We love to be in the more remote, traditional areas and to be relatively near to the important sights. But I do like that big fluffy white robe and the five-star service. It’s very possible to get both on Crete. But there are huge British and German and (gulp) American tour groups, and the tourist areas that support them are horrifying – it’s all bangers and beer, with nary a gyro to be found!
The day we flew from Athens, we got to the airport and saw my husband in the boarding area. Yao Yao was so excited to see her father. (I was pretty happy to see him as well!) I’ve traveled alone with Yao Yao, and she is a great traveler and a really fun, flexible kid. You still have to be on 24/7, so it’s nice to have another adult present so you can take that delicious nap on the plane or finish that last chapter you’ve been trying to get to for three days. But if you need to go the single-parent route, Greece isn’t a bad place to do it.
So we flew to Crete (Chania), got our rental car, and off we went. It was late and Jim hadn’t had one tiny bite of Greek fare, so the first order of business at 11:00 at night was to find a lovely seaside taverna and have a family dinner. Mission accomplished! Our drive to the hotel didn’t go as smoothly. We were driving to Rethymno, a lovely old Venetian town. Unfortunately, we didn’t know that cars weren’t allowed in the old quarter, so by the time we connected with the porter and got into the hotel, it was 3:00 in the morning! Parents of the year! Yao Yao was asleep in two seconds, and I don’t think she moved the entire night.
The women who ran the Palazzo Rimondi (Palazzo Rimondi) could not have been more generous or helpful. (Although I had to beg them to stop giving Yao Yao little candies and other treats – definitely not helpful.) Our room was two stories, so we had the upstairs master bedroom, with a small balcony, and Yao Yao had the first-floor living room (and couch/setee) to herself. The location of the hotel was perfect. You could walk to the Venetian fort, the seaside tavernas, the local shops, the gardens, and more. There are more expensive and much less expensive places to stay, but it was in the charming old Venetian town and the rooms were spacious.
The Venetian quarter is full of historical sights and some excellent restaurants. Just a note: if you see a poster for a food festival in the gardens, run away! We pride ourselves on always lucking into weird indigenous food festivals – but this one was one for the annals, and not in a good way. The “food festival” was a series of tables with pamphlets and small examples of “rusks,” a local delicacy that resembles teething biscuits. (Okay, we got there early, and they may have redeemed themselves later. But where were those cured meats, baked goods, local seafood, flinty local wines, and so on?) By the time we all agreed to surrender, Yao Yao was claiming to be permanently scarred by the experience.
Anyway, the next day we drove on to the small beachside village of Plakias, a fun little town that caters to tourists and beachgoers. It’s not chic, just a local stopover full of families swimming and having a coffee or lunch by the sea. We rented sun beds and swam for a while, read and relaxed, then had lunch at a local taverna, sunbathed some more – until the wind got so blustery that we had to vacate. (The wind is legendary on the south coast.)
We decided we wanted a more remote and less breezy beach, so we opted to hike to Prevali, otherwise known as Palm Beach. We drove down a fairly treacherous dirt road for a few kilometers, then hiked 15 or 20 minutes to the beach. The hike was lovely but it snakes along a fairly high cliff – and if you have small children, you’ll want to keep a firm grip on them. (The guardrails are probably not to be trusted!) Yao Yao did the small hike easily. And it was well worth it once we arrived: Palm Beach lives up to its billing. A river cuts down through the surrounding gorge and on each side is an oasis of palm trees, all letting out onto a lovely, unspoiled (if rocky) spit of beach. The oasis supports a single, low-key taverna and a single, very low-key restroom. And the water is clear and beautiful. (Plus, Yao Yao got to put a checkmark next to another ocean she’s swum in: the Libyan Sea!) Anyway, Jim and Yao Yao swam out to a huge rock and dove over and over again. I sat on the beach and took photographs – and took it all in. It was a lovely day.
The next day we packed up and headed uphill to Argyroupoli, the site of the ancient town of Lappa. A number of streams and aqueducts flow through the town, which now serves as a convenient summer getaway where residents of Rethymno go to cool down, chill out, and eat huge piles of roasted meats and fish. We’re talking monstrous amounts of food here. We took a lovely walk to work up an appetite, and by the time we were seated at The Old Mill restaurant, Yao Yao was ravenous – but not that ravenous. She ordered grilled chicken (yes, an entire grilled chicken), Jim had what looked like a half a sheep cut up and spit roasted, while I had to make my way through two whole trout, which constituted a single order of fish. Those Rethymnians (or whatever they’re called) are prodigious eaters!
