Crete (Kriti) is a great deal more than just another Greek island. In many places, especially in the cities or along the developed north coast, it doesn't feel like an island at all, but rather a substantial land in its own right. Which of course it is - a precipitous, wealthy and at times a surprisingly cosmopolitan one with a tremendous and unique history. But when lose yourself among the mountains, or on the lesser-known coastal reaches, of the south, it has everything you could want of a Greek island and more: great beaches, remote hinterland and hospitable people.
In history, Crete us distinguished above all as the home of Europe's earliest civilization. It was only at the beginning of the twentieth century that the legends of King Minos and of a Cretan society that ruled the Greek world in prehistory were confirmed by excavations at Knossos and Phaestos. Yet the Minoans had a remarkably advanced society, the centre of a maritime trading empire as early as 2000 BC. The artworks produced on Crete at this time are unsurpassed anywhere in the ancient world, and it seems clear that life on Crete in those days was good. This apparently peaceful culture survived at least three major natural disasters; each time the palaces were destroyed, and each time they were rebuilt on a grander scale. Only after the last destruction, probably the result of an eruption of Santorini and subsequent tidal waves and earthquakes, do significant numbers of weapons begin to appear in the ruins. This, together with appearance of the Greek language, has been interpreted to mean that Mycenaean Greeks had taken control of the island. Nevertheless, for nearly 500years, by far the longest period of the peace the island has seen, Crete was home to a culture well ahead of its time.
The Minoans of Crete probably originally came from Anatolia; at their height they maintained strong links with Egypt and with the people of Asia Minor, and position as meeting point and strategic fulcrum between east and west has played a major role in Crete's subsequent history. Control of the island passed from Greeks to Romans to Saracens, through the Byzantine empire to Venice and finally to Turkey for more than two centuries. During World War II, the island was occupied by the Germans and attained the dubious distinction of being the first place to be successfully invaded by paratroops.
Todays with a flourishing agricultural economy, Crete is one of the few Greek islands that could probably support itself without tourists. Nevertheless, tourism is heavily promoted and is making inroads everywhere. The northeast coast in particular is overdeveloped, and though there are parts of the south and west coasts that have not been spoilt, they are getting harder to find. By contrast, the high mountains of the interior are still barely touched, and one of the best things to do on Crete is to rent a vehicle and explore the remoter villages.
Every part of Crete has its loyal devotees and it's hard to pick out highlights. Crete has by far the longest summers in Greece, and you can get a decent tan here right into October and swim at least from May to November. The one seasonal blight is the meltemi, northerly wind, which regularly blows harder here and more continuously than anywhere else in Greece - the best of several reasons for avoiding an August visit if you can. It's far from an ill wind, however, as it also lowers humidity and makes the island's higher summer temperatures more bearable.
Many visitors to Crete arrive in the island's capital, Iraklion (Heraklion), but it's it an outstandingly beautiful city, and its central zones are often a maelstrom of traffic- congested thoroughfares. However, it does provide a convenient base for visits to an outstanding archeological museum and nearby Knossos. On the positive side, the city does have quite a few plus points-superb fortifications, a fine market, atmospheric old alleys and some interesting lesser museums added to a recent makeover of central areas by the city hall that has improved things considerably. The best way to approach Heraklion is by sea, with Mount Iouktas rising behind it and the Psiloritis range to the west. As you get closer, it's the city walls that first stand out, still dominating and fully encircling the oldest part of town; finally you sail in past the great Venetian fortress defending the harbour entrance . Unfortunately, big ships no longer dock in the old port but at great modern concrete wharves alongside , which neatly sums up Iraklion's itself. Many of the old parts have being restored and are attractive