Crete See And Do
While none of Crete's beaches approach the household-name status of Mykonos's Paradise or Super-Paradise, there are hundreds of them, offering clear water, almost guaranteed sun, and, usually, a taverna you become more appreciative of as the afternoon grows warmer. The better beaches tend to be on the south coast, and at the eastern and western extremities of the island. Visit them in September, when the summer crowds and umbrella-snatching meltemi winds have dissipated but the water is still warm.
Beginning in the northwest, Falasarna is a long stretch of yellow sand far enough from Chania that you can find some quiet time here, if you need it. The water is especially clean, but the wind can blow, so try to go on days when the locals' cigarette smoke rises straight up into their umbrellas. At the southwest corner, Elafonisi, with its pinkish sand, sits on a lagoon bounded by islets and sandbars you can wade out to. The wading is hardly strenuous, but prepare anyway by stocking up at one of the snack bars. The new paved road along which the snack bars are popping up is, of course, a shame.
On the south coast, not far east of the Samaria Gorge, is Sweetwater Beach, named for the freshwater seeping up from the rocks at its edge. It is a favorite of nudists, no doubt because as appreciators of natural beauty they admire the dramatic cliff backdrop. Another of Sweetwater's virtues is that the only way to reach it is by boat or by walking an hour from Loutro. Directly south of Rethymnon town, another beach often reached by boat is tiny, palm-fringed Preveli. Boat rides to it are so popular that you may be happier going out of season, and walking the steep path down to it from the Preveli Monastery.
Way southeast is long and lovely Makriyalos Beach, where alternating stretches of sand and pebbles are backed by pine trees and a lively, growing resort town. At the northeast corner is the also lovely—and in this case, overloved—Vai Beach, famous for its large grove of date palms. Looking more like North Africa than Greece, it's a place where you'll find every beach enticement, from jet skis to sailboards to umbrellas without number.
Iraklio , Crete
At the risk of sounding pedantic, pronounce it with a short "o," NOS-us, and keep in mind that this site is not a faithful re-creation but an amateur archaeologist's perhaps overly fanciful vision of what it might have looked like, and you'll start well ahead of most visitors in your understanding of Knossos Palace. Despite the crowds, Knossos, about three miles south of Iraklio, is worth a few hours' visit for the insight it provides to an advanced civilization, the Minoan (2700 to 1450 B.C.), that predates even the ancient Greeks. Probably once leveled by a wall of water generated by the eruption of the Santorini volcano, Knossos was, at least in Greek legend, home to the Minotaur, a creature half man and half bull imprisoned in the palace's labyrinth by King Minos. But what most impresses the majority of visitors is that Knossos shows evidence of having developed something rarely achieved even in Greece today: plumbing that works. Not developed, though, is signage. To know what you are looking at, consider hiring one of the on-site guidesthough not all are as knowledgeable as the guidebooks.
Samaria National Park
Chania , Crete
Whether or not it is the longest gorge in Europe, this giant crack in the earth at the far west end of Crete is certainly, on many days, the most crowded. From May to the middle of October, the months the gorge is open to trekkers, as many as 2,000 people a day follow its steep, rocky trail from up in the White Mountains about ten miles down to the sea. A few hardy souls, tough enough to withstand almost 2,000 repetitions of being told they are going the wrong way, even hike up it. By starting early and pushing through the first popular rest stop or two, it's possible to have this remarkably beautiful slice of naturewith its towering rock walls, its forest of pine and cypress, its pebbly streammostly to yourself. The logistics of arranging transport, which requires two separate bus rides and a boat ride, almost demands that you go with a tour company. Among the better ones is Diktynna Travel, which limits itself to smaller groups than most (30-28210-41458; www.diktynna-travel.gr). Don't go on days when rain threatens (as the trail, which can get deadly slick, will be closed anyway). And don't go unless you are physically up to the challenge, because once you start there is no shortcut out.
Elounda , Crete
Visiting a former leper colony is not everyone's cup of tea. But a recent best-selling beach read, The Island, by British author Victoria Hislop, has put Spinalonga high on many must-see lists. This now deserted island served as Europe's last (and certainly its most infamous) detention center for sufferers of a disease for which drugs to control it had already been found. Boats to the island are frequent, leaving from Agios Nikolaos and, more conveniently, from Elounda, where the crossing takes about 15 minutes. In an hour or so, you can explore the Venetian fortress that was built here in the 1500s, and get a chilling sense of what it would have been like to be a "patient".
Kato Zakros , Crete
Like Knossos, Zakros, at the far eastern end of the island, is a Minoan palace that may have been destroyed by a tidal wave in 1500 B.C. generated by the eruption of the Santorini volcano. The difference is that you'll have to use your own imagination to reconstruct this one, which was unearthed only in the early 1960s, as little remains except the foundations. On the other hand, on most days about the only thing that will disturb your imagining is the occasional tinkling of goat bells. For a rare opportunity to feel a personal connection with a Greek archaeological site, ask the proprietor of Stella's Traditional Apartments to show you a photograph of the vaseonce exquisite, no doubther father accidentally shattered when he drove a shovel through it while helping to excavate the palace.