A Week in Western Crete (with photos)

Oct 8th, 2016, 03:34 AM
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A Week in Western Crete (with photos)

We had 8 days on Crete in July. We flew to Chania from Venice (on Ryan Air) and before that I had traveled for 3 and a half weeks to the Baltics, England and Italy. So for me, Crete was the relaxing finale to a great five-week trip. I had wanted to go back to a Greek island since our trip seven years ago but my husband keeps wanting to go to Italy. But when I told him there was lots of “Venetian Influence” in Crete and we could go to Venice as well he agreed. My basic overall impression of Crete: there are some amazing places and I’m very glad I went. But every place can’t be the ‘best’ and in the case of the Greek Islands – from my very limited experience - I have to say Crete did not surpass the first three islands we visited – Santorini, Naxos and Paros.

Photos - www.pbase.com/annforcier/crete

As we were landing in Chania I got pretty excited. The mountains were much larger than I had anticipated; the sky and sea were incredibly blue. Very dramatic.

Our AutoEurope voucher said we would be met with a sign and there was a woman holding an “Enterprise” sign. She drove us about 5 minutes to the Enterprise (also Alamo) Office. Very efficient but careful checking of all documents, putting a 200€ hold on the card (we got all the insurance so this was just for ‘tires and underside’ damage). Then she gave us some vague directions to get to the “National Road”, which we found without too much difficulty. Road signs are in both Greek letters, then a few feet further on, in Latin letters, but the translation is often not the same as on the map (eg a ‘V’ could be a ‘B’). Also, most of the signs are obliterated with graffiti so you can’t really read them. Or by overgrown bushes.

All the directions I had to get to the hotel in Rethymnon were wrong. Google maps plus two Internet reviews said to take an exit that didn’t exist (at least there was no sign for it). And the maps (car rental one plus the one I paid $10 for on amazon) were not at all helpful. Somehow we managed to find the parking lot I was looking for and it is indeed just steps away from the hotel (which we also found by accident, I had it mapped but of course none of the street names correspond with the ones on the map). At this point I was re-thinking my decision that we really didn’t need GPS. However, most of the three days we had the car the paper maps we had combined with signs was enough.
The Byzantine Hotel is just inside the gate opposite the public garden. There’s a sign and it’s not hard to find. However, the door had a sign saying to ‘call Nickos’ and a phone number. Fortunately even though Nickos wasn’t around, there was a young guy who spoke a bit of English who gave us the room key (never even asked our names or to see a passport or anything) and showed us our room. He was helpful giving us directions to free parking as the lot we were in next to the public garden was 70 cents/hr, 24/7. The free parking is by the port under the fortress, about a 10 minute walk.

The room was nice – clearly a very old building but renovated enough to be comfortable. AC worked great, Wi-Fi fine, everything very clean. Mini fridge didn’t work. Breakfast served in an interior courtyard with bougainvillea climbing the walls included wonderful bread, butter and jam, pain au chocolate, Greek yogurt with peaches, fresh squeezed OJ, and a bruschetta like thing with tomatoes and feta. There is a roof deck guests can use and it right smack next to a tiny mosque. €74 double. No credit cards.
isabel is offline  
Oct 9th, 2016, 04:26 AM
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Although it grew on us by the end of our three days in Rethymnon, our first impression was not great. As I have found so many times before, a lot of what contributes to an impression of a place has to do with expectations. I had very high expectations yet the first impression was nowhere near as good as it was with the other places we’d been in Greece. We parked the car below the fortress, which is quite huge and the sea is right there so the walk between the sea and the fortress was nice. There were a few restaurants as you got closer to the harbor. But once you enter the harbor area (cute little pirate ships docked there, lighthouse is scenic but there was also a small cruise ship and a lot of construction equipment which detracted from any potential charm) the area seems like one huge restaurant (probably really about 10 but they all blend together) and there are guys very aggressively trying to get you to eat at their place. The menus are all huge and in multiple languages and hard to look at while someone is incessantly blabbering at you. We decided that since we hadn’t had lunch and we were in Greece we should at least try the expensive fresh fish restaurants. Believe me, there are no cute, un-touristy bargain tavernas in Rethymon. Maybe there were once, but not anymore, at least not in July. The fish was excellent and ended up costing about 50€ (for two, plus drinks) so not awful, the setting was pleasant on the sea side – but you had to listen to the guys recruiting diners the whole time and the “this is my grandmother’s taverna, we are in the ‘top 10 restaurants in Greece book” spiel. Not at all pleasant. And even though we actually weren’t, it felt like we were being ripped off.

