Western Crete is fantastic. The whole of the Regional Unit of Chania is filled with varied and wonderful destinations. Not least though is the capital. Chania is one of the loveliest harbor towns of all Greece, a great favorite with both Greeks and visitors alike. It’s a great place to base a sophisticated urban break with fantastic excursions into nature. Here’s how to make the most of a luxurious holiday in Chania.
Chania – An Enchanting Harbor Town with Venetian Ambiance
Chania’s amazingly photogenic harbor is a familiar sight and it’s even lovelier up close. An Egyptian lighthouse guards the harbor and the marina. The central harbor to the west is now free of boats – saved for the occasional glass bottomed boat for day trips – and is the central hub of the city. Older citizens stake out the benches along the water as visitors and locals enjoy the evening promenade. Fish tavernas and cafes line the waterfront.
Just to the east we have the marina, filled with yachts from all over the world, and just past them are the ‘trata’ – the enchanting traditional small fishing boats Greece is so famous for, fancifully painted in blues, greens, and reds. This is perhaps the most charming section, guarded by original Venetian fortifications. Many of the original Venetian boat yards are still standing. These lovely structures of golden stone now house cultural exhibition spaces, cafes, and even still some boatyards. This has always been a seafaring culture and you can smell it in the air…
The Cuisine of Crete
…Or maybe that’s the scent of fresh-grilled fish you’re smelling. There’s no finer dining experience than enjoying a fresh-caught fish – or perhaps some grilled octopus – harborside, as the boats bob gently in the water and the sky turns gold and pink. Other seafood delights to enjoy in Chania include “achinous” – sea-urchin roe. It’s a delicate and rare specialty, and it won’t be on the menu so you have to ask (they’ll be thrilled you know what it is). Cretan cuisine is actually a distinctive cuisine different from the rest of Greece with many excellent specialties. The bold will enjoy snails – fried in rosemary and vinegar, they are a vivid answer to escargot. Wash them down with raki – the ultra-pure distilled spirit of Crete. The cheeses are also superb, staring in pies like “Sfakianopita” (a specialty of rugged Sfakia) and Kalitsounia – crispy fried cheese pies served hot under a blanket of thyme honey.
You can find out more about the famous cuisine of Crete at the lovely Agora, the Cross-shaped central covered market, a historic structure serving the city since its liberation from the Ottoman empire. The cheeses alone are extraordinary – thanks to the flocks of happy goats you’ll doubtless see on your excursions.
You’ll also see an abundance of olives, wine, honey, all the bounty of the landscape, as well as wild-foraged greens and hearty rusks. The catch of the day is in the market’s western arm, set out on ice as if for a painting.
Discovering the Old Town
Chania’s Old Town is filled with Venetian charm. Let the jasmine scented breezes lead you through the tangle of narrow alleys and pastel-colored houses. Ruins open to the sky are now the chicest of bars and elegant restaurants. Some of the most famous structures including grand Venetian mansions have, very fortunately, been luxuriously converted into magnificent boutique hotels. Chania offers accommodations of character, luxury, and attention to historic and authentic detail for a memorable stay.
This is also a rich cultural destination, filled with famous churches, museums, a former mosque, a former monastery, and other sites of interest.
Day Excursions from Chania
Chania can easily fill your days, but it is also right at the heart of many fabulous day-trip destinations to suit every fancy. Every season has its own beauty, gifting visitors with a delightful blend of seasonal produce, unique customs, expeditions in nature and endless opportunities to explore. And in autumn you have the ideal combination of sweet temperatures and far fewer crowds, so you can discover the region on your own.
Balos Lagoon and Beach
For example, the famous beach of Balos draws many crowds in the high season. Autumn is the chance to see it in its pristine state. This island, lagoon and beach off the very tip of the Gramvousa peninsula was once nearly a local secret. Someone must have shared it with Prince Charles and Princess Diana though, who are said to have visited on their honeymoon by boat. The heartier can also reach it by a splendid hike.
It’s easy to get so enchanted by the beaches that we forget the inland, but Crete is a hikers’ paradise, full of gorges and hikes for every level of stamina and skill. Of course, there is the world-famous Samaria gorge, an all-day hike starting in the early hours that leaves you on the shores of the Libyan sea.
There’s also the Topolia gorge for a more manageable day experience, where one descends from an altitude of 450m to 150m, by the village of Topolia. The trail passes through steep high cliffs, while the lusher areas feature beautiful endemic plan species. Autumn and spring are the best seasons to witness the breathtaking landscape.
Therisos at all Seasons
There’s another beautiful gorge just outside of Chania, and this one can be enjoyed by car. The narrow and dramatic Therisos Gorge makes a splendid scenic drive of 14 kilometers. What’s more, this lovely drive ends in one of the most historic villages of Crete. This was the birthplace of the mother of Eleftherios Venizelos, the great statesman, and it was from here that he began the Cretan Revolt, with the aim of uniting Crete with the rest of Greece.
At the Historical and Folklore Museum of Theriso one can learn more. But honestly, most people come here for the meat. The village is famous for excellent meat tavernas, where goat and lamb are the specialties. At these charming and rustic tavernas, you can have grilled chops, Cretan-style slow-roasted meats that melt in the mouth, and also other dishes of traditional Cretan cuisine.
For more tastes of authentic village life, one can visit the famously charming villages of Apokoronos, just east of Chania town. Here, at the base of the famous Lefka Ori (White Mountains, the landscape is some of Crete’s most lush and green. A visit to Apokoronas can begin with the archaeological site of Aptera, which includes remnants of a Roman cistern and a Greek Temple. The beach towns of Kayves and Almyrda are lovely, but for a true Cretan experience many head to the village of Vamos.
This interesting village – capital of the Apokoronas district – is known for its initiatives to preserve traditional Cretan crafts and products, and for their beautiful restorations of local stone architecture. Quiet Vrysses is another popular village to stop at for a thick and fragrant Greek coffee or a refreshing lemonade. The green and shady village is popular because of the cooling river that flows through its center.
An Excursion for Oenophiles
Western Crete is also a wonderful place to try wine. Here you’ll find smaller family run wineries and some organic wines. Most interesting for the true oenophile is that many of these wineries are working with ancient grape varieties, many of which are well suited to Crete’s rugged terrain. A wine tasting tour is a wonderful way to experience the landscape and its bounty.
Chania and its region offers a wonderful combination of elegance and sophistication together with rustic and authentic charms. The romance of the Venetian Old Town of Chania, the history and culture, the world-class beaches and stunning hikes, as well as its wineries and enchanting villages all make for a destination of uncommon variety.
Have you ever visited Crete in the springtime or autumn?