Updated: Mar 30, 2019
Overview: where and when? One week in Crete is not a lot. In fact, it's nothing. The largest of the Greek islands, it demands your attention and time. An island of considerable beauty, it offers a huge amount for pretty much everyone – whether it be package holiday-maker, casual tourist, budget backpacker, adventure-seeker or luxury traveller. It's a stunning land of towering mountains and extensive coastlines; fascinating historical towns; hidden villages and hamlets; historical ruins and castles; gorges and valleys, pastures and meadows. It is, as many Cretans say, Greece in miniature. Therefore, your first choice as a budget traveller is to decide which side of the island to go to: east or west. It's an island over 200km in length, but rarely more than 50km in breadth (as the crow flies), north to south. So, it makes sense to concentrate on one side, as trying to discover everything in one week would be madness. Even two weeks would be pushing it. We went to Crete over Easter, 2018, at the end of March and beginning of April. In many ways, the perfect time to go.
Flying in to Chania from Krakow, Poland (€60 return tickets, Ryanair), it made sense to focus on the west side of the island, venturing as far east as Anogia in the north and Preveli in the south. In fact, that's not even half the island. We skipped Heraklion and its surrounds, knowing that the capital would eat up a minimum of two days, and reasoning that the stress and hassle of the big city was what we wanted to avoid, so concentrated on the quieter, less developed, less crowded and more mountainous west side, which also contains some of the island's finest beaches and most stunning mountain scenery. We chose Easter for several reasons; first, to avoid the scorching heat and crowds of the high season; second, to take advantage of a quiet time in the shoulder season when prices were low; and third, to have a getaway from what had been a dreadful late winter in Poland that dragged on until late March. For the record, temperatures for the week ranged from 19-25 Celsius, and we had almost unbroken sunshine and no rain – ideal weather for hiking and sightseeing, and good enough for a bit of sunbathing. The sea at this time is a bit too chilly for most people, but I had a couple of dips – of which, more later. We stayed in two separate places during our week – both booked via Airbnb and costing about €40 a night. The prices, of course, reflected the time we went and would no doubt be much higher in high season. The first, in a village called Atsipopolo, just outside Rethymno, was a beautiful apartment in a small complex including breakfast. The second, a rustic stone cottage in a tiny village called Marediana, high in the hills above Kisamos – atmospheric and cosy – a real find. Both were comfortably in the budget bracket. What follows is a seven day itinerary of what we did in one adventure-filled week in Crete – some of the western part of the island's undoubted highlights. The West, as they say, is best. The East, I believe (in this case), is least.
Day 1: Rethymno Arriving in Chania at 9am, we had the whole day ahead of us, although the early flight had precluded any sleep (for me) so I arrived pretty tired. We had decided to hire a car for the week, and had driven from the airport. Car hire is roughly €25-30 per day. We used Justrentals, which was totally fine – no problems with the car and no arguments when we took it back. Petrol costs were a little higher than in Poland: about €1.80-1.90 per litre. Crete without a car would be difficult; the bus system is reasonably good and cheap - but only takes you from one major town to another, mostly along the coast. To get to the more remote areas, you'd need to either hitch or take a taxi - either very time-consuming or expensive. If you can drive, and want to see the island properly, it's a no-brainer to hire a car. It takes about ninety minutes to drive from Chania to Rethymno. We encountered almost no traffic – the roads were almost completely empty. Getting through Chania town was a bit complicated, but Google Maps sufficed. It would, however, let us down several times on the trip (and internet connection is never guaranteed) so a good tip is to take a paper map with you from home – preferably one with roads and paths marked on. The Comfortmap (1:150,000), which I purchased in Krakow, was an ideal multi-purpose map. Good for driving and medium-level hikes. Regarding internet connection, 3G is available over most of the island, even the remote villages, and since 2017 roaming charges in the EU are no more, so using GPS is never a problem. The drive itself was quite stunning – glistening bays of blue to our left and snow-capped mountains to out right – Lefka Ori (the White Mountains), which peak at 2452m. The snow at this time of year is rapidly melting and hiking in them is an option, but warm clothes are essential. We didn't plan to do this. When we arrived at our place, we discovered that Atsipopolo is a village in its own right rather than just a suburb of Rethymno, with a handful of bars, eateries and shops, so it made a perfect budget choice to stay, out of the centre but conveniently on a bus route to Rethymno, about fifteen minutes away.
Rethymno is an extremely pleasant town – a small coastal port with a historical centre, winding lanes, churches, mosques, charming bars and plenty of good-quality restaurants, the town only takes half a day of exploration. Probably the most famous sight is Fortezza - the fortress, which dominates the northern side of the seafront and stands guard over the town, but it's really only a shell and there isn't much to see inside other than a handsome but incongruous mosque with a fabulous dome. Still, it's one of the largest Venetian constructions left standing, and it's worth a visit for the views over the town and bay alone.
The next stop for most is the lighthouse and harbour area – from which you can get good views of the old town, and where a snack or drink may be had at one of the many dockside tavernas. Possibly not the best-quality food in town, nor the best prices (it's a trifle touristy) there are nevertheless great views. Other than that, Rethymno is really just a pleasant stroll and a place to soak up the, well, rhythm, of Cretan life, and it's a far less crowded place to do so than Chania. We ate at a lovely taverna a short walk from the centre – Mesostrati (Yerakiri 1) which felt like a village taverna in the city. No English menu caused no problems as the very friendly waitress translated the (short) list of options. I tried loukanika (grilled sausage) as a starter and lamb chops and chips for a main. Both cooked to perfection and served with a smile. A litre of red house wine accompanied,