After dinner we walked through the old town. One mega shopping mall, so crowded you couldn’t walk next to each other. Looking up there was some interesting architecture, but in the evening you can’t see a thing due to the crowds. Almost worse than Venice. And certainly nothing like I remember Naxos or Paros or even Santorini. At least there you knew you were in a tourist town, here it was more than half just boring clothes and jewelry, very little specific to Greece.

We needed an ATM and found one but the exchange rate was horrible – what should have been $330 (€300) was $368!!! Rip off! I’ve been traveling to Europe for over 15 years and never had this experience. Turns out this was a “Cash Dispenser/ATM” but was not affiliated with a bank. We saw numerous ones of these all over Crete (and actually some in London as well). I don’t know if this is a new thing or if I just never noticed them before. A few days later we used one associated with a bank and that one had a normal exchange rate.

So my first impression of Crete was not terribly positive. It certainly has a gorgeous natural setting (sea/mountains) but Rethymnon is a town that’s been raped of whatever natural appeal it may have had and replaced with the worst kind of shameless grab for tourist money and un-tasteful development. I had read (recently) about ‘rickety shops with local craftsmen plying their trade’ – NOT. Seriously, the stores look like mall store fronts and sell much of the same stuff.

Things did get better. We loved Chania and our day trips to the south and to Balos Beach. (Keep reading)
isabel is offline  
Oct 9th, 2016, 10:32 AM
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We spent two weeks in the Chania area and loved it. We also loved Naxos and Paros, Santorini not so much, over touristed.
HappyTrvlr is online now  
Oct 9th, 2016, 12:22 PM
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Your photos of Crete give the impression that it may be my kind of island for a quick getaway - picturesque but enough to see, do, and walk around - although I must admit I am not getting the "Let me add it to my travel list." feeling from your report. Looking forward to more...
tripplanner001 is online now  
Oct 10th, 2016, 07:07 AM
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As I said, while our first impression was disappointing we did have a great time and really liked some of the other areas we visited.

Daytrip to the Libyan Sea, stopping in Spili, Akounia, Ayia Galini, and Matala

It was not hard to find our way out of Rethymnon, and then there were signs for everywhere we wanted to go. Basically one main road from Rethymnon down to Ayia Galini, then east to Matala. To Spili took less than a half hour. The town is just one main street, lined with mini-markets and a few tourist shops, one big church. Just as you first enter the town there is a ‘new’ monastery, but it’s quite nice and has two ‘mini’ churches in front of it. We parked in front of it and then walked five minutes to the center of town (but there is small parking lot in the center). There is a tiny ‘square’ with a long fountain with 16 lion heads squirting water. And if you go up the couple of side streets there are narrow winding lanes with almost cute houses. Not as picturesque as the Cyclades islands.

The next ‘town’ was Akounia, which is a tiny off shoot off the main road – looks like a driveway. Only about a dozen buildings, one being a pretty big (relative to the size of the town) church – and not the ‘usual’ Greek Orthodox shape, but with a large white bell tower – and a huge tree completely shading the little terrace/square, which had about a dozen tables on it for the couple of tiny cafes. Unless you wanted to sit in the café there was literally nothing to do, but the detour only took about 5 minutes.

Continuing south the scenery was quite dramatic – tan mountains, lots of olive trees, some golden fields of grass. There were little Orthodox churches every so often, tiny settlements, and occasional glimpses of the sea in the distance. Some really cute goats. Matala was clearly signed after passing the turn for Agia Galini.

Matala is a beach town, nice little cove, with caves in the cliffs, probably created during the Neolithic period. It was a port during the Minoan periods, and also used in Roman times when the caves were used as burial tombs. By the 20th century it was a small fishing village when hippies moved in in the 1960s and lived in the caves. Joni Mitchel’s experience with the hippies was immortalized in the song ‘Carey’.