We walked around a bit to work off some of that meal, and then headed to up to coast to our next stop, Koutouloufari, a charming village perched high on a hill overlooking teeming, horrifying chaos. The chaos has a name: Chersonissos. Unless you’re in the market for an inexpensive fur (marketed to tourists from northern climes with a lot of new money to burn) or a plate of bangers and mash, or need to do laundry, don’t go. But once out of its soul-sucking orbit, there are lovely beaches and towns and a handful of remarkable Minoan sites.
Through some diligent Internet searching, we stumbled on the utterly charming Villa Ippocampi (http://www.ippocampi.gr/). It’s more a group of little whitewashed apartments than a hotel, with a small café and swimming pool, and the owners, Lydia and Nikos, market the place as being kid-friendly. And it certainly is. We were lucky to get reservations, as we booked later than much smarter travelers do – and this particular place has many repeat clients, most of whom are from England, the Netherlands, Italy, and France. For Europeans, it’s like going to Martha’s Vineyard or the Caribbean. In any case, we felt like we had our own little house with all the support and convenience of a hotel. It’s simple, charming, and Yao Yao loved it.
Koutouloufari also serves as a perfect home base for exploring the hinterlands of the Lasithi Plateau – a view into old Crete of small farmers and shepherds, with a craggy landscape dotted with the ruins of ancient windmills, isolated monasteries, and lovely hill villages where you can sit in the town square and take a coffee and pastry.
The next day we headed to the resort town of Elounda by way of Agios Nikolaos, a lively coastal town that has a reputation for fun nightlight. There are a variety of night clubs and eateries. It was much more touristy than when I was there almost 20 years ago, but so was much of Greece.
Once in Elounda, we took a quick, 10-minute boat ride to Spinalonga, the island where lepers were exiled in the first half of the 20th Century. The Greek government has done an incredible job of preserving the houses the people lived in, and there’s decent documentation in the form of photos and artifacts that helps explain life in the leper colony. It’s a haunting experience for adults and (mature) kids as well. Walking around the island, you get a real feel of the isolation and harsh environment they lived in. We were all ready to board the boat to get back to the mainland after about an hour.
Here’s how Yao Yao remembers it:
“We took the boat to Spinalonga. This is an island that people with leprosy, a disfiguring disease, were forced to go in the previous century. They were banned to the island because people were afraid they would catch the disease. The island of Spinalonga was once an old Venetian port. It was a very isolated and hard to live on. The people with leprosy had to maintain ‘normal life’ on the island and take care of themselves, cooking, farming etc. There were old photographs, tools, dishes and furniture to help explain how the people lived. Many of the old homes still remain today. It was a sad place and I was happy to leave the island.”
We headed back to Elounda, and after driving around for a while, finally found Kanali restaurant, recommended my Nikos and Lydia. Lydia’s niece had had her wedding dinner there, and everyone had supposedly gone swimming in the canal after the meal – so it sounded like a fun place! Our lunch was sublime: They serve only the freshest fish and when they run out, they close! We sat for three hours soaking up the sun and eating. Yao Yao had shrimp risotto, and I am ashamed to say, she and her father had a fork fight over the last shrimp. (She won.) We had some of the best grilled fish I have ever had, plus fresh-baked bread with garlic, olives, and olive oil, fried eggplant, fresh Greek salad, and a lovely little dry white wine. What a meal!
We rolled out of there and headed up a long dirt road to a sweet little beach with a few other families and spent the rest of the day swimming and lazing about in the sun. This is not the Cote d’Azur, there’s no one there with a fluffy white beach towel and you have to drag your own bottle of water along with your hotel beach towels, but I promise you, it’s worth it. The water is spectacular, the sea life abundant – and you will nap like you have never napped before!
We were not ready to move on, but alas, Jim was flying home in a few days and Yao Yao and I were headed to the island of Symi soon, so off we went.
I have to confess, going back to Chania was an emotional experience for me. I had lived here for six months after college, after backpacking around Europe for a while. (No, I’m not going to reveal which decade this was!) Anyway, things have definitely changed – there was no such thing as a “mocha-cino” when I was here. Granted, I was a resident during winter when things are always a bit more low-key, but today’s buildup of the tourist infrastructure is nothing less than breathtaking.
But Chania abides, and it’s still one of the most stunning cityscapes in all of Crete – and maybe all of Greece. It’s simply lovely – and worth an extended stay with your family, exploring all the little pleasures it has to offer.
Chania is framed by the mountains and the sea and has a fascinating history that plays out like a good novel. It’s been fought over by the Romans, Byzantines, Venetians, Genoese, Turks, and Egyptians, and those cultural influences are evident both in the architecture and the food.
Most appealing is the Venetian quarter, with its narrow alleyways and beautifully preserved harbor, with the iconic Mosque of Janissaries that dates back to the arrival of the Turks in 1645.
