your taste, you can get on a cruise.
The major harbor is Agios Nicolaus, which is on the Northern side close to where we stayed. They offer all kind of organized things including cruises. We did not participate in any of that. But it seemed that you had the best choice if you drive to this city, a better choice than if you book at your hotel.
Some important tips - what you should NOT DO:
* Avoid the North side if you can :-)
Nature was much nicer on the South side, you can always make a short trip to the North. The cultural interesting part is in the center as described above.
* Do not purchase Greek currency outside Greece!!!
Read what I did and learn from it. For some reason, before we left to Greece, I went to my bank and exchanged DM 100 (roughly US$ 50) into Greek money ('Drachme').
Let's say I got 15000 Drachmes for it.
Of course that was not enough for the vacation - it in fact just covered the masses of ice-cream which we consumed :-).
So after a few days we went to a local store and exchanged money there.
To my pleasure, I got a much better rate in Crete. For DM 100, I got for example 22000 Drachmes.
So I became greedy; I thought, ok, you made a mistake to purchase Greek money at home, but why not profit from it. I exchanged more than I needed, and planned on selling the remaining Drachmes when I was back home.
Unfortunately I had to find that my bank was paying only DM 50 for each 15000 Drachmes which I had :-) while I had expected twice as much - got it?
By the way, Greece is not using the EURO currency.
If you go to Greece, bring your home currency there, exchange it there and spend all your Greek money - do not think of bringing it back.