The wind is in from Africa, Last night I couldn't sleep
Oh, you know it sure is hard to leave here Carey, But it's really not my home
My fingernails are filthy, I've got beach tar on my feet
And I miss my clean white linen and my fancy French cologne
The night is a starry dome, And they're playin' that scratchy rock and roll beneath the Matala Moon

The caves are now managed by the Greek archaeological association (2€ entrance fee) but you can climb all around in them. The beach is black sand (hot!) but the water incredible turquoise (looks like blue topaz) and warm and clear. There are quite a number of hotels and restaurants near the beach and out the road a ways, quite a bit of free parking and a medium sized pay lot (2€ for as long as you want) right at the beach. There is a good sized market where we got a huge Greek Salad, two large Greek Yogurts with fruit, a liter of water and a ‘freddo’ (iced) cappuccino for under 9€. Yum.

On the way back to Rethymnon we stopped in Agia Galini, which is larger than the other towns we stopped in and has several streets full of holiday rentals and hotels. We drove down to the harbor (actual fishing boats) and the town looks way better from the end of the jetty around the harbor than it does up close. Didn’t seem at all appealing to stop and wander around, but the view of the village, the harbor, and the cliffs just on the other side of the harbor were worth a short stop.

Back in Rethymon we explored a bit. Rethymnon is much better in the late afternoon; less people around, the light on the buildings was nice. It’s still no comparison to Naxos, Paros or Santorini as far as atmosphere, there are too many glass fronted stores selling mall like jewelry and clothing, but there are some local things (linens, soaps, jewelry, leather sandals and bags), and some of the shops if you look inside you see are really old buildings. The mosque and minaret, the fortress, the lighthouse and old harbor, the old fountain and loggia, and the large number of Turkish like houses do make it interesting. But especially after dark it does have the feel of a ‘fake village’ a la Las Vegas. And the harbor really can’t be appreciated day or night as there is literally nowhere to walk that doesn’t have restaurant tables right from the building to the edge of the water.

For dinner we went to a place out on the road that leads to the old town around the fortress (which is also where we’ve been parking the car). The view is just as interesting – the waves crashing on the rocks, the fortress, the sky turning dark pink, then purple to black. The food was considerably cheaper and there was no hard sell so a much more pleasant experience. I had slouvaki which came with a small Greek salad and fries. DH had a pork in tomato sauce with rice dish. Including beer and water, and free watermelon desert, it came to just over half the price of dinner the night before and the waiters were much nicer. DH went to the kitchen after dinner and told the cook it was delicious (in Greek) and it really made his day. (I meant the cook, but I think it actually made my husband’s day as well that his Greek was understood!)

Walking back to the hotel after dinner, the old harbor is nicely lit and actually is much prettier in the dark. The streets were still crowded and so brightly lit by the stores, so many shoppers that it had the feel of the made-up villages in Vegas. But that didn’t stop my from buying a nice leather bag (which, while not made in Crete, at least was made in Greece, “by my cousin” said the salesman).
isabel is offline  
Oct 10th, 2016, 10:47 AM
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The famous Spili fountains (19 lion's heads) were built in the Venitian era, when Venice controlled many parts of Greece (about 800 - 1200) ... and are fed by mountain streams straight from the snow-melt at the top of Psiloritis Mountain, also known as Mt. Idi -- "mountain of the Goddess" -- mentioned in Homer, and also the source of small town names in USA (Mount Ida MA, WI, AR etc), named by founders who had classical educations. The water is icy-cold, pure and untainted by chemicals ... savvy tourists stop there and fill up their daypack bottles. One time when we stopped by we saw locals filling up Gallon jugs to take home, and waiters from nearby restaurants filling up 2-liter bottles as well. Town's no big deal but great quickie water-stop.

Confused about your description of Matala as black sand since at my 3 visits. in both Spring & Fall .. it looked like this http://www.visitmatala.com -- it was golden sand, brown at edge when wet. Maybe they dump golden sand on top of black?? I dont think so... black is mainly place like Santorini (volcanic lava-grit), also some Islands have spectacular large black-pebble beaches (Chalki).