The Agora, or covered market, once the place to buy local produce, fish, and baked goods, felt more like duty-free shopping for prepackaged carry-on items. You can still shop for fresh spinach and cheese pies and even some fish, but it feels more like a show than a market. Still, the building is lovely and the whole experience is still worthwhile. It separates the old city from the new city and is a good meeting place. From the back of the market you can easily head to Skridlof St., full of leather goods, and high-end shopping on Chalidon St., which seems to go one forever!
(When I lived in Chania, the old market was also used as a makeshift movie theater in the evening. I saw Midnight Express there, and for those who have seen the movie, when the American kills the Turkish prison guard, the Greeks went crazy cheering and yelling. Perhaps that was my first inkling there were “issues” between the two countries.)
There are some very mediocre restaurants catering to tourists on the front harbor, but walk down the harbor 10 minutes and you will see the Greeks dining alfresco in the more traditional eateries. We had some lovely fish, grilled meats, and salads there. If you feel you must stop in a café or restaurant in the main harbor, you’ve been warned. You’ll be hit locals hawking their “authentic Greek food” and much of it is frozen and expensive – and very little about it is authentic. I’m sure there are exceptions but why bother? Get a coffee or drink if you want to sit and people-watch or enjoy the sunset – but eat in the back streets or the eastern harbor if you want stewed goat or grilled sea bass.
There is also quite a bit of excellent Turkish fare in Chania that’s well worth tasting. Yao Yao loved Tamam, a Turkish restaurant located in an old Turkish bathhouse on Zampeliou St, behind the harbor. The people were charming and the food is very good. It was one of the few times we ate inside. By the way, there are Turkish baths in Chania and though it is not quite what I remembered from my Turkish baths in Istanbul, it was still pretty cool!
There are a few expensive hotels and lots of midrange and student hotels and the eateries to match. Having said that, we found a lovely little hotel called Mama Nena. The owner used to visit her grandmother at this house, and she has restored it with care and passion MamaNema. My first choice was the tonier Casa Delfino (www.casadelfino.com) but they were booked. But I loved Mama Nena. It had all the amenities I look for: a great bathroom, wonderful décor, hairdryer –and the owner brings up a small vessel of raki when you arrive! They also serve an amazing, full breakfast in the morning. As this is such a tiny place (one double room and a couple of two-room suites) you feel very cared for, and it’s an intimate experience without feeling invasive. The furnishings are an eclectic mix of modern and antique, and there are stunning harbor views. (Yao Yao got her own bedroom!) The only drawback with being directly on the harbor is the music and noise. We were so tired it didn’t turn out to be an issue, but if we were there more than a few nights I think it would get tiresome.
There is so much to see in Chania and in the surrounding area that you could plan an entire trip just in this area. We did venture down to the beach and had lunch at one of the beachside tavernas. The food was good and the owners charming, but best of all was the people-watching. It was a Fellini-esque scene with people of all shapes and sizes, with attire to match!
This Venetian town on the north coast is worth spending a few nights – the old quarter is lovely. There are some really good restaurants, fun shopping, and some great historical sights to see – without getting in a car or taking a taxi. The harbor restaurants serve local seafood and, though touristy, they’re of pretty good quality consistently.
- Rimondi Fountain It’s a big hit with kids and just happens to be near my favorite Greek yogurt shop. It was built in 1629 and is a good landmark if anyone gets lost!
- Maritime Museum Housed in the old Turkish bathhouse, it has some fossils and other sea creatures – an ideal kid-friendly venue.
- Venetian Loggia Now a gift shop, but the building itself is really beautiful. There are some fun, interactive kid’s gifts.
- The Fortress Your kids will love walking around the fort and imagining what it must have been like in its heyday. Much of the fortress was under restoration when we visited and there is an open-air theater that I would have loved to see a performance in. Make sure you walk around the entire fort – you’ll see some great views, and it’s fun for the kids to get out of the museums and shops!
- The Folk Art Museum and the Archeological Museum are worth a visit if you have the time. I’d choose the Archeological Museum if you only have time for one, but don’t let this get in the way of your meandering in the old city and harbor.
Five different beaches and a laid-back beach town; low key and a great place to relax with small children.
Prevali (Palm Beach)
A lovely beach, and well worth the dicey hike to get there. Yao Yao loved it!
Mountain village with natural springs where you can eat grilled lamb, or trout fished right from the local springs. Pretty touristy but if you are in the area, take the kids there. It’s worth stopping for lunch.
A charming, albeit touristy little village. Restaurants abound and cute boutiques, but the lack of cars and the outdoor restaurants and cafes make it worth the visit. Yao Yao bought her friends little gifts in the local shops.
- David Vegera Excellent local eatery in the next village of Piskopiano. This is a great restaurant for families, with lots of small plates so you can try lots of different dishes (but don’t miss the fried zucchini!).
