Crete, island of Zeus’ jewels

A tiny village is the perfect base to explore Crete’s beaches and gorges, finds RAY WILSON

Crete is by far the biggest of the 200 or so inhabited Greek islands, and with it comes a package of holiday aspirations that the others can’t provide.

Leonie and I are smitten as soon as we land in Heraklion, the island’s capital, and figure out how to catch a town bus, then a coach to a small village 60km west called Roumeli. It will be our base for six weeks.

We have a self-contained villa on the outskirts of the village, nestled in the foothills 3km from the coast and the National Road between Heraklion and Chania, the second-biggest town.

It soon dawns on us that the island provides as much adventure as we can handle, as much history as we can digest, and as much downtime as we want.

Our take on Crete is that Zeus garnered the jewels of every other Greek island to embellish his homeland, catering now for myriad travellers on all sorts of budgets whose numbers are likely to nudge four million this year.

Roumeli’s a blue-collar village of about 1500 people with few tourists and is occupied mainly by older folk — old, crooked women dressed in black with walking sticks working in the olive groves.

And where proud old men, with bushy, grey moustaches and dark eyes, sit on cane chairs for hours on end in their courtyards.

The view from our balcony takes in paddocks of olive groves and up to the Psiloritis mountain range, which has the highest peak on Crete. With a local beer, Mythos, in hand, there are few more pleasant places to sit and ponder.

And if Greek mythology can be believed, I am in rarefied company, as the Ideon Cave in the mountains is one of two places that claim to be the birthplace of Zeus.

In the early evening, that solitude is sometimes interrupted by the sound of gun shots, which a nearby resident of another villa explains is simply the locals at play. What are they shooting? Something to eat, comes the response.

Most mornings, as the September temperature heads towards 28C, we take a 25-minute walk through the olive groves for a swim in 25C water, and coffee at Panormos, a postcard-pretty fishing village, with a protected marina for old boats, and the closest tourist town to our villa.

Within an hour’s drive of our villa, we are within reach of places such as Anogia, Melidoni, Preveli, Plakias, Knossos and Rethymno.

Beaches are plentiful and varied on Crete, with Elafonissi among the most popular. Spend a month on Crete and you still wouldn’t have time to visit every one.

Leonie and I spend most of our time mooching around the central slab of the island. The western and eastern ends also have as much to see and explore, so we will venture back in a few years to complete the trilogy.

This is an edited version of the original, full-length story, which you can read here.

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