Have to agree w. you about Rethymnon, its Old Town is crowded, small & full of ticky-tacky... once you've been to Chania, it doesn't compare. In Chania Old Town, you can wander off into small lanes, not a shop in sight, lots of little kids playing, people going about their lives
travelerjan is offline  
Oct 11th, 2016, 05:45 AM
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jan - I though Spilli was worth the hour or so we spent there, the back streets were kind of interesting (if you like wandering back streets) but I agree not as interesting as any of the towns I visited on Santorini, Naxos or Paros (or Napflion).

Since you questioned the black sand in Matala I went and looked at my own photos and it certainly doesn't look black - kind of grey more than golden maybe but not black. Yet my memory of wiping the sand off my feet was that it was black. I do remember it was about the hottest sand I have ever walked over.

And yes, definitely loved Chania more than Rethymnon.
isabel is offline  
Oct 11th, 2016, 06:33 AM
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Thanks for posting, isabel. We really enjoyed our stay in western Crete, and it looks like we covered a lot of the same ground. Love your pictures, too!

Btw, the balcony in the lower-left of your photo, just above the doorway...that's the room we stayed in. Great place.

mr_go is offline  
Oct 12th, 2016, 02:50 AM
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Mr Go - We were in the room right above that. Great place to stay wasn't it? So thank you, cause I think your report must have been what convinced us to choose that hotel.

The following day we did a day trip to Knossos with a stop at the Arkadi Monastery which is just about 12 miles from Rethymnon. Of course first you have to find the road. The directions on the monastery’s own website were useless, the exit they said to take either didn’t exist or was not marked. A trip advisor review gave directions that talked about ‘taking the old road and going under the new road’ and we did see a sign (we were on the ‘National Road’ headed from Reythmnon to Heriklion) for old road so we took that, and it did go under the National Road, then we eventually saw signs for Arkadi. It’s a beautiful drive up into the mountains on a pretty narrow two lane road, but once you are on it, it’s pretty well signed.

Arkadi Monastery is really interesting and pleasant to visit. It really looks like it belongs in Mexico or California rather than Greece. Built in 16th century, with Renaissance influence mixed with both Roman and baroque elements, built of local honey colored stone. There’s a relatively boring outer wall, but inside is the small but beautiful (from the outside, I though the interior boring) church, surrounded by buildings where the monks lived (some of which have some furniture and stuff), gardens, grapevines, etc. As early as the 16th century the monastery had a school and library and was a center of science and art and was a center of resistance against the Turks in the 1800s. Admission 3€

Then we found our way back to the National Road and continued on to Knossos, which is well marked and only about 5 minutes off the National Road. There are a couple of large parking lots near the entrance, and a block with four or five souvenir stores and two or three cafes. Knossos is a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the only one on Crete. It’s no where near as extensive or interesting as Pompeii or the Roman Forum or some of the Greek Temples spread all over Greece and Italy, but the history goes back a lot longer and the site is interesting. Lots of signs in English plus all the major guidebooks have good information. There are plenty of people at the entrance willing to sell you a guided tour but you really don’t need it if you can read the signs or have a guidebook (they sell them there as well). So I can’t say it had the same effect on me that many other ancient sites have had, but I’m glad I went and it was worth the 15€ entry and the hour or two we spent there.
Back in Rethymnon, after a brief siesta, we went to the fortress (4€). It’s larger and more interesting than I expected, but the view less interesting. Rethymnon buildings from above are pretty ugly and you can’t see the old harbor at all, and the few minarets get lost in the jumble of houses. But there are quite a few buildings up there including a mosque in the process of being refurbished.

Dinner was on a side street, gyros and souvlaki and beer and coke for €17 and was more food than we could eat. Gelato after dinner, definitely not as good as in Italy.