- Taverna Kostas – Wonderful owners who make sure you and your kids get what they want. We sat outside and our waiter brought a little treat for Yao Yao even before we ordered. Good, solid Cretan fare for tourists and locals alike. (Close to David Vegera – within walking distance of Villa Ippocampi.
A lively little town and a good jumping off spot for isolated beaches and the island of Spinalonga.
- Kanali This Elounda restaurant is really special and well worth the drive. The restaurant is part of a ruined mill situated on the canal, next to an old stone windmill and down the road from an early Christian basilica. But you don’t come for the situation, you come for the fish. The seafood here is fantastic, and it’s the perfect stop-off for a long, leisurely seafood extravaganza. (http://www.eloundakanali.gr)
- Spinalonga This Venetian island outpost just a stone’s throw from Elounda was a leper colony until 1957. Rumor has it that Aristotle Onassis was going to build a casino here, but somehow that never happened. It’s an eerie island and worth a visit. If your kids are really young, they won’t get the significance, but it’s still great for walking about and seeing some pretty magnificent views. Know that there’s no café, and very little shade when you’re waiting for the boat taxi back to shore – so be sure you’ve got a water bottle and sunhat.
Years ago, this bustling seaside town was known as the St. Tropez of Crete. (In my opinion, any place known as the Paris or St. Tropez of anywhere is usually a disappointment.) Agios Nikolaos does sit in a particularly lovely spot, but it’s full of nightclubs and tourist shops. Then again, if you’re looking for a place to go clubbing, this may be one of your best shots.
The Diktean Cave
This was a highlight for Yao Yao as she is besotted with Greek mythology. This is the birthplace of Zeus, or so the tale goes. He was taken to this cave as a baby so his father wouldn’t eat him. (Talk about issues!) Anyway, the climb down into the cave is not for the weak of heart. It’s wet and cold and the railings are slippery. When it’s packed with other tourists, it feels somewhat challenging, and I imagine with small kids you would have to be vigilant.
About three miles outside of Iraklion, this is truly a must-see, although there is quite a bit of controversy about the restoration work and historical accuracy. Knossos gives kids an opportunity to really experience Minoan life. Plus, there are gruesome stories of human sacrifices for your older kids! Yao Yao loved this site. I will do my best (with her permission) to post her journal. It gives you a sense of her take on this experience.
Convent of Kardiotissa
This was an amazing experience. We saw many of the Greek Orthodox men and women putting chains on as they prayed. I won’t do the story justice so check out the link.
Well worth a visit, especially for kids. Go early, as much of the site is outdoors and the sun can be brutal.
- Old Venetian Harbor It’s one of the few remaining Venetian harbors anywhere, and it’s certainly lovely – the perfect atmospheric stroll at any time of the day or night. But it’s especially lovely in the evening. Bring a camera!
- Agora Built in 1913 and reminiscent of the marketplace in Marseilles, the Agora is still the place to shop for food and gifts.
- Mosque of the Janissaries This icon on the harbor is the island’s oldest Ottoman building. Behind the Mosque there is an excavation of the Minoan settlement of Kydonia. It’s closed to the public but you can see some of the goings-on.
- The Lighthouse (Faros) The Venetian lighthouse on the harbor is arguably the oldest lighthouse in Greece. It has been restored several times, but it’s still worth a gander! It’s a perfect walk for the kids and you get a great view of the harbor.
- Archaeological Museum is inside a former Venetian monastery and has some wonderful treasures, including Minoan and Roman artifacts.
- Folklore Museum This is the place to see depictions of early home life in Chania.
- Byzantine Museum Located in the San Salvatore church, the museum boasts sculptures, inscriptions, frescoes, icons, coins, jewelry, and ceramics from the Byzantine era.
- Spiantzia Quarter This is a nice stroll to see old Chania houses with wooden balconies, lovely cobblestone streets, and the plateia, or town square.
- Etz Hayyim SynagogueThe only remaining synagogue on the entire island of Crete, it was restored after being badly damaged in World War II.
For more information on Chania sightseeing, see Wikitravel Chania. It may be more information than you want but the site is very easy to navigate. Also, www.west-crete.com/index.htm has a wealth of information on the island and places worth visiting. It also has some great resources for planning your trip.
I loved Zeus’s cave. It was a fun walk up to the cave and a cool walk down into the cave. It got really cold!
I loved the little villages and walking around sans other tourists and the lovely unspoiled beaches.
David’s – I liked the little plates and getting to try different things. I like almost everything.
Kanali’s in Elouda. It was more than a meal, it was the environment and the company!
Kanali’s or a little no name taverna in Chania. It literally had no name and it was at the far end of the harbor. It was our little family and about 20 Greek fisherman eating at this little restaurant!