After a morning stroll around Rethymnon we drove to Chania and without really knowing where we were going, headed for the Airport. Fortunately we did pass the Enterprise drop off place (across from the NATO/US base) while following signs for the airport. Then, just as we were at the airport there were signs for the Agia Triada Monastery or Tzagarolon Monastery as it is also known. It’s just another 4 km from the airport, a few turns but each one is marked. Definitely worth the time it takes if you are driving. Like the Arkadi Monastery, it is surrounded by a high wall with a somewhat impressive entrance, and inside is the church and several buildings built into the wall where the monks live, etc. But Agia Triada is more Greek looking, with rounded domes on the main church. It was built in 1634 by Cretan monks of the Venetian Orthodox family, highly educated, learned in history, Greek, Latin and architecture. The façade has Doric columns, but there are elements of Renaissance architecture. The church stands in the center of an extremely well kept verdant courtyard with bougainvillea, oleander and other flowers. The west wing of the monastery is a three-story building and includes vaulted storerooms where the wine and olive oil are kept. Inside the complex there is an olive press and a cellar for the organic olive oil, wine, honey, vinegar and olive oil soap which is still produced here and exported (and sold in the shop). There’s also a ‘museum’ of old olive and wine making equipment. Surrounding the monastery are vineyards and olive groves, and the road leading to it is lined with cypress trees. The whole place was beautiful and peaceful (only a handful of visitors, no tour buses). Very worth the €2.50 entry fee.

On the road back to the airport we passed a herd of goats who, when I stood on the other side of their fence to photograph them, either thought I was interesting or potentially lunch and came running over and trying to climb the fence.

After turning in the car and being driven back to the airport we got the ‘green’ (public) bus to Chania (2.50€, ½ hour). Even in the 10 minute walk dragging the bags to the hotel we decided we liked Chania better than Rethymnon (which actually was the opposite of what I expected).

Hanim Studios – Easy to find, on a paved alley (of mostly other boutique hotels and restaurants) just behind the Chania cathedral on the main pedestrian street of the old town (Halidhon). Each ‘studio’ is named for an herb, we were in Salvia. Huge room with queen bed and a loveseat/coffee table/armoire sitting area, large windows, kitchenette (with small sink, coffee maker, fridge (that worked!) and 2 burner hotplate). New modern bathroom. Great AC, Wi-Fi, TV. Very clean and comfortable. Great location, great place to stay. Reception open from about 8am-8pm and extremely friendly. No lift (it’s an historic building) and 45 steps to our second floor room. Breakfast is 8€ per person so since we had a kitchenette most days we just ate in the room. On the third day they stopped us and told us since we were staying so long (5 nights) we could have breakfast on them the next morning. It’s a ‘four course’ breakfast, all local, organic, traditional and very good (although we aren’t that in to ‘savory’ foods for breakfast – bruschetta, potatoes with yogurt and prosciutto, bread and fresh jams/honey, etc.) Having the kitchenette so we could have Greek salad, Greek yogurt with local honey and peaches, juice, coffee, etc. was great. There is a shop right around the corner from the hotel, open by 7am selling croissants, donuts, etc.
isabel is offline  
Oct 12th, 2016, 10:07 AM
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Love that place. We almost skipped on the breakfast too, but ms_go talked me into it. Very glad she did!

Even in the 10 minute walk dragging the bags to the hotel we decided we liked Chania better than Rethymnon

Lol... yeah. Hard to argue against Chania, imo. We too liked it even better than we'd expected.
mr_go is offline  
Oct 13th, 2016, 02:58 AM
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We liked Chania about ten times more than Rethymon. It’s plenty touristy (in the old town) but it just has a nicer feel to it. Chania had plenty of people, and a few of the side streets were very crowded (but had more of a souk feel, than the mall like feel of Rethymnon). The main street is wider, the Cathedral quite impressive with a nice open square in front of it, the harbor delightful. The harbor is larger and there’s more of a promenade that can be enjoyed walking around (Rethymnon’s old harbor was completely taken up by restaurant tables whereas Chania’s had plenty of room between the restaurants and the water, and the restaurateurs were no where near as aggressive or annoying. (There were even signs to that effect: “we don’t pressure” “no stress dining”).

The Venetian harbor was built around 1356 and used for commerce and also to control the Sea of Crete against pirates. On its north side the harbor is protected by a breakwater, near the middle of which is a small bulwark like a gun emplacement. There are fishing boats, sailboats, sightseeing boats moored here in front of the Venetian Arsenal with 8 large arched fronts, which in the 16th century was where the Venetian fleet could stop for repairs. They were originally open to the sea and the giant ships could sail right in. The Lighthouse is the distinctive feature of the harbor, built by the Venetians but restored to its present appearance by the Egyptians in the 1800s. It’s one of the oldest in the world and has a distinctive shape, octagonal at the base, 16 corners in the middle and the top resembles a minaret. It’s a 1km walk out to it with great views back to the rest of the harbor and out to sea with the waves crashing. Great walk even in the heat of the day. Sunset is perfect (at least in July) to highlight the lighthouse.

We had dinner at a restaurant right on the harbor (even though the hotel told us those restaurants are too ‘touristy’ and the food better in another area) and got an excellent large pizza and huge Greek salad (plus drinks for €23). And I don’t care if the food might be better elsewhere, it was certainly decent and not overpriced and you can’t beat the view.

Then we took a sunset cruise. There are about 5 or 6 guys with little stands all along the harbor selling glass bottom boat cruises, and 1, 2, and 3 hours cruises with snorkeling. This one guy spoke excellent English so DH asked him where he learned his English and he said “New York - where did you learn yours?” To which I replied “New York” so we got talking. Turns out we both lived in Astoria, though not at the same time. He lived there for decades but his mother wanted to retire back to Crete so he came with her. Said he makes “no money” but it’s a nice enough life. Offered us half price on his sunset cruise (and it was on the cutest boat). Only 5€ each, including fruit and Raki. The boat only sails out of the harbor for a few minutes and anchors and several people made use of the snorkeling equipment and jumped in. The rest of us ate the fruit, drank Raki (or you could also purchase beer or soft drinks), and watched the sunset. The boat even came with a dog, Sifsi, who was very friendly and clearly at home on the sea. The same guy owns the two most interesting boats in the harbor, very pirate looking, a small black one and a larger white one.
All in all we found Chania to be quite an interesting town with a nice combination of perfect sized picturesque harbor, nice old town with interesting combo of Venetian, Turkish and bombed out buildings with a variety of shopping (mostly, but not entirely tourist oriented).
isabel is offline  
Oct 13th, 2016, 03:21 AM
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Western Crete is a really nice place for enjoying lovely views with family or friends. I would love to go there with my kids and enjoy lots of funny time here, you have shared about this destaintion great lines and also best information which will be informative for all of us...
UALAN is offline  
Oct 13th, 2016, 06:52 AM
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Thanks for your report.
We visited Venice for the first time this May then flew to Chania. As we walked around the old town and harbour we remarked that Chania is much like Venice but without the canals. We said just that to our Hotel owner who replied of course it reminds you of Venice, the Venetians built Chania.

I once read that Rethymnon has its charm but you have to look for it. From your continuing report it looks like you started to find some of that charm the longer you were there. Rethymnon old town has seen a lot of sprucing up over the past few years but I agree Chania is the place to center your west Crete visit.

Just as an aside if you return to west Crete consider a trip to the south coast to villages of Paleochora, Sougia, Agia Romeulli, Loutro, and Chora Sfakion. Remote villages with some only accessible by coastal ferry. After that trip you will begin to see why many people can see the similarities between Crete and Naxos.
stanbr is offline  
Oct 13th, 2016, 05:23 PM
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Stanbr - we did visit the south coast - I think we decided to do that based on your reports. We had wanted to do a boat trip but that didn't work out as a day trip and we wanted to base in Chania rather than stay down on the south coast. But we did enjoy our two day trips down there. (Actually, I mention you in the next part of the report. So thanks for the inspiration.)

But first - our day trip to Balos Beach

We had a total of five nights, so four more full days, and I knew we wanted to go to Balos/Gramvousa one day so we went to the tourist office and a couple of places selling excursions. The ‘official’ tourist office was not terribly helpful but there were numerous private tourist offices on the main street and around the big square just outside of the old town. Plus more local car rental places than I have ever seen in one city. We had decided to only rent a car for those first three days as we didn’t want to have to deal with driving and parking the whole time – actually we were convinced of this plan by a trip report by Stanbr. Anyway we didn’t want to rent another car for the trip to Balos and it turns out there are pros and cons to going there by car verses bus and boat.

There are at least half a dozen places selling tours to Balos and Gramvousa, all priced about the same at 34€ (plus 1€ Balos special tax?) which includes the bus and the cruise. Actually cheaper by a couple euro than doing it on your own (27€ cruise plus 10€ RT bus). The Tour Bus picks up at the 1866 Square for people staying in the old town, then does the 15-20km or so stretch of road east where all the beach hotels, resorts, etc. are, picking up in at least 6-7 stops. It takes about 1½ hours to get to Kissamos, which is not all that far, but between all the stops and the traffic it takes that long. Pleasant comfortable bus though, kind of interesting to see the area, the coast all along the route is pretty.

At Kissamos Port you board a very large boat for the one hour cruise to Gramvousa. The ride is actually not all that scenic, the peninsula you are cruising along is one long, brown barren rock. Most interesting thing is seeing the one (dirt) road that goes out to the end, the way it’s carved along the side of the cliff. Nowhere near as scenic as say the Amalfi Coast with its lots of indentations, not to mention lemon groves and cute villages. Here there is nothing. But then you get to Gramvousa.

Gramvousa is an unpopulated islet just off the end of the peninsula. There is a Venetian fort built between 1579 and 1584 during Venetian rule over Crete to defend the island from the Ottoman Turks. The Turks didn’t conquer Gramvosa along with the rest of Crete, it remained in Venetian hands. And the lagoon is an incredible, stunning shade of turquoise. You get an hour stop there, to swim or climb up to the fortress. It’s 137 meters up (about 50 flights of stairs, according to fitbit), quite steep mixture of stone steps and just goat path. Would not be bad except of course mid-day sun in mid-July Crete is pretty hot. And at least ¾ of the people on boat opt for the climb up there so it’s wall to wall people – so not a terribly pleasant climb (up or down) given the crowds, heat and time constraint. The view is pretty amazing though, and the fort is pretty large, with a few towers left. But being in that crowd, having to wait in a huge long line just to get off the boat, I just cannot understand why cruising is so popular.

Then the boat sails another 15 minutes to the Balos Lagoon. Totally amazing beach (TA ranks it #2 in all of Greece). The water is so turquoise, with varying shades of darker blue, the sand is white with pink. The water is bath temperature. The islet of Balos is essentially attached to the mainland – the only separation being about 2 meters of water about knee deep. Other than the boat, the only way to get there is that dirt road along the peninsula, and then a 2km long walk down (which would mean back up for the return to your car) so the place is almost deserted until the two boats from Kissamos show up. So if you rent a vehicle that can do the dirt road (about 9km) and don’t mind the walk back up, you can be there without the thousand or so people on the two giant boats. But even being there with all those people was still worthwhile, it’s a pretty big lagoon so didn’t feel horribly crowded (guess it depends what you are comparing it to, my husband thought it was extremely crowded while I didn’t, but I grew up going to Jones Beach in NY so if you know what that’s like…). Obviously if you want to see it like it is in the photos with no people, from a high vantage point you need to drive there. But then you wouldn’t get the other lagoon or the Venetian Fortress.
isabel is offline  
Oct 13th, 2016, 06:42 PM
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very interesting and detailed. i posted a brief trip report a couple of weeks ago and totally agree. crete was my favorite... and santorini my least favorite. really made me wish i had gone 30 years ago!!
kawh is offline  
Oct 15th, 2016, 04:11 AM
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Join Date: Jan 2003
Posts: 6,585
kawh - I often wonder what places I visit were like 30 years ago - when I almost went to Europe but didn't! But I did start going 20 years ago and have noticed a pretty big difference in that time, even in the last 10. On the one hand I'm glad more people have the opportunity to travel, and the internet has certainly made it easier to do so, but in some places it has made things a lot less pleasant. Fortunately for the most part Crete wasn't bad. Our last day trip - to Paleochora - showed a very laid back, un-touristy part of the island.

For our other day trip we got the public bus to Paleochora. It’s almost a two hour trip, does a lot of stops along the road from Chania east – it’s all beach resort along there, tons of hotels, apartments, restaurants, beach supply stores, etc. People get on and off the buses that run through there between Kissamos or Chania. After the bus turns north towards Paleochora there are less stops, and at those it’s mostly locals going from one village to another.

The landscape on the western most part of Crete is mountainous, as it was between Rethymnon and Matala, but slightly greener. Even more olive groves (and a very few vineyards and fruit groves, mostly oranges). The olive groves are planted up steep hillsides, as far as the eye can see – which at some points seems like forever. Occasional glimpses of the sea in the distance. A few very rural looking villages and a couple of more prosperous, yet still tiny, ones. Good road but between the steep mountains, the deep passes and the winding, it’s a fairly slow ride.

Paleochora was really nice. It is a much larger town than the others along the south coast, permanent population of 2000 as opposed to Sfakion with only about 500, and Agia Roumeli with I think even less than that. What I had really wanted to do was bus to Chora Sfakion, boat to Loutro, A. Roumeli, Sougia and Paleochora, then bus back to Chania but that is not possible in a day trip due to the ferry schedules and bus schedules. The ferries go from Paleochora to A. Roumeli (and back) and from Sfakion to A. Roumeli (and back) but you can’t do the whole route at once, and you certainly can’t hop on and off at the various villages. Due to the schedules you would need several days for that. Everything is geared to the hikers coming out of the Samaria Gorge. Back in February when I was planning this the idea of taking the ferry to A. Roumeli and then spending the five hours there (no boat back any sooner) and hiking along the beach, or up the beginning part of the gorge, sounded like a great idea. But in July with temps near 90 and the hot sun it didn’t sound so great. And Paleochora has sounded interesting even though a day trip there meant no boat ride. But we had the cruise to Balos, and the ‘sunset cruise’ in Chania.

Paleochora is built on a long, narrow south facing peninsula that stretches into the Libyan Sea and a different beach on either side: sandy to the west, rocky to the east. There’s the ruins of the old Venetian castle (an easy climb but with nice views back including the water on both sides of the town) which was built in 1279 and then destroyed in 1539 by the Pirate Barbarossa. There are several lanes and alleys connecting the two or three actual streets than run the length of the town. Numerous ‘rooms and apartments’ and several larger hotels, plenty of inviting restaurants on both sides facing the water. Great views of the mountains coming down to the sea. Probably as good as the ferry ride would have been (or almost). If you are staying in Paleochora for a few days there seemed to be plenty of ‘excursions’ along the south coast, to Elafonisi Beach, etc.
The east side, with the rocky beach had a much better view to the distant mountains, and a great breeze. We had a two hour lunch at a taverna across from the beach (topped off with my favorite drink, Frappe with ice cream).

All our evenings in Chania were spent the same way. A simple dinner and watching the sunset by the lighthouse and wandering the promenade, looking at the boats, exploring the tangle of streets west of the harbor. Very atmospheric, lots of shopping, plenty of cats. Definitely like the vibe of Chania. Between the harbor, the promenade, the lighthouse – you can walk a really long ways along the water, and the back streets between the harbor and the fortress are wonderful – atmospheric, charming, picturesque – all those adjectives.
isabel is offline  
Oct 23rd, 2016, 09:28 PM
Join Date: Sep 2016
Posts: 10
Wow, you have shared here such a really brilliant time of travel on these destinations. I like your sharing stuff here but this time in my mind a question which destination will be better here in Paleochora winter time?
UALAN is offline  
Dec 25th, 2016, 09:42 PM
Join Date: Dec 2006
Posts: 20,467
@ isabel --

What an informative and helpful trip report, complete with (as usual) some stunning photographs -- thank you so much!

I'm beginning to plan my first trip to Greece and have already benefitted tremendously from your observations. For example, Rethymnon is now decidedly on my "only if time" list; the monasteries you visited -- Agia Trada and Arkadi -- are firmly on my wish list; and Matala had moved onto my "consider it" list.

I would, of course, welcome any comments you choose to offer on my plans:

Thanks again for your report!
kja is offline  

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